CHAPTER XX.INCONGRUITIES OF DRESS.


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We are all aware of the value of a costume, such as the dress of the Pompadour era: the Swiss peasant’s bodice, the Normandy cap, the faldetta of the Maltese, the Hungarian national dress, the early English, the Puritan square-cut, the Spanish mantilla, the Roman scarf and white cap–all these come before us; and as we mention each characteristic garment there steps out on the canvas of memory a neat little figure, in which every detail from shoe to head-dress is harmonious.

No one in his wildest dreams, however, could set out with the picture of a marquise, and top it off with a Normandy cap. Nor could he put powder on the dark hair of the jaunty little Hungarian. The beauty of these costumes is seen in each as a whole, and not in the parts separately. The marquise must wear pink or blue, or some light color; she must have the long waist, the square-cut corsage, the large hoop, the neat slipper, with rosette and high heel, the rouge and patches to supplement her powdered hair, or she is no marquise.

The Swiss peasant must have the short skirt, the white chemisette, the black velvet bodice, the cross and ribbon, the coarse shoes, and the head-dress of

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her canton; the Normandy peasant her dark, striking dress, her high- heeled, gold-buckled shoe, and her white apron; the Hungarian her neat, military scarlet jacket, braided with gold, her scant petticoat and military boot, her high cap and feather. The dress of the English peasant, known now as the “Mother Hubbard” hat and cloak, very familiar to the students of costumes as belonging to the countrywomen of Shakspeare’s time, demands the short, bunched-up petticoat and high-heeled, high-cut shoes to make it perfect.

We live in an age, however, when fashion, irrespective of artistic principle, mixes up all these costumes, and borrows a hat here and a shoe there, the effect of each garment, diverted from its original intention, being lost.

If “all things by their season seasoned are,” so is all dress (or it should be) seasonable and comprehensive, congruous and complete. The one great secret of the success of the French as artists and magicians of female costume is that they consider the entire figure and its demands, the conditions of life and of luxury, the propriety of the substance, and the needs of the wearer. A lady who is to tread a velvet carpet or a parqueted floor does not need a wooden shoe; she needs a satin slipper or boot. Yet in the modern drawing-room we sometimes see a young lady dancing in a heavy Balmoral boot which is only fitted for the bogs and heather of a Scotch tramp. The presence of a short dress in a drawing-room, or of a long train in the street, is part of the general incongruity of dress.

The use of the ulster and the Derby hat became

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apparent on English yachts, where women learned to put themselves in the attitude of men, and very properly adopted the storm jib; but, if one of those women had been told that she would, sooner or later, appear in this dress in the streets of London, she would have been shocked.

In the days of the French emigration, when highborn ladies escaped on board friendly vessels in the harbor of Honfleur, many of them had on the long-waisted and full-skirted overcoats of their husbands, who preferred to shiver rather than endure the pain of seeing their wives suffer from cold. These figures were observed by London tailors and dress-makers, and out of them grew the English pelisse which afterwards came into fashion. On a stout Englishwoman the effect was singularly absurd, and many of the early caricatures give us the benefit of this incongruity; for although a small figure looks well in a pelisse, a stout one never does. The Englishwoman who weighs two or three hundred pounds should wear a sacque, a shawl, or a loose cloak, instead of a tight-waisted pelisse. However, we are diverging. The sense of the personally becoming is still another branch of the great subject of dress. A velvet dress, for instance, demands for its trimmings expensive and real lace. It should not be supplemented by Breton or imitation Valenciennes. All the very pretty imitation laces are appropriate for cheap silks, poplins, summer fabrics, or dresses of light and airy material; but if the substance of the dress be of the richest, the lace should be in keeping with it.

So, also, in respect to jewellery: no cheap or imitation

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jewellery should be worn with an expensive dress. It is as foreign to good taste as it would be for a man to dress his head and body in the most fashionable of hats and coats, and his legs in white duck. There is incongruity in the idea.

The same incongruity applies to a taste for which our countrymen have often been blamed–a desire for the magnificent, A woman who puts on diamonds, real lace, and velvets in the morning at a summer watering-place is decidedly incongruous. Far better be dressed in a gingham; with Hamburg embroidery, and a straw hat with a handkerchief tied round it, now so pretty and so fashionable. She is then ready for the ocean or for the mountain drive, the scramble or the sail. Her boots should be strong, her gloves long and stout. She thus adapts her attire to the occasion. In the evening she will have an opportunity for the delicate boot and the trailing gauze or silk, or that cleft combination of all the materials known as a “Worth Costume.”

In buying a hat a woman should stand before a long Psyche glass, and see herself from head to foot. Often a very pretty bonnet or hat which becomes the face is absolutely dreadful in that wavy outline which is perceptible to those who consider the effect as a whole. All can remember how absurd a large figure looked in the round poke hat and the delicate Fanchon bonnet, and the same result is brought about by the round hat. A large figure should be topped by a Gainsborough or Rubens hat, with nodding plumes. Then the effect is excellent and the proportions are preserved.

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Nothing can be more incongruous, again, than a long, slim, aesthetic figure with a head-gear so disproportionately large as to suggest a Sandwich-Islander with his head-dress of mats. The “aesthetie Craze” has, however, brought in one improvement in costume. It is the epauletted sleeve, which gives expansion to so many figures Which are, unfortunately, too narrow. All physiologists are speculating on the growing narrowness of chest in the Anglo-Saxon race. It is singularly apparent in America. To remedy this, some ingenious dress-maker devised a little puff at the top of the arm, which is most becoming. It is also well adapted to the “cloth of gold” costume of the days of Francis I., which modern luxury so much affects. It is a Frond sort of costume, this nineteenth-century dress, and can well borrow some of the festive features of the Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, if they be not incongruous. We, like those rich nobles and prosperous burghers, have lighted on piping times of peace; we have found a new India of our own; our galleons come laden with the spoils of all countries; we are rich, and we are able to wear velvet and brocade.

But we should be as true as they to the proprieties of dress. In the ancient burgher days the richest citizen was not permitted to wear velvet; he had his own picturesque collar, his dark-cloth suit, his becoming hat. He had no idea of aping the cian, with his long hat and feather. We are all patricians; we can wear either the sober suit or the gay one; but do let us avoid incongruity.

A woman, in dressing herself for an evening of festivity,

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should remember that, from her ear-rings to her fan, all must suggest and convey the idea of luxury. A wooden fan is very pretty in the morning at a watering-place, but it will not do in the evening. None of the modern châtelaine arrangements, however ornamental, are appropriate for evening use. The châtelaine meant originally the chain on which the lady of the house wore her keys; therefore its early association of usefulness remains: it is not luxurious in intention, however much modern fashion may have adorned it.

Many a fashion has, it is true, risen from a low estate. The Order of the Garter tells of a monarch’s caprice; the shoe-buckle and the horseshoe have crept up into the highest rank of ornaments. But as it takes three generations to make a gentleman, so does it take several decades to give nobility to low-born ornament. We must not try to force things.

A part of the growing and sad incongruity of modern dress appears in the unavoidable awkwardness of a large number of bouquets. A belle cannot leave the insignia of belledom at home, nor can she be so unkind as to carry Mr. Smith’s flowers and ignore Mr. Brown’s; so she appears with her arms and hands full, to the infinite detriment of her dress and general effect. Some arrangement might be devised whereby such trophies could be dragged in the train of the high-priestess of fashion.

A little reading, a little attention to the study of costume (a beautiful study, by-the-way), would soon teach a young woman to avoid the incongruous in dress. Some people have taste as a natural gift: they

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know how to dress from a consultation with their inner selves. Others, alas! are entirely without it. The people who make hats and coats and dresses for us are generally without any comprehension of the history of dress. To them the hat of the Roundhead and that of the CaValier have the same meaning. To all people of taste and reading, however, they are very different, and all artists know that the costumes which retain their hold on the world have been preferred and have endured because of their fitness to conditions of climate and the grace and ease with which they were worn.

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