Clothes Past and Present


THE sordidness and anxious concern of the autumnal refurbishing of my wardrobe have this year been diverted into the pleasant ways of philosophy and sentiment. The September Atlantic furnishes me an essay with mettle to stiffen any lady’s back for “this business of dressing.” And on my desk lie two fat green volumes gay with picture, flaunting rags and tags and velvet gowns in my eyes until I am compelled to acknowledge “the shaping destiny of dress,” historically considered, at least.

The essayist of “My Clothes” and the historian of Two Centuries of Costume in America1 have both approached their subject with a reverent and respectful enthusiasm genially transmitting itself to the reader, but I fancy that of the two Mrs. Earle is the more deeply moved; Mrs. Earle does not say that dress is the person, rather it is a person. I am particularly pleased by those illustrations that represent the waistcoat, the breeches, the bodice, or the bonnet, quite unadorned by wearers, — these empty garments stalk and strut and pirouette from page to page with an indescribable charm. Mrs. Earle’s language enhances the spell.

But I hardly know whether to be grateful to Mrs. Earle for the new light she has thrown on certain cherished misconceptions. There is mockery to me now in the family portrait. Did you know that they borrowed their clothes to be painted in, those naughty, deceiving old sitters? That they cajoled the artist into plastering them with jewels and gold? Such a wanton deception of a guileless posterity I find it hard to forgive.

But the vanity of our respected first settlers is the most surprising. I have always regarded them as godly and grim, going soberly about their delving and praying, making themselves log-houses and a nation, planting and spinning, ear and flintlock alike ever cocked against the war-whoop and the tomahawk. Dress? vanitas vanitatum — what are they to do with the art of breeks and bodices ? But what is it that they were really up to, the sly old codgers ? Why, it would seem that immediately on landing they plumped right down on Plymouth Rock and began scribbling for their lives lists of the fashionable garments they would need in the wilderness, lists to go back by return Mayflower. And busily enough they kept on sending, sending, sending back to that old England they had spurned, for fashions and for fashionable attire, both male and female. Little America was not to be behind, not she! Indians, starvation, sickness, cruel weather, — still our Puritan ancestors had their shoes of “damson-colored Spanish leather,” their “gold-fringed gloves,” their petticoats and waistcoats embroidered and brocaded. Fashion flew over seas so fast as can hardly be believed, and it was the Puritans, those same up-andcoming Puritans lately handled in the Contributors’ Club, who brought it about that their seventeenth-century cis-Atlantic portraits are as fresh and fashionable in costume as those of contemporary England and France.

To return to last month’s Atlantic and to read “My Clothes” in the larger light of the history of the national costume, I am struck by certain differences between the national wardrobe and the private one. Nowadays how we are ridden by our underwear! In earlier days how light a care it was! It is not only embittered infancy swathed in hot flannels that utters complaint, but youth and middle life and age must go stiffly in the invisible armor against pneumonia, neuralgia, rheumatism ; yet how bravely our forbears laughed at the wildness of winter, — our gay grandfathers making a leg in thinnest satin, our diaphanous Empire grandmothers off for the sleigh-ride, only a silken shawl comforting their shoulders. There was no Dr. Yaeger then, no poulticing of woolens, yet they snuffled not, and were ever gay at heart and airy to look upon.

In one regard this examination into the nature and history of costume puzzles me greatly. Just when, just why, did gentlemen abjure their birthright of color and splendor and variety of dress ? For two centuries the sexes sought to outflame each other in glory of silk and satin and velvet and gold, then in an instant away goes half the brightness, and one sex walks dim and dull and uniformed forever! Why ? It is not because they did not once love it, these poor, sober-feathered fowls, — what eager, earnest, painstaking shopping lists the gentlemen of our earlier America sent over the sea! Close concern with the width of the trimming, the pattern of the lace! Their zeal overflows their own wardrobe; they scrutinize every article of dress worn by the females of their household. Husbands or brothers gone abroad send home studied accounts of the new whimsies of fashion in London. George Washington, recently become a stepfather, is as solicitous for little Nellie Custis’s hose as he is for his infant country’s welfare. How they revel and are glad in the London periwig or proud inflated waistcoat! How undaunted they meet discomfort! Cries one gay blade to his tailor, as he orders his small-clothes, “If I can get into them, I won’t pay for them!” And what of the ears half severed by the collar, the neck enfolded by yard upon yard of lawn? There was certainly once a day when men spent a goodly portion of a lifetime in attending to the cut of their sleeves, yet I would remind last month’s essayist that in this same day men were playing pretty effectively with scholarship and politics. Regard those much-millinered men of Elizabeth’s time. Look at the portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh on an early page of Mrs. Earle’s book. See him all puffed and slashed and padded and ruffled and gartered, yet somehow he managed to be bigger than his toggery, had time for elaborate costume, and also for the varied career of poet, courtier, streetcleaner, colonist, statesman, and tobacconist. No, men would seem to be something more than their raiment, and it would take something more than short hair and an overcoat to boost women into the high and happy places of politics.

In those older days people must have been much less sensitive to the stigma of the second-hand. Mrs. Earle traces the descent of hood or petticoat from generation to generation, and neither garment nor recipient seems to have suffered any loss of prestige in the process. This obtuseness of sentiment in our ancestors reaches an extreme in that bygone custom that allowed the hangman’s lady to regard the clothes of executed females as her rightful perquisite. I own I can more readily forgive Mary Queen of Scots certain sportive little peccadillos than I can the unromantic thrift and promptness with which she makes over the murdered Darnley’s wardrobe to Bothwell. This is another bit of sidelight information on history for which I am indebted to Mrs. Earle.

The last chapter of Two Centuries of Costume is named “The Romance of Old Clothes,” a title well befitting the entire work, breathing delightfully, as it does all through, our old childish joy in attic trunks and forgotten finery. Why is there no such romantic aroma in “My Clothes”? There I read a philosophic pluck in dealing with a problem not selfimposed, but I detect more protest than pleasure in this “dressing,dressing, dressing to the end.”Why no Romance of New Clothes ? Am I to infer that when our ancestors and their wardrobes were new, costume was just as much a matter of fret and fuss and fit and misfit as it is to-day? For example, my new autumn frock is to me to-day far more trouble than it is worth; but when gown and wearer and dressmaker have been laid away for a century in their several chests, some great-granddaughter will draw out the ancient dress, grow sentimental, and extract poetry from the silk and stuff that was most sordid prose to me. Why should she ? It is not fair. It is but one more instance of the impertinence of upstart posterity, which is always popping in to snatch away our prerogatives from under our very noses.

  1. Two Centuries of Costume in America. By ALICE MORSE EARLE. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1903.