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An essay by Robert Lynd

Thoughts At A Tango Tea

Title:     Thoughts At A Tango Tea
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It is not easy to decide what is the dullest feature in the Tango Teas upon which Londoners are now wasting their afternoons and their silver. The most disconcertingly tedious part of the whole entertainment is, in my opinion, the Tango itself: it is mere virtuoso-work in dancing--an eccentric caper, not after beauty, but after variety. But the rest of the programme has no compensating liveliness. The songs are sad affairs, even for a music-hall, and the band, with its continual "selections" dropped into every available hole in the afternoon's amusement, gets on the nerves like a tune played over and over again. And then, to crown everything, comes the parade of mannequins wearing the latest fashions in women's dress, or what will be the latest fashions in another month or two. On the whole I think this part of the show must be given the prize for inanity. The Tango is bad, and the tea varies, but this milliner's business--it is more than dull, it is an outrage on human intelligence.

Students of society cannot afford to leave unnoticed this new development in the tastes of the upper and middle classes. It seems to me to represent almost the extreme limit in the evolution of the English theatre. The actor-managers have often in recent years turned Shakespeare into a dress parade, but here is the dress parade with Shakespeare left out. Musical comedies, hundreds of them, have been as amazing as fireworks with their wonder of costumes, and here is the wonder of costumes without any alloy of musical comedy. Nor are these costumes flashed upon you with a chorussed insolence. Slowly and separately each girl appears, sometimes from the back of the stalls, sometimes from the back of the stage, and marches before your vision as obtrusive as an advertisement, while the band plays some tune like "You made me love you." One should not say "marches" perhaps, but glides. The glide seems to be the ideal at which the modern woman aims in her walk, and the mannequin glides with every exaggeration. But, if you have ever seen cows ambling along a country road you have seen something strangely like the glide that is now in fashion, yet no one thinks of speaking of cows as "gliding." The mannequins come before us one by one at this slow cattle-walk, and pass along one of those Reinhardt pathways above the heads of the people in the stalls. Then they raise their arms and turn round as in a showroom and smile as in the advertisement of a tooth-wash. And so on till ten or a dozen of them have appeared and disappeared. Then out glides the whole school of them again not singly this time, but in a procession, all smiling under their barbaric panaches and their towering crest of feathers, and one of them with her head and chin wrapped in gilt embroideries that make her look like a queen with a toothache. All smiles and paint, the girls nevertheless seem to have no more relation to their gowns than a statue to the hat which someone has perched on its head. They give us no drama of dress. They are simply lay-figures imitating the colours of the rainbow. Perhaps, to a student of fashion, they have some meaning and interest. But a student of fashion does not go for his lessons to a music-hall. To the rest of us they are simply a trash of fine clothes. They are a decadent substitute for gladiatorial exhibitions. They are a last wild--no, no; not wild--a last tame parody on life. Life as a parade of mannequins--the satiric imagination could invent nothing more contemptuously comic. Perhaps, in the theatre of the future, the characters of the plays will remain as mannequins, while the words will be left out as superfluous. Hamlet will appear in his inky cloak at the right intervals, turn round so as to give us a good back and front view, and Ophelia will then take his place in a procession of fine dresses, the whole play being a solemn in-and-out movement of silent gowned figures. Shakespeare ought to be much more popular that way. Even Shakespeare on the cinematograph could hardly compete with it.

What, one wonders, is the cause of all this mannequinism? Is it a survival of the passion for dolls? Or is it a case of woman's flying to a refuge after man has ousted her from all her old busy pleasures? Scarcely anything but the dress interest is left to her. Woman--at least the kind of woman whom one sees at Tango Teas--no longer bakes, or weaves, or spins, or makes medicines, or even sews as her grandmothers--or, to be quite accurate, her grandmothers' grandmothers--did. She has gradually been led to hand over her baking to the baker, her medicines to the chemist, her weaving and spinning to the mills. What could Penelope herself do in such circumstances? Without her loom there would have been nothing for her but to think out fresh ways of arranging her hair and to disguise herself endlessly in new draperies which would have led to her being pestered more than ever by the suitors. Idleness, it does not take a Sunday-school teacher to see, is the universal dressmaker, and a woman who is not allowed to work and does not drink and has not even a vote is driven among the mannequins as surely as if you forced her there by law. After all, if one has nothing to do, one must do something. One must put one's virtue into hats and stockings if one is not allowed to practise it more soberly. It may be, of course, that the mannequin stage which the women of the comfortable classes have now reached is really a step towards a more sober dignity. Woman had to be released from the old servitude of the house--from the predestined making of beds and sewing of clothes and cooking of dinners--in order to assert her equal capacities with those of the man who rode to war and cozened his fellows in the city and sat on committees and stayed out till all hours. She may not have realised at the time that it was merely an escape from one drudgery to another--from the drudgery of housework to the drudgery of pleasure--but she cannot take her brains with her into a music-hall matinee without realising it now. And she is learning to hate the one as much as the other. Feminism is woman's great protest against the drudgery of pleasure. Some of the feminists, it may be granted, turn it into a claim to share with man all those old pleasures with which man's eyes have long been yellow and weary. But the spectacle of the middle-aged male followers of the life of pleasure in any restaurant or theatre ought to terrify these bold ladies from maintaining such a demand. The supreme philosophers of pleasure, from Epicurus to Stevenson, have all had to turn to hard work and virtue as the only forms of amusement which did not spoil the bloom of one's cheek. Even the supreme philosopher of clothes would have kept us far too busy ever to think about them.

People unfortunately have got it into their heads, as the result of a long process of civilisation, that, in order to be beautiful, clothes must be a kind of finery to which one gives the thoughts of one's nights and days. And the result is that most women would rather take the advice of their dressmaker than of Epicurus. It is one of the most ludicrous misdirections that the human race has ever followed. The dressmaker's living depends on her keeping off Epicurus with one hand and the Twelve Apostles with the other, and she has certainly done so with the most brilliant efficiency. We who do not live by dressmaking, however, should be coolly critical of the dressmaker's point of view. It was not she, perhaps, who invented, but it is she who most brazenly keeps alive, the great delusion of civilised society that woman's foolish dresses are more beautiful than the reasonable clothes of men. In fifteen thousand years or so, when the idea of beauty will have had time to develop into a tiny bud, men and supermen will laugh at this old absurdity. The idea that modern men's clothes are ugly is a deception chiefly maintained by advertisement agents and shopkeepers. There is, I admit, much to be said against the bowler hat. But the jacket, the trousers, and the sock--so long as it does not match the tie--come nearer what is excellent and appropriate in dress than any other costume that has been invented since the strong silent Englishman left his coat of paint behind him in the wood. It is possible, no doubt, to spoil the effect of it all with too much folding and pressing. Dandyism means the ruin of one's clothes from the aesthetic point of view. One must be ready to expose them to all weathers--to have them rained upon and rumpled--if one wants them to be really beautiful, say, like an old church.

It is because woman's dress at its finest does not stand this test of beauty that a marchioness is worse clad than the driver of a coal cart or a chimney-sweep. Not luxury, but necessity, is the creator of beauty. Beauty comes from our submission to Nature; it is not a matter of thieving a few handfuls of coloured feathers from Nature's breast and wings. It comes by accident, as you will see if you look down from a hill at night on a gas-lit town. Almost the only kind of lights which are not beautiful are those which are deliberately so. One has to go out of the streets among the lights of the White City in order to see beauty giving way to prettiness. Similarly, one might say that the only kind of dresses which are not beautiful are those which are deliberately so. Even among the poor there is more grace to be found among mill-girls in their shawls than when on Sundays they dress themselves up to look as like their dream of riches as possible. I hope that the dress parades in the West End theatres and music-halls will sooner or later be transferred to the poorer districts. They may not at once kill envy and the respect for wealth. They may not strike people as being so ridiculous as they really are, though anyone who finds amusement in waxworks ought to get sufficient entertainment from a dress parade. But if the show has not this effect, it may at least open the eyes of the poor to the barbarous conditions in which the rich live and fire them with the determination to hurry to the rescue and release them from the gilded cage of their luxuries. The beginning of the social revolution, I foresee, will be a rising against the mannequins. It will be an infinitely greater event in history than the taking of the Bastille.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Thoughts At A Tango Tea