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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson


Title:     Featherses
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

One of the most amusing letters ever quoted in any book is that given in Curzon's "Monasteries of the Levant," as the production of a Turkish sultana who had just learned English. It is as follows:--



MY NOBLE FRIEND:--Here are the featherses sent my soul, my noble friend, are there no other featherses leaved in the shop besides these featherses? and these featherses remains, and these featherses are ukly. They are very dear, who buyses dheses? And my noble friend, we want a noat from yourself; those you brought last tim, those you sees were very beautiful; we had searched; my soul, I want featherses again, of those featherses. In Kalada there is plenty of feather. Whatever bees, I only want beautiful featherses; I want featherses of every desolation to-morrow.

(Signed) YOU KNOW WHO.

The first steps in culture do not, then, it seems, remove from the feminine soul the love of pretty things. Nor do the later steps wholly extinguish it; for did not Grace Greenwood hear the learned Mary Somerville conferring with the wise Harriet Martineau as to whether a certain dress should be dyed to match a certain shawl? Well! why not? Because women learn the use of the quill, are they to ignore "featherses "? Because they learn science, must they unlearn the arts, and, above all, the art of being beautiful? If men have lost it, they have reason to regret the loss. Let women hold to it, while yet within their reach.

Mrs. Rachel Rowland of New Bedford, much prized and trusted as a public speaker among Friends, and a model of taste and quiet beauty in costume, delighted the young girls at a Newport Yearly Meeting, a few years since, by boldly declaring that she thought God meant women to make the world beautiful, as much as flowers and butterflies, and that there was no sin in tasteful dress, but only in devoting to it too much money or too much time. It is a blessed doctrine. The utmost extremes of dress, the love of colors, of fabrics, of jewels, of "featherses," are, after all, but an effort after the beautiful. The reason why the beautiful is not always the result is because so many women are ignorant or merely imitative. They have no sense of fitness: the short wear what belongs to the tall, and brunettes sacrifice their natural beauty to look like blondes. Or they have no adaptation; and even an emancipated woman may show a disregard for appropriateness, as where a fine lady sweeps the streets, or a fair orator the platform, with a silken or velvet train which accords only with a carpet as luxurious as itself. What is inappropriate is never beautiful. What is merely in the fashion is never beautiful. But who does not know some woman whose taste and training are so perfect that fashion becomes to her a means of grace instead of a despot, and the worst excrescence that can be prescribed--a _chignon_, a hoop, a panier--is softened into something so becoming that even the Parisian bondage seems but a chain of roses?

In such hands, even "featherses" become a fine art, not a matter of vanity. Are women so much more vain than men? No doubt they talk more about their dress, for there is much more to talk about; yet did you never hear the men of fashion discuss boots and hats and the liveries of grooms? A good friend of mine, a shoemaker, who supplies very high heels for a great many pretty feet on Fifth Avenue in New York, declares that women are not so vain in that direction as men. "A man who thinks he has a handsome foot," quoth our fashionable Crispin, "is apt to give us more trouble than any lady among our customers. I have noticed this for twenty years." The testimony is consoling--to women.

And this naturally suggests the question, What is to be the future of masculine costume? Is the present formlessness and gracelessness and monotony of hue to last forever, as suited to the rough needs of a workaday world? It is to be remembered that the difference in this respect between the dress of the sexes is a very recent thing. Till within a century or so, men dressed as picturesquely as women, and paid as minute attention to their costume. Even the fashions in armor varied as extensively as the fashions in gowns. One of Henry III.'s courtiers, Sir J. Arundel, had fifty-two complete suits of cloth of gold. No satin, no velvet, was too elegant for those who sat to Copley for their pictures. In Puritan days the laws could hardly be made severe enough to prevent men from wearing silver-lace and "broad bone-lace," and shoulder-bands of undue width, and double ruffs and "immoderate great breeches." What seemed to the Cavaliers the extreme of stupid sobriety in dress would pass now for the most fantastic array. Fancy Samuel Pepys going to a wedding of to-day in his "new colored silk suit and coat trimmed with gold buttons, and gold broad lace round his hands, very rich and fine." It would give to the ceremony the aspect of a fancy ball; yet how much prettier a sight is a fancy ball than the ordinary entertainment of the period!

At intervals the rigor of masculine costume is a little relaxed; velvets resume their picturesque sway: and, instead of the customary suit of solemn black, gentlemen even appear in blue and gold editions at evening parties. Let us hope that good sense and taste may yet meet each other, for both sexes; that men may borrow for their dress some womanly taste, women some masculine sense; and society may again witness a graceful and appropriate costume, without being too much absorbed in "featherses."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Featherses