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An essay by Jenny Wren

On Dress

Title:     On Dress
Author: Jenny Wren [More Titles by Wren]

I do not know who was the originator of the remark, but it has often been said, and is generally admitted, that women do not dress to please the men, but to outdo one another.

I think just the same might be said of men in their turn. It is after all this spirit of competition which helps to make the world go round. It is innate in man, and woman too, to always try to outrun each other.

With clothes it is undoubtedly the case. The ancient Briton must have vied with his neighbor in different designs with the woad plant. An unusual curve, an uncommon pattern, caused, I daresay, as much excitement then as the fashions of our own day.

I often wonder how they will manage some points in the histories for the coming generation. In most of these books you see illustrations and descriptions of the dress of the period, the costume of the reign. How, oh historians! can you show forth those of Victorian times? Fifty years have passed already! There were four seasons in each of those fifty years! Two hundred illustrations must be shown in order to give a correct idea of the dress of the time! Perhaps it might be more satisfactory to devote a volume exclusively to the subject.

If only we did not run on so quickly! We seem to get faster every year. In a very little time, what we wear one day will be quite out of date the next! When we arrive at this climax, there will be a sudden convulsion of nature, I should think, and we shall return once more to the more simple garb of the aborigines. What an amount of trouble it would save us! No worrying because the dressmaker has not sent our gowns home in time! No sending them back to be altered! No dressmaker's or tailor's bills; or at the least, very small ones; for "woad" could not ruin us _very_ much.

So on the whole it would be well perhaps if this revolution did occur. Some such convulsion as geologists declare has already frequently befallen our earth; and, as they prophesy, is shortly coming again.

I do not like talking to these scientific men. They make you feel so infinitesimally small. They go back such a long, long way. They make out that from the Creation (which by the way they do not admit, only considering it another great change in the world springing from natural causes), from the Creation until now, is the space of a moment on the great clock of time, is a mere "parenthesis in eternity."

It is not nice to feel such a nonentity. What are our lives, our little lives in comparison? We, who each consider ourselves the one person upon the earth, the hero or heroine in the great drama: all the rest mere by-characters. We do not care to be considered of such little consequence; only puppets appearing on the stage for one moment and taken off the next. We are like the clergyman in the small island off the North of Scotland, who prayed for the inhabitants "of Great Cumbray and Little Cumbray and the neighboring islands of Great Britain and Ireland!" On our small piece of land, we yet consider ourselves the centre of the universe.

It is to be hoped if this revolution occurs, after all, that the climate will change likewise. We should require something more besides blue paint in most of our English winters!

Perhaps we take too much thought for what we shall put on. They say that nothing but the prevailing and forthcoming fashions fill the feminine mind. It is true sometimes, I daresay, and yet I always agree with our immortal bard in thinking that "Self-love is not so vile a thing as self-neglect."

It is decidedly better to think too much than too little. It is a duty to your country and your nation to look your best, no matter who is likely to see you.

Of course it can be overdone, _e.g._, the lady who insisted on her bonnet being trimmed on the right because that was the side presented to the congregation! And she, I am afraid, is only a type of many.

There is no reason why this should be the rule; yet nearly everyone seems to bring out their new clothes on Sunday, and exhibit them in Church. I suppose it is because they meet so many friends there, and with laudable unselfishness wish them all equally to enjoy the sight.

"What's the good of your going to church?" a man said to me once; "you only go to show off your gown and look about to see who has a new bonnet and who has not! Now, when _I_ go," he went on in a superior way, "I don't notice a single thing anyone has on!"

"No," I answered quietly, "but you could tell me exactly how many pretty girls were amongst the congregation, and describe their features accurately!" And he not only forbore to deny the accusation, but admitted it with pride! No girl, he assured me, with any pretence to good looks, ever escaped _his_ notice.

Which was the worse, I wonder; he or I? At least I did not glory in my misdeeds.

"_Il faut souffrir pour etre belle_;" and I _have_ suffered sometimes. How often I used to burn myself when I first began to curl my hair! This is such an arduous task, too, with me, for my hair is, as my old nurse used to call it, "like a yard o' pumpwater" (I never went to her when I wanted a compliment). It certainly is straight, and I find it a matter of great difficulty to give it the appearance of natural curls. But "practice makes perfect," they say, so I still persevere, hoping that it may come right some day. I have to be so careful in damp and rainy weather. It is such a shock to look at yourself after a day's outing, to find your "fringe" hanging in straight lines all down your forehead, an arrangement that is so particularly unbecoming. You begin to wonder at what time during the day it commenced to unbend, and if you have had that melancholy, damp appearance many hours. Perhaps it is as well that you did not know before, for it could not have been rectified; you cannot bring a pair of tongs and a spirit-lamp out of your pocket and begin operations in public! Still it is exceedingly aggravating if you think you have been making an impression, and you return home to confront such a dejected-looking spectacle as you find in your mirror.

I am wandering again. Let me get back to my subject--Dress. To insure a good fit you must have your gown so tight that it is impossible to raise your arms. You are obliged to walk about stiffly, with all the appearance of a trussed fowl. If you wish to put on your hat you must first unbutton your bodice! It is particularly awkward, too, in Church: you scarcely have the power to hold your book at seeing distance. But what do such trifles matter? You look as if you had been melted and poured into your gown. What are a few discomforts, more or less, when you have procured an effect such as that?

I always like to look as tall as possible. Five feet four is not a very great height; so, to give the appearance of another inch I have my skirts made as long as possible; that is to say, they just don't sweep the pavement, and that is all. But, oh! the trouble of that extra inch! Unfortunately I have no carriage, my present pecuniary condition does not permit me the luxury of hansoms, and I always avoid an omnibus, where you have fat old men sitting nearly on the top of you, wet umbrellas streaming on to your boots, squalling babies, and disputes with the conductor continuing most of the way--not to speak of the time you have to wait while so many roll by "full inside!" So on muddy days, when I take my walks, the amount of distress I have to undergo on account of the length of my gown is inconceivable. I grow weary with holding it up, and have to stop in the middle of the street to change hands, and when you have an umbrella as well, and sometimes a small parcel besides, this performance is anything but a momentary matter. You drop your gown, the umbrella changes hands, and the parcel generally falls in the mud! While picking it up, four impatient, wet, mackintoshed pedestrians knock against you, and go off uttering imprecations on your head. And when you are once again comfortably settled, your satisfaction does not last long. Your left hand tires as soon as your right, and the scene has all to be acted over again.

There is a great deal of "_savoir faire_" in holding up. Your gown must be high enough to quite clear the ground, but then comes the danger of holding it too high. There has been no license yet granted for the exhibition of ankles in the great metropolis either by Mrs. Grundy or the County Councils; therefore "holding up" becomes a very delicate performance.

Though we do not dress only to please the men, I always prefer their criticisms on a costume to those of my own sex. You can never tell if the latter speak the truth. They may be jealous, and run it down from spite; they may want to gain something from you, and so call yours "a perfection of a gown, and suits you admirably, my dear!" disliking it exceedingly in their inmost hearts.

But a man never gives his approbation unless he really means what he says, and he is not difficult to please as a rule. So long as the costume is neat and well-fitting, he does not care about anything else. It is the _tout ensemble_ he thinks of, not the thousand and one details that go to make up the whole.

I wonder why so many men dislike large hats! It is a pity, for they are so very becoming to some faces, and give a picturesque effect altogether. Perhaps this last is a reason for their disapproval. They never like their womankind to attract attention.

The most unpardonable sin one woman can commit against another, is to copy her clothes and bring the style out as her own idea. It is intensely irritating! If she admits she has copied or asks your leave beforehand, it is a different matter. You are even gratified then, for "imitation is the sincerest flattery." But to have your ideas stolen and brought out in such a way as to convey the impression that you are the imitator, to say the least, arouses murderous intentions in your heart!

There are times, too, when you receive a shock to your vanity; times when you are quite satisfied with your appearance, and find to your dismay that everyone is not of the same opinion.

I remember once when I was dining out and feeling very pleased with my _tout ensemble_, I was disillusioned in a way that not only upset my self-confidence, but my gravity at the same time. To heighten the general effect, I had stuck a patch near my mouth. (Oh, the minds of the last century! From whose fertile brain did it emanate, I wonder, the fact that a piece of black plaster on the face, should be so eminently becoming!) Imagine my horror when the maid, an old servant I knew very well, took me aside and whispered confidentially, "Oh, Miss! you've got _such_ a big smut on your chin!"

Clothes are altogether a great nuisance, I think. How tired you get of the regular routine of the morning toilet; always the same, never any variety. Why are we not born, like dogs, with nice cosy rugs all over us, so that we should just have to get out of bed in the morning, shake ourselves, and be ready at once to go down to breakfast and do the business of the day?

"Ah well! God knows what's best for us all," as an old charwoman said to me, years ago, when she was remarking on how I had grown. I never saw the application of the remark, and do not think I ever shall. Whether my growth was a subject to deplore, and she tried to comfort me, or not, I cannot say; but she was evidently proud of the remark, for she repeated it three times!

[The end]
Jenny Wren's essay: On Dress