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An essay by Robert Lynd

Spring Fashions

Title:     Spring Fashions
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

In spite of the progress of civilisation, there are still women to whom the returning Spring is mainly a festival of dresses. It is pleasant to know that there is, after all, a remnant of primitive humanity surviving. Women will before long be the only savages. Long after the last anthropologist has departed from the last South Sea Island in despair, when the people have all become Christians and have no manners and customs left, the race of fashionable women will still march its feathered regiments up and down under the sun, a puzzle and an exasperation to the scientific inquirer. Like all really primitive people, women will go on refusing to believe in or bow down to the laws of Nature. Nature may tell them, for instance, of the correct position of the human waist; but they will not listen to her; they will insist that the human waist may be anywhere you like between the neck and the knees, according to the fashion of the moment, and Nature may as well put her fingers in her ears and go home. Savages, we are told, do not even believe in the manifest generalisation of death: they regard each new death as an entirely surprising event, due not to natural, but to accidental causes. Similarly, the fashionable woman regards the body each Spring as an entirely new body, subject to none of the generalisations which seemed appropriate to the body of even a year before. This is the grand proof she offers us of her superiority to the animals. She will have no commerce with the monotony of their ways. She will not submit herself to the regular gait of the sheep, the horse, or the cow, which is the same this year as it was in the year of Waterloo, or, for that matter, in the year of Salamis. She claims for her body the liberty to move one year with the long stride of a running fowl, and the next at a hobble like a spancelled goat. It might be said of her that she is not one animal, but all the animals. She will borrow from all Nature, dead and alive, indeed, as greedily as a poet. She will colour her hair to look like a gorse-bush and her lips to look like a sunset. She will capture the green from the grass, the purple from the hills, the blue from Eastern seas, the silver from the mists, as it suits her fancy. One year she will demand of life that it shall be gorgeous in hue as a baboon's courtships; the next, that it shall be as colourless as a rook's funeral. She enters upon the labour of life as though it were a long series of disguises. Probably it was her success in passing from form to form that led the ancient Greeks to suspect the presence of nymphs now in trees, now in running water, and now even in the hills. Everywhere in Nature man sees evasive woman. There is nothing anywhere, from a mountain valley in flower to a chestnut tree glistening into bud, which does not remind him of something about her--her hats, her cloaks, or her ribbons. Such a plunderer of beauties would, one cannot but feel, become a great artist if only she possessed some standards. But she dresses without standards, without philosophy: there is nothing but appetite in it all, and a capricious appetite at that. She has no settled principle but the principle of change. She flies from grace to ugliness lightheartedly, indiscriminately. She is like the kind of butterfly which you could get only in a fairy tale--a butterfly that could change itself into a mouse, and from a mouse into a dandelion, and from a dandelion into a camel, and from a camel into a grasshopper, and from a grasshopper into a cat, and so on through a thousand transformations. Her world leaves us giddy like the transformation scene in a pantomime. In her artistic ideals she is a follower, not of Orpheus, but of Proteus.

Yet who can disparage her April ritual? She is in league with the whole singing earth, which once a year sets out on its long procession of praise. Her new fashions are but an item in the general rejoicing over the infinite resurrections of Nature. Every thorn-bush gowns itself in green, a ghost of beauty. Every laurel puts forth new leaves like little green flames. There is a glow in the grass as though some spirit lurked behind it deeper a million times than its roots. Everywhere Nature has relit the sacred fire. She has given us back warmth--the warmth in which food increases and birds sing; and we can no more escape her gladness than if we had been rescued from the perils and privations of a siege. This is the time when men wake up to find they are alive, and their exultation makes them poets. One of the first things of which man seems to have become conscious in the world about him was the renewal of life each spring.

The earth does like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn.

Once a year he beheld the coming of the golden age again. He worshipped the serpent as the emblem of endless life long before he learned to suspect it as the devil. He may have been an infidel as he shivered in the winter rains, but the lark leaping into the sun awakened the old splendid credulity again. He knows that Persephone will rise. Hence the divine madness that possesses him year by year at this season--a madness which nowadays expresses itself largely in throwing hard balls at coconuts. Possibly this symbolises the contemptuous smashing of the winter's fears, for is there anything which looks more like a withered fear than one of those grisly brown bearded fruits? And do not the showman's cries and his bell-ringings at the coconut saloon make up a clamour like the clamour of the savage beating forth the flock of his superannuated terrors? He is the incarnation of the boastful faith that has returned to us. Perhaps, too, the coconuts may be symbols of the hoarded food supply of the winter--the supply which we were continually in dread might come to a slow close, and which we can now rail at and insult in our revived confidence in the green world.

Certainly this enthusiasm of ours for the spring is not all so disinterested as it appears. We are hungry animals before we are poetical animals, and we are often praising the promise of our food when we seem to be most exalted in our raptures. It may be that even the pleasure we take in the singing of birds is simply a relic of the pleasure which primitive man felt as he heard the voice of many dinners making its way back to him at the turn of the year. But the appeal of music and colour need not be so detailedly stomachic as that. Man may not have loved the lark's song because he wanted in particular to eat the lark, or, indeed, any bird. He may have loved it merely as a significant voice amid the chorus and banners of the returning hosts of eatable things. If it were not so, many of our tastes would be different. Among the smells and colours of spring those we love most are not the smells and colours of eatable things, but of inculinary things, like roses, and if we loved the music of birds by some standard of the stomach, it is the crowing of the cock and not the song of the lark that would inspire us to poetry. It is the grunting of the pig and not the cuckoo's call which would startle in us the thrill of romance.

There is, on the other hand, just a chance that natural man does respond more sympathetically to the voice of the cock and the pig than to the speech of the cuckoo and the skylark. The difference between the farmer's and the artist's taste in landscape is proverbial. When man looks at the world and sums it up in terms of food, he is indifferent to masses of colour and runs of music. His favourite colour is the colour of a good crop of corn or a field of grass that will fatten the cattle. He cares less for silver streams than for the drains in his turnip-fields. Whether the love of the more ornamental things--the useless songs of the birds and the scent of flowers, which is a prosaic thing only to the bees--is an advance on this passion for utility may be questioned by the advocates of the simple life. Ornament, they may contend, especially in woman's dress, is simply mannikin's vainglory. Woman was first hung or robed with precious things, not in order that she might be happy, but in order that man might be able to boast of her among his neighbours. She was as sure a sign of his power as a string of enemies' heads hanging from his waist. She was the advertisement of his riches. Before long woman became happy in her golden slavery. Wisely so, perhaps, for in the end she was able to make use of the man's fatuous love of boasting to exact high terms for aiding him in his conspiracy of magnificence. She studied the science of surprise, and applied it to the labour of dressing herself in such a way as to make him slavishly regard her as the most wonderful being on earth. If we may trust the testimony of Mrs Edith Wharton's novels, woman has so subjugated man with this chameleon brilliance of hers in modern America that he thinks himself quite happy if she makes use of him as the hodman of her charms. Thus in the spring fashions we may see the triumph of a sex rather than a hymn of colour to the revival of Nature. It is a lamentable declension in theory, and therefore I do not entirely believe it. I still hold to the conviction that the gaiety of women's Easter dress is in some manner allied to the gaiety of the earth. It is but a decrepit gaiety compared to what it might be. But that is because of its long association with all sorts of alien things--the necessity of the man--hunt, the pride of the church parade, and the rest of it. When woman meets man on equal terms she will, one hopes in one's credulous moments, cultivate beauty more and fashion less. She will no longer be estranged from the morning stars that sing together and the little hills that clap their hands. Her feet will be beautiful in Bond Street, and Regent Street shall have cause to shout for joy.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Spring Fashions