“TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
“Sir, — I have long nourished an ardent desire to address you on a subject fraught with pain and deep anxiety
“An abuse is daily growing around me, or rather round our wives and daughters, which has hitherto successfully resisted both the taunts of the satirists and the utilitarian influence of the age. Need I allude to the prevailing fashion of ladies’ dresses, which in form, in material, and in expense, daily exhibit symptoms of a fatal development?
“Many conflicting considerations have hitherto restrained me from any attempt to enlist your sympathies on the side of virtue and of husbands. The close of the last season gave me hopes of amendment. But the summer fashions running with a rapidity almost imperceptible through the various gradations of autumn attire, and blooming suddenly into a vast expanse of winter velvets, awakened me to my delusion. The velvets purchased, cut out and assumed, the coup de main alone acquainted me with the conspiracy when it disarmed me with success. But Sir, I am no longer to be trifled with. I am not a man easily daunted. Patiently have I waited the appointed time. With forbearance, at certain seasons, verging on despair, have I watched the increasing amplitude and paid with trembling hands the increasing bills.
“Often Sir, at ball or crowded assembly have I been tripped by the confluence of massive tissues. Often have I been suddenly and painfully compressed in a doorway by the framework of a creature whom nature had intended for a fairy, Nay, Sir, more than once have I, without a murmur, submitted during a pelting rain to banishment from my own carriage, constructed originally for the conveyance of four persons but now, forsooth, not capable of one elderly and two youthful ladies, hedged in their shells like the clapper of a bell.
“But there is a limit to endurance. The appointed moment is at length arrived. Christmas-day is passed. The new year is no longer a stranger. Twelfth-night monarchs have abdicated their functions. Parliament has not yet assembled. During the interregnum I may be allowed to court your powerful assistance, as the old garments are becoming faded, and before the moment shall arrive for the conception, and alas! the purchase of new habiliments.
“Certain social disorders demand stringent remedies, By your hand alone can they be duly administered. The age is not suited for sumptuary laws; but by exposing the secrets of one respectable gentleman’s household let me hope to lead my fellow countrywomen to a sense of what is due to themselves and to their family exchequer.
“The ladies of my family are subscribers to a detestable publication, illustrated by highly coloured prints, a weekly record of the ephemeral fashions. From a number of this periodical I am enabled to gather a general idea of the manner in which ladies find it feasible to lavish the substance of their kindred on personal adornment. And first, as to the question of quality, you may expect a catalogue of silks, velvets, and laces. You will scarcely believe that these sumptuous textures are no longer sufficient to bedeck their daintiness to advantage.
“The fabrics of Lyons and Genoa are unequal to the task unless loaded with the most minute and costly embroidery and fringes. Even those beautiful laces, which hitherto have delighted the eye not only of the coquette but of the artist, must now be overloaded with adventitious and I may say, meretricious ornament. The hair, once considered worthily adorned with jewels, permanent in their nature and of convertible value, must needs sail in the aid of gilt-powder and flowers, requiring in their close and delicate imitation of nature the costly skill of the most cunning workmen. These of course lose their freshness after the wear of a few evenings. And when I tell you Sir, that the flowers of one dress alone have been known to stand the purchaser in a sum not less than 140/, you will agree with me that such expenditure is little less than a crime even in the wealthiest of our wealthy nations, Nay, jewellery is no longer admissible in its natural and permanent character. Silver and gold, emeralds and diamonds, are no longer attractive, unless surrounded by artistic settings of no intrinsic worth, the perishable beauty of which in a short time leaves no trace behind beyond the bill of some courteous but insidious goldsmith.
“The present exaggeration of feminine redundancy is not an abuse of contemporary origin. In 1745 it was already publicly denounced in a pamphlet entitled “The Enormous Abomination of the Hoop-Petticoat, as the Fashion now is.” Many now living can remember the hoop as a necessary component of a Court dress. This fashion was exploded, not, I think, until the death of Queen Charlotte.
“But since that period, it has recurred, like an epidemic, at certain intervals. About 15 years ago it prevailed to an extent almost equal to the present mania. I recollect two French statuettes which much assisted in suppressing the absurdity. One lady arrayed in bulky garments was represented as guarded by spikes, such as are employed to prevent little boys from travelling gratuitously on the footboard of a carriage. Another lady, neglecting this precaution, stepped stately while affording to a successful urchin the luxury of a journey dos-à-dos.
“Drapery was subsequently reduced to more reasonable dimensions. The skirts, neither to scanty nor too full, fell in natural folds, exhibiting the graces of a good figure, and not thrusting into prominence the faults of a form, less elegantly shaped. But lately, Sir, the old leaven has been at work, as we all know to our distress and tribulation. That curious preparation of horsehair, known under the classical denomination of crinoline, is now deemed inadequate to the duties of expansion, unless fortified with quaint instruments of steel and tubes of caoutchouc inflated by bellows. The result has been the enormous accumulation of breadths, as evidenced by “bill delivered.” The evil is regrettably on the increase. Women of all shades and sizes are yielding to the fascination. Beauty seems to be valued like a Crown land only by the amount of square feet inclosed.
“It is to the French Court that we are indebted for this inexplicable and ruinous infatuation. France has ever been supreme in matters of female costume, We on this side the Channel have generally dictated the form, hue and material of masculine attire.
“And France is now attaining a height of luxury not surpassed even in the most luxurious times of her history. It is a bad sign. The reign of Louis XV., with the same characteristics, was the precursor of sad events.
I am not disposed to draw a comparison, Save in this respect none exists. But in the present state of society any approach even in such matters to a former period universally reprobated is injudicious and impolitic. Nevertheless for the French there are palliatives, not feasible, let us hope, in this country, It is well known that the Bonnes of Paris do not disdain to borrow their costly plumes from the dressmaker. The boasted luxury of ever-changing dresses does not betoken ownership. The hire is paid by the value of the advertisement.
“But should our neighbours think fit to adopt this peculiar garb, why should we servilely follow fashions supportable only in a nation the manners, liveliness and conversation of which are so essentially different to our own? These swollen dresses surely cannot add to the attractions of our fair countrywomen. With our other allies, the Turks size is an essential element of female loveliness. We however, do not measure that quality by the same standard of proportions.
“General slimness, with certain local developments, used to present to us, as to the ancients, models to elicit and inspire our admiration. Nowadays, instead of a form of natural grace, we are called upon to commend the semblance of chronic elephantiasis.
“Allow me to call the attention of our countrywomen to one fact which I think will give them food for salutary reflection. The hoop, I have always heard, was devised and introduced to conceal the symptoms of a state in which “ladies wish to be who love their lords,” by some ladies not endowed with the same concentration of tenderness. If the mothers and daughters of England will bear in mind this fact they will perhaps be more anxious to increase their wisdom and curtail their circumference.
“I will not say a word of milliners “coughing their own knell” in the manufacture of these garments, I will not refer to the letter of “Verbena,” published last year, complaining of want of space in the presence of her sovereign. These considerations have been argued often, ably and in vain. Let me however, conclude my letter by replying to a fallacy often advised in my home circle.
“A daughter of mine, an interesting child, but afflicted with a strangely perverted gift of political economy, endeavours to answer my remonstrances and to lay a flattering unction to her soul by the assertion of the benefits accruing to trade from the increased expenditure on articles of attire. To this I have a ready answer. And I will inform, her, Sir, and others labouring under the same delusion, that the benefit conferred on trade by waste and extravagance is but an unhealthy and transitory impetuous which, by ruining the customer, will ere long involve the ruin of the vendor.
“Many instances in support of this view have lately been brought before my personal knowledge. Wives have covertly contracted debts to the detriments of their husbands. Daughters have run up bills without the knowledge of their parents, vaguely trusting to marriage as a means of extrication from their difficulties. Meanwhile the purveyors, often women of small capital, fearing to enforce their claims, and cursing the day which has introduced them to a “West-end connexion,” seek in bankruptcy the only rescue from starvation.
“Such are the moral and political effects of excess on crinoline.
“I am Sir, yours faithfully,
“A RESPECTABLE ELDERLY GENTLEMAN.
“Clayhole-manor, Jan, 15.”
The above letter, remarkable as much for its length (taking up an entire column on the page) as for its depth of detail, is one I have not encountered before in my reading. One thing, not fashion related, but social history related, that stopped me in my tracks, was this passage.
“And France is now attaining a height of luxury not surpassed even in the most luxurious times of her history. It is a bad sign. The reign of Louis XV., with the same characteristics, was the precursor of sad events. I am not disposed to draw a comparison, Save in this respect none exists. But in the present state of society any approach even in such matters to a former period universally reprobated is injudicious and impolitic.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I never thought about the French Revolution being a kind of 19th century version of Godwin’s Law but that does indeed appear to be the implication above!
Crinoline-related articles, both positive and negative, good and bad, could probably take up an entire post-a-day blog all by themselves for many years without repetition of source material. A good sampler is provided by Diarmid Mogg’s Tumblr post which transcribes a number of articles from 1861 about crinoline tragedies, although I’d like to know where he found the original stories.
I have never heard this euphemism for pregnancy before:
a state in which “ladies wish to be who love their lords,”
but it made me smile! Exactly 100 years later to the day, in 1957, identical complaints were made against the then newly fashionable sack and trapeze dresses. Lady Antonia Frazer in 1958 was smart enough to take advantage of this by wearing a trapeze dress to Ascot – successfully concealing her pregnancy from the paparazzi! The outraged male whingeing at great length and volume about clothing that does not present the female figure to his concepts of appropriateness, either by revealing too much, or by concealing too much, is an unfortunately undying (but hopefully decreasing) breed….