The Directoire Gown by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

We are all more or less devoted to ‘liberte’, ‘egalite’, and considerable ‘fraternite’, and we have various ways of showing it. It is the opinion of many that women do not care much about politics, and that if they are interested at all in them, they are by nature aristocrats. It is said, indeed, that they care much more about their dress than they do about the laws or the form of government. This notion arises from a misapprehension both of the nature of woman and of the significance of dress.

Men have an idea that fashions are haphazard, and are dictated and guided by no fixed principles of action, and represent no great currents in politics or movements of the human mind. Women, who are exceedingly subtle in all their operations, feel that it is otherwise. They have a prescience of changes in the drift of public affairs, and a delicate sensitiveness that causes them to adjust their raiment to express these changes. Men have written a great deal in their bungling way about the philosophy of clothes. Women exhibit it, and if we should study them more and try to understand them instead of ridiculing their fashions as whims bred of an inconstant mind and mere desire for change, we would have a better apprehension of the great currents of modern political life and society.

Many observers are puzzled by the gradual and insidious return recently to the mode of the Directoire, and can see in it no significance other than weariness of some other mode. We need to recall the fact of the influence of the centenary period upon the human mind. It is nearly a century since the fashion of the Directoire. What more natural, considering the evidence that we move in spirals, if not in circles, that the signs of the anniversary of one of the most marked periods in history should be shown in feminine apparel? It is woman’s way of hinting what is in the air, the spirit that is abroad in the world. It will be remembered that women took a prominent part in the destruction of the Bastile, helping, indeed, to tear down that odious structure with their own hands, the fall of which, it is well known, brought in the classic Greek and republican simplicity, the subtle meaning of the change being expressed in French gowns. Naturally there was a reaction from all this towards aristocratic privileges and exclusiveness, which went on for many years, until in France monarchy and empire followed the significant leadership of the French modistes. So strong was this that it passed to other countries, and in England the impulse outlasted even the Reform Bill, and skirts grew more and more bulbous, until it did not need more than three or four women to make a good-sized assembly. This was not the result of, a whim about clothes, but a subtle recognition of a spirit of exclusiveness and defense abroad in the world. Each woman became her own Bastile. Men surrounded it and thundered against it without the least effect. It seemed as permanent as the Pyramids. At every male attack it expanded, and became more aggressive and took up more room. Women have such an exquisite sense of things–just as they have now in regard to big obstructive hats in the theatres. They know that most of the plays are inferior and some of them are immoral, and they attend the theatres with head-dresses that will prevent as many people as possible from seeing the stage and being corrupted by anything that takes place on it. They object to the men seeing some of the women who are now on the stage. It happened, as to the private Bastiles, that the women at last recognized a change in the sociological and political atmosphere of the world, and without consulting any men of affairs or caring for their opinion, down went the Bastiles. When women attacked them, in obedience to their political instincts, they collapsed like punctured balloons. Natural woman was measurably (that is, a capacity of being measured) restored to the world. And we all remember the great political revolutionary movements of 1848.

Now France is still the arbiter of the modes. Say what we may about Berlin, copy their fashion plates as we will, or about London, or New York, or Tokio, it is indisputable that the woman in any company who has on a Paris gown–the expression is odious, but there is no other that in these days would be comprehended–“takes the cake.” It is not that the women care for this as a mere matter of apparel. But they are sensitive to the political atmosphere, to the philosophical significance that it has to great impending changes. We are approaching the centenary of the fall of the Bastile. The French have no Bastile to lay low, nor, indeed, any Tuileries to burn up; but perhaps they might get a good way ahead by demolishing Notre Dame and reducing most of Paris to ashes. Apparently they are on the eve of doing something. The women of the world may not know what it is, but they feel the approaching recurrence of a period. Their movements are not yet decisive. It is as yet only tentatively that they adopt the mode of the Directoire. It is yet uncertain–a sort of Boulangerism in dress. But if we watch it carefully we shall be able to predict with some assurance the drift in Paris. The Directoire dress points to another period of republican simplicity, anarchy, and the rule of a popular despot.

It is a great pity, in view of this valuable instinct in women and the prophetic significance of dress, that women in the United States do not exercise their gifts with regard to their own country. We should then know at any given time whether we are drifting into Blaineism, or Clevelandism, or centralization, or free-trade, or extreme protection, or rule by corporations. We boast greatly of our smartness. It is time we were up and dressed to prove it.