The Male Costume Of The Period by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Story type: Essay
I WENT to see a play the other night, one of those good old-fashioned English comedies that are in five acts and seem to be in fifteen. The piece with its wrinkled conventionality, its archaic stiffness, and obsolete code of morals, was devoid of interest excepting as a collection of dramatic curios. Still I managed to sit it through. The one thing in it that held me a pleased spectator was the graceful costume of a certain player who looked like a fine old portrait–by Vandyke or Velasquez, let us say–that had come to life and kicked off its tarnished frame.
I do not know at what epoch of the world’s history the scene of the play was laid; possibly the author originally knew, but it was evident that the actors did not, for their make-ups represented quite antagonistic periods. This circumstance, however, detracted only slightly from the special pleasure I took in the young person called Delorme. He was not in himself interesting; he was like that Major Waters in “Pepys’s Diary”–“a most amorous melancholy gentleman who is under a despayr in love, which makes him bad company;” it was entirely Delorme’s dress.
I never saw mortal man in a dress more sensible and becoming. The material was according to Polonius’s dictum, rich but not gaudy, of some dark cherry-colored stuff with trimmings of a deeper shade. My idea of a doublet is so misty that I shall not venture to affirm that the gentleman wore a doublet. It was a loose coat of some description hanging negligently from the shoulders and looped at the throat, showing a tasteful arrangement of lacework below and at the wrists. Full trousers reaching to the tops of buckskin boots, and a low-crowned soft hat–not a Puritan’s sugar-loaf, but a picturesque shapeless head-gear, one side jauntily fastened up with a jewel–completed the essential portions of our friend’s attire. It was a costume to walk in, to ride in, to sit in. The wearer of it could not be awkward if he tried, and I will do Delorme the justice to say that he put his dress to some severe tests. But he was graceful all the while, and made me wish that my countrymen would throw aside their present hideous habiliments and hasten to the measuring-room of Delorme’s tailor.
In looking over the plates of an old book of fashions we smile at the monstrous attire in which our worthy great-grandsires saw fit to deck themselves. Presently it will be the turn of posterity to smile at us, for in our own way we are no less ridiculous than were our ancestors in their knee-breeches, pig-tail and chapeau de bras. In fact we are really more absurd. If a fashionably dressed man of to-day could catch a single glimpse of himself through the eyes of his descendants four or five generations removed, he would have a strong impression of being something that had escaped from somewhere.
Whatever strides we may have made in arts and sciences, we have made no advance in the matter of costume. That Americans do not tattoo themselves, and do go fully clad–I am speaking exclusively of my own sex–is about all that can be said in favor of our present fashions. I wish I had the vocabulary of Herr Teufelsdrockh with which to inveigh against the dress-coat of our evening parties, the angular swallow-tailed coat that makes a man look like a poor species of bird and gets him mistaken for the waiter. “As long as a man wears the modern coat,” says Leigh Hunt, “he has no right to despise any dress. What snips at the collar and lapels! What a mechanical and ridiculous cut about the flaps! What buttons in front that are never meant to button, and yet are no ornament! And what an exquisitely absurd pair of buttons at the back! gravely regarded, nevertheless, and thought as indispensably necessary to every well-conditioned coat, as other bits of metal or bone are to the bodies of savages whom we laugh at. There is absolutely not one iota of sense, grace, or even economy in the modern coat.”
Still more deplorable is the ceremonial hat of the period. That a Christian can go about unabashed with a shiny black cylinder on his head shows what civilization has done for us in the way of taste in personal decoration. The scalplock of an Apache brave has more style. When an Indian squaw comes into a frontier settlement the first “marked-down” article she purchases is a section of stove-pipe. Her instinct as to the eternal fitness of things tells her that its proper place is on the skull of a barbarian.
It was while revolving these pleasing reflections in my mind, that our friend Delorme walked across the stage in the fourth act, and though there was nothing in the situation nor in the text of the play to warrant it, I broke into tremendous applause, from which I desisted only at the scowl of an usher–an object in a celluloid collar and a claw-hammer coat. My solitary ovation to Master Delorme was an involuntary and, I think, pardonable protest against the male costume of our own time.