Story type: Essay
It is a sad commentary on our boasted civilization that cases of shoplifting occur more and more frequently each year, in which the delinquents are women of education and refinement, or at least belong to families and occupy positions in which one would expect to find those qualities! The reason, however, is not difficult to discover.
In the wake of our hasty and immature prosperity has come (as it does to all suddenly enriched societies) a love of ostentation, a desire to dazzle the crowd by displays of luxury and rich trappings indicative of crude and vulgar standards. The newly acquired money, instead of being expended for solid comforts or articles which would afford lasting satisfaction, is lavished on what can be worn in public, or the outer shell of display, while the home table and fireside belongings are neglected. A glance around our theatres, or at the men and women in our crowded thoroughfares, is sufficient to reveal to even a casual observer that the mania for fine clothes and what is costly, per se, has become the besetting sin of our day and our land.
The tone of most of the papers and of our theatrical advertisements reflects this feeling. The amount of money expended for a work of art or a new building is mentioned before any comment as to its beauty or fitness. A play is spoken of as “Manager So and So’s thirty-thousand- dollar production!” The fact that a favorite actress will appear in four different dresses during the three acts of a comedy, each toilet being a special creation designed for her by a leading Parisian house, is considered of supreme importance and is dwelt upon in the programme as a special attraction.
It would be astonishing if the taste of our women were different, considering the way clothes are eternally being dangled before their eyes. Leading papers publish illustrated supplements devoted exclusively to the subject of attire, thus carrying temptation into every humble home, and suggesting unattainable luxuries. Windows in many of the larger shops contain life-sized manikins loaded with the latest costly and ephemeral caprices of fashion arranged to catch the eye of the poorer class of women, who stand in hundreds gazing at the display like larks attracted by a mirror! Watch those women as they turn away, and listen to their sighs of discontent and envy. Do they not tell volumes about petty hopes and ambitions?
I do not refer to the wealthy women whose toilets are in keeping with their incomes and the general footing of their households; that they should spend more or less in fitting themselves out daintily is of little importance. The point where this subject becomes painful is in families of small means where young girls imagine that to be elaborately dressed is the first essential of existence, and, in consequence, bend their labors and their intelligence towards this end. Last spring I asked an old friend where she and her daughters intended passing their summer. Her answer struck me as being characteristic enough to quote: “We should much prefer,” she said, “returning to Bar Harbor, for we all enjoy that place and have many friends there. But the truth is, my daughters have bought themselves very little in the way of toilet this year, as our finances are not in a flourishing condition. So my poor girls will be obliged to make their last year’s dresses do for another season. Under these circumstances, it is out of the question for us to return a second summer to the same place.”
I do not know how this anecdote strikes my readers. It made me thoughtful and sad to think that, in a family of intelligent and practical women, such a reason should be considered sufficient to outweigh enjoyment, social relations, even health, and allowed to change the plans of an entire family.
As American women are so fond of copying English ways they should be willing to take a few lessons on the subject of raiment from across the water. As this is not intended to be a dissertation on “How to Dress Well on Nothing a Year,” and as I feel the greatest diffidence in approaching a subject of which I know absolutely nothing, it will be better to sheer off from these reefs and quicksands. Every one who reads these lines will know perfectly well what is meant, when reference is made to the good sense and practical utility of English women’s dress.
What disgusts and angers me (when my way takes me into our surface or elevated cars or into ferry boats and local trains) is the utter dissonance between the outfit of most of the women I meet and their position and occupation. So universal is this, that it might almost be laid down as an axiom, that the American woman, no matter in what walk of life you observe her, or what the time or the place, is always persistently and grotesquely overdressed. From the women who frequent the hotels of our summer or winter resorts, down all the steps of the social staircase to the char-woman, who consents (spasmodically) to remove the dust and waste-papers from my office, there seems to be the same complete disregard of fitness. The other evening, in leaving my rooms, I brushed against a portly person in the half-light of the corridor. There was a shimmer of (what appeared to my inexperienced eyes as) costly stuffs, a huge hat crowned the shadow itself, “topped by nodding plumes,” which seemed to account for the depleted condition of my feather duster.
I found on inquiring of the janitor, that the dressy person I had met, was the char-woman in street attire, and that a closet was set aside in the building, for the special purpose of her morning and evening transformations, which she underwent in the belief that her social position in Avenue A would suffer, should she appear in the streets wearing anything less costly than seal-skin and velvet or such imitations of those expensive materials as her stipend would permit.
I have as tenants of a small wooden house in Jersey City, a bank clerk, his wife and their three daughters. He earns in the neighborhood of fifteen hundred dollars a year. Their rent (with which, by the way, they are always in arrears) is three hundred dollars. I am favored spring and autumn by a visit from the ladies of that family, in the hope (generally futile) of inducing me to do some ornamental papering or painting in their residence, subjects on which they have by experience found my agent to be unapproachable. When those four women descend upon me, I am fairly dazzled by the splendor of their attire, and lost in wonder as to how the price of all that finery can have been squeezed out of the twelve remaining hundreds of their income. When I meet the father he is shabby to the outer limits of the genteel. His hat has, I am sure, supported the suns and snowstorms of a dozen seasons. There is a threadbare shine on his apparel that suggests a heartache in each whitened seam, but the ladies are mirrors of fashion, as well as moulds of form. What can remain for any creature comforts after all those fine clothes have been paid for? And how much is put away for the years when the long-suffering money maker will be past work, or saved towards the time when sickness or accident shall appear on the horizon? How those ladies had the “nerve” to enter a ferry boat or crowd into a cable car, dressed as they were, has always been a marvel to me. A landau and two liveried servants would barely have been in keeping with their appearance.
Not long ago, a great English nobleman, who is also famous in the yachting world, visited this country accompanied by his two daughters, high-bred and genial ladies. No self-respecting American shop girl or fashionable typewriter would have condescended to appear in the inexpensive attire which those English women wore. Wherever one met them, at dinner, fete, or ball, they were always the most simply dressed women in the room. I wonder if it ever occurred to any of their gorgeously attired hostesses, that it was because their transatlantic guests were so sure of their position, that they contented themselves with such simple toilets knowing that nothing they might wear could either improve or alter their standing.
In former ages, sumptuary laws were enacted by parental governments, in the hope of suppressing extravagance in dress, the state of affairs we deplore now, not being a new development of human weakness, but as old as wealth.
The desire to shine by the splendor of one’s trappings is the first idea of the parvenu, especially here in this country, where the ambitious are denied the pleasure of acquiring a title, and where official rank carries with it so little social weight. Few more striking ways present themselves to the crude and half-educated for the expenditure of a new fortune than the purchase of sumptuous apparel, the satisfaction being immediate and material. The wearer of a complete and perfect toilet must experience a delight of which the uninitiated know nothing, for such cruel sacrifices are made and so many privations endured to procure this satisfaction. When I see groups of women, clad in the latest designs of purple and fine linen, stand shivering on street corners of a winter night, until they can crowd into a car, I doubt if the joy they get from their clothes, compensates them for the creature comforts they are forced to forego, and I wonder if it never occurs to them to spend less on their wardrobes and so feel they can afford to return from a theatre or concert comfortably, in a cab, as a foreign woman, with their income would do.
There is a stoical determination about the American point of view that compels a certain amount of respect. Our countrywomen will deny themselves pleasures, will economize on their food and will remain in town during the summer, but when walking abroad they must be clad in the best, so that no one may know by their appearance if the income be counted by hundreds or thousands.
While these standards prevail and the female mind is fixed on this subject with such dire intent, it is not astonishing that a weaker sister is occasionally tempted beyond her powers of resistance. Nor that each day a new case of a well-dressed woman thieving in a shop reaches our ears. The poor feeble-minded creature is not to blame. She is but the reflexion of the minds around her and is probably like the lady Emerson tells of, who confessed to him “that the sense of being perfectly well- dressed had given her a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion was powerless to bestow.”