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The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Sarah J. Hale/The Mode


What a variety of changes there has been in the costumes of men and women since the fig-leaf garments were in vogue! And these millions of changes have, each and all, had their admirers, and every fashion has been, in its day, called beautiful. It is evident, therefore, that the reigning fashion, whatever it be, comprehends the essence of the agreeable, and that to continue one particular mode or costume, beautiful for successive ages, it would only be necessary to keep it fashionable. Some nations have taken advantage of this principle in the philosophy of dress, and have, by that means, retained a particular mode for centuries; and there is no doubt the belles of these unfading fashions were, and are, quite as ardently admired, as though they had changed the form of their apparel at every revolution of the moon.

In some important particulars these fixed planets of fashion certainly have the advantage over those who are continually displaying a new phasis. They present fewer data for observation, and consequently, the alterations which time will bring to the fairest person are less perceptible, or, as they always seem the same, less noted. There are few trials more critical to a waning beauty, than the appearing in a new and brilliant fashion. If it becomes her, the whisper instantly runs round the circle, “how young she looks!”—a most invidious way of hinting she is as old as the hills;—if it does not become her, which is usually the case, then you will hear the remark, “what an odious dress!” meaning, the wearer looks as ugly as the Fates.

The contrast between a new fashion and an old familiar face instantly strikes the beholder, and makes him run over all the changes in appearance he has seen the individual assume; and then, there is danger that the antiquated fashions may be revived—and how provoking it is to be questioned whether one remembers when long waists and hoops, and ruffled-cuffs were worn!—A reference to the parish-register, or the family-record, would not disclose the age more effectually.

Nor are the youthful exempted from their share in the evils of change. It draws the attention of the beholder to the dress, rather than the wearers; and it reminds bachelors, palpably and alarmingly, of the expense of supporting a wife who must thus appear in a new costume every change of the mode.

Now, as it is fashion which makes the pleasing in dress, were one particular form retained ever so long, it would always please, and thus the unnecessary expense of time and money be avoided; and the charges of fickleness and frivolousness entirely repelled. We have facts to support this opinion.

Is not the Spanish costume quite as becoming as our own mode? and that costume has been unchanged, or nearly so, for centuries; while the French and English, from whom we borrow our fashions, (poor souls that we are, to be thus destitute of invention and taste!) have ransacked nature, and exhausted art, for comparisons and terms by which to express the new inventions they have displayed in dress.

We are aware that a certain class of political economists affect to believe that luxury is beneficial to a nation—but it is not so. The same reasoning which would make extravagance in dress commendable, because it employed manufacturers and artists, would also make intemperance a virtue in those who could afford to be drunk, because the preparation of the alcohol employs labourers, and the consumption would encourage trade. All these views of the expediency of tolerating evil are a part of that Machiavellian system of selfishness which has been imposed on the world for wisdom, but which has proved its origin by the corrupting crimes and miseries men have endured in consequence of yielding themselves dupes or slaves of fashion and vice.

We do hope, indeed believe, that a more just appreciation of the true interests and real happiness of mankind will yet prevail. The improvements, now so rapidly progressing, in the intellectual and civil condition of nations must, we think, be followed by a corresponding improvement in the tastes and pursuits of those who are the élite of society. Etiquette and the fashions cannot be the engrossing objects of pursuit, if people become reasonable. The excellencies of mind and heart will be of more consequence to a lady than the colour of a riband or the shape of a bonnet. We would not have ladies despise or neglect dress. They should be always fit to be seen; personal neatness is indispensable to agreeableness—almost to virtue. A proper portion of time and attention must scrupulously be given to external appearance, but not the whole of our days and energies. Is it worthy of Christians, pretending to revere the precepts of Him who commanded them not to “take thought what they should put on,” to spend their best years in studying the form of their apparel? Trifles should not thus engross us, and they need not, if our citizens would only shake off this tyranny of fashion, imposed by the tailors of Paris and London, and establish a national costume, which would, wherever an American appeared, announce him as a republican, and the countryman of Washington. The men would probably do this, if our ladies would first show that they have sufficient sense and taste to invent and arrange their own costume (without the inspiration of foreign milliners) in accordance with those national principles of comfort, propriety, economy, and becomingness, which are the only true foundation of the elegant in apparel.

It is not necessary to elegance of appearance, nor to the prosperity of trade, that changes in fashion should so frequently occur. Take, for instance, the article of shoes. What good consequence results from a change in the fashion of shoes?

If we have a becoming and convenient mode, why not retain it for centuries, and save all the discussions about square-toed, round or peaked—and all the other ad infinitum changes in cut and trimmings? And if the hours thus saved were devoted to reading or exercise, would not the mind and health be more improved than if we were employed in deciding the rival claims of the old and new fashion of shoes to admiration?

Such portions of time may seem very trifling, but the aggregate of wasted hours, drivelled away thus by minutes, makes a large part of the life allotted us.

We by no means advocate an idle and stupid state of society. Excitement is necessary; emulation is necessary; and we must be active if we would be happy. But there are objects more worthy to call forth the energies of rational beings than the tie of a cravat, or the trimming of a bonnet. And when the moral and intellectual beauty of character is more cultivated and displayed, we hope that the “foreign aid of ornament” will be found less necessary; and when all our ladies are possessed of “inward greatness, unaffected wisdom, and sanctity of manners,” they will not find a continual flutter of fashion adds anything to the respect and affection their virtues and simple graces will inspire.