From little matters let us pass to less,
And lightly touch the mysteries of dress;
The outward forms the inner man reveal;
We guess the pulp before we eat the peel.—O. W. Holmes.



Dress has its language, which is, or may be, read and understood by all. It is one of the forms in which we naturally give expression to our tastes, our constructive faculties, our reason, our feelings, our habits—in a word, to our character, as a whole. This expression is often greatly modified by the arbitrary laws of Fashion, and by circumstances of time, place, and condition, which we can not wholly control; but can hardly be entirely falsified. Even that arch tyrant, the reigning Mode, whatever it may be, leaves us little room for choice in materials, forms, and colors, and the choice we make indicates our prominent traits of character.

“Dress,” that admirable Art Journal the Crayon says, “has two functions—to clothe and to ornament; and while we can not lose sight of either point, we must not attribute to the one a power which belongs to the other. The essential requirement of dress is to cover and make comfortable the body, and of two forms of dress which fulfill this function equally well, that is the better which is most accordant with the laws of beauty. But fitness must [Pg 32]in nowise be interfered with; and the garb which infringes on this law gives us pain rather than pleasure. We believe that it will be found that fitness and beauty, so far from requiring any sacrifice for combination, are found each in the highest degree where both are most fully obtained—that the fittest, most comfortable dress is that which is most graceful or becoming. Fitness is the primary demand; and the dress that appears uncomfortable is untasteful.

“But in the secondary function of dress, ornamentation, there are several diverse objects to be attained—dignity, grace, vivacity, brilliancy, are qualities distinguishing different individuals, and indicating the impression they wish to make on society, and are expressed by different combinations of the elements of beauty, line, or form, and color. When the appareling of the outer being is in most complete harmony with the mental constitution, the taste is fullest.”

True art adapts dress to its uses, as indicated in the foregoing extract. It is based on universal principles fundamental to all art.

The art-writer already quoted says, very truly, that “Dress is always to be considered as secondary to the person.” This is a fundamental maxim in the art of costume, but is often lost sight of, and dress made obtrusive at the expense of the individuality of the wearer. A man’s vest or cravat must not seem a too important part of him. Dress may heighten beauty, but it can not create it. If you are not better and more beautiful than your clothes you are, indeed, a man or a woman of straw.

The next principle to be regarded is the fitness of your costume, in its forms materials, and colors, to your person and circumstances, and to the conditions of the time, place and occasion on which it is to be worn. Fashion[Pg 33] often compels us to violate this principle, and dress in the most absurd, incongruous, unbecoming, and uncomfortable style. A little more self-respect and independence, however, would enable us to resist many of her most preposterous enactments. But Fashion is not responsible for all the incongruities in dress with which we meet. They are often the result of bad taste and affectation.

The first demand of this law of fitness is, that your costume shall accord with your person. The young and the old, we all instinctively know, should not dress alike. Neither should the tall and the short, the dark and the light, the pale and the rosy, the grave and the gay, the tranquil and the vivacious. Each variety of form, color, and character has its appropriate style; but our space here is too limited to allow us to do more than drop a hint toward what each requires, to produce the most harmonious and effective combination. In another work,[A] now in the course of preparation, this important subject will be treated in detail.

“In form, simplicity and long, unbroken lines give dignity, while complicated and short lines express vivacity. Curves, particularly if long and sweeping, give grace while straight lines and angles indicate power and strength. In color, unity of tint gives repose—if somber, gravity but if light and clear, then a joyous serenity—variety of tint giving vivacity, and if contrasted, brilliancy.”

Longitudinal stripes in a lady’s dress make her appear taller than she really is, and are therefore appropriate for persons of short stature. Tall women, for this reason, should never wear them. Flounces are becoming to tall persons, but not to short ones. The colors worn should be determined by the complexion, and should harmonize [Pg 34]with it. “Ladies with delicate rosy complexions bear white and blue better than dark colors, while sallow hues of complexion will not bear these colors near them, and require dark, quiet, or grave colors to improve their appearance. Yellow is the most trying and dangerous of all, and can only be worn by the rich-toned, healthy-looking brunette.”

In the second place, there should be harmony between your dress and your circumstances. It should accord with your means, your house, your furniture, the place in which you reside, and the society in which you move.

Thirdly, your costume should be suited to the time, place, and occasion on which it is to be worn. That summer clothes should not be worn in winter, or winter clothes in summer, every one sees clearly enough. The law of fitness as imperatively demands that you should have one dress for the kitchen, the field, or the workshop, and another, and quite a different one, for the parlor; one for the street and another for the carriage, one for a ride on horseback and another for a ramble in the country. Long, flowing, and even trailing skirts are beautiful and appropriate in the parlor, but in the muddy streets, draggling in the filth, and embarrassing every movement of the wearer, or in the country among the bushes and briers, they lose all their beauty and grace, because no longer fitting. The prettiest costume we have ever seen for a shopping excursion or a walk in the city, and especially for a ramble in the country, is a short dress or frock reaching to the knee, and trowsers of the common pantaloon form, but somewhat wider. Full Turkish trowsers might be worn with this dress, but are less convenient. The waist or body of the dress is made with a yoke and belt, and pretty full. The sleeves should be gathered into a band and buttoned at the wrist. A saque or a basque of a different color from the[Pg 35] waist has a fine effect as a part of this costume. Add to it a gipsy hat and good substantial shoes or boots, and you may walk with ease, grace, and pleasure. This was the working and walking costume of the women of the North American Phalanx, and is still worn on the domain which once belonged to that Association, though the institution which gave it its origin has ceased to exist. If you reside in a place where you can adopt this as your industrial and walking costume, without too much notoriety and odium, try it. You must judge of this for yourself. We are telling you what is fitting, comfortable, and healthful, and therefore, in its place, beautiful, and not what it is expedient for you to wear. The time is coming when such a costume may be worn anywhere. Rational independence, good taste, and the study of art are preparing the way for the complete overthrow of arbitrary fashion. Help us to hasten the time when both women and men shall be permitted to dress as the eternal principles, harmony, and beauty dictate, and be no longer the slaves of the tailor and the dressmaker.

But without adopting any innovations liable to shock staid conservatism or puritanic prudery, you may still, in a good measure, avoid the incongruities which we are now compelled to witness, and make your costume accord with place and occupation.

In the field, garden, and workshop, gentlemen can wear nothing more comfortable and graceful than the blouse. It may be worn loose or confined by a belt. If your occupation is a very dusty one, wear overalls. In the counting-room and office, gentlemen wear frock-coats or sack coats. They need not be of very fine material, and should not be of any garish pattern. In your study or library, and about the house generally, on ordinary occasions, a handsome dressing-gown is comfortable and elegant.

[Pg 36]

A lady, while performing the morning duties of her household may wear a plain loose dress, made high in the neck, and with long sleeves fastened at the wrist. It must not look slatternly, and may be exceedingly beautiful and becoming.

In reference to ornament, “the law of dress,” to quote our artist-friend again, “is, that where you want the eye of a spectator to rest (for we all dress for show), you should concentrate your decoration, leaving the parts of the apparel to which you do not want attention called, as plain and negative as possible—not ugly, as some people, in an affectation of plainness, do (for you have no right to offend the eye of your fellow-man with any thing which is ugly), but simply negative.”

The materials of which your clothes are made should be the best that your means will allow. One generally exercises a very bad economy and worse taste in wearing low-priced and coarse materials. For your working costume, the materials should of course correspond with the usage to which they are to be subjected. They should be strong and durable, but need not therefore be either very coarse or at all ugly. As a general rule, it costs no more to dress well than ill.

A gentleman’s shirts should always be fine, clean, and well-fitted. It is better to wear a coarse or threadbare coat than a disreputable shirt. The better taste and finer instincts of the ladies will require no hint in reference to their “most intimate appareling.” True taste, delicacy, and refinement regards the under clothing as scrupulously as that which is exposed to view.

The coverings of the head and the feet are important and should by no means be inferior to the rest of your apparel. Shoes are better than boots, except in cases where the latter[Pg 37] are required for the protection of the feet and ankles against water, snow, or injury from briers, brambles, and the like. Ladies’ shoes for walking should be substantial enough to keep the feet dry and warm. If neatly made, and well-fitting, they need not be clumsy. Thin shoes, worn on the damp ground or pavement, have carried many a beautiful woman to her grave. If you wish to have corns and unshapely feet, wear tight shoes; they never fail to produce those results.

The fashionable fur hat, in its innumerable but always ugly forms, is, in the eye of taste, an absurd and unsightly covering for the head; and it is hardly less uncomfortable and unhealthful than ugly. The fine, soft, and more picturesque felt hats now, we are glad to say, coming more and more into vogue, are far more comfortable and healthful. A light, fine straw hat is the best for summer.

The bonnets of the ladies, in their fashionable forms, are only a little less ugly and unbecoming than the fur hats of the gentlemen. A broad-brimmed or gipsy hat is far more becoming to most women than the common bonnet. We hope to live to see both “stove-pipe hats” and “sugar-scoop bonnets” abolished; but, in the mean time let those wear them who must.

Mrs. Manners, the highest authority we can possibly quote in such matters, has the following hints to girls, which we can not deny ourselves the pleasure of copying, though they may seem, in part, a repetition of remarks already made:

“Good taste is indispensable in dress, but that, united to neatness, is all that is necessary—that is the fabled cestus of Venus which gave beauty to its wearer. Good[Pg 38] taste involves suitable fabrics—a neat and becoming ‘fitting’ to her figure—colors suited to her complexion, and a simple and unaffected manner of wearing one’s clothes. A worsted dress in a warm day, or a white one in a cold day, or a light, thin one in a windy day, are all in bad taste. Very fine or very delicate dresses worn in the street, or very highly ornamented clothes worn to church or to shop in, are in bad taste. Very long dresses worn in muddy or dusty weather, even if long dresses are the fashion, are still in bad taste.

“Deep and bright-colored gloves are always in bad taste; very few persons are careful enough in selecting gloves. Light shoes and dark dresses, white stockings and dark dresses, dark stockings and light dresses, are not indicative of good taste. A girl with neatly and properly dressed feet, with neat, well-fitting gloves, smoothly arranged hair, and a clean, well-made dress, who walks well, and speaks well, and, above all, acts politely and kindly, is a lady, and no wealth is required here. Fine clothes and fine airs are abashed before such propriety and good taste. Thus the poorest may be so attired as to appear as lady-like as the wealthiest; nothing is more vulgar than the idea that money makes a lady, or that fine clothes can do it.”

The hair and beard, in one of their aspects, belong to the dress. In reference to the style of wearing them, consult the general principles of taste. A man to whom nature has given a handsome beard, deforms himself sadly by shaving—at least, that is our opinion; and on this point fashion and good taste agree. The full beard is now more common than the shaven face in all our large cities.

[Pg 39]

In the dressing of the hair there is room for the display of a great deal of taste and judgment. The style should vary with the different forms of face. Lardner’s “Young Ladies’ Manual” has the following hints to the gentler sex. Gentlemen can modify them to suit their case:

“After a few experiments, a lady may very easily decide what mode of dressing her hair, and what head-dress renders her face most attractive.

“Ringlets hanging about the forehead suit almost every one. On the other hand, the fashion of putting the hair smoothly, and drawing it back on either side, is becoming to few; it has a look of vanity instead of simplicity: the face must do every thing for it, which is asking too much, especially as hair, in its pure state, is the ornament intended for it by nature. Hair is to the human aspect what foliage is to the landscape.

“Light hair is generally most becoming when curled. For a round face, the curls should be made in short, half ringlets, reaching a little below the ears. For an oval face, long and thick ringlets are suitable; but if the face be thin and sharp, the ringlets should be light, and not too long, nor too many in number.

“When dark hair is curled, the ringlets should never fall in heavy masses upon the shoulders. Open braids are very beautiful when made of dark hair; they are also becoming to light-haired persons. A simple and graceful mode of arranging the hair is to fold the front locks behind the ears, permitting the ends to fall in a couple of ringlets on either side behind.

“Another beautiful mode of dressing the hair, and one very appropriate in damp weather, when it will keep in curl, is to loop up the ringlets with small hair-pins on either side of the face and behind the ears, and pass a light band of braided hair over them.

[Pg 40]

“Persons with very long, narrow heads may wear the hair knotted very low at the back of the neck. If the head be long, but not very narrow, the back hair may be drawn to one side, braided in a thick braid, and wound around the head. When the head is round, the hair should be formed in a braid in the middle of the back of the head. If the braid be made to resemble a basket, and a few curls permitted to fall from within it, the shape of the head is much improved.”

Observe that we have been laying down some of the maxims deduced from the principles of art and taste, in their application to dress, and not promulgating the edicts of Fashion. If there is a lack of harmony on some points, between the two, it is not our fault. We have endeavored to give you some useful hints in reference to the beautiful and the fitting in costume, based on a higher law than the enactments of the fashion-makers. You must judge for yourself how far you can make the latter bend to the former. We have been talking of dress as an individual matter. In future chapters we shall have occasion to refer to it in its relation to the usages of society.

N. P. Willis, in the Home Journal, writing on the dress-reform agitation, thus closes his disquisition:

“We repeat, that we see signs which look to us as if the present excitement as to one fashion were turning into a universal inquiry as to the sense or propriety of any fashion at all. When the subject shall have been fully discussed, and public attention fully awakened, common sense will probably take the direction of the matter, and opinion will settle in some shape which, at least, may[Pg 41] reject former excesses and absurdities. Some moderate similarity of dress is doubtless necessary, and there are proper times and places for long dresses and short dresses. These and other points the ladies are likely to come to new decisions about. While they consult health, cleanliness, and convenience, however, we venture to express a hope that they will get rid of the present slavish uniformity—that what is becoming to each may be worn without fear of unfashionableness, and that in this way we may see every woman dressed somewhat differently and to her own best advantage, and the proportion of beauty largely increased, as it would, thereby, most assuredly be.”

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