Friday, November 21, 2014

Flashback: Fashion

I have heard from some commenters that you enjoy these flashbacks, and I am glad because I love reading the magazines to find a delightful tidbit.

Today's article begins by stressing the importance of dress not only for a woman but also for how her dress (and, later in the article, toilet) reflect on her husband, and in fact the importance of dress for landing such a one. In fact they go so far as to compare it to phrenology of the body. I mention this mostly because I love the nineteenth century for believing in phrenology. A lost art (a psuedoscience), phrenologists tried to ascribe meaning to the lumps and bumps of the head with regards to what was going on inside the head. Head size and other measurements would indicate intelligence, personality, tendencies, and character. And apparently clothes did the same for women. The article considers different aspects of women's contemporary dress--gowns, skirts, flounces, hats, and the black scarf:
The plain black scarf is come of too graceful a parentage--namely, from the Spanish and Flemish mantilla--not to constitute one of the best features of the present costume. It serves to join the two parts of the figure together, enclosing the back and shoulders in a firm, defined outline of their own, and flowing down graceful in front, or on each side, to mix with that of the skirt. The man must be a monster who could be impertinent to a woman in any dress, but especially to a woman in a black scarf. It carries an air of self-respect with it which is in itself a protection. A woman thus attired glides on her way like a small close-reefed vessel--tight and trim--seeking no encounter but prepared for one. Much, however, depends upon the wearing--indeed, no article of dress is such a revealer of the wearer's character. Some women will drag it tight up their shoulders, and stick out their elbows (which ought not to be known to exist) in defiance at you--beneath. Such are of the  independent class we described with strong sectarian opinions. Others let it hang loose and listless, like an idle sail, losing all the beauty of the outline, both moral and physical. Such ladies have usually no opinions at all, but none the less a very obstinate will of their own. "Old and New Fashions: Art of Dress," Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book; Nov 1847; 35, p 245.
I worry that I have entirely missed the power of the plain black scarf! Oh, for this kind of empowerment. (Actually, for my dissertation defense I wore a pair of black patent leather slingbacks with a then-fashionable square heel. I called them my power shoes, and I am not kidding they did embue me with some kind of power. [I was in tears after the first question, looked at my shoes, thought, "they can't do this to me while I am wearing my power shoes," and a sudden fierceness came over me.] After that, a handful of women went out and bought special shoes for their defenses. Sometimes, you just have to have something to believe in.)

Although it is not addressed, I believe that a woman who wears the black scarf properly has both the right kind of opinions and knows when and how to express them. Of course!

All right, ladies, elbows in. I'll be back tomorrow.

6 comments:

Pamela said...

I don't have a black scarf or any other item of power clothing that I can think of. I do have a shoe story- we get so much snow here that boots are what you need to wear all winter long. I had an interview at an English school and wanted to be dressed nice so I wore some proper black heeled shoes and made my way through the snow in them. When I got to the school, in typical Japanese style, I had to leave my shoes at the door! I could have worn my boots and no one would have been the wiser. I don't think I've worn those shoes since then.

Margaret said...

I cracked up at the elbows out part. lol! Oh my! The phrenology thing gets creepy when you get to Hitler. He was still using it and trying to prove the superiority of the aryan race with it. Gives me the shivers.

Zoe Garcia said...

We still analyze people based on what they wear. This starts at a very young age and never ends, whether its a school uniform, proper attire for work and casual Fridays job interviews. In the Amazon, there are are tribe/group of native people that don't wear clothes, the men do tie strings around their "members" and they are judged on whether they have tied this on or not (if not, then they are "naked") or if its tied on properly. String!

Beth W said...

We winnowy, elbows women of style and grace know how to wear a scarf properly...which is some arbitrary measure between drawn up tight and hanging loosely. Hmm...okay.
This cracked me up- I love your findings! And I had no idea where was a phrenology of fashion going on. (I love phrenology!).

Way to go on the power shoes! Everyone should have an article of clothing they feel they can conquer nations in.

Beth W said...

(er, elbowless women. Darn autocorrect!)

Jo who can't think of a clever nickname said...

Wonderful article and all so true. I particularly love the shipping references. When I was pregnant with my first son I wore a large number of flowing maxi dresses and my mother described me as looking like "a galleon in full sail".
Did you know that the equivalent judgement can be passed on men according to how they tie their ties? Knots can say a lot.