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London's PeopleVictorian Etiquette VII: Dress Female Attire
Posted on Jun 27, 2005 - 06:44 AM by Bill McCann

The London Journal, launched in 1845, was one of the most widely read publications of nineteenth-century Britain. Its weekly appearance ushered in the period when mass-market reading, in a modern sense, was born. Between April 12 and August 30 1845, the Journal carried seventeen articles under the heading "Etiquette for the Millions," written by G.W.M Reynolds. They were clearly aimed at educating the mass readership (mostly the newly emerging middle-classes) in the behaviour expected of them in public. At times trenchant, the views expressed in the articles describe a view of society that is very, very different from that which we experience today. But, perhaps, one that many sections of modern society hanker after. Having the rules of sobriety in the matter of male attire we are now instructed on the requisites for a well-dressed woman and they is definitely NOT those of a lady of fashion. As for the "abomination" of tight lacing . . .!



The latest Spring fashions.

According to the rules of civilised society, dress shold be fashioned to serve two objects convenience and decoration.

Females who dress in the extremes of fashion, and who constantly appear in raiment varied to suit the tri-monthly dictates of La Mode or the monthly rules of the English magazines of fashion, must imagine that they have no better claim to distinction, and can place but very little value on their personal or mental qualifications. It is easy to be well-dressed without being extravagant; and fashions do not essentially vary so often that a large outlay is required to keep pace with those changes and innovations.

Dress must of course be varied to suit occasions, and to correspond with circumstances. A lady should not walk in a dress only fitted for a carriage; nor, if she go to market herself, should she on these occasions appear in an attire better adapted to the drawing-room.

Jewellery should not be worn in the morning; but if accompanying a walking-dress, in the afternoon, it should consist of ornaments in which opaque stones alone are set. Brilliant stones are exclusive for the evening. Nothing can be in worse taste than necks and hands with chains and rings.

Tight lacing is an abomination. A commentator on this subject has observed: - [See Note 1 for a short history of "stays."] The celebrated Venus de Medici by Cleomenes, son of Apollonios is in the Uffizi gallery, Florence.

"Ladies are not altogether ignorant of an article of female habiliment called stays; - that is the grand enemy, the crushing serpent, which envelopes in its destructive folds the vital energies of the human frame, which insinuates a canker on the rose-bud cheek, and spreads a pallor where glorious health and animated looks have danced delighted among maiden features."
The most important organs of the human body have their seat immediately beneath the rhinoceros covering; and by tight lacing these are so crowded and driven upon each other, that the vital functions are either suspended or disorganized, and strong and healthy girls speedily become peevish, ill-natured mortals, liable to faintness, hysterics, and hypochondriacism. We know there are a number of silly girls who consider the languishing system delightful; who think it is genteel to be weakly, and who abominate a spark of health upon their cheeks as the first, last and worst sign of vulgarity. Women, however, for the most part, like to be healthy as well as to look handsome; but they never can succeed in retaining their good looks, so long as they remain addicted to tight lacing. The glowing power of the palpitating heart must not be checked, nor should the expanding bust of the young girl be confined, by a stay too closely compressed. The free and graceful bending of the back, the airy motion of the limbs, the easy respiration of he lungs, and the expansion of the chest, are impeded, or altogether overcome, by the habit of tight-lacing.

Among the ancients female figure was especially prized for its beauty and its symmetry; and every painter and sculptor considered his fame incomplete until he had given to the world a model of some transcended form: but not one of these artistical elaborations presents the distorted appearance of the prevailing mode; there is no compression of a single muscle; every joint is in full and active play, and every vein at its free distension. Look, for instance, on the immortal, the breathing statue of the Venus de Medici, sculptured by the most talented of artists; and compare it with the slender proportions of one of our young ladies o the present day; consider also how the vital organs have room for healthy action in the one, and what torture must be endured by the other. When the waist s not unnaturally compressed, the ribs are expanded, and the internal vitals are left uninjured. The heart, unoppressed by a load which a false idea of female beauty crowds upon it, beats regularly; the blood flows in healthful action through all its intricate canals and conveys its vitality unimpeded to the entire system. Tight lacing admits of no space for the lower ribs but presses hen inwards. When the stay is tightly laced, it does not only compress the flesh; but it compresses the bones. Let the sickly girl reflect; and she can place her figure upon the seat of her malady the lungs or the heart, on which the ribs press with a force which cannot but injure the vital organs.

We do not mean to say that corsets should not be worn. On the contrary, the female form requires support; and matrons, especially, when fulfilling the most delightful of their maternal duties namely, suckling their children must wear an artificial stay. We denounce tight-lacing, as injurious to the health, and as by no means necessary to the appearance of those females who choose to study a judicious system of etiquette in the department of dress.

Gaudy colours should be as much eschewed by females as by men; but as female attire compels a greater variety of colour than that of the other sex, taste should be exhibited in combining them.

Well-dressed in the drawing room.
High-bodied gowns should always be worn in the morning; and in the evening the corsage should never be too low. Englishwomen wear their dresses lower than the females of any other nation; and this circumstance has been made to reproach them by foreigners.

Dresses should not be too short: it is indecent to show much of the leg.

On certain grand occasions the attire may be of the most costly and elegant description at the same time regulated by good taste. Ceremonial balls, formal dinners, exclusive soirees, are the instances alluded to. Then, tulle, gold net, plumes, and diamonds may be exhibited by those who can afford them.

"There can be no doubt whatever"
says a writer upon etiquette,
"that the ladies of the present day dress in much better taste than their predecessors indeed, there is an elegance in modern costume of which our great grandmothers, excellent creatures thought they might have been, were entirely ignorant. There is at the present time, a much greater pliability in adapting the material to the peculiarities of the wearer; and this is the more easily arrived at, as the manufacturers of France and England supply a continual and novel variety."
G.W.M. Reynolds.
The London Journal,
For the week ending June 7, 1845.

TO BE CONTINUED.

1 [Stays: The ancestor of the corset. In the mediaeval period they consisted of an outer bodice which was laced at the front. By the Elizabethan period, it had become a tight inner bodice, sometimes of leather, and stiffened with whalebone, wooden splints, or steel. This remained the basic form and design through the 17th and 18th centuries when A small waist between a full bust and ample hips was the shibboleth of female fashion. Laced at the back, it required the help of a servant to fit it. By the late 18th and early 19th century, there up to forty pieces of whalebone were used in the construction of a single set of stays.] Back


 

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