“In a state so highly civilized as that in which we live, the art of dress has become extremely complicated. That it is an art to set off our persons to the greatest advantage must be generally admitted, and we think it is one which, under certain conditions, may be studied by the most scrupulous. An art implies skill and dexterity in setting off or employing the gifts of nature to the greatest advantage, and we are surely not wrong in laying it down as a general principle, that every one may endeavor to set off or improve his or her personal appearance, provided that, in doing so, the party is guilty of no deception.
“… the rules of society require that to a certain extent we should adopt those forms of dress which are in common use, but our own judgment should be exercised in adapting these forms to our individual proportions, complexions, ages, and stations in society. …… Our persons change with our years; the child passes into youth, the youth into maturity, maturity changes into old age. Every period of life has its peculiar external characteristics, its pleasures, its pains, and its pursuits. The art of dress consists in properly adapting our clothing to these changes.”
Her aim is to give people guidance on the principles they should follow when deciding on what they should wear, so as not to look ridiculous.
“In the present essay, we propose to offer some general observations on form in dress. The subject is, however, both difficult and complicated, and as it is easier to condemn than to improve or perfect, we shall more frequently indicate what fashions should not be adopted, than recommend others to the patronage of our readers.”
Although it’s an admirable intention, sadly the passage of time has made it more likely you’ll laugh at what she says. She means what she says about condemning and doesn’t hold back!
There are chapters on head dresses and the idea of dress as a fine art and then separate chapters for the head, the dress and the feet. The remaining chapters are remarks on particular costumes, economy of ornamentation and thoughts on principles to bear in mind when considering children’s clothing. Mrs Merrifield doesn’t just talk about the dress of her day, but describes the development of fashions and styles through the ages, with comments on those things she considers good (and bad). This is backed up by 12 plates containing nearly 100 pictures illustrating what she’s talking about, so you can see what she’s describing.
I picked this book out to read because I’ve always been interested in how people lived in the past, including how they dressed, and thought it would be good to read (I was right). My travel to work includes a long train journey and I read this on my daily commute. My fellow travellers were looking at me a little disapprovingly because I was enjoying myself far too much for someone on their way to work. Mrs Merrifield was a lady of strong opinions and I laughed out loud at quite a bit of what she said–or rather how she said it. I think that even people who aren’t fascinated by the history of dress would like this book, just because of that.
On a more serious note, it’s always interesting to read something by a person who’s passionate about their subject, and there’s no doubt the author of this work cared greatly about what she saw as the problems caused by following the extremes of fashion. Not only crimes against style and good taste, but the health problems caused by certain things including wearing next to nothing in cold weather (which will ring a bell with anyone who’s seen groups of young women shivering in thin, short dresses in the middle of winter).
There are also things in here that are still relevant and interesting today. The distortion of the body to fit a fashionable ideal was something of which Mrs Merrifield disapproved profoundly–just look at the pointy toes and high heels in fashion at the moment (I have toes and knees that prove how bad for you those are!). She makes a good point–later confirmed by scientists–about the damage done by wearing corsets to give yourself a tiny waist.
She has clear views about what is suitable for women of different ages (she is writing particularly about women’s dress), how ugly some hats are, the tyranny of fashion. There are times when she sounds just like the middle aged and elderly people now who make disapproving comments about the fashions of the day. In particular, I’d better make the most of the couple of years I have left to wear bright colours and sleeveless tops.
“The French, whose taste in dress is so far in advance of our own, say, that ladies who are cinquante ans sonnés, should neither wear gay colors, nor dresses of slight materials, flowers, feathers, or much jewelry; that they should cover their hair, wear high dresses and long sleeves.”
Although we do still have quite firm ideas about what you should wear at different ages. How many of us haven’t looked at a middle aged person dressed like a 17 year old and made uncharitable comments to our friends? I know I’ve done it.
I think my favourite passage was this one, making me doubt that she knew any men (or that they lied to her about their reaction to a low neckline). She goes on to say that older ladies most certainly should not disply their ageing necks and shoulders as it is “disgusting”.
“It is singular that the practice of wearing dresses cut low round the bust should be limited to what is called full dress, and to the higher, and, except in this instance, the more refined classes. Is it to display a beautiful neck and shoulders? No; for in this case it would be confined to those who had beautiful necks and shoulders to display. Is it to obtain the admiration of the other sex? That cannot be; for we believe that men look upon this exposure with unmitigated distaste, and that they are inclined to doubt the modesty of those young ladies who make so profuse a display of their charms.
In summary–do give this book a try. Even if it’s just the unintentional comedy that a modern reader would get from strong opinions, firmly expressed it’s worthwhile. The surprisingly large number of comments that are still relevant are thought provoking and many can still be heard in some form or other today.