fashion – o. wilde’s slaves of fashion

Slaves of Fashion
Miss Leffler-Arnim’s statement, in a lecture delivered recently at
St. Saviour’s Hospital, that “she had heard of instances where
ladies were so determined not to exceed the fashionable measurement
that they had actually held on to a cross-bar while their maids
fastened the fifteen-inch corset,” has excited a good deal of
incredulity, but there is nothing really improbable in it. From
the sixteenth century to our own day there is hardly any form of
torture that has not been inflicted on girls, and endured by women,
in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and monstrous
Fashion. “In order to obtain a real Spanish figure,” says
Montaigne, “what a Gehenna of suffering will not women endure,
drawn in and compressed by great coches entering the flesh; nay,
sometimes they even die thereof!” “A few days after my arrival at
school,” Mrs. Somerville tells us in her memoirs, “although
perfectly straight and well made, I was enclosed in stiff stays,
with a steel busk in front; while above my frock, bands drew my
shoulders back till the shoulder-blades met. Then a steel rod with
a semi-circle, which went under my chin, was clasped to the steel
busk in my stays. In this constrained state I and most of the
younger girls had to prepare our lessons”; and in the life of Miss
Edgeworth we read that, being sent to a certain fashionable
establishment, “she underwent all the usual tortures of back-
boards, iron collars and dumbs, and also (because she was a very
tiny person) the unusual one of being hung by the neck to draw out
the muscles and increase the growth,” a signal failure in her case.
Indeed, instances of absolute mutilation and misery are so common
in the past that it is unnecessary to multiply them; but it is
really sad to think that in our own day a civilized woman can hang
on to a cross-bar while her maid laces her waist into a fifteen-
inch circle. To begin with, the waist is not a circle at all, but
an oval; nor can there be any greater error than to imagine that an
unnaturally small waist gives an air of grace, or even of
slightness, to the whole figure. Its effect, as a rule, is simply
to exaggerate the width of the shoulders and the hips; and those
whose figures possess that stateliness which is called stoutness by
the vulgar, convert what is a quality into a defect by yielding to
the silly edicts of Fashion on the subject of tight-lacing. The
fashionable English waist, also, is not merely far too small, and
consequently quite out of proportion to the rest of the figure, but
it is worn far too low down. I use the expression “worn”
advisedly, for a waist nowadays seems to be regarded as an article
of apparel to be put on when and where one likes. A long waist
always implies shortness of the lower limbs, and, from the artistic
point of view, has the effect of diminishing the height; and I am
glad to see that many of the most charming women in Paris are
returning to the idea of the Directoire style of dress. This style
is not by any means perfect, but at least it has the merit of
indicating the proper position of the waist. I feel quite sure
that all English women of culture and position will set their faces
against such stupid and dangerous practices as are related by Miss
Leffler-Arnim. Fashion’s motto is: Il faut souffrir pour etre
belle; but the motto of art and of common-sense is: Il faut etre
bete pour souffrir.

Talking of Fashion, a critic in the Pall Mall Gazelle expresses his
surprise that I should have allowed an illustration of a hat,
covered with “the bodies of dead birds,” to appear in the first
number of the Woman’s World; and as I have received many letters on
the subject, it is only right that I should state my exact position
in the matter. Fashion is such an essential part of the mundus
muliebris of our day, that it seems to me absolutely necessary that
its growth, development, and phases should be duly chronicled; and
the historical and practical value of such a record depends
entirely upon its perfect fidelity to fact. Besides, it is quite
easy for the children of light to adapt almost any fashionable form
of dress to the requirements of utility and the demands of good
taste. The Sarah Bernhardt tea-gown, for instance, figured in the
present issue, has many good points about it, and the gigantic
dress-improver does not appear to me to be really essential to the
mode; and though the Postillion costume of the fancy dress ball is
absolutely detestable in its silliness and vulgarity, the so-called
Late Georgian costume in the same plate is rather pleasing. I
must, however, protest against the idea that to chronicle the
development of Fashion implies any approval of the particular forms
that Fashion may adopt.

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