by Edward Bellamy

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Chapter VIII. The greatest wonder yet-fashion dethroned

"You surely can not form the slightest idea of the bodily ecstasy it gives me to have done with that horrible masquerade in mummy clothes," exclaimed my companion as we left the house. "To think this is the first time we have actually been walking together!"

"Surely you forget," I replied; "we have been out together several times."

"Out together, yes, but not walking," she answered; "at least I was not walking. I don't know what would be the proper zoological term to describe the way I got over the ground inside of those bags, but it certainly was not walking. The women of your day, you see, were trained from childhood in that mode of progression, and no doubt acquired some skill in it; but I never had skirts on in my life except once, in some theatricals. It was the hardest thing I ever tried, and I doubt if I ever again give you so strong a proof of my regard. I am astonished that you did not seem to notice what a distressful time I was having."

But if, being accustomed, as I had been, to the gait of women hampered by draperies, I had not observed anything unusual in Edith's walk when we had been out on previous occasions, the buoyant grace of her carriage and the elastic vigor of her step as she strode now by my side was a revelation of the possibilities of an athletic companionship which was not a little intoxicating.

To describe in detail what I saw in my tour that day through the paper-process factories would be to tell an old story to twentieth-century readers; but what far more impressed me than all the ingenuity and variety of mechanical adaptations was the workers themselves and the conditions of their labor. I need not tell my readers what the great mills are in these days--lofty, airy halls, walled with beautiful designs in tiles and metal, furnished like palaces, with every convenience, the machinery running almost noiselessly, and every incident of the work that might be offensive to any sense reduced by ingenious devices to the minimum. Neither need I describe to you the princely workers in these palaces of industry, the strong and splendid men and women, with their refined and cultured faces, prosecuting with the enthusiasm of artists their self-chosen tasks of combining use and beauty. You all know what your factories are to-day; no doubt you find them none too pleasant or convenient, having been used to such things all your lives. No doubt you even criticise them in various ways as falling short of what they might be, for such is human nature; but if you would understand how they seem to me, shut your eyes a moment and try to conceive in fancy what our cotton and woolen and paper mills were like a hundred years ago.

Picture low rooms roofed with rough and grimy timbers and walled with bare or whitewashed brick. Imagine the floor so crammed with machinery for economy of space as to allow bare room for the workers to writhe about among the flying arms and jaws of steel, a false motion meaning death or mutilation. Imagine the air space above filled, instead of air, with a mixture of stenches of oil and filth, unwashed human bodies, and foul clothing. Conceive a perpetual clang and clash of machinery like the screech of a tornado.

But these were only the material conditions of the scene. Shut your eyes once more, that you may see what I would fain forget I had ever seen--the interminable rows of women, pallid, hollow-cheeked, with faces vacant and stolid but for the accent of misery, their clothing tattered, faded, and foul; and not women only, but multitudes of little children, weazen-faced and ragged--children whose mother's milk was barely out of their blood, their bones yet in the gristle.

* * * * *

Edith introduced me to the superintendent of one of the factories, a handsome woman of perhaps forty years. She very kindly showed us about and explained matters to me, and was much interested in turn to know what I thought of the modern factories and their points of contrast with those of former days. Naturally, I told her that I had been impressed, far more than by anything in the new mechanical appliances, with the transformation in the condition of the workers themselves.

"Ah, yes," she said, "of course you would say so; that must indeed be the great contrast, though the present ways seem so entirely a matter of course to us that we forget it was not always so. When the workers settle how the work shall be done, it is not wonderful that the conditions should be the pleasantest possible. On the other hand, when, as in your day, a class like your private capitalists, who did not share the work, nevertheless settled how it should be done it is not surprising that the conditions of industry should have been as barbarous as they were, especially when the operation of the competitive system compelled the capitalists to get the most work possible out of the workers on the cheapest terms."

"Do I understand." I asked, "that the workers in each trade regulate for themselves the conditions of their particular occupation?"

"By no means. The unitary character of our industrial administration is the vital idea of it, without which it would instantly become impracticable. If the members of each trade controlled its conditions, they would presently be tempted to conduct it selfishly and adversely to the general interest of the community, seeking, as your private capitalists did, to get as much and give as little as possible. And not only would every distinctive class of workers be tempted to act in this manner, but every subdivision of workers in the same trade would presently be pursuing the same policy, until the whole industrial system would become disintegrated, and we should have to call the capitalists from their graves to save us. When I said that the workers regulated the conditions of work, I meant the workers as a whole--that is, the people at large, all of whom are nowadays workers, you know. The regulation and mutual adjustment of the conditions of the several branches of the industrial system are wholly done by the General Government. At the same time, however, the regulation of the conditions of work in any occupation is effectively, though indirectly, controlled by the workers in it through the right we all have to choose and change our occupations. Nobody would choose an occupation the conditions of which were not satisfactory, so they have to be made and kept satisfactory."

* * * * *

While we were at the factory the noon hour came, and I asked the superintendent and Edith to go out to lunch with me. In fact, I wanted to ascertain whether my newly acquired credit card was really good for anything or not.

"There is one point about your modern costumes," I said, as we sat at our table in the dining hall, "about which I am rather curious. Will you tell me who or what sets the fashions?"

"The Creator sets the only fashion which is now generally followed," Edith answered.

"And what is that?"

"The fashion of our bodies," she answered.

"Ah, yes, very good," I replied, "and very true, too, of your costumes, as it certainly was not of ours; but my question still remains. Allowing that you have a general theory of dress, there are a thousand differences in details, with possible variations of style, shape, color, material, and what not. Now, the making of garments is carried on, I suppose, like all your other industries, as public business, under collective management, is it not?"

"Certainly. People, of course, can make their own clothes if they wish to, just as they can make anything else, but it would be a great waste of time and energy."

"Very well. The garments turned out by the factories have to be made up on some particular design or designs. In my day the question of designs of garments was settled by society leaders, fashion journals, edicts from Paris, or the Lord knows how; but at any rate the question was settled for us, and we had nothing to do but to obey. I don't say it was a good way; on the contrary, it was detestable; but what I want to know is, What system have you instead, for I suppose you have now no society leaders, fashion journals, or Paris edicts? Who settles the question what you shall wear?"

"We do," replied the superintendent.

"You mean, I suppose, that you determine it collectively by democratic methods. Now, when I look around me in this dining hall and see the variety and beauty of the costumes, I am bound to say that the result of your system seems satisfactory, and yet I think it would strike even the strongest believer in the principle of democracy that the rule of the majority ought scarcely to extend to dress. I admit that the yoke of fashion which we bowed to was very onerous, and yet it was true that if we were brave enough, as few indeed were, we might defy it; but with the style of dress determined by the administration, and only certain styles made, you must either follow the taste of the majority or lie abed. Why do you laugh? Is it not so?"

"We were smiling," replied the superintendent, "on account of a slight misapprehension on your part. When I said that we regulated questions of dress, I meant that we regulated them not collectively, by majority, but individually, each for himself or herself."

"But I don't see how you can," I persisted. "The business of producing fabrics and of making them into garments is carried on by the Government. Does not that imply, practically, a governmental control or initiative in fashions of dress?"

"Dear me, no!" exclaimed the superintendent. "It is evident, Mr. West, as indeed the histories say, that governmental action carried with it in your day an arbitrary implication which it does not now. The Government is actually now what it nominally was in the America of your day--the servant, tool, and instrument by which the people give effect to their will, itself being without will. The popular will is expressed in two ways, which are quite distinct and relate to different provinces: First, collectively, by majority, in regard to blended, mutually involved interests, such as the large economic and political concerns of the community; second, personally, by each individual for himself or herself in the furtherance of private and self-regarding matters. The Government is not more absolutely the servant of the collective will in regard to the blended interests of the community than it is of the individual convenience in personal matters. It is at once the august representative of all in general concerns, and everybody's agent, errand boy, and factotum for all private ends. Nothing is too high or too low, too great or too little, for it to do for us.

"The dressmaking department holds its vast provision of fabrics and machinery at the absolute disposition of the whims of every man or woman in the nation. You can go to one of the stores and order any costume of which a historical description exists, from the days of Eve to yesterday, or you can furnish a design of your own invention for a brand-new costume, designating any material at present existing, and it will be sent home to you in less time than any nineteenth-century dressmaker ever even promised to fill an order. Really, talking of this, I want you to see our garment-making machines in operation. Our paper garments, of course, are seamless, and made wholly by machinery. The apparatus being adjustable to any measure, you can have a costume turned out for you complete while you are looking over the machine. There are, of course, some general styles and shapes that are usually popular, and the stores keep a supply of them on hand, but that is for the convenience of the people, not of the department, which holds itself always ready to follow the initiative of any citizen and provide anything ordered in the least possible time."

"Then anybody can set the fashion?" I said.

"Anybody can set it, but whether it is followed depends on whether it is a good one, and really has some new point in respect of convenience or beauty; otherwise it certainly will not become a fashion. Its vogue will be precisely proportioned to the merit the popular taste recognizes in it, just as if it were an invention in mechanics. If a new idea in dress has any merit in it, it is taken up with great promptness, for our people are extremely interested in enhancing personal beauty by costume, and the absence of any arbitrary standards of style such as fashion set for you leaves us on the alert for attractions and novelties in shape and color. It is in variety of effect that our mode of dressing seems indeed to differ most from yours. Your styles were constantly being varied by the edicts of fashion, but as only one style was tolerated at a time, you had only a successive and not a simultaneous variety, such as we have. I should imagine that this uniformity of style, extending, as I understand it often did, to fabric, color, and shape alike, must have caused your great assemblages to present a depressing effect of sameness.

"That was a fact fully admitted in my day," I replied. "The artists were the enemies of fashion, as indeed all sensible people were, but resistance was in vain. Do you know, if I were to return to the nineteenth century, there is perhaps nothing else I could tell my contemporaries of the changes you have made that would so deeply impress them as the information that you had broken the scepter of fashion, that there were no longer any arbitrary standards in dress recognized, and that no style had any other vogue that might be given it by individual recognition of its merits. That most of the other yokes humanity wore might some day be broken, the more hopeful of us believed, but the yoke of fashion we never expected to be freed from, unless perhaps in heaven."

"The reign of fashion, as the history books call it, always seemed to me one of the most utterly incomprehensible things about the old order," said Edith. "It would seem that it must have had some great force behind it to compel such abject submission to a rule so tyrannical. And yet there seems to have been no force at all used. Do tell us what the secret was, Julian?"

"Don't ask me," I protested. "It seemed to be some fell enchantment that we were subject to--that is all I know. Nobody professed to understand why we did as we did. Can't you tell us," I added, turning to the superintendent--"how do you moderns diagnose the fashion mania that made our lives such a burden to us?"

"Since you appeal to me," replied our companion, "I may say that the historians explain the dominion of fashion in your age as the natural result of a disparity of economic conditions prevailing in a community in which rigid distinctions of caste had ceased to exist. It resulted from two factors: the desire of the common herd to imitate the superior class, and the desire of the superior class to protect themselves from that imitation and preserve distinction of appearance. In times and countries where class was caste, and fixed by law or iron custom, each caste had its distinctive dress, to imitate which was not allowed to another class. Consequently fashions were stationary. With the rise of democracy, the legal protection of class distinctions was abolished, while the actual disparity in social ranks still existed, owing to the persistence of economic inequalities. It was now free for all to imitate the superior class, and thus seem at least to be as good as it, and no kind of imitation was so natural and easy as dress. First, the socially ambitious led off in this imitation; then presently the less pretentious were constrained to follow their example, to avoid an apparent confession of social inferiority; till, finally, even the philosophers had to follow the herd and conform to the fashion, to avoid being conspicuous by an exceptional appearance."

"I can see," said Edith, "how social emulation should make the masses imitate the richer and superior class, and how the fashions should in this way be set; but why were they changed so often, when it must have been so terribly expensive and troublesome to make the changes?"

"For the reason," answered the superintendent, "that the only way the superior class could escape their imitators and preserve their distinction in dress was by adopting constantly new fashions, only to drop them for still newer ones as soon as they were imitated.--Does it seem to you, Mr. West, that this explanation corresponds with the facts as you observed them?"

"Entirely so," I replied. "It might be added, too, that the changes in fashions were greatly fomented and assisted by the self-interest of vast industrial and commercial interests engaged in purveying the materials of dress and personal belongings. Every change, by creating a demand for new materials and rendering those in use obsolete, was what we called good for trade, though if tradesmen were unlucky enough to be caught by a sudden change of fashion with a lot of goods on hand it meant ruin to them. Great losses of this sort, indeed, attended every change in fashion."

"But we read that there were fashions in many things besides dress," said Edith.

"Certainly," said the superintendent. "Dress was the stronghold and main province of fashion because imitation was easiest and most effective through dress, but in nearly everything that pertained to the habits of living, eating, drinking, recreation, to houses, furniture, horses and carriages, and servants, to the manner of bowing even, and shaking hands, to the mode of eating food and taking tea, and I don't know what else--there were fashions which must be followed, and were changed as soon as they were followed. It was indeed a sad, fantastic race, and, Mr. West's contemporaries appear to have fully realized it; but as long as society was made up of unequals with no caste barriers to prevent imitation, the inferiors were bound to ape the superiors, and the superiors were bound to baffle imitation, so far as possible, by seeking ever-fresh devices for expressing their superiority."

"In short," I said, "our tedious sameness in dress and manners appears to you to have been the logical result of our lack of equality in conditions."

"Precisely so," answered the superintendent. "Because you were not equal, you made yourself miserable and ugly in the attempt to seem so. The aesthetic equivalent of the moral wrong of inequality was the artistic abomination of uniformity. On the other hand, equality creates an atmosphere which kills imitation, and is pregnant with originality, for every one acts out himself, having nothing to gain by imitating any one else."

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