The Business of Being a Woman

by Ida Tarbell


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Chapter V - A Woman and Her Raiment


One of the most domineering impulses in men and women is that bidding them to make themselves beautiful. In the normal girl-child it comes out, as does her craving for a doll. Nature is telling her what her work in the world is to be. It stays with her to the end, its flame often flickering long after her arms have ceased their desire to cradle a child. Scorn it, ridicule it, deny it, it is nature's will, and as such must be obeyed, and in the obeying should be honored.

But this instinct, which has led men and women from strings of shells to modern clothes, like every other human instinct, has its distortions. It is in the failure to see the relative importance of things, to keep the proportions, that human beings lose control of their endowment. Give an instinct an inch, and it invariably takes its ell! The instinct for clothes, from which we have learned so much in our climb from savagery, has more than once had the upper hand of us. So dangerous to the prosperity and the seriousness of peoples has its tyranny been, that laws have again and again been passed to check it; punishments have been devised to frighten off men from indulging it; whole classes have been put into dull and formless costumes to crucify it.

Man gradually and in the main has conquered his passion for ornament. To-day, in the leading nations of the world, he clothes rather than arrays himself. Woman has not harnessed the instinct. She still allows it to drive her, and often to her own grave prejudice. Even in a democracy like our own, woman has not been able to master this problem of clothes. In fact, democracy has complicated the problem seriously.

Under the old régime costumes had been worked out for the various classes. They were adapted both to the purse and to the pursuit. They were fitting—that is, silk was not worn in huts or homespun in palaces; slippers were for carriages and sabots for streets. The garments of a class were founded on good sound principles on the whole—but they marked the class. Democracy sought to destroy outward distinctions. The proscribed costumes went into the pot with proscribed positions. Under democracy we can cook in silk petticoats and go to the White House in a cap and apron, if we will. And we often will, that being a way to advertise our equality!

Class costumes destroyed, the principles back of them, that is, fitness, quality, responsibility, were forgotten. The old instinct for ornament broke loose. Its tyranny was strengthened by the eternal desire of the individual to prove himself superior to his fellows. Wealth is the generally accepted standard of measurement of value in this country to-day, and there is no way in which the average man can show wealth so clearly as in encouraging his women folk to array themselves. Thus we have the anomaly in a democracy of a primitive instinct let loose, and the adoption of discarded aristocratic devices for proving you are better than your neighbor, at least in the one revered particular of having more money to spend!

The complication of the woman's life by this domination of clothes is extremely serious. In many cases it becomes not one of the sides of her business, but the business of her life. Such undue proportion has the matter taken in the American Woman's life under democracy that one is sometimes inclined to wonder if it is not the real "woman question." Certainly in numbers of cases it is the rock upon which a family's happiness splits. The point is not at all that women should not occupy themselves seriously with dress, that they should not look on it as an art, as legitimate as any other. The difficulty comes in not mastering the art, in the entirely disproportionate amount of attention which is given to the subject, in the disregard of sound principles.

The economic side of the matter presses hard on the whole country. It is not too much to say that the chief economic concern of a great body of women is how to get money to dress, not as they should, but as they want to. It is to get money for clothes that drives many, though of course not the majority, of girls, into shops, factories, and offices. It is because they are using all they earn on themselves that they are able to make the brave showing that they do. Many a girl is misjudged by the well-meaning observer or investigator because of this fact—"She could never dress like that on $6, $8, or $15 a week and support herself," they tell you. She does not support herself. She works for clothes, and clothes alone. Moreover, the girl who has the pluck to do hard regular work that she may dress better has interest enough to work at night to make her earnings go farther. No one who has been thrown much with office girls but knows case after case of girls who with the aid of some older member of the family cut and make their gowns, plan and trim their hats. Moreover, this relieving the family budget of dressing the girl is a boon to fathers and mothers.

It is hard on industry, however, for the wage earner who can afford to take $6 or $8 helps pull down the wages of other thousands who support not only themselves, but others.

Moreover, to put in one's days in hard labor simply to dress well, for that is the amount of it, is demoralizing. It is this emphasis on the matter which impels a reckless girl sometimes to sell herself for money to buy clothes. "I wanted the money," I heard a girl, arrested for her first street soliciting, tell the judge. "Had you no home?" "Yes." "A good home?" "Yes." "For what did you want money?" "Clothes."

"Gee, but I felt as if I would give anything for one of them willow plumes," a pretty sixteen-year-old girl told the police matron who had rescued her from a man with whom she had left home, because he promised her silk gowns and hats with feathers.

This ugly preoccupation with dress does not begin with the bottom of society. It exists there because it exists at the top and filters down. In each successive layer there are women to whom dress is as much of a vice as it was for the poor little girls I quote above. It is a vice curiously parallel to that of gambling among men. Women of great wealth not infrequently spend princely allowances and then run accounts which come into the courts by their inability or unwillingness to pay them. It is curious comment on women in a democracy that it should be possible to mention them in the same breath with Josephine, Empress of the French. Napoleon at the beginning of the Empire allowed Josephine $72,000 a year for her toilet; later he made it $90,000. But there was never a year she did not far outstrip the allowance. Masson declares that on an average she spent $220,000 a year, and the itemized accounts of the articles in her wardrobe give authority for the amount.

Josephine's case is of course exceptional in history. She was an untrained woman, generous and pleasure-loving, utterly without a sense of responsibility. She had all the instincts and habits of a demi-mondaine; moreover, she had been thrust into a position where she was expected to live up to traditions of great magnificence. Her passion for ornament had every temptation and excuse, for it was constantly excited by the hoards of greedy tradesmen and of no less greedy ladies-in-waiting who hung about her urging her to buy and give. It is hard to believe that Josephine's case could be even remotely suggested in our democracy; yet one woman in American society bought last summer in Europe a half-dozen nightgowns for which she paid a thousand dollars apiece. There are women who will start on a journey with a hundred or a hundred and fifty pairs of shoes. There are others who bring back from Europe forty or fifty new gowns for a season! What can one think of a bill of $500 for stockings in one season, of $20,000 for a season's gowns, coats and hats from one shop and as much more in the aggregate for the same articles in the same period from other shops; this showing was made in a recent divorce case.

What can one think of duties of over $30,000 paid on personal articles by one woman who yearly brings back similar quantities of jewelry and clothes. This $30,000 in duties meant an expenditure of probably about $100,000. It included over $1200 for hats, over $3000 for corsets and lingerie. This was undoubtedly exceptional; that is, few women of even great wealth buy so lavishly. Yet good round sums, even if they are small in comparison, are spent by many women in their European outings. They will bring from six to twelve gowns which will average at least $150 apiece, and an occasional woman will have a half-dozen averaging from $450 to $500 apiece. One might say that eight to twelve hats, costing $25 to $50 apiece, was a fair average, though $800 to $1200 worth is not so rare as to cause a panic at the customhouse.

The comparative amounts which men and women spend affords an interesting comment on the relative importance which men and women attach to clothes. In one case of which I happen to know Mr. A. brought in $840 worth of wearing apparel: Mrs. A. nearly $10,000 worth, of which $7000 was for gowns. A man may have eight to ten suits of pajamas which cost him $10 apiece, a dozen or two waistcoats, a dozen or two shirts, a few dozen handkerchiefs and gloves, a dozen or so ties, eight or ten suits of clothes, but from $500 to $1000 will cover his wardrobe; his wife will often spend as much for hats alone as he does for an entire outfit!

The difficulty in these great expenditures is that they set a pace. To many women of wealth they are no doubt revolting. They recognize that there are only two classes of women who can justify them—the actress and the demi-mondaine. Yet insensibly many of these women yield to the pressure of temptation. The influence is subtle, often unconscious, and for this reason spreads the more widely. Women all over the country find that the pressure is to spend more for clothes each year. The standard changes. Occasions multiply. Fantasies entice. Before they know it their clothes are costing them a disproportionate sum—more than they can afford if their budget is to balance.

This does not apply to one class, it creeps steadily down to the very poor. Investigators of small household budgets lay it down as a rule that as the income increases the percentage spent for clothing increases more rapidly than for any other item. It is true in the professional classes, and especially burdensome there; for the income is usually small, but the social demand great.

There are certain industrial and ethical results from this preoccupation with clothes which should not be overlooked, particularly the indifference to quality which it has engendered. The very heart of the question of clothes of the American woman is imitation. That is, we are not engaged in an effort to work out individuality. We are not engaged in an effort to find costumes which by their expression of the taste and the spirit of this people can be fixed upon as appropriate American costumes, something of our own. From top to bottom we are copying. The woman of wealth goes to Paris and Vienna for the real masterpieces in a season's wardrobe. The great dressmakers and milliners go to the same cities for their models. Those who cannot go abroad to seek inspiration and ideas copy those who have gone or the fashion plates they import. The French or Viennese mode, started on upper Fifth Avenue, spreads to 23d St., from 23d St. to 14th St., from 14th St. to Grand and Canal. Each move sees it reproduced in materials a little less elegant and durable, its colors a trifle vulgarized, its ornaments cheapened, its laces poorer. By the time it reaches Grand Street the $400 gown in brocaded velvet from the best looms in Europe has become a cotton velvet from Lawrence or Fall River, decorated with mercerized lace and glass ornaments from Rhode Island! A travesty—and yet a recognizable travesty. The East Side hovers over it as Fifth Avenue has done over the original. The very shop window, where it is displayed, is dressed and painted and lighted in imitation of the uptown shop. The same process goes on inland. This same gown will travel its downward path from New York westward, until the Grand St. creation arrives in some cheap and gay mining or factory town. From start to finish it is imitation, and on this imitation vast industries are built—imitations of silk, of velvet, of lace, of jewels.

These imitations, cheap as they are, are a far greater extravagance, for their buyers, than the original model was for its buyer, for the latter came from that class where money does not count—while the former is of a class where every penny counts. The pity of it is that the young girls, who put all that they earn into elaborate lingerie at seventy-nine cents a set (the original model probably sold at $50 or $100), into open-work hose at twenty-five cents a pair (the original $10 a pair), into willow plumes at $1.19 (the original sold at $50), never have a durable or suitable garment. They are bravely ornamented, but never properly clothed. Moreover, they are brave but for a day. Their purchases have no goodness in them; they tear, grow rusty, fall to pieces with the first few wearings, and the poor little victims are shabby and bedraggled often before they have paid for their belongings, for many of these things are bought on the installment plan, particularly hats and gowns. Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that one hears, often and often among their class, the bitter cry, "Gee, but it's hell to be poor!"—that one finds so often assigned by a girl as the cause of her downfall, the natural reason—"Wanted to dress like other girls"—"Wanted pretty clothes."

This habit of buying poor imitations does not end in the girl's life with her clothes. When she marries, she carries it into her home. Decoration, not furnishing, is the keynote of all she touches. It is she who is the best patron of the elaborate and monstrous cheap furniture, rugs, draperies, crockery, bric-a-brac, which fill the shops of the cheaper quarters of the great cities, and usually all quarters of the newer inland towns.

Has all this no relation to national prosperity—to the cost of living? The effect on the victim's personal budget is clear—the effect it has on the family budget, which it dominates, is clear. In both cases nothing of permanent value is acquired. The good linen undergarments, the "all wool" gown, the broadcloth cape or coat, those standard garments which the thrifty once acquired and cherished, only awaken the mirth of the pretty little spendthrift on $8 a week. Solid pieces of furniture such as often dignify even the huts of European peasants and are passed down from mother to daughter for generations—are objects of contempt by the younger generation here. Even the daughters of good old New England farmers are found to-day glad to exchange mahogany for quartered oak and English pewter for pressed glass and stamped crockery. True, another generation may come in and buy it all back at fabulous prices, but the waste of it!

This production of shoddy cloth, cotton laces, cheap furniture, what is it but waste! Waste of labor and material! Time and money and strength which might have been turned to producing things of permanent values, have been spent in things which have no goodness in them, things which because of their lack of integrity and soundness must be forever duplicated, instead of freeing industry to go ahead, producing other good and permanent things.

What it all amounts to is that the instinct for ornament has gotten the upper hand of a great body of American women. We have failed so far to develop standards of taste, fitness, and quality, strong, sure, and good enough effectually to impose themselves. There is no national taste in dress; there is only admirable skill in adapting fashions made in other countries. There is no national sense of restraint and proportion. It is pretty generally agreed that getting all you can is entirely justifiable. There is no national sense of quality; even the rich to-day in this country wear imitation laces. The effect of all this is a bewildering restlessness in costume—a sheeplike willingness to follow to the extreme the grotesque and the fantastic. The very general adoption of the ugly and meaningless fashions of the last few years—peach-basket hats, hobble skirts, slippers for the street—is a case in point. From every side this is bad—defeating its own purpose—corrupting national taste and wasting national substance.

Moreover, the false standard it sets up socially is intolerable. It sounds fantastic to say that whole bodies of women place their chief reliance for social advancement on dress, but it is true. They are, or are not, as they are gowned! The worst of this fantasy is not only that it forces too much attention from useful women, but that it gives such poise and assurance to the ignorant and useless! If you look like the women of a set, you are as "good" as they, is the democratic standard of many a young woman. If for any reason she is not able to produce this effect, she shrinks from contact, whatever her talent or charm! And she is often not altogether wrong in thinking she will not be welcome if her dress is not that of the circle to which she aspires. Many a woman indifferently gowned has been made to feel her difference from the elegant she found herself among. If she is sure of herself and has a sense of humor, this may be an amusing experience. To many, however, it is an embittering one!

Now these observations are not presented as discoveries! They were true, at least, as far back as the Greeks. In fact, there is nothing in the so-called woman's movement, which in its essence did not exist then. The stream of human aspirations, with its stretches of wisdom and of folly, has flowed steadily through the ages, and on its troubled surface men and women have always struggled together as they are struggling to-day. These little comments simply seem to the writer worth making because for the moment the truths behind them are not getting as much attention as they deserve. Certainly the tyranny dress exercises over the woman in this American democracy is an old enough theme. Indeed, it has always formed a part of her program of emancipation. Out of her revolt against its absurdities has come the most definite development in American costume which we have had, and that is the sensible street costume, which in spite of efforts to distort and displace it, a woman still may wear without differentiating herself from her fellows.

The short skirt and jacket, the shirt waist and stout boots, a woman is allowed to-day, are among the good things which the Woman's Rights movement of the 40's and 50's helped secure for us. When those able leaders made their attack on man, demanding that the world in which he moved be opened to them, they were quick enough to see that if they succeeded in their undertaking they would be hampered by their clothes. They revolted! True, they did not voice this revolt in their historic list of "injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman." They did not say, "He has compelled her to hamper herself with skirts and stays, to decorate her head with rats and puffs, to paint her face with poisonous compounds, to walk the street in footwear which is neither suitable nor comfortable!"

This statement, however, would have had the same quality of truth as several which were included in the "List of Grievances"; the same as the declaration: "He has compelled her to submit to laws in the formation of which she has had no voice," or, "He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her."

Dress reformers were admitted to the ranks of the agitators. The initial revolt was thoroughgoing. They discarded the corset, discarded it when it was still improper to speak the word! They cut off their hair, cut it off in a day when every woman owned a chignon. They discarded the corset, cut off their hair, and adopted bloomers!

The story of the bloomer is piquant. It was launched and worn. It became the subject of platform oratory and had its organ. Why is it not worn to-day? No woman who has ever masqueraded in man's dress or donned it for climbing will ever forget the freedom of it. Yet the only woman in the Christian world who ever wore it at once naturally and with that touch of coquetry which is necessary to carry it off, as far as this writer's personal observation goes, was Madame Dieulafoy, and Madame Dieulafoy was protected by the French government and an exclusive circle.

Bloomers proved too much for even the courage of dear Miss Anthony. For two years she wore them, and then with tears and lamentations resigned them. In that resignation Miss Anthony paid tribute, unconsciously no doubt, to something deeper than she ever grasped in the woman question. Her valiant soul met its master in her own nature, but she did not recognize it. She abandoned her convenient and becoming costume because of prejudice, she said. What other prejudice ever dismayed her! She thrived on fighting them; she met her woman's soul, and did not know it!

But from the experiments and blunders and travail of some of these noble and early militants over the dress question, has come, as I have said, our present useful, and probably permanent type of street suit. In this particular the American woman has achieved a genuine democratization of her clothes. The experience of the last two years—fashion's open attempt to make the walking suit useless by tightening the skirts, and bizarre by elaborate decorations, has in the main failed. Here, then, is a standard established, and established on one of the great principles of sensible clothing, and that is fitness. It shows that the true attack on the tyranny and corruption of clothes lies in the establishment of principles.

These principles are, briefly:—

The fitness of dress depends upon the occasion.

The beauty of dress depends upon line and color.

The ethics of dress depends upon quality and the relation of cost to one's means.

In time we may get into the heads of all women, rich and poor, that an open-work stocking and low shoe for winter street wear are as unfit as they all concede a trailing skirt to be. In time we may even hope to train the eye until it recognizes the difference between a beautiful and a grotesque form, between a flowing and a jagged line. In time we may restore the sense of quality, which our grandmothers certainly had, and which almost every European peasant brings with her to this country.

These principles are teachable things. Let her once grasp them and the vagaries of style will become as distasteful as poor drawing does to one whose eye has learned what is correct, as lying is to one who has cultivated the taste for the truth.

Martha Berry tells of an illuminating experience in her school of Southern mountain girls. She had taken great pains to teach them correct standards and principles of dress. She had been careful to see that simplicity and quality and fitness were all that they saw in the dress of their teachers. Then one day they had visitors, fashionable visitors, in hobble skirts and strange hats and jingling with many ornaments. They were good and interesting women, and they talked sympathetically and well to the girls. Miss Berry was crushed. "What will the girls think of my teachings?" she asked herself. "They will believe I do not know." But that night one of her assistants said to her: "I have just overheard the girls discussing our visitors. They liked them so much, but they are saying that it is such a pity that they could not have had you to teach them how to dress."

As a method of education, instruction in the principles of dress is admirable for a girl. Through it she can be made to grasp the truth which women so generally suspect to-day; that is, the importance of the common and universal things of life; the fact that all these everyday processes are the expressions of the great underlying truths of life. A girl can be taught, too, through this matter of dress, as directly perhaps as through anything that concerns her, the importance of studying human follies! Follies grow out of powerful human instincts, ineradicable elements of human nature. They would not exist if there were not at the bottom of them some impulse of nature, right and beautiful and essential. The folly of woman's dress lies not in her instinct to make herself beautiful, it lies in her ignorance of the principles of beauty, of the intimate and essential connection between utility and beauty. It lies in the pitiful assumption that she can achieve her end by imitation, that she can be the thing she envies if she look like that thing.

The matter of dress is the more important, because bound up with it is a whole grist of social and economic problems. It is part and parcel of the problem of the cost of living, of woman's wages, of wasteful industries, of the social evil itself. It is a woman's most direct weapon against industrial abuses, her all-powerful weapon as a consumer. At the time of the Lawrence strike, Miss Vida Scudder, of Wellesley College, is reported to have said in a talk to a group of women citizens in Lawrence:—

"I speak for thousands besides myself when I say that I would rather never again wear a thread of woolen than know my garments had been woven at the cost of such misery as I have seen and known, past the shadow of a doubt, to have existed in this town."

Miss Scudder might have been more emphatic and still have been entirely within the limit of plain obligation; she might have said, "I will never again wear a thread of woolen woven at the cost of such misery as exists in this town." Women will not be doing their duty, as citizens in this country, until they recognize fully the obligations laid upon them by their control of consumption.

The very heart of the question of the dress is, then, economic and social. It is one of those great everyday matters on which the moral and physical well-being of society rests. One of those matters, which, rightly understood, fill the everyday life with big meanings, show it related to every great movement for the betterment of man.

Like all of the great interests in the Business of Being a Woman, it is primarily an individual problem, and every woman who solves it for herself, that is, arrives at what may be called a sound mode of dress, makes a real contribution to society. There is a tendency to overlook the value of the individual solution of the problems of life, and yet, the successful individual solution is perhaps the most genuine and fundamental contribution a man or woman can make. The end of living is a life—fair, sound, sweet, complete. The vast machinery of life to which we give so much attention, our governments and societies, our politics and wrangling, is nothing in itself. It is only a series of contrivances to insure the chance to grow a life. He who proves that he can conquer his conditions, can adjust himself to the machinery in which he finds himself, he is the most genuine of social servants. He realizes the thing for which we talk and scheme, and so proves that our dreams are not vain!

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