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Women's Clothes In Men's Books Post by :Profit Category :Essays Author :Myrtle Reed Date :November 2011 Read :2114

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Women's Clothes In Men's Books

When asked why women wrote better novels than men, Mr. Richard Le Gallienne is said to have replied, more or less conclusively, "They don't"; thus recalling Punch's famous advice to those about to marry.

Happily there is no segregation in literature, and masculine and feminine hands alike may dabble in fiction, as long as the publishers are willing.

If we accept Zola's dictum to the effect that art is nature seen through the medium of a temperament, the thing is possible to many, though the achievement may differ both in manner and degree. For women have temperament--too much of it--as the hysterical novelists daily testify.

The gentleman novelist, however, prances in boldly, where feminine feet well may fear to tread, and consequently has a wider scope for his writing. It is not for a woman to mingle in a barroom brawl and write of the thing as she sees it. The prize-ring, the interior of a cattle-ship, Broadway at four in the morning--these and countless other places are forbidden by her innate refinement as well as by the Ladies' Own, and all the other aunties who have taken upon themselves the guardianship of the Home with a big H.

Fancy the outpouring of scorn upon the luckless offender's head if one should write to the Manners and Morals Department of the Ladies' Own as follows: "Would it be proper for a lady novelist, in search of local colour and new experiences, to accept the escort of a strange man at midnight if he was too drunk to recognise her afterward?" Yet a man in the same circumstances would not hesitate to put an intoxicated woman into a sea-going cab, and would plume himself for a year and a day upon his virtuous performance.

All things are considered proper for a man who is about to write a book. Like the disciple of Mary McLane who stole a horse in order to get the emotions of a police court, he may delve deeply not only into life, but into that under-stratum which is not spoken of, where respectable journals circulate.

Everything is fish that comes into his net. If conscientious, he may even undertake marriage in order to study the feminine personal equations at close range. Woman's emotions, singly and collectively, are pilloried before his scientific gaze. He cowers before one problem, and one only--woman's clothes!

Carlyle, after long and painful thought, arrives at the conclusion that "cut betokens intellect and talent; colour reveals temper and heart."

This reminds one of the language of flowers, and the directions given for postage-stamp flirtation. If that massive mind had penetrated further into the mysteries of the subject, we might have been told that a turnover collar indicated that the woman was a High Church Episcopalian who had embroidered two altar cloths, and that suède gloves show a yielding but contradictory nature.

Clothes are, undoubtedly, indices of character and taste, as well as a sop to conventionality, but this only when one has the wherewithal to browse at will in the department store. Many a woman with ermine tastes has only a rabbit-fur pocket-book, and thus her clothes wrong her in the sight of gods and women, though men know nothing about it.

Once upon a time there was a notion to the effect that women dressed to please men, but that idea has long since been relegated to the limbo of forgotten things.

Not one man in a thousand can tell the difference between Brussels point at thirty dollars a yard, and imitation Valenciennes at ten or fifteen cents a yard which was one of the "famous Friday features in the busy bargain basement."

But across the room, yea, even from across the street, the eagle eye of another woman can unerringly locate the Brussels point and the mock Valenciennes.

A man knows silk by the sound of it and diamonds by the shine. He will say that his heroine "was richly dressed in silk." Little does he wot of the difference between taffeta at eighty-five cents a yard and broadcloth at four dollars. Still less does he know that a white cotton shirt-waist represents financial ease, and a silk waist of festive colouring represents poverty, since it takes but two days to "do up" a white shirt-waist in one sense, and thirty or forty cents to do it up in the other!

One listens with wicked delight to men's discourse upon woman's clothes. Now and then a man will express his preference for a tailored gown, as being eminently simple and satisfactory. Unless he is married and has seen the bills for tailored gowns, he also thinks they are inexpensive.

It is the benedict, wise with the acquired knowledge of the serpent, who begs his wife to get a new party gown and let the tailor-made go until next season. He also knows that when the material is bought, the expense has scarcely begun, whereas the ignorant bachelor thinks that the worst is happily over.

In A Little Journey through the World Mr. Warner philosophised thus: "How a woman in a crisis hesitates before her wardrobe, and at last chooses just what will express her innermost feelings!"

If all a woman's feelings were to be expressed by her clothes, the benedicts would immediately encounter financial shipwreck. On account of the lamentable scarcity of money and closets, one is eternally adjusting the emotion to the gown.

Some gown, seen at the exact psychological moment, fixes forever in a man's mind his ideal garment. Thus we read of blue calico, of pink-and-white print, and more often still, of white lawn. Mad colour combinations run riot in the masculine fancy, as in the case of a man who boldly described his favourite costume as "red, with black ruffles down the front!"

Of a hat, a man may be a surpassingly fine critic, since he recks not of style. Guileful is the woman who leads her liege to the millinery and lets him choose, taking no heed of the price and the attendant shock until later.

A normal man is anxious that his wife shall be well dressed because it shows the critical observer that his business is a great success. After futile explorations in the labyrinth, he concerns himself simply with the fit, preferring always that the clothes of his heart's dearest shall cling to her as lovingly as a kid glove, regardless of the pouches and fulnesses prescribed by Dame Fashion.

In the writing of books, men are at their wits' end when it comes to women's clothes. They are hampered by no restrictions--no thought of style or period enters into their calculations, and unless they have a wholesome fear of the unknown theme, they produce results which further international gaiety.

Many an outrageous garment has been embalmed in a man's book, simply because an attractive woman once wore something like it when she fed the novelist. Unbalanced by the joy of the situation, he did not accurately observe the garb of the ministering angel, and hence we read of "a clinging white gown" in the days of stiff silks and rampant crinoline; of "the curve of the upper arm" when it took five yards for a pair of sleeves, and of "short walking skirts" during the reign of bustles and trains!

In The Blazed Trail, Mr. White observes that his heroine was clad in brown which fitted her slender figure perfectly. As Hilda had yellow hair, "like corn silk," this was all right, and if the brown was of the proper golden shade, she was doubtless stunning when Thorpe first saw her in the forest. But the gown could not have fitted her as the sheath encases the dagger, for before the straight-front corsets there were the big sleeves, and still further back were bustles and bouffant draperies. One does not get the impression that The Blazed Trail was placed in the days of crinolines, but doubtless Hilda's clothes did not fit as Mr. White seems to think they did.

That strenuous follower of millinery, Mr. Gibson, might give lessons to his friend, Mr. Davis, with advantage to the writer, if not to the artist. In Captain Macklin, the young man's cousin makes her first appearance in a thin gown, and a white hat trimmed with roses, reminding the adventurous captain of a Dresden statuette, in spite of the fact that she wore heavy gauntlet gloves and carried a trowel. The lady had been doing a hard day's work in the garden. No woman outside the asylum ever did gardening in such a costume, and Mr. Davis evidently has the hat and gown sadly mixed with some other pleasant impression.

The feminine reader immediately hides Mr. Davis' mistake with the broad mantle of charity, and in her own mind clothes Beatrice properly in a short walking skirt, heavy shoes, shirt-waist, old hat tied down over the ears with a rumpled ribbon, and a pair of ancient masculine gloves, long since discarded by their rightful owner. Thus does lovely woman garden, except on the stage and in men's books.

In The Story of Eva, Mr. Payne announces that Eva climbed out of a cab in "a fawn-coloured jacket," conspicuous by reason of its newness, and a hat "with an owl's head upon it!"

The jacket was possibly a coat of tan covert cloth with strapped seams, but it is the startling climax which claims attention. An owl! Surely not, Mr. Payne! It may have been a parrot, for once upon a time, before the Audubon Society met with widespread recognition, women wore such things, and at afternoon teas where many fair ones were gathered together the parrot garniture was not without significance. But an owl's face, with its glaring glassy eyes, is too much like a pussy cat's to be appropriate, and one could no wear it at the back without conveying an unpleasant impression of two-facedness, if the coined word be permissible.

Still the owl is no worse than the trimming suggested by a funny paper. The tears of mirth come yet at the picture of a hat of rough straw, shaped like a nest, on which sat a full-fledged Plymouth Rock hen, with her neck proudly, yet graciously curved. Perhaps Mr. Payne saw the picture and forthwith decided to do something in the same line, but there is a singular inappropriateness in placing the bird of Minerva upon the head of poor Eva, who made the old, old bargain in which she had everything to lose, and nothing save the bitterest experience to gain. A stuffed kitten, so young and innocent that its eyes were still blue and bleary, would have been more appropriate on Eva's bonnet, and just as pretty.

In The Fortunes of Oliver Horn, Margaret Grant wears a particularly striking costume:

"The cloth skirt came to her ankles, which were covered with yarn stockings, and her feet were encased in shoes that gave him the shivers, the soles being as thick as his own and the leather as tough.

"Her blouse was of grey flannel, belted to the waist by a cotton saddle-girth, white and red, and as broad as her hand. The tam-o-shanter was coarse and rough, evidently home-made, and not at all like McFudd's, which was as soft as the back of a kitten and without a seam."

With all due respect to Mr. Smith, one must insist that Margaret's shoes were all right as regards material and build. She would have been more comfortable if they had been "high-necked" shoes, and, in that case, the yarn hosiery would not have troubled him, but that is a minor detail. The quibble comes at the belt, and knowing that Margaret was an artist, we must be sure that Mr. Smith was mistaken. It may have been one of the woven cotton belts, not more than two inches wide, which, for a dizzy moment, were at the height of fashion, and then tottered and fell, but a "saddle-girth"--never!

In that charming morceau, The Inn of the Silver Moon, Mr. Viele puts his heroine into plaid stockings and green knickerbockers--an outrageous costume truly, even for wheeling.

As if recognising his error, and, with veritable masculine stubbornness, refusing to admit it, Mr. Viele goes on to say that the knickerbockers were "tailor-made!" And thereby he makes a bad matter very much worse.

In The Wings of the Morning, Iris, in spite of the storm through which the Sirdar vainly attempts to make its way, appears throughout in a "lawn dress"--white, undoubtedly, since all sorts and conditions of men profess to admire white lawn!

How cold the poor girl must have been! And even if she could have been so inappropriately gowned on shipboard, she had plenty of time to put on a warm and suitable tailor-made gown before she was shipwrecked. This is sheer fatuity, for any one with Mr. Tracy's abundant ingenuity could easily have contrived ruin for the tailored gown in time for Iris to assume masculine garb and participate bravely in that fearful fight on the ledge.

Whence, oh whence, comes this fondness for lawn? Are not organdies, dimities, and embroidered muslins fully as becoming to the women who trip daintily through the pages of men's books? Lawn has been a back number for many a weary moon, and still we read of it!

"When in doubt, lead trumps," might well be paraphrased thus: "When in doubt, put her into white lawn!" Even "J. P. M.," that gentle spirit to whom so many hidden things were revealed, sent his shrewish "Kate" off for a canter through the woods in a white gown, and, if memory serves, it was lawn!

In The Master, Mr. Zangwill describes Eleanor Wyndwood as "the radiant apparition of a beautiful woman in a shimmering amber gown, from which her shoulders rose dazzling."

So far so good. But a page or two farther on, that delightful minx, Olive Regan, wears "a dress of soft green-blue cut high, with yellow roses at the throat." One wonders whether Mr. Zangwill ever really saw a woman in any kind of a gown "with yellow roses at the throat," or whether it is but the slip of an overstrained fancy. The fact that he has married since writing this gives a goodly assurance that by this time he knows considerably more about gowns.

Still there is always a chance that the charm may not work, for Mr. Arthur Stringer, who has been reported as being married to a very lovely woman, takes astonishing liberties in The Silver Poppy:

"She floated in before Reppellier, buoyant, smiling, like a breath of open morning itself, a confusion of mellow autumnal colours in her wine-coloured gown, and a hat of roses and mottled leaves.

"Before she had as much as drawn off her gloves--and they were always the most spotless of white gloves--she glanced about in mock dismay, and saw that the last of the righting up had already been done."

Later, we read that the artist pinned an American Beauty upon her gown, then shook his head over the colour combination and took it off. If the American Beauty jarred enough for a man to notice it, the dress must have been the colour of claret, or Burgundy, rather than the clear soft gold of sauterne.

This brings us up with a short turn before the hat. What colour were the roses? Surely they were not American Beauties, and they could not have been pink. Yellow roses would have been a fright, so they must have been white ones, and a hat covered with white roses is altogether too festive to wear in the morning. The white gloves also would have been sadly out of place.

What a comfort it would be to all concerned if the feminine reader could take poor Cordelia one side and fix her up a bit! One could pat the artistic disorder out of her beautiful yellow hair, help her out of her hideous clothes into a grey tailor-made, with a shirt-waist of mercerised white cheviot, put on a stock of the same material, give her a "ready-to-wear" hat of the same trig-tailored quality, and, as she passed out, hand her a pair of grey suède gloves which exactly matched her gown.

Though grey would be more becoming, she might wear tan as a concession to Mr. Stringer, who evidently likes yellow.

In the same book, we find a woman who gathers up her "yellow skirts" and goes down a ladder. It might have been only a yellow taffeta drop-skirt under tan etamine, but we must take his word for it, as we did not see it and he did.

As the Chinese keep the rat tails for the end of the feast, the worst clothes to be found in any book must come last by way of climax. Mr. Dixon, in The Leopard's Spots, has easily outdone every other knight of the pen who has entered the lists to portray women's clothes. Listen to the inspired description of Miss Sallie's gown!

"She was dressed in a morning gown of a soft red material, trimmed with old cream lace. The material of a woman's dress had never interested him before. He knew calico from silk, but beyond that he never ventured an opinion. To colour alone he was responsive. This combination of red and creamy white, with the bodice cut low, showing the lines of her beautiful white shoulders, and the great mass of dark hair rising in graceful curves from her full round neck, heightened her beauty to an extraordinary degree.

"As she walked, the clinging folds of her dress, outlining her queenly figure, seemed part of her very being, and to be imbued with her soul. He was dazzled with the new revelation of her power over him."

The fact that she goes for a ride later on, "dressed in pure white," sinks into insignificance beside this new and original creation of Mr. Dixon's. A red morning gown, trimmed with cream lace, cut low enough to show the "beautiful white shoulders"--ye gods and little fishes! Where were the authorities, and why was not "Miss Sallie" taken to the detention hospital, pending an inquiry into her sanity?

It would seem that any man, especially one who writes books, could be sure of a number of women friends. Among these there ought to be at least one whom he could take into his confidence. The gentleman novelist might go to the chosen one and say: "My heroine, in moderate circumstances, is going to the matinée with a girl friend. What shall she wear?"

Instantly the discerning woman would ask the colour of her eyes and hair, and the name of the town she lived in, then behold!

Upon the writer's page would come a radiant feminine vision, clothed in her right mind and in proper clothes, to the joy of every woman who reads the book.

But men are proverbially chary of their confidence, except when they are in love, and being in love is supposed to put even book women out of a man's head. Perhaps in the new Schools of Journalism which are to be inaugurated, there will be supplementary courses in millinery elective, for those who wish to learn the trade of novel writing.

If a man knows no woman to whom he can turn for counsel and advice at the critical point in his book, there are only two courses open to him, aside from the doubtful one of evasion. He may let his fancy run riot and put his heroine into clothes that would give even a dumb woman hysterics, or he may follow the example of Mr. Chatfield-Taylor, who says of one of his heroines that "her pliant body was enshrouded in white muslin with a blue ribbon at the waist."

Lacking the faithful hench-woman who would gladly put them straight, the majority of gentlemen novelists evade the point, and, so far as clothes are concerned, their heroines are as badly off as the Queen of Spain was said to be for legs.

They delve freely into emotional situations, and fearlessly attempt profound psychological problems, but slide off like frightened crabs when they strike the clothesline.

After all, it may be just as well, since fashion is transient and colours and material do not vary much. Still, judging by the painful mistakes that many of them have made, the best advice that one can give the gallant company of literary craftsmen is this: "When you come to millinery, crawfish!"


(The end)
Myrtle Reed's essay: Women's Clothes In Men's Books

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