(Translated (somewhat inexpertly by me) from French)
Those who attach the most importance to fashion are almost always less than the people who affect to distance themselves from it; because originality in dress is, more often than not, a mania for appearing bizarre, and a manner of being ridiculous.
It is in our plan of stopping sometimes the exigencies in the fashion to critically examine good taste. One of our friends, an erudite artist, who has made all the sorts of costumes, in all times and in all countries, for research, has consented to help us in our studies; one must pardon him for speaking seriously on a thing perhaps frivolous, but he considers it like an art, posing that the foundational principle is that taste never has to be called and embellished with that which is today convenient. In support of that opinion, he argues that tight and embarrassing clothes always take away the advantage of those who wear them; that the grace cannot exist without ease and a certain abandon; that in fashion, there are general precepts, but no absolute laws. We take his opinion, that it is not in the crowd of people following most strictly the new fashion that he recounts: instead, the women, like we can name, in distinction and elegance attired and charming look, without imperious command. This forward we have found useful, now our knowing friend will instruct us in his studies.
Women’s Clothes (First Article)
In Ancient Greece, clothing was worn with reason in the rank of fine art; the principles were determined; its influence on taste, on the arts, on habits and morals, was wisely appreciated, and public officials had a duty to prevent the violation of its fundamental laws.
In modern times, clothing has degenerated considerably; the forms are more disgraceful and the most incoherent combinations of colour have been adopted with eagerness; just in our days the middle classes, deceived by self-interested observations and without taste, have surrendered to each object of an extreme ridiculousness. The most high classes even let themselves be deceived.
Happily the progress of public taste starts to do more or less justice. The knowing of all that relates to the human figure and the continual relationship with the admirable models that Greece leaves us, tend to destroy the bad taste of graceless automatons and the folly of a costume that, the most often, is in direct opposition to all notions of taste.
The truth of this point is that the French study exclusively the costume of other countries, and put it centre stage too often. The other nations give Frace credit because of the knowledge they attributed to them, and all the more willingly because they thought these matters frivolous, and having no need of the help of the philosophical principles.
What is dignified of remarking, is that this is regards mainly the dress of women, while men in Franch generally follow English fashions.
“The pretintailles [fashions?] of the old regime suit us even less, who never had a single piece of clothing of their own invention. In the time of Henry IV, the costume of France was Spanish; under Louis XIII it was Flemish, Louis XIV added the wig of Polichinelle [Punchinello?]. Under Louis XV it was strangled, and the size of our justaucorps increases or decreases at present according to our tailors in London.
Today the other nations, and above all the English, follow most often the French fashions, and settle the preferences of their clothes after the most simple imitations of the models of Greece.
One is brought to think with the Athenians that the matter of dress and the appearance of the human figure is not less one of fine art than the construction of houses and the arrangement of gardens.
If the characteristic trait of all fine art is that the subjects who are depicted have a certain expression or produce on the spirit an effect at the same time, constant, and agreeable, the costume produces it in a striking way, and the principals on which it is called for that which is neither indefinable nor even vague. Therefore, for example, like all the objects that are expanded at the top, and narrowing at the bottom, the same as reversed pyramids, an air of lightness, and an appearance of gravity in the opposite sense, the same, for costume, a light head and a trained dress characterise the most elevated lady, while a big hat and a short dress distinguish the young girl.
Colours are not less susceptible to be reduced to principals, as we shall see.
Maybe the magic effects of fashion, and the making certain that dress is most distinguished, when it does not conform, is less agreeable compared to a dress of lesser beauty that she made, causes one to think of some people who, in costume, the public taste stands above reason and is independent of all principals.
To respond to an objection, we will observe that one of the circumstances that here influences taste, influences also fine art, to which people don’t refuse to have certain principals. This circumstance is the novelty without which the meaning would cease to be exciting; the novelty, so attractive, is tellingly irresistible for youth, which is inseparable from the same idea, and the most striking sign of old age is novelty’s absence.
In declamation, in sculpture, in painting, in rhetoric, in poetry, and in music, who is the man who insensible to the charm of novelty while respecting his principles? And in the costume, whose subjects address so directly to the senses and interest doubles the imagination, should we expect for the novelty to cease to have its effect? Is it not more reasonable to thank that it acts again to our advantage?
The same love of novelty that produces la mode, is also, in some sort, the reason for which all classes of society are so eager to follow the changes: it is they who render the mode universal, and becomes the reason why it is adopted even by the most ugly persons alike as those who give grace to all they wear.
The first principal of costume is that a large garment that drapes in part over the body, and that envelopes the rest, is generally preferable to a dress more fitted, which is fitted to everything by its cut and its shape.
As to the grandeur, the form, &c., the details depend more or less on the circumstances, therefore we will not stop there, and we will inquire only on the patterns of superiority of the first garment: 1st it is always more cold in summer and more warm in winter; in the two seasons it exposes less the ill effects of the changes of temperature than a more fitted garment. There you go for the utility; 2nd the same garment can always be worn in a manner pretty or grand; a fitted garment is more often petty, and becomes ridiculed when the mode is past. There you go for the expression.
The second principal of costume is that, if all the objects when enlarged at the top and diminished at the base have, like the inverted pyramid, an air of lightness and the appearance of gravity in a contrary position; the human figure also, when the clothes that are worn are in one or the other form, take equally one or the other appearance. It is that we have already observed a light coiffure and a wide and long dress indicate a lady of elevated rank, while a large hat and a short dress belong rather to the young girl.
In examining in a critical manner the costume of women, and above all that of the present day, it is necessary to observe that we have taken its general character a little while after the beginning of the French Revolution, when the imitation of the Greek models became a la mode. The old colour of clothing and that which was unpleasant was set aside for more graceful clothing, more commodious, and more in accordance with nature. That clothing has endured up until today with those more marked characters; the point on which it varies, in different times, with the raising and lowering of the waist. It is sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes middling; but it is evident that the last place is the only one that is natural or convenient.
Here we remark that the beauty of the waist itself depends a lot on the form of the corset.
The shawls or the scarves compose the most ordinary full body adornment. The first is only convenient for tall and thin people: but it does not produce a beautiful effect even for them, while it is ruinous for short people, or those who are overweight, however well made they may be. The scarf is better convenient for all sorts of people; it works perfectly as the peplum of the ancient Greeks, and it is capable of the same agreeable arrangements.
We go now to make a few remarks on the different parts of women’s dress, and begin with that which serve the head, and first of all with the veil, which is the most elegant of all. In large, easy pleats, they are agreeable in themselves, and contrast agreeably with the colours of the figure. At the same time they excite curiosity, they hide that in the face which appears harsh, and give grace and beauty.
A woman with an oval face shape should wear a hat with a flared brim that reveals the bottom of the cheeks. A woman with a round face shape should wear a less open hat; and if the bottom of the cheeks are too protruding, it diminishes that default in the edges of the hat stopping near the chin.
A long neck necessitates the corners of the hat descending and the extremity of the dre, s filling, more or less, the intermediate space. For a more short neck, it is necessary to have a hat equally short and closing perpendicularly, and the part next to the dress neither high nor big. People who have big shoulders must have shoulder pads very full on the corner of the shoulder; the front like the back of the dress must form oblique pleats from the point of the shoulder to the middle of the bust.
If one has too little chest, it can be remedied with oblique pleats at the top of the clothing.
If the bottom of the back isn’t ample enough, its resemblance can be supplied with pleats at the back of the dress.
Big women can wear a large or more garnished dress, or one and the other; little women a less large dress, but also as long as possible, with very low garnishing.
The tight shoes make the foot appear large and the instep particularly protrude. Would you believe that it’s still a new truth, and that it is not generally understood?
From: La Mode: Revue des modes, galerie de moeurs, album des salons
Onwards to part two: Harmony in Colour