The change which has come over politics reflects closely enough the change which has come about in the direction of man’s desire. In times of peace, diplomacy and the affairs of kings have given place to wages and the housing of the poor; that which was serious has become pompous; that which was of no account now stands in the foreground. And so it is not absurd to suggest that one of those things which once made jests for the comic paper and the Victorian paterfamilias has, little by little, with the spread of wealth, become a problem of the day, a problem profound and menacing, full of intimations of social decay, not far remote in its reactions from the spread of a disease.
That problem is the problem of women’s dress, or rather it is the problem of the fashions in women’s dress. Women have never been content merely to clothe themselves, nor, for the matter of that, until very recently, have men; but men have grown a new sanity, while women, if we read aright the signs of the times, have grown naught save a new insanity. We have come to a point where, for a great number of women, the fashions have become the motive power of life, and where, for almost every woman, they have acquired great importance. Women classify each other according to their clothes; they have corrupted the drama into a showroom; they have completely ruined the more expensive parts of the opera house; they have invaded the newspapers in myriad paragraphs, in fashion-pages, and do not spare even the august columns of the most dignified papers. This preoccupation does not exist among men. We have had our dandies and we still have our “nuts” and dudes; but it never served a man very well to be a dandy or a beau, and most of us to-day suspect that if the “nut” were broken, he would be found to contain no kernel.
Men have escaped the fashions and therewith they have spared themselves much loss of energy and money. For it is not only the fashions that matter: it is the cost of women’s clothes, the intrinsic cost; it is their continual changes for no reason, changes which sometimes produce, and sometimes destroy, beauty; sometimes promote comfort, and often cause torture. But always by their drafts upon its wealth, women lead humanity nearer to poverty, envy, discontent, frivolity, starvation, prostitution,–to general social degradation. Nothing can mitigate these evils until woman is induced to view clothing as does the modern man, until, namely, she decides to wear a uniform.
The costliness of women’s clothes would not be so serious if the fashions did not change at so bewildering a speed. We have come to a point where women have not time to wear out their clothes, flimsy though they be; where we ought to welcome the adulteration of silk and wool; where we ought to hope that every material may get shoddier and more worthless, so that the new model may have a chance to justify its short life by the badness of the stuff. To-day women will quite openly say, “I won’t buy that. I couldn’t wear it out.” They actually want to wear out their clothes! The causes of this are obvious enough. We are told that there are “rings” in Paris, London, and Vienna which decree every few months that the clothes of yesterday have become a social stigma; this is true, but much truer is the view that women are in the grasp of a new hysteria; that, lacking the old occupations of brewing, baking, child-rearing, spinning, they are desperately looking for something to do. They have found it: they are undoing the social system.
It was not always so. It is true that all through history, even in biblical times, moralists and preachers inveighed against the gewgaws that woman loves. They cried out before they were hurt; if he were alive to-day, Bossuet might, for the first time, fail to find words.