Read an Excerpt
Masterpieces of Women's Costume of the 18th and 19th Centuries
By Aline Bernstein
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Of all the animal kingdom, man alone was not provided by nature with a covering sufficient to protect him from the elements. It is true that in equatorial regions clothing is necessary only for modesty and embellishment, but that is a small section of this earth. Since man's first disobedience, since Eve ate the apple, the covering of the human form has been a problem. Fig leaves were very well at first in the Garden of Eden, but soon something more durable and more voluminous became a necessity. So the ingenuity of the human mind came into play and clothing was invented. At first the skins of wild animals were used, and in warmer countries vegetable matter was transformed into stuffs for covering: covering for the head against the sun, for the feet against the roughness of the ground, and for the body against the eyes of other humans. Presumably modesty came in with the expulsion from Paradise, but we can only surmise. At any rate, what once was only a necessity against heat and cold and exposure has become the concern of all civilized populations in our time, and is a huge trade. Thousands of men and women have put their minds to it. Men have stolen and women have deceived in order to dress according to their fancy.
For centuries clothing probably followed the lines of the form: an opening for the head to come up, coverings for the arms and legs, and a girdle round the middle to keep the garment in place. From such a simple beginning we have made a wide departure, whether in the right or wrong direction it is impossible for me to say. The fact remains that clothing, although still a necessity, has become a social adjunct to life, and an indication to a certain extent of the wealth and status of the wearer.
It would be interesting to know when and how the first best dress came into use, when the man or woman felt that he or she should be singled out from the crowd to be looked at as something extra, something demanding special attention, some special day or hour to be marked. If we knew, we would know more about man and his ego. In the beginning, the something extra might have been a flower behind the ear, or a chaplet of leaves. Then the seams of the garment may have been strengthened and ornamented, then the fabric itself, then came the differentiation of cut. We only know what is recorded, and that is little enough until it occurred to man to scratch on a stone what he saw.
The subject is enormous, not only in the mass of material available for study, but in its implications. Vistas of commercial and of aesthetic values stretch out on all sides, further than the eye of the mind can reach; and for me, the vista of the wonder of man's inventiveness. Each age and each country has had its convention of cut, style, and ornament, and within that convention are a million evidences of the creative mind. With new ideas and designs came new techniques and finer craftsmanship, until there is practically nothing in clothing that cannot be expressed.
The simplest and most unsophisticated peoples have given us our finest costume documents, webs and embroideries of fairylike fineness and designs and colors of magnificent strength. Slaves wove the linen and metal wonders of Egypt, and unlettered women netted the laces for queens. A woman of India spun a thread of such fineness that for fear a breath of air might break it, she sat in a close dark room with but one ray of light entering through a chink in the wall. Peasants spent their long dark winter hours spinning and weaving and embroidering; their coarse hands and their rich minds have left us their record. Wild men, with black skins, have looked at nature and translated her forms into objects and patterns that are today the inspiration of our designers. They are all as anonymous as the stone workers and wood workers who made the mighty cathedrals of ancient times, the weavers and pattern makers of France, Italy, England, Spain and Russia, and the workers who made the untold riches that have come to us from the East. It adds up to more than dress, for here are the aesthetics, and the great bulk of the commerce of nations before science made demands on other materials of earlier times. Food for thought, for ideas, and alas, for wars.
Present in all the documents is evidence of Fashion. You think of fashion as something dating at its earliest from the eighteenth century, when fashion was a rule, not only of dress, but of conduct. But it has always been the fashion of humans to dress, in the main, alike. Fashion may seem to be absurd, but it is a deep-rooted need of man. It is the herd instinct, but when, how, and why fashion changes, that is the mystery. The tribes of darkest Africa have their fashions, whether it is a hairdo or the insertion of a disk into the lower lip, or spirals of brass to lengthen the neck, or carving his own flesh into a design. It was the fashion of the brave men of Scotland to wear a plaid skirt and no breeks, for the men of India to wind their lower limbs intricately in a scarf, instead of trousers, for the Ptolemies to wear too much hair, and for the little ladies of the period of the Napoleonic wars to wear nothing against the cruel winters of the North but the finest muslins, clinging to their wetted thighs. Strangest of all is the fashion that likes to make the human form protrude where it does not do so by nature. The farthingale, the pannier, the hoop and the bustle, the padded shoulder and the leg of mutton sleeve, their origin is in Limbo. People say it is all to make the waist look small, but why make the waist look small? We will never know, nor will we know why it was once the fashion for women to have drooping shoulders and rounded hips and fifty years later it was the fashion to have square, wide shoulders and hips as narrow as a boy of twelve. The female form itself follows the line, too, believe it or not. There is concrete evidence in the size and cut of existing dresses.
It is the object of this book to show, by a selection of typical examples, from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the decade of the 1880's, how these clothes were cut, their fabric, and the framework upon which they were built. It would take a lifetime to go fully into the subject, to draw and analyze all of the material that is available to the interested person. Clothes, like people, look the way they look because they are the way they are, and they have the appearance of their character. I make no attempt to give a history of costume, nor to go into the theory of the effect of political situations upon cut and style and ornament. That has been done; volumes have been written. This practical analysis is merely a statement of fact, expressed as graphically as possible.
Every color plate has been made from a real costume, faithfully drawn and painted. In the black and white plates are the underclothes, the panniers, the hoop skirts, the bustles, the shoes and the hair arrangements that rightly belong to the costumes. Except for an occasional set or piece they are not the things that were actually worn with the dresses. But they are all correctly of the period, and almost all were drawn from the objects. Where the real thing was lacking, the drawings were made from contemporary prints, or fashion books. It was interesting to find so many lovely things preserved. I found them in the large city museums, in private collections, in trunks and attics in old houses, and many of the most interesting in the little museums or historical societies in towns in our Eastern states. The hunt was elusive, and fascinating, and the difficulty was not always in collecting material, but in making a selection from the many lovely things that came to light.
It is difficult—almost impossible—to reproduce a period, complete it in its picture, and in its feeling. Small customs, daily doings, and ways of life have gone unrecorded, even turns of speech; but in reproducing clothes, we have a storehouse of evidence. It needs only to be studied and assembled; no magic is needed to find it but the magic of genuine interest for those people who are looking for this knowledge, and need it. I trust the work set forth in this book will be a help, not only in its content, but in showing a way to further explorations.
Excerpted from Masterpieces of Women's Costume of the 18th and 19th Centuries by Aline Bernstein. Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.