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Ch. 9: 'Society' and Fashion

Among our many naive misbeliefs is the current fallacy that "society" is made by women; and that women are responsible for that peculiar social manifestation called "fashion."

Men and women alike accept this notion; the serious essayist and philosopher, as well as the novelist and paragrapher, reflect it in their pages. The force of inertia acts in the domain of psychics as well as physics; any idea pushed into the popular mind with considerable force will keep on going until some opposing force--or the slow resistance of friction--stops it at last.

"Society" consists mostly of women. Women carry on most of its processes, therefore women are its makers and masters, they are responsible for it, that is the general belief.

We might as well hold women responsible for harems--or prisoners for jails. To be helplessly confined to a given place or condition does not prove that one has chosen it; much less made it.

No; in an androcentric culture "society," like every other social relation, is dominated by the male and arranged for his convenience. There are, of course, modifications due to the presence of the other sex; where there are more women than men there are inevitable results of their influence; but the character and conditions of the whole performance are dictated by men.

Social intercourse is the prime condition of human life. To meet, to mingle, to know one another, to exchange, not only definite ideas, facts, and feelings, but to experience that vague general stimulus and enlarged power that comes of contact--all this is essential to our happiness as well as to our progress.

This grand desideratum has always been monopolized by men as far as possible. What intercourse was allowed to women has been rigidly hemmed its by man-made conventions. Women accept these conventions, repeat them, enforce them upon their daughters; but they originate with men.

The feet of the little Chinese girl are bound by her mother and her nurse--but it is not for woman's pleasure that this crippling torture was invented. The Oriental veil is worn by women, but it is not for any need of theirs that veils were decreed them.

When we look at society in its earlier form we find that the public house has always been with us. It is as old almost as the private house; the need for association is as human as the need for privacy. But the public house was--and is--for men only. The woman was kept as far as possible at home. Her female nature was supposed to delimit her life satisfactorily, and her human stature was completely ignored.

Under the pressure of that human nature she has always rebelled at the social restrictions which surrounded her; and from the women of older lands gathered at the well, or in the market place, to our own women on the church steps or in the sewing circle, they have ceaselessly struggled for the social intercourse which was as much a law of their being as of man's.

When we come to the modern special field that we call "society," we find it to consist of a carefully arranged set of processes and places wherein women may meet one another and meet men. These vary, of course, with race, country, class, and period; from the clean licence of our western customs to the strict chaperonage of older lands; but free as it is in America, even here there are bounds.

Men associate without any limit but that of inclination and financial capacity. Even class distinction only works one way--the low-class man may not mingle with high-class women; but the high-class man may--and does--mingle with low-class women. It is his society--may not a man do what he will with his own?

Caste distinctions, as have been ably shown by Prof. Lester F. Ward, are relics of race distinction; the subordinate caste was once a subordinate race; and while mating, upward, was always forbidden to the subject race; mating, downward, was always practiced by the master race.

The elaborate shading of "the color line" in slavery days, from pure black up through mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, quinteroon, griffada, mustafee, mustee, and sang d'or--to white again; was not through white mothers--but white fathers; never too exclusive in their tastes. Even in slavery, the worst horrors were strictly androcentric.

"Society" is strictly guarded--that is its women are. As always, the main tabu is on the woman. Consider carefully the relation between "society" and the growing girl. She must, of course, marry; and her education, manners, character, must of course be pleasing to the prospective wooer. That which is desirable in young girls means, naturally, that which is desirable to men. Of all cultivated accomplishments the first is "innocence." Beauty may or may not be forthcoming; but "innocence" is "the chief charm of girlhood."

Why? What good does it do _her?_ Her whole life's success is made to depend on her marrying; her health and happiness depends on her marrying the right man. The more "innocent" she is, the less she knows, the easier it is for the wrong man to get her.

As is so feelingly described in "The Sorrows of Amelia," in "The Ladies' Literary Cabinet," a magazine taken by my grandmother; "The only foible which the delicate Amelia possessed was an unsuspecting breast to lavish esteem. Unversed in the secret villanies of a base degenerate world, she ever imagined all mankind to be as spotless as herself. Alas for Amelia! This fatal credulity was the source of all her misfortunes." It was. It is yet.

Just face the facts with new eyes--look at it as if you had never seen "society" before; and observe the position of its "Queen."

Here is Woman. Let us grant that Motherhood is her chief purpose. (As a female it is. As a human being she has others!) Marriage is our way of safeguarding motherhood; of ensuring "support" and "protection" to the wife and children.

"Society" is very largely used as a means to bring together young people, to promote marriage. If "society" is made and governed by women we should naturally look to see its restrictions and encouragements such as would put a premium on successful maternity and protect women--and their children--from the evils of ill-regulated fatherhood.

Do we find this? By no means.

"Society" allows the man all liberty--all privilege--all license. There are certain offences which would exclude him; such as not paying gambling debts, or being poor; but offences against womanhood--against motherhood--do not exclude him.

How about the reverse?

If "society" is made by women, for women, surely a misstep by a helplessly "innocent" girl, will not injure her standing!

But it does. She is no longer "innocent." She knows now. She has lost her market value and is thrown out of the shop. Why not? It is his shop--not hers. What women may and may not be, what they must and must not do, all is measured from the masculine standard.

A really feminine "society" based on the needs and pleasures of women, both as females and as human beings, would in the first place accord them freedom and knowledge; the knowledge which is power. It would not show us "the queen of the ballroom" in the position of a wall-flower unless favored by masculine invitation; unable to eat unless he brings her something; unable to cross the floor without his arm. Of all blind stultified "royal sluggards" she is the archetype. No, a feminine society would grant _at least_ equality to women in this, their so-called special field.

Its attitude toward men, however, would be rigidly critical.

Fancy a real Mrs. Grundy (up to date it has been a Mr., his whiskers hid in capstrings) saying, "No, no, young man. You won't do. You've been drinking. The habit's growing on you. You'll make a bad husband."

Or still more severely, "Out with you, sir! You've forfeited your right to marry! Go into retirement for seven years, and when you come back bring a doctor's certificate with you."

That sounds ridiculous, doesn't it--for "Society" to say? It is ridiculous, in a man's "society."

The required dress and decoration of "society"; the everlasting eating and drinking of "society," the preferred amusements of "society," the absolute requirements and absolute exclusions of "society," are of men, by men, for men,--to paraphrase a threadbare quotation. And then, upon all that vast edifice of masculine influence, they turn upon women as Adam did; and blame _them_ for severity with their fallen sisters! "Women are so hard upon women!"

They have to be. What man would "allow" his wife, his daughters, to visit and associate with "the fallen"? His esteem would be forfeited, they would lose their "social position," the girl's chance of marrying would be gone.

Men are not so stern. They may visit the unfortunate women, to bring them help, sympathy, re-establishment--or for other reasons; and it does not forfeit their social position. Why should it? They make the regulation.

Women are to-day, far more conspicuously than men, the exponents and victims of that mysterious power we call "Fashion." As shown in mere helpless imitation of one another's idea, customs, methods, there is not much difference; in patient acquiescence with prescribed models of architecture, furniture, literature, or anything else; there is not much difference; but in personal decoration there is a most conspicuous difference. Women do to-day submit to more grotesque ugliness and absurdity than men; and there are plenty of good reasons for it. Confining our brief study of fashion to fashion in dress, let us observe why it is that women wear these fine clothes at all; and why they change them as they do.

First, and very clearly, the human female carries the weight of sex decoration, solely because of her economic dependence on the male. She alone in nature adds to the burdens of maternity, which she was meant for, this unnatural burden of ornament, which she was not meant for. Every other female in the world is sufficiently attractive to the male without trimmings. He carries the trimmings, sparing no expense of spreading antlers or trailing plumes; no monstrosity of crest and wattles, to win her favor.

She is only temporarily interested in him. The rest of the time she is getting her own living, and caring for her own young. But our women get their bread from their husbands, and every other social need. The woman depends on the man for her position in life, as well as the necessities of existence. For herself and for her children she must win and hold him who is the source of all supplies. Therefore she is forced to add to her own natural attractions this "dance of the seven veils," of the seventeen gowns, of the seventy-seven hats of gay delirium.

There are many who think in one syllable, who say, "women don't dress to please men--they dress to please themselves--and to outshine other women." To these I would suggest a visit to some summer shore resort during the week and extending over Saturday night. The women have all the week to please themselves and outshine one another; but their array on Saturday seems to indicate the approach of some new force or attraction.

If all this does not satisfy I would then call their attention to the well-known fact that the young damsel previous to marriage spends far more time and ingenuity in decoration than she does afterward. This has long been observed and deprecated by those who write Advice to Wives, on the ground that this difference is displeasing to the husband--that she loses her influence over him; which is true. But since his own "society," knowing his weakness, has tied him to her by law; why should she keep up what is after all an unnatural exertion?

That excellent magazine "Good Housekeeping" has been running for some months a rhymed and illustrated story of "Miss Melissa Clarissa McRae," an extremely dainty and well-dressed stenographer, who captured and married a fastidious young man, her employer, by the force of her artificial attractions--and then lost his love after marriage by a sudden unaccountable slovenliness--the same old story.

If this in not enough, let me instance further the attitude toward "Fashion" of that class of women who live most openly and directly upon the favor of men. These know their business. To continually attract the vagrant fancy of the male, nature's born "variant," they must not only pile on artificial charms, but change them constantly. They do. From the leaders of this profession comes a steady stream of changing fashions; the more extreme and bizarre, the more successful--and because they are successful they are imitated.

If men did not like changes in fashion be assured these professional men-pleasers would not change them, but since Nature's Variant tires of any face in favor of a new one, the lady who would hold her sway and cannot change her face (except in color) must needs change her hat and gown.

But the Arbiter, the Ruling Cause, he who not only by choice demands, but as a business manufactures and supplies this amazing stream of fashions; again like Adam blames the woman--for accepting what he both demands and supplies.

A further proof, if more were needed, is shown in this; that in exact proportion as women grow independent, educated, wise and free, do they become less submissive to men-made fashions. Was this improvement hailed with sympathy and admiration--crowned with masculine favor?

The attitude of men toward those women who have so far presumed to "unsex themselves" is known to all. They like women to be foolish, changeable, always newly attractive; and while women must "attract" for a living--why they do, that's all.

It is a pity. It is humiliating to any far-seeing woman to have to recognize this glaring proof of the dependent, degraded position of her sex; and it ought to be humiliating to men to see the results of their mastery. These crazily decorated little creatures do not represent womanhood.

When the artist uses the woman as the type of every highest ideal; as Justice, Liberty, Charity, Truth--he does not represent her trimmed. In any part of the world where women are even in part economically independent there we find less of the absurdities of fashion. Women who work cannot be utterly absurd.

But the idle woman, the Queen of Society, who must please men within their prescribed bounds; and those of the half-world, who must please them at any cost--these are the vehicles of fashion.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman