[I]f ladies will take my word for it, (and as they dress to please men, they ought to consult our fancy rather than their own in this particular,) I can assure them, there is nothing touches our imagination so much as a beautiful woman in a plain dress. There might be more agreeable ornaments found in our own manufacture, than any that rise out of the looms of Persia.
This, I know, is a very harsh doctrine to womankind, who are carried away with everything that is showy, and with what delights the eye, more than any other species of living creatures whatsoever. Were the minds of the sex laid open, we should find the chief idea in one to be a tippet, in another a muff, in a third a fan, and in a fourth a farthingale. The memory of an old visiting lady is so filled with gloves, silks, and ribbons, that I can look upon it as nothing else but a toy-shop. A matron of my acquaintance, complaining of her daughter’s vanity, was observing, that she had all of a sudden held up her head higher than ordinary, and taken an air that showed a secret satisfaction in herself, mixed with a scorn of others. “I did not know,” says my friend, “what to make of the carriage of this fantastical girl, until I was informed by her eldest sister, that she had a pair of striped garters on.” This odd turn of mind often makes the sex unhappy, and disposes them to be struck with everything that makes a show, however trifling and superficial.
Many a lady has fetched a sigh at the toss of a wig, and been ruined by the tapping of a snuff-box. It is impossible to describe all the execution that was done by the shoulder-knot while that fashion prevailed, or to reckon up all the maidens that have fallen a sacrifice to a pair of fringed gloves. A sincere heart has not made half so many conquests as an open waistcoat; and I should be glad to see an able head make so good a figure in a woman’s company as a pair of red heels. A Grecian hero, when he was asked whether he could play upon the lute, thought he had made a very good reply, when he answered, “No ; but I can make a great city of a little one.” Notwithstanding his boasted wisdom, I appeal to the heart of any toast in town, whether she would not think the lutenist preferable to the statesman? I do not speak this out of any aversion that I have to the sex; on the contrary, I have always had a tenderness for them; but, I must confess, it troubles me very much to see the generality of them place their affections on improper objects, and give up all the pleasures of life for gewgaws and trifles.
Mrs. Margery Bickerstaff, my great aunt, had a thousand pounds to her portion, which our family was desirous of keeping among themselves, and therefore used all possible means to turn off her thoughts from marriage. The method they took was, in any time of danger, to throw a new gown or petticoat in her way. When she was about twenty-five years of age, she fell in love with a man of an agreeable temper and equal fortune, and would certainly have married him, had not my grandfather, sir Jacob, dressed her up in a suit of flowered satin; upon which she set so immoderate a value upon herself, that the lover was contemned and discarded. In the fortieth year of her age she was again smitten; but very luckily transferred her passion to a tippet, which was presented to her by another relation who was in the plot. This, with a white sarsenet hood, kept her safe in the family until fifty. About sixty, which generally produces a kind of latter spring in amorous constitutions, my aunt Margery had again a colt’s tooth in her head; and would certainly have eloped from the mansion-house, had not her brother Simon, who was a wise man and a scholar, advised to dress her in cherry-coloured ribbons, which was the only expedient that could have been found out by the wit of man to preserve the thousand pounds in our family, part of which I enjoy at this time.
The Tatler, Richard Steele, 28 March 1710
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: We have previously heard from a German alienist who felt that an interest in fashion was a kind of insanity, as well as the various persons who decreed the requirements for “perfect beauty.” And here we have another gentleman advising those trifling and superficial ladies on their dress. Harsh doctrine indeed from a person who benefited so substantially from a suit of flowered satin and cherry-coloured ribbons.
A Relentlessly Informative note: The fictional Mr Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. is understood to be the editor of The Tatler and the author of the piece above. This was the pen-name used by Jonathan Swift for several extraordinarily popular satirical letters “predicting” the death of a well-known astrologer. Mr Steele took advantage of this excitement to increase the circulation of his paper by listing Bickerstaff as editor.