Economy in Dress an Art: 1889

Make-do and Mend.

Make-do and Mend.

WHAT ECONOMY MEANS.

[Dinah Sturgis in Dress.]

Economy is a good deal a matter of habit, and one that is more honored in the observance than in the breach. Those who do not need to count the cost of what they have are a small, a very small, minority. But too many think economy only a bore, when it is in reality an art.

Being economical does not mean going without. It means managing thriftily—so ordering one’s expenditures that each dollar spent shall bring its full value in return. It does not pay to struggle with a mob of people for a half or a whole hour to get some handkerchief for twelve cents that may be had at the next corner in three minutes for twelve and a half cents; nor has one any moral right to ask or expect to get two dollars’ worth for one dollar. But one has right—indeed, it is a duty—to ask full value in return for one’s money. What is economy at one time and for one person is dire extravagance under other conditions. All one’s powers of judgment and fair-sightedness must be laid under tribute to keep one off the rocks of extravagance and niggardliness. This last is a very mild name for the quality of mind that is willing to enrich its material self at the expense of poor workwomen or workmen.

In the matter of a wardrobe, as in all else, true economy is based upon getting the best qualities of materials at the outset. The best is the cheapest in the long run, but the best is not always the highest priced. Fancy fabrics bring the highest prices, but these are usually short-lived in favor and often they are not at all durable in texture. She whose purse is limited will be best dressed if she confines her purchases to standard fabrics, depending upon cut, finish and fitness, and not upon extreme novelty, for style. Having the latest “fad” in dress is an expensive hobby that in no way compensates for the lack of the sterling qualities of appropriateness and becomingness. One who cannot keep pace with fashion’s scouts will save herself much heart-burning by not entering the competition. One is never “out of the fashion” who is becomingly dressed in unobtrusive styles. Pronounced styles must be renounced the instant they become unfashionable, else the wearer is rendered conspicuous, something the woman of refinement always avoids.

Nothing is cheap that one does not want, but it is economical to look ahead, and to buy with an eye to the future. If one finds between two seasons, selling at less than the regular price, just what she is going to need later on, it is a legitimate bargain that she has every right to accept. It has nothing whatever in common with the “bargain” hunting that throngs the counters of largely advertised shops, with women tumbling over one another to get the sop thrown to them in the shape of worthless three-cent trash. While people are crowding in at the front door of shops to secure the “wonderful bargains slightly damaged by fire, water and smoke,” not infrequently the shopkeeper is bargaining with some agent at the back door to supply cheap grades for this “drive” as long as it lasts. Truly there are bargains and bargains.

A few well-made clothes of good quality are far preferable to twice the number of poor quality. Economy has to do not only with providing clothes at the outset, but with caring for them properly afterward. An article of clothing carefully kept will outlast any two that, when they are found to be going, are allowed to go. Sponging, pressing, new braid, and some little alteration, such as redraping, the addition of new vest, collar, cuffs, etc., will give a new lease of life to a gown thought to be quite passe. When a waist is too far gone to be of any more use, and the skirts are good or may be made good by the changes already suggested, there are the pretty plaited, smocked, or tucked blouses to be brought to one’s notice. These may be of inexpensive cashmere, or of expensive silk, according to one’s purse; the point of consequence is that they shall be suitable in texture, color and style.

The makeshifts of women-students, who in order to go on with their work must sacrifice every available penny of their slender incomes, would, if written out, make interesting studies in economy. From the music-student, who washes her own handkerchiefs, and dries and irons them by stretching and pressing them on a marble table, to save on her laundry bill, that she may hear the Gotterdammerung, to the art student who buys soiled white slippers at quarter-price, and turns them into respectable black ones with a bottle of liquid dressing, that she may have something to wear with her many-times renovated black-lace dress when she is asked to meet the artist of high degree, there are doings, often funny, often pathetic, that milady in her boudoir, who thinks economy means merely a jewel less, does not dream of. But it is well she should know about them. Perhaps it will make her more tolerant to know that the gods have not been so generous to everybody as to her own sweet self.

One is never at a loss to put what she has learned or evolved of economical devices to use. It is well to know, whether one is remote from the professional cleaner or has too few ducats to employ him, that silk ties, light gloves, slippers, etc., may be easily cleansed by washing them in naphtha. The cost is but a tithe of the cleaner’s prices. One needs only to know that the liquid is very volatile and very inflammable. Hence but a little of it should be poured out of the bottle at a time, keeping it tightly corked in the meantime, and it should be used out of doors or in a room where there is no fire or lamp. Gloves should be put upon the hands, and the hands then washed in the liquid, rubbing the soiled places lightly. A few hours’ exposure to the air, of articles thus cleaned, will remove every trace of odor. Feathers may be recurled, with a little patience and a knitting needle. Soiled white feathers may be cleansed by washing them in the lather of white curd soap, and dried by shaking them before the fire; they are then ready to curl, done by drawing each thread over a knitting needle. It sometimes saves a few pennies to know that wrinkled but unworn canvas out of old skirts, etc., may be restored to usefulness by sponging it clean and ironing while damp; the pressing with a hot iron restores its stiffness. One’s “good” gloves may be made to last as long again as they usually do others are substituted in their stead rainy-day wear, shopping, etc.; and these second rate gloves need not be depressingly shabby either. Naphtha will cleanse them when soiled, and a little care will keep them neatly mended, and provided with buttons. Thread of the same shade as the kid should be used in mending gloves. Ripped seams need only to be neatly oversewed, but when the kid breaks away oversewing the edges together does not answer; the edges of the break should be button-holed around in fine, even stitches, using a very fine needle, and then worked back and forth in “lace” stitches, drawing the button-hole stitches together, making a “tidily darned place.” The better to strengthen the place, when the kid has already proved to be rotten, put a piece of fine court-plaster, rather bigger than the spot, over it on the under side of the glove. A glove thus mended will give no further trouble—in the same place, at least. Soiled  places on white wool garments may often be entirely removed by rubbing them with Indian meal. Pour a little meal over the place to be cleaned, and rub it lightly with a clean, soft cloth, using fresh meal from time to time, then shake off, and dust the spot with a clean cloth.

One’s peace of mind is so disturbed by the consciousness that she looks shabby that it is of no small importance that the evil day should be warded off. Frequent sponging in ammonia and water will keep one’s black frock and coat, that are trying to shine, in subjection, and also remove spots that come by accident, but which no ordinarily neat person can allow to remain. The shabbiest boots look comparatively elegant if they are kept blacked, supplied with buttons, and free from rips. These last, when sewed up, should be stayed upon the wrong side, a bit of black velvet answering well for the purpose. The bonnet that is gray with a season’s accumulations of dust, and flaunts its dismantled plumes to one’s chagrin, will take on an air of positive elegance if the trimmings be taken off, the felt sponged (with the grain of the felt,) the velvet steamed and brushed, the ribbon turned and pressed, and the hat or bonnet retrimmed, omitting the plume if it is past being an ornament. Trimming, once nice but grown tawdry, spoils the effect of the handsomest material and should be taken off bonnet, wrap, or frock as soon as it reaches that condition.

Once more, economy is not a synonym for poverty; it is the hand-maiden of rich and poor alike. Being economical means making the most of one’s resources, selecting and arranging materials to bring the most generous returns for one’s investments, be they much or little. Economy is not an independent art; it depends for its best results upon one’s general knowledge of ways and means.

The Eastern Star, Volume 2, June 1889

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The authoress (and one suspects that she was born under a less elegant name) is not persuasive that economy is an art form with all of her turnings, and spongings, and pressings, not to say marble-topped tables full of sodden handkerchiefs. It all sounds unutterably dreary and Mrs Daffodil speaks as one who grew up with such dismal economies and found them useful in her career as a lady’s maid. Naphtha in particular, leaves a Smell, no matter how well-aired and one cannot depend on some careless flat-mate not leaving the cork loose and then lighting the gas…

‘Another Camphene Horror. —’A daughter of Rufus S. King, 770 Greenwise street, New York, was dreadfully burnt on Saturday night. She called on a lady, whom she found cleaning her gloves with camphene, and rubbing her own gloves with the liquid, went to the fire to dry them. Her clothes instantly took fire, when she threw her arms around the lady, and they fell upon the floor. A servant girl had the presence of mind to roll the carpet around Miss King, by which her life was saved, though her hands will never be capable of use. The Liberator [Boston, MA] 1 March 1850: p. 3

“Hand in Glove,” by Elizabeth Bowen, is a cautionary tale about the use of benzine to clean gloves, in the guise of a ghost story.

However, remaking articles of dress does have its satisfyingly creative side, as in this story of “The Dress Doctor,” a lady who made her living from remodelling garments. 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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3 thoughts on “Economy in Dress an Art: 1889

  1. Pingback: How to be a Well-Dressed Young Man on a Budget: 1890 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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