A BELLE OF TO-DAY
What It Means to meet Fashion’s Requirements.
A BIG TAX ON HEAD AND PURSE
Time Was When to Look Pretty Was All That Was Necessary,
But in 1890 a Good Deal more Has to Be Done.
Brains Are Necessary.
To be a fashionable young woman in. the year of grace one thousand eight hundred and ninety is a complex and intricate thing. Time was when to look pretty was about all that was expected of a maiden just emerging from her teens, but that alone in New York society to day is not sufficient. The “four hundred” have an inexorable if unwritten code that the young belle must be thoroughly cognizant of before she is eligible to the hall-mark of fashionable guarantee.
The tyrant of her world really penetrates her bedroom and presides over
her toilet, directing the process from the moment she opens her dewy eyes beneath the lace-trimmed canopies of her brass or satinwood bedstead, until she leaves the chamber, rosy from the perfumed bath, glowing after the vigorous massage, and radiant in the freshest of morning robes. And from then until the hour, any time after midnight, that she sinks again into slumber to dream of her triumphs, there has stood at her elbow a little monitor more potent than conscience itself, which has ceaselessly pointed out the way in which she must walk.
Fashion is sensible just now in a great many things–so sensible, indeed, that one almost forgives her the great many other things in which she is a foolish and an unreasonable arbiter. For instance, it is the fashion at present to be neat–wholly and exquisitely neat–with a neatness that begins at the skin and extends to the last accessory of the costume. No frayed hems, no boots destitute of buttons, no torn gloves, no ragged edges, no mussy furbelows, are permitted. The dress must display the care of a maid, even if that useful personage does not exist in the home establishment. In all this neatness, however, the line of demarkation from primness is exact and well defined. Hair that is frequently washed and carefully brushed maybe loosely put up with charming grace, while no amount of plaiting and pinning back will give a tidy appearance to the locks that are grimy with dust or dull from lack of brisk brushing. In her care of herself personally the modern belle can give many points to her predecessor of fifty years ago.
It is also quite a la mode at the present time to be healthy. The pale, delicate creatures who were supposed to be ultra-refined and extremely elegant three or four decades ago, would find themselves met with an exasperating pity or a half-concealed contempt should they parade their fragile selves along the fashionable line to-day. Bright eyes, a fresh complexion, and cheeks that have the hue of health, whether it be a ruddy tinge or a clear pallor, are good form for this age, however little they may have been admired by Sir Charles Grandison, or affected by Lady Pamela.
But the girl of fashion must be more than neat and healthy. There is a stylish way, or the reverse, for her to accomplish every movement, however simple. The way she sits or stands, how she walks, enters and leaves a carriage, carries a parasol or muff, gathers a wrap about the shoulders, adjusts the lorgnette or opera glass—all these require to be done fashionably, which, it must be confessed, is not always properly. Everybody can recall, if he must, the atrocities of the “Grecian bend,” and New Yorkers saw enough to be disgusted with the “Alexandra limp,” the stylish walk of a much more recent date. To-day the swell girls are treading upper Fifth Avenue, “as far as the flagging goes,” with an erect, supple carriage and springing gait, that betokens a knowledge of and practice in pedestrian exercise, for all of which we have the athletic fad to be grateful to.
Accent and intonation are two prominent factors in the curriculum of the four hundred. There are really two voices in use in fashionable society to-day, either of which is considered quite proper. One swell girl speaks rapidly and without much inflection, and while her voice is not loud there is a penetrating timbre to it which makes it very distinct and easily heard. It is a pleasant voice when it is not too manifestly an artificial one. Some girls overdo the matter and acquire a nasal tone that is objectionable. The other equally swell girl has, or thinks she has, the English drawl. She pitches her tones in a considerably lower key than her fashionable sister, and it would seem that in crossing the water this production imbibed the wave motion of the sea, for it undulates gently but regularly as its Anglo-American possessor lets it glide sinuously from her pretty lips. It is a detestable affectation unworthy an American girl. Let him admire it who will.
But, having the pose, the gait, and the voice of Murray Hill, the art of acquisition must still be carried on. American girls have lovely hands, small, soft, and beautifully shaped; but the fashionable girl takes great care not to care too well for hers. “It is vulgar,” she says, “to have them too much manicured. Care for your nails punctiliously, of course, but avoid,” she continues oracularly, “the dazzling polish and brilliant pink of the manicure’s assistant.” And then we know it must be avoided. The aim of the really fashionable New York belle is to keep free from the “madding crowd.”
“Oh, we don’t do that; it’s so common,” she says, and she no longer counts her ball-bouquets by the dozens, because it savors too much of stage trophies, and she takes out, with something of a sigh, her little bunch of flowers from her street costume, because everybody wanted to wear it, and because straightway it got beyond her refined and dainty class; it became a huge corsage that could be seen a block away. A great many fashions are put down as practised by the metropolitan daughter of the four hundred which she would almost faint with horror to be accused of. Her fad, particularly on the street, is simplicity. She has run the gamut of display and ostentation. She has found, too, that the effect if not the substance of these can be imitated, and she takes refuge in the other extreme. It is the girl who thinks she is stylish who puts forty bangles on one wrist, sticks an amber or gilt dagger, ten inches long, through her hair, draws a white veil with black dots just over her pretty nose, and, hugging a tightly strapped silk umbrella, with an aggressive handle, to her breast, starts out to shop. The really swell girl, by the way, does not “shop.” She drives out with mamma to order things—always before 2 o’clock.
In her speech the fashionable young lady has her vocabulary as she has her code. Latterly she has permitted herself the use of a good many English expressions. She says “fancy” always for “suppose,” and she never says “guess”; she says “chemist” for “druggist,” ”’stop attome,” for “stay at home,” and she “tubs” oftener than she “takes a morning bath.” “Function” with her means any sort of social gathering, and a very gay ball becomes a “rout.” “Smart” expresses a considerable degree of excellence, which she applies equally to a wedding or a bonnet; “an awfully fetching frock or gown ” is very English for an especially pretty dress. She likes the word “clever,” too; when she sees a fine painting she says: “That’s a clever bit of canvas.” She thinks Marshall Wilder is an “awfully clever fellow,” and if you ask her does she bowl she replies modestly: “Yes, but I’m not at all clever with the balls.” Some phrases she leans rather heavily upon, notably “such a blow,” when a rain postpones a visit or a friend dies, and “such a pleasure” alike to hear Patti and spend a tiresome evening at the house of some acquaintance.
She has, too, an index expurgatorius which she is very careful to respect. There are no more “stores” for her, they have become “shops”; “servants” also have ceased to exist as such, they are “men servants” and “maids,” although she permits herself to designate as laundress, housemaid, or butler; “gentlemen” she avoids; “a man I know,” she says, referring to a male acquaintance; or “there were lots of delightful men out last night,” she confides to some sister belle who missed the opera; “all right” she never says, making “very well” do much better service, nor does she add “party” to dinner, speaking of such an entertainment. Her home no longer has a “parlor,” pure and simple, but a “blue room,” a “red room,” a “Japanese room,” or possibly an “east parlor.”
Getting beyond the manner to the matter of the fashionable girl’s discourse one finds it has practically no limitations on the surface—at least so said one of them not long ago to the writer.
“Why,” remarked this young woman, “we have to know everything, only we don’t have to know it all at once nor for very long at a time. If we did we could not stand up under the accumulation. We take our knowledge in periods. For instance, I have been out four years, and during that time I have learned to play the banjo, mandolin, and zither, as every one of these accomplishments had its brief run, all in addition to what I knew of harp, guitar, and piano at my debut. “To the French and Italian with masters before I finished, I have acquired a smattering of German, Volapuk, and Russian successively; I bowl, ride, and fence equally poorly, but I do every one a little—I had to, you know. What I do well is to swim and to play tennis. One season I belonged to a Shakespeare class, the next I had mornings with Shelley, and for two Lents I was a member of a Browning club. This winter we are contemplating Ibsen, and some of us have to stand on tip toe to do it. “One has to know music, too, from ‘ Die Walkure’ to ‘Pinafore,’ and to discuss art with the confidence of the Quartier Latin. I have been through several art sieges, the Morgan and Stewart collections, the Verestchagin display, and the Barye exhibit, and for every one I have faithfully crammed. Ceramics, tapestries, heraldry—these are merely a hint of the subjects one may be called upon at any moment to discuss intelligently, and I really will not go to a flower show now, for orchids are a sealed book to me. The different imported entertainments are another tax upon one’s knowledge. Just when you know a kirmess from a May dance you are asked to participate in a Venetian fashing, and when you have read up to go to see a Greek play somebody lectures on Buddhist ceremonials for a fashionable charity, and you have to show there. It is really very fatiguing sometimes to keep up with the procession.” All of which tends to fully confirm the original proposition that to be a fashionable young woman in the year of grace eighteen hundred and ninety is a complex and intricate thing.
Mrs. Philip H. Welch.
The Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 2 February 1890: p. 1
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is most intriguing how the set of arduous requirements for fashionable young women have changed only slightly in their details. Even to-day, young women are assured that they can “have it all,” but only if they get up at 4 a.m. to ride an exercise bicycle, impress their superiors at work by staying late or being always available via “text,” are au courant with the latest news, books, music, television and film, and research every detail of their household purchases for sustainability, cleanliness, and ethical behaviour of the manufacturer. It is, as the young lady suggests above, “very fatiguing.” The one consolation for to-day’s lady polymath is the availability of “Google” when one needs to read up on Greek plays or Buddhist ceremonials.
To be Relentlessly Information: The Quarter Latin was the Parisian “Latin Quarter,” home of authors and artists.
Volapük was, like Esperanto, a constructed language, created in 1879-80 by a Roman Catholic priest, Johann Martin Schleyer, who revealed that God told him in a dream to create an international language.
Wassili Verestchagin / Vasily Vereshchagin was a Russian war artist who was, in the 1880s and 1890s, all the rage at home and abroad, when his work was not being banned by the military authorities for its disturbing realism.
A Kermess/Kirmess/kermis is an outdoor festival in a German or Dutch-speaking company. Fasching is the pre-lenten carnival in Venice.
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 anecdote
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.