What to Wear: A book for women

I have no image and no link for this title: try googling it yourself and see how far you get! I checked this out on a whim from the library, and not fifty pages in I had made half-a-dozen notes (not IN the book — jeez, what kind of barbarian do you think I am?). It’s a treasure.

Belle Armstrong Whitney is the triple-named, strong-willed author, and all I know about her is that she looks in her photographs as if she dearly wants to come take the video camera away from the photographer and show him how to do things RIGHT. The book was published in battle Creek, Michigan, in 1916, and if that is not evocative of an overwhelming urgency to tell other folks how best their lives might be organized to the complete satisfaction of all concerned (but mainly to the complete satisfaction of the advice-giver) I don’t know what would be.

Belle (I will take the liberty of such familiarity, because I know that if I had been lucky enough to meet her we would have been fast pals immediately) says such things as this: “There is no reason why when we go shopping we ought to take what is set before us to take, offering the conventional of what is set before is common, and our conventional is higher.”

She also quotes Redfern (“the head of that dressmaking house in Paris”) as saying “Fashion without art is snobbism.” Sing it, sister!

And how about: “We need not apologize for our love of dress if we love what [is worthy of] being loved.” (I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s some kind of logical fallacy there, but so be it.)

And: “One of the reasons for the kaleidoscopic changes in styles is because so numerous women wear the same thing at once that everybody becomes exhausted of it in a hurry. If women would choose their own style, instead of trying to wear what they–the wholly mythical they — are expected to sanction, fashions would be much less unstable.”

“Every woman who purchases poor fabrics helps to dissuade makers of fabrics from producing better ones. Every woman who purchases ready-made clothes that are vulgar in design, helps to increase that type of designing. Every woman who purchases ill-made garments, assists in adding to their number.”

“The woman who knows what she wants is not common, and the woman who knows what she ought to have is positively rare.”

“Women are not uniform in size, shape, complexion, and social requirements, and when they dress as if they were, the result is many unsatisfactory.”

Of course, Belle is not without fault. There are many, numerous pictures of her in what can only be called “draperies”, some with that touch of self-conscious exoticism that makes the modern reader wince. She also devotes three pages to instructions for making a maternity CORSET. (Don’t worry, the steels of your regular corset “may be broken rapidly when their covering is ripped off.”) but all in all, her guidance of ninety years ago is better than anything I read in this month’s Vogue.

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Secret Lives of dresses Vol. 8September 13, 2006
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Secret Lives of dresses Vol. 9December 4, 2006

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