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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On the Effects of Public Mourning: Plainness in Dress
By Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729)
 
From the Tatler

WHEN artists would expose their diamonds to an advantage, they usually set them to show in little cases of black velvet. By this means the jewels appear in their true and genuine lustre, while there is no color that can infect their brightness, or give a false cast to the water. When I was at the opera the other night, the assembly of ladies in mourning made me consider them in the same kind of view. A dress wherein there is so little variety shows the face in all its natural charms, and makes one differ from another only as it is more or less beautiful. Painters are ever careful of offending against a rule which is so essential in all just representations. The chief figure must have the strongest point of light, and not be injured by any gay colorings that may draw away the attention to any less considerable part of the picture. The present fashion obliges everybody to be dressed with propriety, and makes the ladies’ faces the principal objects of sight. Every beautiful person shines out in all the excellence with which nature has adorned her; gaudy ribbons and glaring colors being now out of use, the sex has no opportunity given them to disfigure themselves, which they seldom fail to do whenever it lies in their power. When a woman comes to her glass, she does not employ her time in making herself look more advantageously what she really is; but endeavors to be as much another creature as she possibly can. Whether this happens because they stay so long, and attend their work so diligently, that they forget the faces and persons which they first sat down with, or whatever it is, they seldom rise from the toilet the same women they appeared when they began to dress. What jewel can the charming Cleora place in her ears that can please her beholders so much as her eyes? The cluster of diamonds upon the breast can add no beauty to the fair chest of ivory which supports it. It may indeed tempt a man to steal a woman, but never to love her. Let Thalestris change herself into a motley party-colored animal: the pearl necklace, the flowered stomacher, the artificial nosegay, and shaded furbelow may be of use to attract the eye of the beholder, and turn it from the imperfections of her features and shape. But if 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.  1
  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 the 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.  2
  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 virgins 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.  3
  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-colored 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.  4
  This discourse puts me in mind of a humorist mentioned by Horace, called Eutrapelus, who when he designed to do a man a mischief made him a present of a gay suit; and brings to my memory another passage of the same author, when he describes the most ornamental dress that a woman can appear in with two words, simplex munditiis, which I have quoted for the benefit of my female readers.  5
 
 
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