Jerome K. Jerome, most famous for his book Three Men in a Boat also penned a series of essays that are at times funny and at times deeply insightful.
In this essay, On Dress and Deportment, he tells us the concerns and trials of what it means to wear clothes in the world, or at least what it meant in 1886. The essay is full of his usual wit and charm, and ruminations of how very nice it feels to be well dressed..
You listen to me read it outloud, can read it here, or online at Gutenberg.org
ON DRESS AND DEPORTMENT.
They say—people who ought to be ashamed of themselves do—that the consciousness of being well dressed imparts a blissfulness to the human heart that religion is powerless to bestow. I am afraid these cynical persons are sometimes correct. I know that when I was a very young man (many, many years ago, as the story-books say) and wanted cheering up, I used to go and dress myself in all my best clothes. If I had been annoyed in any manner—if my washerwoman had discharged me, for instance; or my blank-verse poem had been returned for the tenth time, with the editor’s compliments “and regrets that owing to want of space he is unable to avail himself of kind offer;” or I had been snubbed by the woman I loved as man never loved before—by the way, it’s really extraordinary what a variety of ways of loving there must be. We all do it as it was never done before. I don’t know how our great-grandchildren will manage. They will have to do it on their heads by their time if they persist in not clashing with any previous method.
Well, as I was saying, when these unpleasant sort of things happened and I felt crushed, I put on all my best clothes and went out. It brought back my vanishing self-esteem. In a glossy new hat and a pair of trousers with a fold down the front (carefully preserved by keeping them under the bed—I don’t mean on the floor, you know, but between the bed and the mattress), I felt I was somebody and that there were other washerwomen: ay, and even other girls to love, and who would perhaps appreciate a clever, good-looking young fellow. I didn’t care; that was my reckless way. I would make love to other maidens. I felt that in those clothes I could do it.
They have a wonderful deal to do with courting, clothes have. It is half the battle. At all events, the young man thinks so, and it generally takes him a couple of hours to get himself up for the occasion. His first half-hour is occupied in trying to decide whether to wear his light suit with a cane and drab billycock, or his black tails with a chimney-pot hat and his new umbrella. He is sure to be unfortunate in either decision. If he wears his light suit and takes the stick it comes on to rain, and he reaches the house in a damp and muddy condition and spends the evening trying to hide his boots. If, on the other hand, he decides in favor of the top hat and umbrella—nobody would ever dream of going out in a top hat without an umbrella; it would be like letting baby (bless it!) toddle out without its nurse. How I do hate a top hat! One lasts me a very long while, I can tell you. I only wear it when—well, never mind when I wear it. It lasts me a very long while. I’ve had my present one five years. It was rather old-fashioned last summer, but the shape has come round again now and I look quite stylish.
But to return to our young man and his courting. If he starts off with the top hat and umbrella the afternoon turns out fearfully hot, and the perspiration takes all the soap out of his mustache and converts the beautifully arranged curl over his forehead into a limp wisp resembling a lump of seaweed. The Fates are never favorable to the poor wretch. If he does by any chance reach the door in proper condition, she has gone out with her cousin and won’t be back till late.
How a young lover made ridiculous by the gawkiness of modern costume must envy the picturesque gallants of seventy years ago! Look at them (on the Christmas cards), with their curly hair and natty hats, their well-shaped legs incased in smalls, their dainty Hessian boots, their ruffling frills, their canes and dangling seals. No wonder the little maiden in the big poke-bonnet and the light-blue sash casts down her eyes and is completely won. Men could win hearts in clothes like that. But what can you expect from baggy trousers and a monkeyjacket?
Clothes have more effect upon us than we imagine. Our deportment depends upon our dress. Make a man get into seedy, worn-out rags, and he will skulk along with his head hanging down, like a man going out to fetch his own supper beer. But deck out the same article in gorgeous raiment and fine linen, and he will strut down the main thoroughfare, swinging his cane and looking at the girls as perky as a bantam cock.
Clothes alter our very nature. A man could not help being fierce and daring with a plume in his bonnet, a dagger in his belt, and a lot of puffy white things all down his sleeves. But in an ulster he wants to get behind a lamp-post and call police.
I am quite ready to admit that you can find sterling merit, honest worth, deep affection, and all such like virtues of the roast-beef-and-plum-pudding school as much, and perhaps more, under broadcloth and tweed as ever existed beneath silk and velvet; but the spirit of that knightly chivalry that “rode a tilt for lady’s love” and “fought for lady’s smiles” needs the clatter of steel and the rustle of plumes to summon it from its grave between the dusty folds of tapestry and underneath the musty leaves of moldering chronicles.
The world must be getting old, I think; it dresses so very soberly now. We have been through the infant period of humanity, when we used to run about with nothing on but a long, loose robe, and liked to have our feet bare. And then came the rough, barbaric age, the boyhood of our race. We didn’t care what we wore then, but thought it nice to tattoo ourselves all over, and we never did our hair. And after that the world grew into a young man and became foppish. It decked itself in flowing curls and scarlet doublets, and went courting, and bragging, and bouncing—making a brave show.
But all those merry, foolish days of youth are gone, and we are very sober, very solemn—and very stupid, some say—now. The world is a grave, middle-aged gentleman in this nineteenth century, and would be shocked to see itself with a bit of finery on. So it dresses in black coats and trousers, and black hats, and black boots, and, dear me, it is such a very respectable gentleman—to think it could ever have gone gadding about as a troubadour or a knight-errant, dressed in all those fancy colors! Ah, well! we are more sensible in this age.
Or at least we think ourselves so. It is a general theory nowadays that sense and dullness go together.
Goodness is another quality that always goes with blackness. Very good people indeed, you will notice, dress altogether in black, even to gloves and neckties, and they will probably take to black shirts before long. Medium goods indulge in light trousers on week-days, and some of them even go so far as to wear fancy waistcoats. On the other hand, people who care nothing for a future state go about in light suits; and there have been known wretches so abandoned as to wear a white hat. Such people, however, are never spoken of in genteel society, and perhaps I ought not to have referred to them here.
By the way, talking of light suits, have you ever noticed how people stare at you the first time you go out in a new light suit They do not notice it so much afterward. The population of London have got accustomed to it by the third time you wear it. I say “you,” because I am not speaking from my own experience. I do not wear such things at all myself. As I said, only sinful people do so.
I wish, though, it were not so, and that one could be good, and respectable, and sensible without making one’s self a guy. I look in the glass sometimes at my two long, cylindrical bags (so picturesquely rugged about the knees), my stand-up collar and billycock hat, and wonder what right I have to go about making God’s world hideous. Then wild and wicked thoughts come into my heart. I don’t want to be good and respectable. (I never can be sensible, I’m told; so that don’t matter.) I want to put on lavender-colored tights, with red velvet breeches and a green doublet slashed with yellow; to have a light-blue silk cloak on my shoulder, and a black eagle’s plume waving from my hat, and a big sword, and a falcon, and a lance, and a prancing horse, so that I might go about and gladden the eyes of the people. Why should we all try to look like ants crawling over a dust-heap? Why shouldn’t we dress a little gayly? I am sure if we did we should be happier. True, it is a little thing, but we are a little race, and what is the use of our pretending otherwise and spoiling fun? Let philosophers get themselves up like old crows if they like. But let me be a butterfly.
Women, at all events, ought to dress prettily. It is their duty. They are the flowers of the earth and were meant to show it up. We abuse them a good deal, we men; but, goodness knows, the old world would be dull enough without their dresses and fair faces. How they brighten up every place they come into! What a sunny commotion they—relations, of course—-make in our dingy bachelor chambers! and what a delightful litter their ribbons and laces, and gloves and hats, and parasols and ‘kerchiefs make! It is as if a wandering rainbow had dropped in to pay us a visit.
It is one of the chief charms of the summer, to my mind, the way our little maids come out in pretty colors. I like to see the pink and blue and white glancing between the trees, dotting the green fields, and flashing back the sunlight. You can see the bright colors such a long way off. There are four white dresses climbing a hill in front of my window now. I can see them distinctly, though it is three miles away. I thought at first they were mile-stones out for a lark. It’s so nice to be able to see the darlings a long way off. Especially if they happen to be your wife and your mother-in-law.
Talking of fields and mile-stones reminds me that I want to say, in all seriousness, a few words about women’s boots. The women of these islands all wear boots too big for them. They can never get a boot to fit. The bootmakers do not keep sizes small enough.
Over and over again have I known women sit down on the top rail of a stile and declare they could not go a step further because their boots hurt them so; and it has always been the same complaint—too big.
It is time this state of things was altered. In the name of the husbands and fathers of England, I call upon the bootmakers to reform. Our wives, our daughters, and our cousins are not to be lamed and tortured with impunity. Why cannot “narrow twos” be kept more in stock? That is the size I find most women take.
The waist-band is another item of feminine apparel that is always too big. The dressmakers make these things so loose that the hooks and eyes by which they are fastened burst off, every now and then, with a report like thunder.
Why women suffer these wrongs—why they do not insist in having their clothes made small enough for them I cannot conceive. It can hardly be that they are disinclined to trouble themselves about matters of mere dress, for dress is the one subject that they really do think about. It is the only topic they ever get thoroughly interested in, and they talk about it all day long. If you see two women together, you may bet your bottom dollar they are discussing their own or their friends’ clothes. You notice a couple of child-like beings conversing by a window, and you wonder what sweet, helpful words are falling from their sainted lips. So you move nearer and then you hear one say:
“So I took in the waist-band and let out a seam, and it fits beautifully now.”
“Well,” says the other, “I shall wear my plum-colored body to the Jones’, with a yellow plastron; and they’ve got some lovely gloves at Puttick’s, only one and eleven pence.”
I went for a drive through a part of Derbyshire once with a couple of ladies. It was a beautiful bit of country, and they enjoyed themselves immensely. They talked dressmaking the whole time.
“Pretty view, that,” I would say, waving my umbrella round. “Look at those blue distant hills! That little white speck, nestling in the woods, is Chatsworth, and over there—”
“Yes, very pretty indeed,” one would reply. “Well, why not get a yard of sarsenet?”
“What, and leave the skirt exactly as it is?”
“Certainly. What place d’ye call this?”
Then I would draw their attention to the fresh beauties that kept sweeping into view, and they would glance round and say “charming,” “sweetly pretty,” and immediately go off into raptures over each other’s pocket-handkerchiefs, and mourn with one another over the decadence of cambric frilling.
I believe if two women were cast together upon a desert island, they would spend each day arguing the respective merits of sea-shells and birds’ eggs considered as trimmings, and would have a new fashion in fig-leaves every month.
Very young men think a good deal about clothes, but they don’t talk about them to each other. They would not find much encouragement. A fop is not a favorite with his own sex. Indeed, he gets a good deal more abuse from them than is necessary. His is a harmless failing and it soon wears out. Besides, a man who has no foppery at twenty will be a slatternly, dirty-collar, unbrushed-coat man at forty. A little foppishness in a young man is good; it is human. I like to see a young cock ruffle his feathers, stretch his neck, and crow as if the whole world belonged to him. I don’t like a modest, retiring man. Nobody does—not really, however much they may prate about modest worth and other things they do not understand.
A meek deportment is a great mistake in the world. Uriah Heap’s father was a very poor judge of human nature, or he would not have told his son, as he did, that people liked humbleness. There is nothing annoys them more, as a rule. Rows are half the fun of life, and you can’t have rows with humble, meek-answering individuals. They turn away our wrath, and that is just what we do not want. We want to let it out. We have worked ourselves up into a state of exhilarating fury, and then just as we are anticipating the enjoyment of a vigorous set-to, they spoil all our plans with their exasperating humility.
Xantippe’s life must have been one long misery, tied to that calmly irritating man, Socrates. Fancy a married woman doomed to live on from day to day without one single quarrel with her husband! A man ought to humor his wife in these things.
Heaven knows their lives are dull enough, poor girls. They have none of the enjoyments we have. They go to no political meetings; they may not even belong to the local amateur parliament; they are excluded from smoking-carriages on the Metropolitan Railway, and they never see a comic paper—or if they do, they do not know it is comic: nobody tells them.
Surely, with existence such a dreary blank for them as this, we might provide a little row for their amusement now and then, even if we do not feel inclined for it ourselves. A really sensible man does so and is loved accordingly, for it is little acts of kindness such as this that go straight to a woman’s heart. It is such like proofs of loving self-sacrifice that make her tell her female friends what a good husband he was—after he is dead.
Yes, poor Xantippe must have had a hard time of it. The bucket episode was particularly sad for her. Poor woman! she did think she would rouse him up a bit with that. She had taken the trouble to fill the bucket, perhaps been a long way to get specially dirty water. And she waited for him. And then to be met in such a way, after all! Most likely she sat down and had a good cry afterward. It must have seemed all so hopeless to the poor child; and for all we know she had no mother to whom she could go and abuse him.
What was it to her that her husband was a great philosopher? Great philosophy don’t count in married life.
There was a very good little boy once who wanted to go to sea. And the captain asked him what he could do. He said he could do the multiplication-table backward and paste sea-weed in a book; that he knew how many times the word “begat” occurred in the Old Testament; and could recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” and Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven.”
“Werry good—werry good, indeed,” said the man of the sea, “and ken ye kerry coals?”
It is just the same when you want to marry. Great ability is not required so much as little usefulness. Brains are at a discount in the married state. There is no demand for them, no appreciation even. Our wives sum us up according to a standard of their own, in which brilliancy of intellect obtains no marks. Your lady and mistress is not at all impressed by your cleverness and talent, my dear reader—not in the slightest. Give her a man who can do an errand neatly, without attempting to use his own judgment over it or any nonsense of that kind; and who can be trusted to hold a child the right way up, and not make himself objectionable whenever there is lukewarm mutton for dinner. That is the sort of a husband a sensible woman likes; not one of your scientific or literary nuisances, who go upsetting the whole house and putting everybody out with their foolishness.