Saturday, January 25, 2003

Woman's Dress -- The Folk-lore of Women -- by T.F. Thistelton-Dyer

"A woman of light, garmented in light."
SHELLEY, The Witch of Atlas

"THE true ornament of a woman," writes Justin, "is virtue, not dress;" but the love of finery, whether rightly or wrongly, has always been held to be one of the inherent weaknesses of womankind, and an old proverb says that "'tis as natural for women to pride themselves on fine clothes as 'tis for a peacock to spread his tall," with which may be compared an Eastern proverb, "A woman without ornament is like a field without water." But, perhaps, there is some excuse for this love of vanity, especially as dress pleases the opposite sex, it being popularly supposed in Spain that "A well-dressed woman draws her husband from another woman's door." It is said in Japan that "An ugly woman dreads the mirror," and some allowance must, therefore, be made for her desire to make up, in some measure, by dress what she lacks in good looks, although the proverb runs in Italy that "ugly women finely dressed are the uglier for it." This, however, must not be regarded as the popular verdict, a Tamil aphorism being not far wrong when it recommends us to "put jewellery on a woman and to look at her, and to plaster a wall and to look at it," implying that both will be improved by care. This advice, says Mr. Jensen, is generally given by a mother to one who confesses that her daughter is not exactly a beauty. Even Ovid was forced to complain that "dress is most deceptive, for, covered with jewels and gold ornaments everywhere, a girl is often the least part of herself;" with which may be compared the expression of Euripides, which is to this effect, "She who dresses for others beside her husband, makes herself a wanton."

It has long, however, been a familiar adage in most countries that "fine feathers make fine birds"; for, as the Spanish say, "No woman is ugly when she is dressed;" and, according to the Chinese proverb, "Three-tenths of a woman's good looks are due to nature, seven-tenths to dress;" a piece of proverbial lore which holds good in most countries.

It is not surprising that woman's dress has been much caricatured by wits and satirists, and been made the subject of many a piece of proverbial lore. As Plautus observed of a certain young lady, "it's no good her being well dressed if she's badly mannered; ill-breeding mars a fine dress more than dirt"--in other words, he meant to imply that dress is oftentimes deceptive and creates a false appearance, which is not in keeping with the woman who wears it. Many of our old proverbs are to the same effect, an oft-quoted one affirming that "fine clothes oftentimes hide a base descent," with which may be compared the following: "Fine dressing is a foul house swept before the doors," an illustration of which Ray thus gives, "Fair clothes, ornaments and dresses, set off persons and make them appear handsome, which, if stripped of them, would seem but plainly and homely. God makes and apparel shapes." Extravagant dress has been universally condemned as emblematic of bad taste, and, among Hindustani proverbs on the subject, a woman too showily dressed is described as "yellow with gold and white with pearls." A Tamil proverb, speaking of an elaborately-dressed woman, says, "It is true she is adorned with flowers and gold, but she is beaten with slippers wherever she goes;" in other words, such a woman, however well dressed, is a bad character, and must be treated with scorn; a variation of this maxim being thus: "If you dress in rags and go out, you will be an object for admiration, but, if you dress up nicely and go out, people will speak ill of you," thinking that you are an overdressed woman, and, therefore, inclined to be fast. Among German proverbs we are reminded that "A woman strong in flounces is weak in the head."

In Hindustani proverbial lore an old woman extravagantly dressed is contemptuously described "as an old mare with a red bridle," and "a gay old woman with a mat petticoat," and, according to another proverb, when a young girl not gifted with good looks is seen elaborately dressed, it is said, "On the strength of what beauty do you deck yourself thus?"

The inconsistency of dress when the home is poor and shabby has been much censured, an Eastern proverb running thus--"Nothing in the house and she sports a topaz ring," with which may be compared another saying, "Nothing to eat or drink in the house, and the lady of it very proud."

But the chief charm of a woman's dress is consistency, as it is thus expressed in a Sindhi proverb--

"As the wall so the painting,
As the face so the adornment."
Similarly, it is commonly said that "fine words dress ill deeds," and hence we are told on the Continent, "the swarthy dame, dressed fine, deceives the fair one." It may be remembered, also, that the same idea occurs in "The Taming of the Shrew" (act iv. sc. 3):--

"What, is the jay more precious than the lark,
Because his feathers are more beautiful?
Or is the adder better than the eel,
Because his painted skin contents the eye?"
Accordingly proverbial lore in most parts of the world warns men against selecting a wife by her outward appearance, which is often deceptive; and a common Spanish adage says, "If you want a wife choose her on Saturday, not on Sunday;" in other words, choose her when she is not decked out in her finery, otherwise a man may regret his mistake in the words of one of Heywood's proverbs:--

"I took her for a rose, but she breedeth a burr,
She cometh to stick to me now in hir lacke."
On the other hand, true beauty needs no adornment, or outward display, to enhance its charms, for, as it is said in Scotland, "A bonny bride is sune buskit," that is, soon dressed, or, as the Portuguese say, "a well-formed figure needs no cloak," an adage which coincides with Thomson's poetic words:--

"Her polished limbs
Veiled in a simple robe, their best attire,
Beyond the pomp of dress; for loveliness
Needs not the foreign aid of ornament,
But is, when unadorn'd, adorn'd the most."
However well dressed a woman may be, her nature remains the same, for, as the French say:--

"An ape's an ape, a varlet's a varlet,
Though she be drest in silks and scarlet."
And, among the many German proverbs to the same effect, it is said, "The maid is such as she was bred, and tow as it was spun," and "Once a housemaid never a lady," which remind us of the popular adage, "There's no making a silk purse out of a sow's ear," and there is a Sindhi maxim which has the same moral, "Beads about the neck and the devil in heart."

Another proverb, which, under a variety of forms, is found in our own and other countries, runs thus--"Let no woman's painting breed thy heart's fainting," because women who thus adorn themselves have always been subject to reproach; for, as the old adage says, "A good face needs no paint," or, as another version has it, "Fair faces need no paint."

Such a practice as that of rouging, too, has been generaIly discountenanced, since it has, from a very early period, been the recognised emblem of a fast woman, for it has long been said that "A harlot's face is a painted sepulchre," and as the Italian adage runs--"Women rouge that they may not blush." Hence we are told that "A woman who paints puts up a bill to let," with which we may compare the popular adage--"A woman and a cherry are painted for their own harm." The same idea exists in most countries, and there is a Chinese proverb to this effect--"I guess that a good-looking woman needs no rouge to make her pretty;" and it is further said that, "although the rouged beauty repudiates age, she cannot come up to the bloom of youth."
As "blemishes are unseen by night," according to an old Latin proverb, when dress, artfully arranged, presents most women in their most attractive form, their admirers were warned against falling into their meshes at such a time; for, as it is still commonly said by our French neighbours, "By candlelight a goat looks a lady," and on this account we are recommended by the Italians not to choose "A jewel, or a woman, or linen, by candlelight." It may be added that this idea has given rise to a host of proverbs much to the same effect, such as, "When candles be out all cats be grey," and "Joan is as good as my lady in the dark."

It has long been proverbial that the "smith's mare and the cobbler's wife are always the worst shod," a truism which, under one form or another, is found in most countries, a Sindhi adage running thus--"Her lover, an oilman, and yet her hair dirty;" and there is the Hindu proverb, "A shoemaker's wife with bursted shoes," with which we may compare the German proverb, "Anxious about her dress, but disregarding her appearance," in connection with which we may quote Heywood's couplet:--

"But who is worse shod than the shoemaker's wife,
With shops full of new shoes all her life?"
and the old English proverb, "The tailor's wife is worst clad."

Woman's dress, again, has from time immemorial been strongly censured in our proverbial lore as productive of extravagance, and Ovid's words have long ago passed into a popular adage, "What madness it is to carry all one's income on one's back." Among modern poets Cowper, too, wrote in the same strain:--

"We sacrifice to dress, till household joys
And comforts cease. Dress drains our cellars dry,
And keeps our larder clean; puts out our fires,
And introduces hunger, frost, and woe,
Where peace and hospitality might reign."
And Chinese proverbial lore says, "Do not marry wives or concubines who are gorgeously fine." There are other disadvantages, for, whereas it is said, "Silks and satins put out the fire in the kitchen," household duties are neglected, for one of Heywood's proverbs reminds us that "the more women look into the glass the less they look to the house," a German version running thus--"a woman who looks much in the glass spins but little;" and we may compare the French saying, "A handsome landlady is bad for the purse;" but, on the other hand, we are told "that's the best gown that goes up and down the house." Whatever the opinion of the fair sex may be on this point, we would quote the wisdom of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," (act iv. sc. 3):--

"Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,
For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds
So honour peereth in the meanest habit."
But, whatever censures may be passed on a woman's love of dress, she generally has some answer in defence. A puritan preacher once rebuked a young girl who had just been making her hair into ringlets, "Ah," said he, "had God intended your locks to be curled, He would have curled them for you." "When I was an infant," replied the damsel, "He did, but now I am grown up He thinks I am able to do it myself."

At the same time, slovenly dress has been equally condemned, and, according to a popular adage, "A pretty girl and a tattered garment are sure to find some hook in the way," which is similar to the Italian expression, "A handsome woman and a slashed gown;" which coincide with the old English maxim--

"A maid oft seen, a gown oft worn,
Are disesteemed and held in scorn."
A piece of Suffolk folk-lore tells us that "If you have your clothes mended on your back, you will be ill-spoken of," or, as they add in Sussex, "you will come to want;" and in the Isle of Man one may often hear the couplet:--

"Snotty boy, clean man,
Snotty girl, slut of a woman"--
the idea apparently being that a dirty, untidy girl will never improve, as she is wanting in proper pride in her appearance; but that a dirty boy will probably improve, as a lad who is too much concerned with his looks is not likely to do much good in after life! It was formerly, too, a common belief in most parts of the country that clothes were, more or less, indicative of a woman's prosperity, a notion which is found in the Hindustani lore, "when the clothes are torn poverty has arrived."

There is a very prevalent belief among women that, if they would secure luck with any article of dress, they must wear it for the first time at church. Equal attention is also paid by many of the fair sex to the way they put on each article of dress, as, in case of its being accidentally inside out, it is considered an omen of success. In our northern counties, again, if a young woman accidentally puts a wrong hook, or button, into the hole when dressing in the morning, it is considered to be a warning that a misfortune of some kind will befall her in the course of the day, and any mishap, however trivial, is regarded as a proof of her fears having been well founded.

Most of these childish fancies retain their hold on the fair sex, and where is the young lady to be found who is not mindflil of the admonition--

"At Easter let your clothes be new,
Or else be sure you will it rue."
A similar belief also prevails in connection with Whitsuntide, and many a girl would consider she had forfeited her claim to good luck for the ensuing twelve months if she did not appear in "new things on Whit Sunday."
Many, also, are the strange fancies relative to colour in dress, and the time-honoured rhyme is as much in force to-day as in years long ago which tell us that--

"Green is forsaken,
And yellow is forsworn,
But blue is the prettiest colour that's worn"--
a piece of folk-lore which specially appertains to weddings.
According to a folk-rhyme current in the southern counties:--

"Those dressed in blue
Have lovers true,
In green and white,
Forsaken quite."
And another old proverbial rhyme says:--

"Blue is true, Yellow's jealous,
Green's forsaken, Red's brazen,
White is love, and Black is death."
From its popularity blue has held a prominent place in love philactery, and one of many rhymes says:--

"If you love me, love me true,
Send me a ribbon, and let it be blue;
If you hate me, let it be seen,
Send me a ribbon, a ribbon of green."
Mr. Morris, in his "Yorkshire Folk-Talk" (1892, pp. 227-28), writes that in some of the North Riding dales the antipathy to green as a colour for any part of the bridal costume is still very strong. "I was once at a farmhouse in a remote district near Whitby," he says, "and when discussing olden times and customs with an elderly dame was informed there were many she knew in her younger days who would rather have gone to the church to be married in their common everyday costume than in a green dress. My informant, however, was evidently one of those who held the same faith on this point as her lady companions, for she instanced a case that had come under her own observation where the bride was rash enough to be married in green, but it was added that she afterwards contracted a severe illness."

Blue, again, would appear to be in ill-favour for the wedding dress, as the bride--

"If dressed in blue,
She's sure to rue."
And yet in Leicestershire it is said that a bride on her wedding day should wear--

"Something new,
Something blue,
Something borrowed;"
or, as a Lancashire version puts it--

"Something old and something now,
Something borrowed and something blue."
The various articles of a woman's clothing, too, have their separate fancies attached to them, which, in some instances, have not only been incorporated by our peasantry in local jingles and rhymes, but occasionally have been made the subject of childish similes. Thus the poppy is commonly said to have a red petticoat and a green gown, the daffodil a yellow petticoat and green gown, and so on, fanciful ideas of this kind being expressed in many of our nursery couplets, as in the following

"Daffadown-dilly is come up to town,
In a yellow petticoat and a green gown";
with which may be compared a Hindustani doggerel, the accuracy of which is only too true--

"Says the hemp, I am of gorgeous hue;
Says the poppy, I am king of the world;
But says the opium, I am a lady-love,
Who takes me once takes me for ever."
A well-known saying in Leicestershire of another class says "Shake a Leicestershire woman by the petticoat, and the beans will rattle in her throat," an expression which originated in the large quantity of that grain grown in this county, which caused it to be nicknamed "Bean Belly Leicestershire." There is another version applied to the opposite sex, which runs thus "Shake a Leicestershire man by the collar, and you shall hear the beans rattle in his belly."

If a young woman's petticoats are longer than her dress this is an indication that her mother does not love her so much as her father; and, according to a Yorkshire belief, when a married woman's apron falls off it is a sign that something is coming to vex her; but should the apron of an unmarried girl drop down she is frequently the object of laughter, as there is no surer sign that she is thinking about her sweetheart. In Suffolk the big blue apron usually worn by cottage women is known by them as a "mantle," and it is considered an omen of ill-luck if their mantle strings some untied.

Odd beliefs of this kind might easily be enumerated, for even a pin is an object of superstition with most women, who invariably, on seeing one, pick it up for the sake of good luck, as, by omitting to do so, they run into imminent danger of incurring misfortune, a notion embodied in the subjoined familiar rhyme:--

"See a pin and pick it up,
All the day you'll have good luck;
See a pin and let it lie,
All the day you'll have to cry."
But why North-country women should be so persistent in their refusal to give one another a pin it is not easy to discover, for when asked for a pin they invariably reply, "You may take one, but, mind, I do not give it." This prejudice may, perhaps, have some connection with the vulgar superstition against giving a knife or any sharp instrument, as mentioned by Gay in his Shepherd's Week:--
"But woe is me! such presents luckless prove,
For knives, they tell me, always sever love."

Previous Index Next