Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 31 - Fashion

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WHEN a man applies himself soberly to reflect upon the fitness of things in general, and of their in several tendencies towards the great End, of what a whirligig of vanity and inutility—of waste and glitter—the Great World seems to consist! All these flounces and furbelows: all this crinoline, bergamot, paste and jewellery, wax-chandlery, Brussels lace and Sèvres china; all those jobbed horses, silken squabs, double and triple knocks, tags and embroideries and fripperies of the Heralds’ College, what are they good for ?—-what end do they serve ? All those mountebank bowings and reverences; these kissings of hands and backing out of rooms of lath and plaster; these clatterings about streets for the purpose of bandying pieces of engraved pasteboard; these grinnings to your fellow worm of five feet long across a glass of grape juice; these bawlings out of names by lacqueys; these posturings and jumpings, and agonies of etiquette; and turning day into night and night into day, and eating when we are not hungry, and drinking when we are not thirsty: all these, the life-chords of the Great World, to what end are they? Who commanded them? Who promulgated the statutes that regulate them? If Fashion were a tangible idol with a frontal protuberance and a golden head, squatting on his hams in a pagoda like Juggernaut, we should not need, to wonder at his votaries wearing absurd dresses and passing their lives in the performance of more absurd ceremonies. We might set down the worship to be a delusion; but we might concede the dresses and the ceremonies to be the offspring of a sincere though mistaken superstition, and to be typical or symbolic of something. But my lady Azalea, the Queen of the world of Fashion, is a member of the Church of England, as by law established, and she would be indignant if you were to ask her whether she worshipped a protuberant idol. Besides, Fashion is not tangible or palpable. No one ever saw Fashion, or drew his (or her?) portrait, or promulgated the conditions of his (or her?) creed, or taught what is heterodox or what orthodox; except one vulgar pretender who wrote a Handbook of Etiquette; which, for any authority it was grounded on, might as well have been a handbook to the Bear Garden.
[-361-] What are the laws of Fashion, and who made them? Who regulates their absurdities and their proprieties? It was the height of fashion in Charles the Second’s time to display about four inches of white shirt between the waistband and the vest; now if I were to enter a ball-room with my shirt bulging from the bottom of my waistcoat I should be bowed down stairs. Why should Fashion in sixteen hundred and sixty- three be beauty, and impropriety in eighteen hundred and fifty-nine? Can anything be absurder than the present chimney-pot hat? Nothing. Yet, if you were to meet me in Regent Street with a hunting cap, a shovel hat, a sombrero, or a fur porringer like that which Henry of Lantcaster wore— would you speak to me? The day after tomorrow velvet skulls, shovel hats, flip-flaps, or rabbit-skin porringers may be the only wear. Why should the bishop have refused to ordain Oliver Goldsmith, because he wore scarlet breeches? What are wigs, boots, colours, fashionable virtues, fashionable vices, bon ton, high breeding, worth, after all? Will they save ‘the sprightliness of youth, the fair cheeks and full eyes of childhood, the vigorousness and strong flexure of the joints, of twenty-five,’ from the ‘hollowness and deadly paleness, the loathsomeness and horror of a three days’ burial?’ Will they avail us one jot in the day when you and I and all the world, ‘nobles and learned, kings and priests, the wise and the foolish, the rich and the poor, the prevailing tyrant and the oppressed party shall all appear to receive their symbol?’ ‘Will Fashion and Madame Devy and the Red-book keep the ‘storm from the ship or a wrinkle from the brow, or the plague from a King’s house?’ Is the world any better for Fashion, and could it not move towards its end without Fashion, do you think?
‘A man,’ says a divine I love to quote, ‘may read a sermon the best and most passionate that ever man preached, if he shall but enter into the supulchre of kings * * * * where our kings have been crowned, their ancestors lie interred, and the king must walk over his grandsire’s head to take the crown.’ Now what a homily might a man read over second-hand court dresses, over a Court Circular, or over a Red-book two years old! How sharp one might be upon the miserable vanity of superfluities, and the uselessness of luxuries. How easily we could do without them.
     ‘Give but to nature that which nature needs,
     Man’s life is cheap as beasts.'
[-362-] You, and I, and the king, could live on sixpence a day, and never go hungry. But after all, in the very midst and flow of this our homilies and this sharpness of our exhortation, comes this thought to make us pause before we go with unwashed faces to live in a tub like Diogenes, or to hide ourselves in a cave, and cover ourselves with the skins of wild beasts, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau talked of doing, or to dig up pig-nuts for food, and shovel gold away as if it were mud, like Timon in the play. For we begin to think how many thousand men and women in England, and how many millions more throughout the world, earn their daily bread by making and vending Fashion’s elegant trumpery ;—gloves, fans, spangles, scents, and bon-bons: how ships, colonies, and commerce, are all mixed up in a curious yet congruous elaboration with these fal-lals : how one end of the chain may be my lady’s boudoir and its knick-knacks in Belgravia, and the other end a sloppy ship-dock on the hot strand of the Hooghly; how the beginnings of a ball supper, with its artificial flowers, its trifles, its barley-sugar temples, its enamelled baskets and ratifia cakes, were the cheerless garret and the heated cellar: how the Immensities of the world—its workshops, and marts, and bourses, and chambers of commerce—are, after all, only an accumulation of these fashionable littlenesses in bulk; packed into huge bales and casks, registered in ledgers and day-books, and sent and re-sent in strong ships, with bills of lading and charter-parties, to the uttermost ends of the earth. Pause before you condemn Vanity Fair—reflect for a minute before you run to the justice’s to have its charter taken away. Obadiah Broadbrim has helped to stock it; conventicles have been built from its profits; the crumbs that fall from its table feed millions of mouths. Nor does the beneficence of Fashion end here. After she has made one set of fortunes at first hand she showers her favours on trade at second-hand. From second-hand court dresses, and from second-hand fashion of all kinds, the moral of Fashion can be more strongly pointed, than from Fashion herself when arrayed. in all her glory.
Let us instance Mrs. Brummus. She is the mysterious female who deals in second-hand ladies’ apparel. I look upon Mrs. Brummus’s vast silent repository of last season’s varieties with the awe I have for a family vault; for the scenery of a worn-out pantomime ; for undertakers’ Latin (in oil colours); for last year’s Belle Assemblée, or for the tailor’s [-363-] plate of the fashions and the Court Guide for the year eighteen hundred and fifty-eight.
Mrs. Brummus’s repository nestles as Milton’s fountain did, in ‘the navel of a wood,’ quite in the core of a cancer of dingy, second-hand streets and houses. Both Mrs. Brummus and her shop have, moreover, a dingy, faded, second-hand appearance. They remind you of the magnificent allocution of the lady to the quondam dealer in second-hand apparel in Congreve’s comedy; ‘ You that I took from darning of old lace and washing of old gauze, with a blue-black nose over a chafing-dish full of starved embers, behind a traverse-rag, in a shop no bigger than a bird-cage!’ The chafing-dish and the blue-black nose may be gone; but there is yet a marvellous touch of the bird-cage about Mrs. Brummus’s shop: there is yet the traverse-rag, the torn 1ace to be darned, and the old gauze to be washed.
Enter. Here is the discarded wardrobe of those enchanting actresses, those ravishing songtresses, those bewitching dancers, who have so enthralled and delighted Fashion; who have drawn rapturous plaudits from Fashion’s kid-gloved hands; melting sighs from under Fashion’s white waistcoats; tender glances from Fashion’s double-barrelled lorgnettes; lisps of praise from Fashion’s mustachioed lips, when the wearers of those dresses acted, and sang, and danced on Fashion’s great chalked stage—upon that stage where there are more sinks and rises, more drops, flats, borders, set pieces, wings, and floats; where there are more changes of scene, spangled vanities, more going down graves and vampire traps; where there are more music, dancing, gay clothes, red and white paint, hollow hearts and masks for them to wear, than you would find on the stage of the largest playhouse in the world. Suspended and recumbent, folded up, stretched out, singly and in heaps, in Mrs. Brummus’s birdcage shop in dimly distant crypts, and parlours, and crannies, and cupboards, and lumbering old presses, and groaning shelves, are the crimson velvet dresses of duchesses, the lace that queens have worn, our grandmothers’ brocaded sacks and hoops and high-heeled shoes, fans, feathers, silk stockings, lace pocket-handkerchiefs, scent-bottles, the Brussels lace veil of the bride, the sable bombazine of the widow, embroidered parasols, black velvet mantles, pink satin slips; blue kid, purple prunella, or white satin shoes; leg of mutton, bishop, Mameluke sleeves; robes without bodies and bodies without [-364-] robes, and sleeves without either; the matron’s apron and the opera dancer’s skirt. Here is Fashion in undress, without its whalebone, crinoline, false hair, paint, and pearl powder; here she is tawdry, tarnished, helpless, inert, dislocated, like Mr. Punch’s company in the deal box, he carries strapped behind his back.
If there be one article of commerce which Fashion delights in more than another, it is Lace. The rich products of Mechlin, Valenciennes, Brussels, and Liege; the scarcely less valuable wares of Nottingham and Honiton; the almost price­less remnants of  'old point' — 'beggars’ lace'—the lace that Henrietta Maria loved to wear and Vandyck to paint. Not one of Mrs. Brummus’s tattered morsels of lace but has its history and its moral. Here is the veil in which poor Clara Rackleton was married to Captain Middleman. They had a grand estate (grandly encumbered) at Ballyragget in the county Galway. Charley Middleman kept hounds and open house; and his widow lives now in a boarding-house at Tours with her two daughters. Clara’s Brussels lace veil was not sold by her lady’s maid nor by the bride herself. It was neither lost nor stolen; but Captain Middleman, formerly of the twenty-fifth Hussars, privately conveyed Mrs. Middleman’s veil, together with two ostrich feathers and a carved ivory Chinese fan, to Mrs. Brummus’s emporium. He drove the bargain, he pocketed time money, and he lost that same money half an hour afterwards at chicken-hazard, at the Little Nick near Leicester Square.
A wedding-dress—all white satin, lace, and silver sprigs. Methinks I can see it now, glistening and sparkling in the August sun, and rustling and crumpling in the August air, as at the close of the London season its beautiful wearer descends that ugly narrow little staircase, which has been a ladder of delight to so many, a via dolorosa to so many more, and which leads from the vestry-room of St. George’s, Hanover Square, into Maddox Street. The wearer of the satin dress comes down the shabby steps a wedded bride. She is married to a lord; a duke has given her away. Fourteen young bridesmaids in white have wept at the responses. Two have fainted, and one has been carried into the vestry, to be sal-volatilised. A nervous clergyman has addressed. the bride-expectant as ‘Thomas, wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded wife?’ The bridegroom has been seized with the usual deadly perturbation, and offered to place the ring on the [-365-] finger of the pew-opener; and the clerk, while gravely correcting the errors of all parties, has viewed the whole proceedings with an air of deep misanthropy. At last, somehow or other, the right man has married the right woman; the pew­opener and beadle have been feed, and the verger remembered; the clergyman has had his rights and the clerk his dues. The licence has been conned over; the register has been signed—by the bridegroom in character meant to be very valiant and decided, but in reality very timorous and indistinct; by the bride with no pretence or compromise, but in a simply imbecile and hysterical manner; by the father of the bride in a neat hand I should like to see at the bottom of a cheque; and by big General Gwallyor of the Indian army (the additional witness) in a fierce military manner, with a dash at the end like an oath. The little boys have shouted, and the wedding-carniage, with its crimson-vested post-boys and spanking grays, has clattered up; the policemen have put down an imaginary riot, threatened with their batons the crowd generally, and menaced with arrest one individual lamp-post; and then, shining out like a star among the silver favours and orange flowers, the snowy dresses and black dress coats, the smiles and tears, comes the bride: God bless her! Is there a sight more beautiful under heaven than a young bride coming out of church? Can you forget Sir John Suckling's beautiful lines in his ballad upon a wedding?-
     ‘Her feet beneath her petticoat
     Like little mice stole in and out,
     As if they feared the light.
     And then she dances such a way,
     No sun upon an Easter-day
     Is half so fine a sight.’ * [*Founded on a beautiful old superstition of the English peasantry that the sun dances upon an Easter morning.]
Now, alas! my lord is at Florence, my lady is in furnished lodgings in London, and the bride’s dress is at Mrs. Brummus’s. There was an action at law in the Court of Probate and Matrimonial Causes respecting them not long since; and numberless suits in all sorts of courts are pending between them now. My lord hates my lady, and my lady hates my lord; and they write abusive letters against each other to their mutual friends.
Fashion is born, is married, and dies every year, and Fashion is buried in Mrs. Brummus’s dusky shop; she watches [-366-] its funeral pyre, and superintends the process of its incineration; until, phoenix-like, it rises again from its ashes to die again.
Fashion dies. It is so far like a prince or a rich man that while it lives we dress it up in purple and fine linen, and fall down and worship it, and quarrel with and hate our brothers and sisters, for a smile from our demi-god, for a card for Fashion’s balls or the entrée to Fashion’s back-stairs. But no sooner is the demi-god dead than we utterly desert and forget it. We do not condescend, as in the case of dead. humanity, to fold its rottenness in gold and crimson velvet, to build a marble monument above it, sculptured all over with lies; to state in an inscription that beneath reposed the ashes of such and such a most noble, high, mighty, powerful Prince Fashion, who was a father to his subjects, and a model to his compeers, and was in short the very best Fashion that ever was known, and the first fashionable gentleman in the world. No, we allow the corpse of Fashion to putrefy in the glitter, or to be eaten up by the vultures and the storks, and adjutant birds. There have been kings even treated as cavalierly. When the luxurious Louis Quinze lay at the point of death, the noise of the courtiers deserting their monarch to pay their respects to the new king elect echoed through the long galleries of Versailles like thunder. When the old king was dead they crammed his miserable body (he died of the most horrible form of small-pox) into a box, amid jolted him off in a post-chaise by night to St. Denis, where they flung him into rather than buried him in the sepulchre of his ancestors. So do we act by our dead King Fashion—adding even insult to injury; for, after his death we scoff and jeer at him, and are tremendously satirical upon the ridiculous, hideous, frightful, preposterous fashion that he was. It is my opinion that if Messrs. Banting and Prance were to confine themselves to performing the funerals of Fashion, they would cease to be the fashionable undertakers they are.
Fashion is greater than king or kaiser when he is alive; but dead, he is of no more account than a broken egg-shell. Le roi est mort—vive le roi! Leg-of-mutton sleeves and short waists are dead. Long live tight sleeves and long waists!