Friday, March 28, 2014

Simeon Strunsky in 1913


Simeon Strunsky (1879-1948) was a Jewish-American essayist and editorial writer.  He wrote with a sense of humor that seems to me to be rather close, in its subtlety and reserve, to high-toned British humor.  The following essay — one of his more rambunctious ones — was published during 1913 in the Saturday Magazine of the New York Evening Post and collected the following year in Strunsky's book Post-Impressions: An Irresponsible Chronicle.


XXI

Sheath-Gowns

From Emmeline I learned that I had been doing the fashion designers an injustice.  I had always imagined that styles were the creation of Parisian dressmakers who worked with only two ends in view—novelty and discomfort.  But Emmeline assured me that styles are a faithful record of the march of civilisation.  When the Manchurian War was under way, everything in the shops was Russian.  When Herr Strauss produced "Salome," half the world went in for the slim and viperous costume.  The revolution in Persia worked a revolution in blouse decoration.  Later everything was Bulgarian.

"In that case," I said, "those poor fellows at Adrianople have not died in vain.  Under a rain of shot and shell I can hear the Bulgarian officers rallying their men: 'Forward, my children! The eyes of Fifth Avenue are upon you! Fix bayonets! For King, for country, and for Paquin!'  The Turks, being a backward millinery nation, naturally had no chance."

"What you say is extremely amusing, of course," remarked Emmeline.  "But I seem to remember an old suit of yours.  It was about the time of the Boer War.  The coat was cut like an hour glass and there was cotton wadding in the shoulders so that you had to enter a room sideways.  The trousers were Zouave.  Yes, it must have been about the time of the Boer War or the war with Spain."

"That was just when the feminist movement was beginning to shape our ideals," I retorted.

Not only do the styles symbolise the process of historic evolution—I distinctly recall toilets on Fifth Avenue which must have commemorated the Messina earthquake and the report of the New York Tenement House Commission—but styles actually follow an evolution of their own.  They do not change abruptly, but melt into each other.  Thus the costume which Emmeline described as Bulgarian could not have been altogether that.  The coat was military enough, with its baggy shoulders and a bold backward sweep of the long skirts.  But this coat was worn over a gown that was unmistakably hobble, revealing the persistence of the Salome influence.  To call this outfit Bulgarian is to raise the supposition that the Bulgarians hopped to victory at Kirk-Kilisseh.

I pointed this out to Emmeline, and at the same time took occasion to protest against the extravagant lengths to which the languorous styles were being carried.  It was bad enough, I said, to see elderly matrons arrayed like Oriental dancing girls.  But what was worse was to see young girls, mere children, in scant and provocative attire.  I thought the law might very well take up the question of a minimum dress for women under the age of eighteen.

"Of course it's disgusting," said Emmeline, "but it's their right."

"I know that youth has many rights," I said, "but I didn't know that the right to make one's self a public nuisance and offence is among them."

"What I mean," said Emmeline, "is that we have outgrown the days when young ladies fainted and wives fetched their husbands' slippers.  We have broken the shackles of mid-Victorian propriety and are working out a new conception of free womanhood.  Our ideas of modesty are changing.  You might as well make up your mind to be shocked quite frequently before the process is completed."

"Oh, I see," said I. "Enslaved within the iron circle of the home, crushed by the tyranny of convention, of custom, of man-made laws, woman lifts up her head and declares she will be free by inserting herself into a skirt thirteen inches in diameter.  Where's the sense of it?"

"It's all very simple," said Emmeline.  "It means that we are having an awful time trying to escape from the degradation into which you have forced us.  We struggle forward, and then the habits of the harem civilisation which you have imposed on us assert themselves.  Do you think we women love to dress?  Every time we try on a pretty gown we know that we are riveting on the chains of our own servitude."

"But why make the chains so tight?" I said.

She now turned to face me.

"The reason for the sheath-gown is quite plain," said Emmeline.  "Men have always shown such a decided preference for actresses and dancing girls that we others have taken to imitating actresses and dancing girls in self-defence."

"But that isn't so at all," I said.  "Look at your trained nurses in their simple white caps and aprons.  They are bewitching. It is universally conceded that the most dangerous thing in the world is for an unmarried man to be operated on for appendicitis.  That was the way, you'll recall, Adam obtained his wife—after a surgical operation.  The case of the hospital nurse alone disposes of your entire argument about our predilection for dancing girls."

"That I do not admit," said Emmeline.  "It is true that a man finds himself longing for what is simple and wholesome whenever there is something the matter with him."

"When I spoke of the immodesty of present-day fashions," I said, adroitly turning the subject, "I am afraid I gave you the wrong impression.  It isn't the viciousness of the thing that I object to, it's the stupid, sheeplike spirit of imitation behind it.  If the passion for tight gowns indicated a kind of spiritual development, I shouldn't mind it even if it was development in the wrong direction.  There might be an erring soul in the hobble, but still a soul.  If the young girl of good family who strives to look like a lady of the chorus did so out of sheer perversity, there would be some comfort.  One must think and feel to be perverse.  What appals me is the dreadful, unquestioning innocence with which the thing is done.  If we males are indeed responsible for what you are, then we have a real burden on our souls.  We have done more than degrade you; we have made automata out of you.  The little girl behind the soda counter who paints her face and hangs jet spangles from her ears will just as readily comply with fashion by putting on a military cape and boots, or a pony coat, or calico and a sunbonnet, or an admiral's uniform, or a yashmak."

"A what?" said Emmeline, frowning slightly.
 
"A yashmak," I replied, meeting her gaze steadily.  "I use the word with confidence because I have just looked it up in the dictionary.  At first I confused it with sanjak, which, on examination, turns out to be a district in the Balkan Peninsula bounded on the east by Servia and on the north by Bosnia-Herzegovina.  A yashmak is the long veil worn by Moslem women to conceal the face and the outlines of the upper part of the body."

"You seem to have prepared pretty thoroughly for this discussion," said Emmeline.

"I have always considered it prudent before entering into debate with a woman to have a few facts on my side," I said.

"As if that made any difference," she replied scornfully.

"As to the sheeplike way in which women follow the fashions of the moment," continued Emmeline, "it simply isn't true."  I could see she was terribly in earnest now.  "There are tens of thousands of women who dress to please themselves; independent, courageous, self-reliant women who face life seriously and rationally.  We are going in more and more for loose and comfortable things to wear."

"Not the typical woman of to-day, I assure you."

"Of course not the typical woman," said Emmeline.  "Any exhibition of common-sense by a woman at once makes her a freak.  You prefer the other kind for your ideal of the eternal womanly.  Take her and welcome.  I suppose it is necessary for a man to have something worthless to work for."


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