September 22, 1851 — Literary Institute, Fitzroy Square, London, England
December 8, 1851 — The Assembly-room, Truro, England
[The lecturer appeared on the platform in Bloomer attire.]
[On the subject of tight lacing, &c. . . ] For this abuse no expressions are too strong. In the first address which I delivered to the pubic on the subject of dress reform, I designated the practice an infernal one, and I see no reason to retract the epithet. Surely if the ladies knew and considered the deadly results of this vicious practice, they would never adopt it. Many absurd and injurious fashions have at various times been introduced both into this country and others, and probably there never will be a time when such fashions will not exist; but of all the insidious contrivances that were ever employed to sap the foundation and shorten the term of human life, there is not one that approaches the fearful danger involved in this custom.
The opinions of medical men on the subject are decided and unanimous. The pressure exerted by tight stays operates precisely o those organs in which free exercise is absolutely essential to life. It is a fact stated on the authority of the highest medical writers, that in Great Britain alone thousands of young women at the most interesting period of life, are annually cut off by consumption, and of those the greater part are victims of the deplorable practice of tight lacing. This is very melancholy to think of; and after all, for what purpose is this reckless waste of life incurred? — that the ladies may form their persons into a shape different from that which nature intended. It ha snot even the recommendation of being more beautiful, though if it ere so, such an advantage would be dearly purchased by the loss of healthy, perhaps the loss of life. But all persons whose opinion is worth having, men whose lives have been passed in the stud of beauty, ridicule such an idea.
I will only ask, did you ever hear of a sculptor making a female statue with the waist reduced to those proportions which form the object of many a fashionable woman’s ambition? I allow that tight lacing does produce an effect, and a permanent effect on the figure. Besides the very slight inconvenience of producing indigestion, loss of appetite, headache, difficulty of breathing, and palpitation of the heart, it tends to cause a compression of the ribs, which leads to displacement of the scapula or blade-bone, and worst of all that distressing deformity curvature of the spine, one of the most unmanageable dislocations medial gentlemen are called on to treat. No doubt some gentlemen of the medical profession are among my audience, and I shall take it as an act of kindness if they correct me if I overstate the facts. You will perhaps reply, these effects do not appear in the persons of ladies who stand at the head of fashionable society. Allow me to inform you, that one half of the women of fashion are more or less deformed, and the contrivances which are made to conceal these deformities, if not known to my auditory, are well known amongst fashionable stay-makers.
Even supposing these articles of attire so adjusted as not to exert the violent pressure I have been referring to, still they must in almost all cases, impede in some degree the action of the lungs, the heart, the liver, and other parts of vital importance. And after all, why should stays be worn? If the object be to improve the shape of the body, it is altogether a mistaken notion, since without entering into any consideration of beauty in the abstract, it is not to be denied that a woman of a natural form is more beautiful than a woman of an unnatural one. The fact is that ladies have no excuse for wearing stays at all, unless they are labouring under some weakness which renders artificial support necessary. If I may be allowed to refer to my own experience, I can only say that I have discarded stays, bodices, and all belonging to them, for the last eight years, and that my health has during that period been better than at any previous period of my life. I now come to that part f the question which has more particularly attracted public attention, — I refer to the shortening of the skirts and the introduction of trousers as an article of female attire. Let us consider for a moment the nature of clothing in general.
Man is the only creature that wears clothing, because he is the only one that requires it. In the case of other animals their covering varies in thickness with the changes of the temperature, or perhaps they become torpid in winter, or perhaps they die. Many is able to accommodate himself to the variations, and in fact is compelled to do so. Dress, therefore in some form or others, becomes to him an important object. This then forms the first grand consideration, he preservation of life, and as connected with that, such an arrangement of clothing as well admit of that free and comfortable exercise which is necessary to health. But besides the mere question of health, another important point, by the consent of all nations, apparently by the dictate of nature, lays claim to our attention, namely the question of modesty. I need not dwell on this part of the subject further than to remark, that what precise amount of deference is to be paid to this matter, and in what way that deference shall be indicated, depends very much on the character of the climate, and local circumstances.
This is one of those cases in which our decision may vary, because the standard of judgment varies. There is, however, much false delicacy I the world, which is always to be regarded with suspicion, since as false delicacy advances, true modesty recedes. I believe the wo principles which I have mentioned, female healthy and modesty, are the only ones which must necessarily be considered in forming a judgment of any dress; the question of beauty is not of so much importance in the present argument. On the question of healthy and modesty, the new costume and the old one are at issue. I take part with the new. I do not apprehend that there is any lady among my auditors this evening, who will seriously deny that she has often experienced much inconvenience from the use of the long dresses at present in vogue. It is impossible it should be otherwise. If our sex were intended to sit still, or merely to engage in such occupations as require little freedom of motion, the case would be different. I fully and cheerfully acknowledge the splendid and imposing appearance of a magnificent long dress under such circumstances — sitting still.
For those who enjoy the privilege of sitting at their ease in carriages, and shining in splendid drawing-rooms, my arguments have no force, so long as those circumstances exist. But you must remember that there are millions of your sisters who seldom or never enjoy those luxuries, whose destiny leads them to spend their lives in active exertion and those who do enjoy them are placed by nature under the same necessity ,and endued with the same desire for a certain amount of vigorous exercise, which is an invariable condition of health and happiness. It is to this necessity for active exertion that I now wish to direct your attention. I had, like other ladies, long felt, and bitterly felt, the inconvenience arising from a long dress. My inclinations and circumstances led e to walk out very frequently. Of course I found my dress much in the way, yet strange to say I never thought of adopting a costume similar to that of Oriental women, till informed that a lady dwelling across the world of waters had been courageous enough to appear abroad in a visible trousers, — defying unfounded or fastidious criticism. I immediately resolved to imitate the example and the vast amount of comfort that followed amply justified the experiment. Perhaps it may not be out of pace to remind you of a moving panorama of ladies’ dresses on a wet and muddy day. Is it not the sight a very attractive one? Do you not admire those dressed embossed with mud, those multitudinous skirts saturated with wet, those stockings thickly painted with filth?
You are perfectly aware I am not drawing an over-charged picture. You know of all the disagreeable things presented to our view in walking through the streets of a large town on a rainy day, the dresses of the females are the most disagreeable. Now this need not be the case. I do not mean to assert that a lady walking out on a wet day can altogether escape the contamination of dirt; but I do say that the greater part of the mud usually contracted might be easily avoided, and that by the simple experiment of curtailing the dress. This ought to be quite a sufficient reason for adopting the alteration. Every one knows how great a recommendation neatness of appearance is to a woman; were it not so, her own feelings on the point ought to be sufficient to decide it.
Again, in fine clear summer weather, the long dresses are still open, though not in an equal degree, to the same objection; they still contract a great deal of dust, as every observer well knows. Sir Joseph Paxton said one of the great difficulties anticipate with respect to the Great Exhibition was that of keeping the floors clean. However, as he remarked on a public occasion, — for remember ladies, that these long petticoats become the topic of public conversation as well as my short ones, he remarked on a public occasion, that the difficulty was kindly obviated by the persevering exertions of the fair sex, whose flowing dresses were patriotically applied to this humble though necessary service. Shorten your petticoats, ladies, and leave all that work for brooms and broomers. Besides the amount of dirt contracted by these long dresses, they are most seriously in the way, — in the way of the wearer and in the way of everyone else. Watch a lady dressed in the usual style walking briskly along the streets in any weather, but especially during or after rain. Setting aside the probability of her having to carry an umbrella, reticule, or parcel, the attention demanded by her dress alone will entirely occupy one hand, perhaps both. This is a serious sacrifice, but unavoidable if she wishes to save it from being covered with dirt, and after all, the purpose is only half answered. She cannot prevent the pendant encumbrance from being half-covered with mud, and while the fair wearer is thus tormented in mind and body, there is often another martyr at her side in the shape of a male companion, who is not only burdened with everything portable the lady can dispense with, but has the mortification of finding his own dress forced into compulsory partnership with that of his undesirable companion. The gentlemen of this country are not to be complained of on the score of gallantry.
I believe there is no nation on earth where more kind and heartfelt attention is shown to the comfort of the female sex, though in some countries it may be more ostentatiously displayed. But it is somewhat hard that while ready to make any sacrificed to our convenience, they should be subjected to the mortification of being compelled to bear part of the accumulated dirt which their companion’s dresses have so wantonly collected. Indeed I fear this is a more serious evil than we generally imagine. I am convinced that we have been often cheated of many a rural sport and soul-exhilarating ramble because the gentlemen find our long dresses so much in the way. There is a limit to all human virtues, gallantry among the number. Besides the objection to long dresses on the ground of dirt, they are open to the equally serious one of impeding motion. It is well known that ladies, generally speaking, are incapacitated from any pace more rapid than a moderate walk; the attempts of a lady to run are always laughable, and not without reason, — they are ridiculous. At every step the dress is in the way, and the wearer is often obliged to stop, for fear of being thrown down.
Vigorous exercise is as important to females as to the other sex, and women are as much adapted to active energetic exercise as men; amongst savage nations the women often possess as much agility, and were as capable of bearing bodily fatigue as men. Female weakness is sometimes affected. [Burke said. . .] the peculiar appearance of delicacy is one incentive to love, and women being instinctively aware of this principle, naturally display as much of weakness as will suffice to excite a interest in the other sex. I must maintain, however, that to be admired is not the first or the most important point to which woman’s attention should be directed. She finds herself placed in a working world, with important active duties to perform, and anything that will improve her bodily health and mental faculties it is her duty to encourage, for her own physical and mental constitution are transmitted to her descendants male and female. [She quoted Paley to show the benefit of free and vigorous exercise. She then said . . . ] another objection to long dresses is their extravagance.
It is no uncommon thing — I am going to tell your secrets, ladies — it is no uncommon thing for a lady to have sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, even twenty yards of silk I have known to be crammed into one ordinary dress and body. Would it not be a source of more heart-felt satisfaction to you, ladies, if you were to retrench some of this superfluous expenditure, and devote the saving toward providing clothing, Dorcas-like, for the inform and indigent. I am afraid to ask you, gentlemen, whether you would approve of any such retrenchment. I was afraid your ready answers would fall too suddenly on the ladies ears. I maintain, then, that long dresses are inconvenient, unhealthy, dirty, and extravagant. Punch makes the “unprotected female” say to Mrs. Jones, “they (the long dresses) get draggled when it is wet, they trip us up when we walk; they entangle us when we run, and we we can’t get over a stile with them, and we are forced to hold them up when crossing, gentlemen rest their chairs upon them at dinner, and they don’t keep us warm when we are cold, and they blow over our heads when it is windy.” These objections it is proposed to be obviated by the simple expedient of shortening them. This involves the introduction of an article of dress not hitherto worn, at least not in a visible form by the ladies of this country, — the article of trousers. The word even has created a smile and a laugh; to mention the trousers of gentlemen is perfectly lawful, but to apply such a term to females, to whom they are equally suitable, becomes a subject of mirth. You don’t understand it, gentlemen. You may call them what you please, pantilettes or pettiloons, or any other fashionable name, I call them by their legitimate and established appellation, trousers. I am a great foe to half words and evasive terms.
[A voice calls out “breeches.”]
Thank you, gentlemen, not breeches, they don’t belong to us.
In reference to this subject an interest was excited, and in some societies an outcry was raised as if there were something wonderful and extravagant about it. what are the objections? It has been called an immodest dress. Of all objections that could have been raised against the new costume by the most fastidious persons, this ought to have been the last. Who does not know that under the resent system of dress, every street presents on a windy and dirty day such unconscious exhibitions as if known to the exhibitors. Gentlemen, it is not a laughing matter; it is sufficient to bring the burning blush to the cheek of modest womanhood. I appeal to any gentleman, any thinking gentleman, and the father of children. I appeal to any gentleman who has had occasion to walk behind ladies, perhaps richly dressed, on a dirty day, and holding up their dress to protect the troublesome paraphernalia as much as possible, — I appeal to any spectator whether the present style of dress has any claim to preference on the score of decency?
[After some further remarks of the same kind, she went on to state that the new mode of dress was more modest than the present style; and that ladies going on the sea-shore or other places to promenade, even now prepare themselves for the enjoyment of the glorious breeze by putting on those under articles of dress which have excited in the minds of some persons so much horror. She next answered the objection to the novelty of the dress she advocated; this objection of novelty she would leave to children and silly folks. She contended that the proposed alteration of female dress was an improvement, and said that trousers and short skirts had been always worn by the Turkish, Greek, and Asiatic women, and those of North Africa. She spoke of the absurd fashions that had existed in former times ,the wearing of monstrous hoops, of enormous head-dresses, &c., urging that fashion was the most capricious of all gods, and that the ladies should judge and act for themselves in regard to this new system of dress. She said it demanded no slight effort on her part to come out from the privacy of domestic life, and address public audiences in this way; it was a bold step, but having undertaken the duty, she was resolved not to shrink from it. Since her firs appearance on the 15th of September, she had addressed 40,000 persons in the various towns from Perth to Penzance, and from Boston Deeps to the Irish Sea, and amongst those persons, she said, were nobility of almost the highest rank. She disclaimed any eagerness to grasp at pecuniary emolument by thus lecturing in all parts of the kingdom. Sine she had commenced, multitude s of other ladies had taken up the cause, she had feared not always judiciously; but she disclaimed having any connexion with any of the other lecturers. She considered herself, to use the language of one of the papers, as the apostle of the dress reform. It is quite true, she said, that with a solitary exception here and there, we meet with no specimens of the new costume in the streets. But never mind; the expressions of private opinion which I am constantly receiving prove that the hesitation which exists in adopting the new system, does not arise from disapprobation. The very attention the subject has received has probably caused a delay in its visible results; but in the mean time the under-current of approbation is steadily flowing, and when the excitement of the question is gone off a little, we shall find one here, and another there peeping out in the new costume, till sufficient numbers will prevent any danger of singularity. She hoped the rising generation would universally adopt it; let them remain as they are in trousers, short petticoats, and hats, minus corsets, and then the change will not be observed, but be introduced in almost an imperceptible manner. She was convinced of the rationality of the dress, and in conclusion she said, it will eventually be universally adopted, when public curiosity has become satiated, and Punch has ceased to crack his jokes. The sarcasms and the sneers of that mighty engine, the Press, with all its artillery of ridicule, will not be able to do away with it, for it is based upon physiological and rational principles; therefore, ladies, heed them not, they are neither omnipotent nor unchangeable.
Mrs. Dexter then put on her hat and mantle, and left the room amidst loud applause.]
Source: The West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, December 12, 1851, p. 6.