America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat         Wu Tingfang

Chapter 10. American Costumes

Fashion is the work of the devil. When he made up his mind to enslave mankind
he found in fashion his most effective weapon. Fashion enthralls man,
it deprives him of his freedom; it is the most autocratic dictator,
its mandate being obeyed by all classes, high and low, without exception.
Every season it issues new decrees, and no matter how ludicrous they are,
everyone submits forthwith. The fashions of this season
are changed in the next. Look, for example, at women's hats; some years ago
the "merry widow" which was about two or three feet in diameter,
was all the rage, and the larger it became the more fashionable it was.
Sometimes the wearer could hardly go through a doorway.
Then came the hat crowned with birds' feathers, some ladies even placing
the complete bird on their hats -- a most ridiculous exhibition of bad taste.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should take up
the question of the destruction of birds for their plumage,
and agitate until the law makes it illegal to wear a bird on a hat.
Some may say that if people kill animals and birds for food
they might just as well wear a dead bird on their hats, if they wish
to be so silly, although the large majority of America's population,
I am sorry to find, sincerely believe meat to be a necessary article of diet;
yet who will claim that a dead bird on a hat is an indispensable article
of wearing apparel? Why do we dress at all? First, I suppose,
for protection against cold and heat; secondly, for comfort; thirdly,
for decency; and, fourthly, for ornament. Now does the dress of Americans
meet these requirements?

First, as regards the weather, does woman's dress protect her from the cold?
The fact that a large number of persons daily suffer from colds
arouses the suspicion that their dress is at fault. The body is neither
equally nor evenly covered, the upper portion being as a rule nearly bare,
or very thinly clad, so that the slightest exposure to a draught,
or a sudden change of temperature, subjects the wearer
to the unpleasant experience of catching cold, unless she is
so physically robust and healthy that she can resist all the dangers
to which her clothing, or rather her lack of clothing, subjects her.
Indeed ladies' dress, instead of affording protection sometimes
endangers their lives. The following extract from the "London Times"
-- and the facts cannot be doubted -- is a warning to the fair sex.
"The strong gale which swept over Bradford resulted in
an extraordinary accident by which a girl lost her life.
Mary Bailey, aged 16, the daughter of an electrician,
who is a pupil at the Hanson Secondary School, was in the school yard
when she was suddenly lifted up into the air by a violent gust of wind
which got under her clothes converting them into a sort of parachute.
After being carried to a height estimated by spectators at 20 feet,
she turned over in the air and fell to the ground striking the concreted floor
of the yard with great force. She was terribly injured and died
half an hour later." Had the poor girl been wearing Chinese clothing
this terrible occurrence could not have happened; her life would not
have been sacrificed to fashion.

As to the second point, comfort, I do not believe that the wearer of
a fashionable costume is either comfortable or contented. I will say nothing
of the unnecessary garments which the average woman affects,
but let us see what can be said for the tight corset binding the waist.
So far from being comfortable it must be most inconvenient,
a sort of perpetual penance and it is certainly injurious to the health.
I feel confident that physicians will support me in my belief
that the death-rate among American women would be less
if corset and other tight lacing were abolished. I have known of instances
where tight lacing for the ballroom has caused the death of enceinte women.

As to the third object, decency, I am not convinced that the American dress
fulfils this object. When I say American dress, I include also
the clothing worn by Europeans for both are practically the same.
It may be a matter of education, but from the Oriental point of view
we would prefer that ladies' dresses should be worn more loosely,
so that the figure should be less prominent. I am aware that this is a view
which my American friends do not share. It is very curious
that what is considered as indecent in one country is thought to be
quite proper in another. During the hot summers in the Province of Kiangsu
the working women avoid the inconveniences and chills of perspiration
by going about their work with nothing on the upper part of their bodies,
except a chest protector to cover the breasts; in Western countries
women would never think of doing this, even during a season of extreme heat;
yet they do not object, even in the depth of winter,
to uncovering their shoulders as low as possible when attending
a dinner-party, a ball, or the theater. I remember the case
of a Chinese rice-pounder in Hongkong who was arrested
and taken to the Police Court on a charge of indecency.
To enable him to do his work better he had dispensed with all his clothing
excepting a loin cloth; for this he was sentenced to pay a fine of $2,
or, in default of payment to be imprisoned for a week.
The English Magistrate, in imposing the fine, lectured him severely,
remarking that in a civilized community such primitive manners
could not be tolerated, as they were both barbarous and indecent.
When he said this did he think of the way the women of his country dress
when they go to a ball?

It must be remembered that modesty is wholly a matter
of conventionality and custom. Competent observers have testified
that savages who have been accustomed to nudity all their lives
are covered with shame when made to put on clothing for the first time.
They exhibit as much confusion as a civilized person would
if compelled to strip naked in public. In the words of a competent authority
on this subject: "The facts appear to prove that the feeling of shame,
far from being the cause of man's covering his body is, on the contrary,
a result of this custom; and that the covering, if not used
as a protection from the climate, owes its origin, at least in many cases,
to the desire of men and women to make themselves attractive."
Strange as it may seem, it is nevertheless true, that a figure partially clad
appears more indecent than one that is perfectly nude.

The fourth object of clothes is ornament, but ornaments should be harmless,
not only to the wearer, but also to other people; yet from
the following paragraph, copied from one of the daily newspapers,
it does not appear that they are.

"London, May 7. The death of a girl from blood-poisoning caused by a hatpin
penetrating her nose was inquired into at Stockport, Cheshire, yesterday.
The deceased was Mary Elizabeth Thornton, aged twenty-four, daughter of
a Stockport tradesman. The father said that on Saturday evening, April 20,
his daughter was speaking to a friend, Mrs. Pickford, outside the shop.
On the following Monday she complained of her nose being sore.
Next day she again complained and said, "It must be the hatpin."
While talking to Mrs. Pickford, she explained, Mrs. Pickford's baby
stumbled on the footpath. They both stooped to pick it up,
and a hatpin in Mrs. Pickford's hat caught her in the nostril.
His daughter gradually got worse and died on Saturday last. Mrs. Pickford,
wife of a paper merchant, said that some minutes after the deceased
had picked up the child she said, "Do you know, I scratched my nose
on your hatpin?" Mrs. Pickford was wearing the hatpin in court.
It projected two inches from the hat and was about twelve inches in length.
Dr. Howie Smith said that septic inflammation was set up
as a result of the wound, and travelling to the brain caused meningitis.
The coroner said that not many cases came before coroners
in which death was directly traceable to the hatpin but there must be
a very large number of cases in which the hatpin caused injury,
in some cases loss of sight. It was no uncommon sight to see
these deadly weapons protruding three or four inches from the hat.
In Hamburg women were compelled by statute to put shields or protectors
on the points of hatpins. In England nothing had been done,
but this case showed that it was high time something was done.
If women insisted on wearing hatpins they should take precaution
of wearing also a shield or protector which would prevent them
inflicting injury on other people. The jury returned a verdict
of accidental death, and expressed their opinion that long hatpins
ought to be done away with or their points protected."

To wear jewels, necklaces of brilliants, precious stones and pearls,
or ribbons with brilliants round the hair is a pleasing custom and
a pretty sight. But to see a lady wearing a long gown trailing on the ground
does not impress me as being elegant, though I understand the ladies
in Europe and America think otherwise. It would almost seem
as if their conceptions of beauty depended on the length of their skirts.
In a ballroom one sometimes finds it very difficult not to tread
on the ladies' skirts, and on ceremonial occasions each lady has two page boys
to hold up the train of her dress. It is impossible to teach an Oriental
to appreciate this sort of thing. Certainly skirts which are not made
either for utility or comfort, and which fashion changes,
add nothing to the wearer's beauty; especially does this remark apply
to the "hobble skirt", with its impediment to free movement of the legs.
The ungainly "hobble skirt" compels the wearer to walk carefully
and with short steps, and when she dances she has to lift up her dress.
Now the latest fashion seems to be the "slashed skirt" which, however,
has the advantage of keeping the lower hem of the skirt clean.
Doubtless this, in turn, will give place to other novelties.
A Chinese lady, Doctor Ya Mei-kin, who has been educated in America,
adopted while there the American attire, but as soon as she returned to China
she resumed her own native dress. Let us hear what she has to say
on this subject. Speaking of Western civilization she said:
"If we keep our own mode of life it is not for the sake of blind conservatism.
We are more logical in our ways than the average European imagines.
I wear for instance this `ao' dress as you see, cut in one piece
and allowing the limbs free play -- because it is manifestly
a more rational and comfortable attire than your fashionable skirt from Paris.
On the other hand we are ready to assimilate such notions from the West
as will really prove beneficial to us." Beauty is a matter of education:
when you have become accustomed to anything, however quaint or queer,
you will not think it so after a while. When I first went abroad
and saw young girls going about in the streets with their hair falling loose
over their shoulders, I was a little shocked. I thought how careless
their parents must be to allow their girls to go out in that untidy state.
Later, finding that it was the fashion, I changed my mind,
until by degrees I came to think that it looked quite nice;
thus do conventionality and custom change one's opinions.
But it should be remembered that no custom or conventionality
which sanctions the distorting of nature, or which interferes with
the free exercise of any member of the body, can ever be called beautiful.
It has always been a great wonder to me that American and European ladies
who are by no means slow to help forward any movement for reform,
have taken no active steps to improve the uncouth and injurious style
of their own clothes. How can they expect to be granted the privileges of men
until they show their superiority by freeing themselves from
the enthrallment of the conventionalities of fashion?

Men's dress is by no means superior to the women's. It is so tight
that it causes the wearer to suffer from the heat much more than is necessary,
and I am certain that many cases of sunstroke have been chiefly due
to tight clothing. I must admire the courage of Dr. Mary Walker,
an American lady, who has adopted man's costume, but I wonder that,
with her singular independence and ingenuity she has not introduced
a better form of dress, instead of slavishly adopting the garb of the men.
I speak from experience. When I was a law student in England,
in deference to the opinion of my English friends, I discarded Chinese clothes
in favor of the European dress, but I soon found it very uncomfortable.
In the winter it was not warm enough, but in summer it was too warm
because it was so tight. Then I had trouble with the shoes.
They gave me the most distressing corns. When, on returning to China,
I resumed my own national costume my corns disappeared,
and I had no more colds. I do not contend that the Chinese dress is perfect,
but I have no hesitation in affirming that it is more comfortable and,
according to my views, very much prettier than the American fashions.
It is superior to any other kind of dress that I have known.
To appreciate the benefits to be derived from comfortable clothing,
you have to wear it for a while. Dress should not restrain
the free movement of every part of the body, neither should it be so tight
as to hinder in any way the free circulation of the blood,
or to interfere with the process of evaporation through the skin.
I cannot understand why Americans, who are correct and cautious
about most things, are so very careless of their own personal comfort
in the matter of clothing. Is anything more important than that
which concerns their health and comfort? Why should they continue wearing
clothes which retard their movements, and which are so inconvenient
that they expose the wearers to constant risk and danger?
How can they consistently call themselves independent
while they servilely follow the mandates of the dressmakers
who periodically make money by inventing new fashions
necessitating new clothes? Brave Americans, wake up! Assert your freedom!

It would be very bold, and indeed impertinent, on my part
to suggest to my American friends that they should adopt the Chinese costume.
It has much to recommend it, but I must candidly confess
that it might be improved. Why not convene an international congress
to decide as to the best form of dress for men and women?
Male and female delegates from all over the world might be invited,
and samples of all kinds of costumes exhibited. Out of them all
let those which are considered the best for men and most suitable for women
be recommended, with such improvements as the congress may deem necessary.
The advantages of a universal uniformity of costumes would be far-reaching.
There would be no further occasion for any one to look askance at another,
as has frequently happened when some stranger has been seen
wearing what was considered an uncomely or unsuitable garb;
universal uniformity of costume would also tend to draw people
closer together, and to make them more friendly. Uniforms and badges
promote brotherhood. I have enough faith in the American people to believe
that my humble suggestion will receive their favorable consideration
and that in due time it will be carried into effect.

Chapter 9   Chapter 11

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