Timeless excerpts from Etiquette, 1922:
Frumps are not very typical of America, vulgarians are somewhat more numerous, but the greatest number of all are the quietly dressed, unnoticeable men and women who make up the representative backbone in every city; who buy good clothes but not more than they need, and whose ambition is merely to be well enough dressed to fit in with their background, whatever their background may be. Less numerous, but far more conspicuous, are the dressed-to-the-minute women who, like sheep exactly, follow every turn of latest fashion blindly and without the slightest sense of distance or direction. As each new season’s fashion is defined, all the sheep run and dress themselves each in a replica of the other, their own types and personalities have nothing to do with the case. Comfort, convenience, becomingness, adaptability, beauty are of no importance. Fashion is followed to the letter—therefore they fancy, poor sheep, they are the last word in smartness. Those whom the fashion suits are “smart,” but they are seldom, if ever, distinguished, because—they are all precisely alike.
THE WOMAN WHO IS REALLY CHIC
The woman who is chic is always a little different. Not different in being behind fashion, but always slightly apart from it. She gets the latest model perhaps, but has it adapted to her own type, so that she has just that distinction of appearance that the sheep lack. She has even clung with slight modifications to previous styles and has continued to look the smartest in spite of all the kaleidoscopic changes of fashion the rest of us have been through.
FASHION HAS LITTLE IN COMMON WITH BEAUTY
Fashion ought to be likened to a tide or epidemic; sometimes one might define it as a sort of hypnotism, seemingly exerted by the gods as a joke. Fashion has the power to appear temporarily in the guise of beauty, though it is the antithesis of beauty nearly always. Even the woman of beautiful taste succumbs occasionally to the epidemics of fashion, but she is more immune than most. All women who have any clothes sense whatever know more or less the type of things that are their style.
There is one unchanging principle which must be followed by every woman, man and child that is well dressed—suitability. It means equally that you must not buy clothes out of proportion to your income, or out of keeping with your surroundings.
WHEN IN DOUBT
There is one rule that is fairly safe to follow: When in doubt, wear the plainer dress. It is always better far to be under-dressed than over-dressed. If you don’t know whether to put on a ball dress or a dinner dress, wear the dinner dress. Or, whether to wear cloth or brocade to a luncheon, wear the cloth. One does not have to be dowdy as an alternative to being too richly dressed.
ON THE STREET
In walking on the street,—if you care to be taken for a well-bred person—never wear anything that is exaggerated. If skirts are short, don’t wear them two inches shorter than any one else’s; if they are long, don’t go down the street dragging your hem and sweeping the dirt up. Don’t wear too much jewelry; it is in bad taste in the first place, and in the second, is a temptation to a thief. And don’t under any circumstances, distort your figure into a grotesque shape.
WHEN THE INCOME IS LIMITED
No one can dress well on nothing a year; that must be granted at the outset. But a woman who has talent, taste, and ingenuity can be suitably and charmingly dressed on little a year, especially at present. First of all, to mind wearing a dress many times because it indicates a small bank account, is to exhibit a false notion of the values in life. Any one who thinks well or ill of her, in accordance with her income, can not be too quickly got rid of!
It is tiresome everlastingly to wear black, but a very striking dress can not be worn many times without making others as well as its owner feel bored at the sight of it. “Here comes the Zebra” or “the Cockatoo!” is inevitable if a dress of stripes or flamboyant color is worn often. She who must wear one dress through a season and have it perhaps made over the next, would better choose black or cream color. Or perhaps a certain color suits her, and this fact makes it possible for her habitually to wear it without impressing others with her lack of clothes. But whether her background be black or cerise it should invariably blend with her whole wardrobe, so that all accessories can be made to do double or quadruple service.
DON’T GET TOO MANY CLOTHES
Choose the clothes which you must have, carefully, and if you must cut down, cut down on elaborate ones. There is scarcely anywhere that you can not fittingly go in plain clothes. Very few, if any, people need fancy things; all people need plain ones. A very beautiful Chicago woman who is always perfectly dressed for every occasion, worked out the cost of her own clothes this way: On a sheet of paper, thumb tacked on the inside of her closet door, she put a complete typewritten list of her dresses and hats, and the cost of each. Every time she put on a dress she made a pencil mark. By and by when a dress was discarded, she divided the cost of it by the number of times it had been worn. In this way she found out accurately which were her cheapest and which her most expensive clothes. When getting new ones she has the advantage of very valuable information, since she avoids the dress that is never put on, which is a bigger handicap for the medium-sized allowance than many women realize.
A FEW GENERAL REMARKS
The fault of bad taste is usually in over-dressing. Quality not effect, is the standard to seek for. Machine-made passementerie on top of conspicuous but sleazy material is always shoddy. Cut and fit are the two items of greatest importance in women’s clothes, as well as in men’s. Good style in men’s clothes is unchanging. To buy things at sales is very much like buying things at an auction; if you really know what you want and something about values, you can often do marvellously well; but if you are easily bewildered and know little of values, you are apt to spend your good money on trash. A woman of small means must be (or learn to be) discriminatingly careful, or she would better have her clothes made at home.