Wednesday, May 18, 2011

1824 On Clothing, Make-Up, & Natural Beauty

.
James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans

1824 American Women - Their Clothing, Make-up, and Natural Beauty

It has always appeared to me, that manner in a woman bears a strict analogy to dress. A degree of simple, appropriate embellishment serves alike to adorn the graces of person and of demeanour; but the moment a certain line is passed in either, the individual becomes auxiliary to the addition, instead of the addition lending, as it should, a grace to the individual. It is very possible, that, if one woman wears diamonds, another must do the same thing, until a saloon shall be filled with the contents of a jeweller's shop; but, after all, this is rather a contest between bright stones than bright eyes...

I think the females of the secondary classes in this country dress more, and those of the upper, less, than the corresponding castes in Europe. The Americans are not an economical people, in one sense, though instances of dissolute prodigality are exceedingly rare among them...

The facility with which the fabrics of every country in the world are obtained, the absence of care on the subject of the future, and the inherent elevation of the character which is a natural consequence of education, and a consciousness of equal rights, cause all the secondary classes of this country to assume more of the exterior of the higher, than it is common to see with us. The exceptions must be sought among the very poorest and most depressed members of the community...

Now the fashion of the attire, and not unfrequently the material of the dress of an American girl of a similar class, differs from that of the lady only in quality, and perhaps a little in the air in which it is worn. As you ascend in the scale of society, the distinctions, always excepting those delicate shades which can only be acquired by constant association in the best company, become less obvious, until it requires the tact of breeding to trace them at all...The distinguishing feature of American female manners is nature. The fair creatures are extremely graceful if left to exhibit their blandishments in their own way; but it is very evident, that a highly artificial manner in those with whom they associate, produces a blighting influence on the ease of even the most polished among them...

In general they are delicate; a certain feminine air, tone of voice, size and grace being remarkably frequent. In the northern, eastern and middle states, which contain much more than half the whole population of the country, the women are fair; though brunettes are not unfrequent, and just as blondes are admired in France, they are much esteemed here, especially, as is often the case, if the hair and eyes happen to correspond.

Indeed it is difficult to imagine any creature more attractive than an American beauty between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. There is something in the bloom, delicacy, and innocence of one of these young things, that reminds you of the conceptions which poets and painters have taken of the angels...

Perhaps a great majority of the females marry before the age of twenty, and it is not an uncommon thing to see them mothers at sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen. Almost every American mother nurses her own infant. It is far more common to find them mothers of eight, or of ten children, at fifty, than mothers of two or three...

Even so common an ornament as rouge is denied, and no woman dares confess that she uses it. There is something so particularly soft and delicate in the colour of the young females one sees in the streets here, that at first I was inclined to give them credit for the art with which they applied the tints; but Cadwallader gravely assured me I was wrong; He had no doubt that certain individuals did, in secret, adopt the use of rouge; but within the whole circuit of his acquaintailce he could not name one whom he suspected of the practice. Indeed, several gentlemen have gone so far as to assure me that when a woman rouged, it is considered in this country, as prima facie testimony that her character is frail.

It should also be remembered, that when an American girl marries, she no longer entertains the desire to interest any but her husband. There is perhaps something in the security of matrimony that is not very propitious to female blandishments, and one ought to express no surprise that the wife who is content with the affections of her husband, should grow a little indifferent to the admiration of the rest of the world. One rarely sees married women foremost in the gay scenes. They attend, as observant and influencing members of society, but not as the principal actors. It is thought that the amusements of the world are more appropriate to the young, who are neither burthened nor sobered with matrimonial duties, and who possess an inherent right to look about them in the morning of life in quest of the partner who is to be their companion to its close. And yet I could name, among my acquaintances here, a dozen of the youngest-looking mothers of large and grown-up families that I remember ever to have seen.
.