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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On the Frivolities of Fashion

By Nathaniel Ward (1578–1652)

[Born in Suffolk, England, 1578. Died in Essex, England, 1652. The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam. 1647.]

SHOULD I not keep promise in speaking a little to Women’s fashions, they would take it unkindly. I was loath to pester better matter with such stuff; I rather thought it meet to let them stand by themselves, like the Quæ Genus in the grammar, being deficients, or redundants, not to be brought under any rule: I shall therefore make bold for this once, to borrow a little of their loose-tongued Liberty, and misspend a word or two upon their long-waisted, but short-skirted Patience: a little use of my stirrup will do no harm.

Ridentem dicere verum, quid prohibet?

  • Gray Gravity itself can well beteem,
  • That Language be adapted to the Theme.
  • He that to Parrots speaks, must parrotise:
  • He that instructs a fool, may act th’ unwise.
  • It is known more than enough, that I am neither Niggard, nor Cynic, to the due bravery of the true gentry. I honor the woman that can honor herself with her attire; a good text always deserves a fair margin; I am not much offended if I see a trim far trimmer than she that wears it. In a word, whatever Christianity or Civility will allow, I can afford with London measure: but when I hear a nugiperous Gentledame inquire what dress the Queen is in this week: what the nudiustertian fashion of the Court; with egg to be in it in all haste, whatever it be; I look at her as the very gizzard of a trifle, the product of a quarter of a cipher, the epitome of Nothing, fitter to be kicked, if she were of a kickable substance, than either honored or humored.

    To speak moderately, I truly confess it is beyond the ken of my understanding to conceive how those women should have any time grace, or valuable virtue, that have so little wit, as to disfigure themselves with such exotic garbs, as not only dismantles their native lovely lustre, but transclouts them into gantbar-geese, ill-shapen-shotten shell-fish, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, or at the best into French flurts of the pastery, which a proper English woman should scorn with her heels. It is no marvel they wear drailes on the hinder part of their heads, having nothing as it seems in the forepart, but a few squirrels’ brains to help them frisk from one ill-favored fashion to another.

  • These whimm’ Crown’d shees, these fashion-fancying wits,
  • Are empty thin brain’d shells, and fiddling Kits.
  • the very troublers and impoverishers of mankind. I can hardly forbear to commend to the world a saying of a Lady living some time with the Queen of Bohemia; I know not where she found it, but it is pity it should be lost.
  • The world is full of care, much like unto a bubble,
  • Women and care, and care and Women, and Women and care and trouble.
  • The Verses are even enough for such odd pegma’s. I can make myself sick at any time, with comparing the dazzling splendor wherewith our gentlewomen were embellished in some former habits, with the gut-foundered goosedom, wherewith they are now surcingled and debauched. We have about five or six of them in our Colony: if I see any of them accidentally, I cannot cleanse my fancy of them for a month after. I have been a solitary Widower almost twelve years, purposed lately to make a step over to my native country for a yoke-fellow: but when I consider how women there have tripe-wifed themselves with their cladments, I have no heart to the voyage, lest their nauseous shapes and the sea, should work too sorely upon my stomach. I speak sadly; methinks it should break the hearts of English men, to see so many goodly English women imprisoned in French Cages, peering out of their hood holes for some men of mercy to help them with a little wit, and nobody relieves them.

    It is a more common than convenient saying, that nine tailors make a man: it were well if nineteen could make a woman to her mind. If tailors were men indeed, well furnished but with mere moral principles, they would disdain to be led about like Apes, by such mimic Marmosets. It is a most unworthy thing for men that have bones in them, to spend their lives in making fiddle-cases for futilous women’s fancies; which are the very pettitoes of infirmity, the giblets of perquisquilian toys. I am so charitable to think, that most of that mystery would work the cheerfuller while they live, if they might be well discharged of the tiring slavery of mistiring women. It is no little labor to be continually putting up English women, into outlandish casks; who if they be not shifted anew, once in a few months, grow too sour for their husbands. What this trade will answer for themselves when God shall take measure of tailors’ consciences is beyond my skill to imagine. There was a time when,

  • The joining of the Red Rose with the White,
  • Did set our State into a Damask plight.
  • But now our roses are turned to flore de lices, our carnations to tulips, our gillyflowers to daisies, our city dames, to an indenominable quæmalry of overturcased things. He that makes Coats for the Moon, had need take measures every noon: and he that makes for women, as often, to keep them from lunacy.

    I have often heard divers ladies vent loud feminine complaints of the wearisome varieties and chargeable changes of fashions: I marvel themselves prefer not a Bill of redress. I would Essex Ladies would lead the Chore, for the honor of their county and persons; or rather the thrice honorable Ladies of the Court, whom it best beseems: who may well presume of a Le Roy le veult from our sober King, a Les Seigneurs ont assentus from our prudent Peers, and the like Assentus, from our considerate, I dare not say Wife-worn Commons; who I believe had much rather pass one such Bill, than pay so many tailor’s bills as they are forced to do.

    Most dear and unparalleled Ladies, be pleased to attempt it: as you have the precellency of the women of the world for beauty and feature; so assume the honor to give, and not take law from any, in matter of attire. If ye can transact so fair a motion among yourselves unanimously, I dare say, they that most renite, will least repent. What greater honor can your Honors desire, than to build a Promontory precedent to all foreign Ladies, to deserve so eminently at the hands of all the English gentry present and to come: and to confute the opinion of all the wise men in the world; who never thought it possible for women to do so good a work.

    If any man think I have spoken rather merrily than seriously he is much mistaken, I have written what I write with all the indignation I can, and no more than I ought. I confess I veered my tongue to this kind of language de industria though unwillingly, supposing those I speak to are uncapable of grave and rational arguments.

    I desire all ladies and gentlewomen to understand that all this while I intend not such as through necessary modesty to avoid morose singularity, follow fashions slowly, a flight shot or two off, showing by their moderation, that they rather draw countermont with their hearts, than put on by their examples.

    I point my pen only against the light-heeled beagles that lead the chase so fast, that they run all civility out of breath, against these Ape-headed Pullets, which invent Antique fool-fangles, merely for fashion and novelty sake.

    In a word, if I begin once to declaim against fashions, let men and women look well about them, there is somewhat in the business; I confess to the world, I never had grace enough to be strict in that kind; and of late years, I have found syrup of Pride very wholesome in a due dose, which makes me keep such store of that drug by me, that if any body comes to me for a question-full or two about fashions, they never complain of me for giving them hard measure, or under weight.

    But I address myself to those who can both hear and mend all if they please: I seriously fear, if the Pious Parliament do not find time to state fashions, as ancient Parliaments have done in part, God will hardly find a time to state religion or peace. They are the surquedryes of pride, the wantonness of idleness, provoking sins, the certain prodromies of assured judgment, Zeph. i. 7, 8.

    It is beyond all account how many gentlemen’s and citizens’ estates are deplumed by their feather-headed Wives, what useful supplies the pannage of England would afford other countries, what rich returns to itself, if it were not sliced out into male and female fripperies: and what a multitude of misemployed hands might be better improved in some more manly manufactures for the public weal. It is not easily credible, what may be said of the Preterpluralities of tailors in London: I have heard an honest man say, that not long since there were numbered between Temple-bar and Charing-Cross, eight thousand of that trade; let it be conjectured by that proportion how many there are in and about London, and in all England they will appear to be very numerous. If the Parliament would please to mend women, which their husbands dare not do, there need not so many men to make and mend as there are. I hope the present doleful estate of the realm will persuade more strongly to some considerate course herein than I now can.

    Knew I how to bring it in, I would speak a word to long Hair, whereof I will say no more but this: if God proves not such a Barber to it as he threatens, unless it be amended, Isai. vii. 20, before the Peace of the State and Church be well settled, then let my Prophecy be scorned, as a sound mind scorns the riot of that sin, and more it needs not. If those who are termed Rattleheads and Impuritans, would take up a resolution to begin in moderation of hair, to the just reproach of those that are called Puritans and Roundheads, I would honor their manliness as much as the others’ godliness, so long as I knew what man or honor meant: if neither can find a Barber’s shop, let them turn in, to Psal. lxviii. 21, Jer. vii. 29, I. Cor. xi. 14. If it be thought no wisdom in men to distinguish themselves in the field by the Scissors, let it be thought no Injustice in God, not to distinguish them by the sword. I had rather God should know me by my sobriety, than mine enemy not know me by my vanity. He is ill kept, that is kept by his own sin. A short promise is a far safer guard than a long lock: it is an ill distinction which God is loath to look at, and his Angels can not know his Saints by. Though it be not the mark of the Beast, yet it may be the mark of a beast prepared to slaughter. I am sure men use not to wear such manes; I am also sure Soldiers use to wear other Marklets or Notadoes in time of battle.