Emily Post on Vulgarity, Bad Taste, and Overdressing
The war did at least make people realize that luxuries and trimmings could go too far. Ten years ago the American woman who lived in a little cottage, who walked when she went out or took the street car, wore the same clothes exactly that Mrs. Gilding wore in her victoria, or trailed over a Ming rug. The French woman has always been (and the American woman of taste is now) too great an artist to sit in a little room with its cotton-print slip covers, muslin curtains, and geranium pots on the window ledge, in anything strikingly elaborate and expensive. Charming as her dress may be in line and cut and color, she keeps it (no matter how intrinsically good it may be) in harmony with her geranium pots and her chintz.
On the other hand, clothes that are too plain can be equally out of proportion. Last winter, for instance, a committee of ladies met in what might safely be called the handsomest house in New York, in a room that would fit perfectly in the Palace of Versailles, filled with treasures such as those of the Wallace collection. The hostess presided in a black serge golf skirt, a business woman’s white shirt-waist, and stout walking boots, her hair brushed flat and tidily back and fastened as though for riding, her face and hands redolent of soap. No powder, not a nail manicured. Had she been a girl earning her living, she could not have been more suitably dressed, but her millions and her palace background demand that her clothes be at least moderately in keeping.
One does not have to be dowdy as an alternative to being too richly dressed, and to define differences between clothes that are notable because of their distinction and smartness, and clothes that are merely conspicuous and therefore vulgar, is a very elusive point. However, there are certain rules that seem pretty well established.
Vulgar clothes are those which, no matter what the fashion of the moment may be, are always too elaborate for the occasion; too exaggerated in style, or have accessories out of proportion. People of uncultivated taste are apt to fancy distortions; to exaggerate rather than modify the prevailing fashions.
For example: A conspicuous evidence of bad style that has persisted through numberless changes in fashion, is the over-dressed and over-trimmed head. The woman of uncultivated taste has no more sense of moderation than the Queen of the Cannibals. She will elaborate her hairdressing to start with (this is all right, if elaboration really suits her type) and then she will “decorate” it with everything in the way of millinery and jewelry that she can lay her hands on. Or, in the daytime, she fancies equally over-weighted hats, and rich-looking fur coats and the latest edition in the most conspicuous possible foot-wear. And she much prefers wearing rings to gloves. Maybe she thinks they do not go together? She despises sensible clothing; she also despises plain fabrics and untrimmed models. She also cares little (apparently) for staying at home, since she is perpetually seen at restaurants and at every public entertainment. The food she orders is rich, the appearance she makes is rich; in fact, to see her often is like nothing so much as being forced to eat a large amount of butter—plain.
Beau Brummel’s remark that when one attracted too much notice, one could be sure of being not well-dressed but over-dressed, has for a hundred years been the comfort of the dowdy. It is, of course, very often true, but not invariably. A person may be stared at for any one of many reasons. It depends very much on the stare. A woman may be stared at because she is indiscreet, or because she looks like a left-over member of the circus, or because she is enchanting to look at.
If you are much stared at, what sort of a stare do you usually meet? Is it bold, or mocking, or is it merely that people look at you wistfully? If the first, change your manner; if the second, wear more conventional clothes; if the third, you may be left as you are. But be sure of your diagnosis of this last.
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