Make a few outfits do all the work (1881)

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Economy in dress

A dress that is so peculiar as to be striking, either from its brilliancy of color or any other cause, should be adopted only by a woman who has many changes of raiment, and so may wear it only occasionally, or the sight of it becomes a bore, even if at first it is interesting from its novelty. The woman who has many dresses can afford also to give it away or convert it to some other use before it is worn, while the unobtrusive dress easily lends itself to some different adjustment, which gives it an entirely new aspect.

A woman who has but one best gown can “wear it with a difference,” like the rue Ophelia offers to her brother, so as to make it suitable to many occasions, especially if she has two waists, or “bodies,” as the English call them. One skirt will easily outlast two waists, and therefore this is a real saving. But suppose that there be but one waist, or the dress be made all in one piece (than which there is no prettier fashion), and it should be worn one day high in the neck, with collar and cuffs; on another day with the neck turned in, and a lace or muslin helm gracefully adjusted with bows or flowers, and a bit of lace at the wrists, a pair of long gloves, and a more elaborate dressing of the hair, it will be scarcely recognizable. But the dress must be of a very general character, like black silk, or some dark color, or the pleasure of the new impression is lost.

The wise person with a small capital never buys any but a good and lasting thing. Each year, she adds one or two really solid possessions to her wardrobe, which, treated with care, last her many years. Thus on a really small sum, she may dress very beautifully. Without a capital one is often obliged to buy what can last but for a few months; but there is choice even here.

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There is certainly a great economy in a woman’s adopting for occasions of ceremony one dress from which she never diverges. It becomes her characteristic, and there is even a kind of style and beauty in the idea. The changing fashions in color and material pass without affecting her. She is never induced to buy anything because it is new. She is always the same. The dress in this case must have a certain simplicity. It costs her little thought and little time, and when the old edition, becoming worn, gives way to the new, the change is not perceived, nor is it noticed when the new, in its turn, becomes old.

Such dress as this must of course lie within certain limits. Suppose it to be a black velvet: it would last, with care, at least five or six years. Suppose it to to be a white cashmere — a dress of small cost. It could, with care, last two seasons; and then, cleaned, last another season or two; and then dyed, be turned into a walking dress to last two seasons more.

There is a great economy in deciding on a few becoming colors in their several shades, and confining one’s dress to these. Choosing colors that harmonize with each other, like gray, black, purple, blue, yellow, white and never buying any other colors, one may, in making over garments, use one with another so that nothing is wasted.

It is also important to know what point of dress to emphasize. For instance, one may expend a large sum on a gown, and if the shoes are shabby or ill-made, the gloves worn, and the bonnet lacks style, the gown is entirely thrown away. But the gown may be no longer new; it must now be carefully brushed and well put on, the collar and cuffs or other neck and wrist trimmings must be in perfect order, the boots well-made and well-blacked, even if not new, the gloves faultless, and the bonnet neat and stylish.

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The effect is of a well-dressed woman; no man, and very few women, perceive that the dress is not a new one.

– Mrs T W Dewing, in Harper’s Magazine

Drawing: Street costume, 1880; courtesy The New York Public Library

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