What a man likes in a woman’s clothing: Ideas of beauty from 1912

Beautiful women from the 1910s - ideas of beauty

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Around the turn of the century, there were a lot of rules and guidelines for women to be ‘proper’ — then there were the additional demands placed on them by men and the business world. Here’s a look back at some ideas of beauty from 1912 and 1913.

Here’s what a man really likes in woman’s dress: Vintage ideas of beauty from 1912

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California) September 22, 1912

Women always look upon a man’s criticism of their attire as most presumptuous — that is, when his criticism is unfavorable, says a writer in the New York Sun.

Let a man tell a woman he disapproves of something she is wearing, and nine times out of ten she will strike him speechless with, “What are men supposed to know about such things anyway?”

Garden tennis beauty 1912

And there’s the question. What are men supposed to know about such things? Apparently nothing! And yet they do, although very often their knowledge is so vague that they are incapable of expressing it intelligently.

That man is a rarity who is acquainted with the mysteries of a bodice or the possibilities of a pleat. The average man in criticizing a woman’s attire reasons entirely by instinct; he does or does not like a thing — why, he cannot say. Women recognize this fact, and are not slow in resenting a man’s criticism of their dressing.

Ideas of beauty: Is he pleased or not?

But women dress mostly to please men, and they are certainly lending substance and color to their reputation for inconsistency when they reject man’s criticism of their apparel on the ground of his ignorance of “technicalities.” What does such ignorance matter if he is pleased or displeased?

Most women resent the statement that they dress with any such purpose in mind, but the writer has yet to meet the woman who, after a mature consideration of the question, did not acknowledge — even though reluctantly — that women either consciously or instinctively dress with the idea of pleasing the opposite sex.

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LHJ women fashion beauty 1912 Actress

Back of this reason lies the deeper and more significant one of economic dependence. Among many of the lower animals and among the birds, it is the male who is bright-colored or otherwise excels in physical attractions. It is he who plumes himself and exerts all of his fascinations to attract the plain female, who, being well able to care for herself, must be made to feel the need of his companionship.

MORE: How to snare a male: Dating & marriage advice from 1950

When we reach the highest stage of life — with men and women — this condition is reversed, and it is the male who is adorned in the unattractive or plainer form of dress; while the female, who is so largely dependent upon him for a livelihood, must needs appear as attractive as possible in his eyes if it remains to be seen whether the constantly widening sphere of activity for women will have the effect of reversing this condition.

What a man likes in womens fashion (1912)

What do men like best in women’s fashion?

The logical conclusion of such argument would be that what men like best in women’s dress is brightness of color, and that the woman who adorns her person with the brightest attire — an abundance of ornaments, trinkets and jewels — is the woman who will be most attractive to the masculine eye. That is a surface conclusion.

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A closer study of the question reveals the fact that the qualities or attractions enumerated are the very ones which the average man dislike. In the earlier forms of civilization, a woman’s desirability was gauged largely by her elaborate barbaric adornment.

The rapidly disappearing habit of tight-lacing is a comparatively modern reflection of barbarism in woman’s dress. With the higher civilization of today, man instinctively revolts at the assumption that such means are necessary to attract him.

If bizarre or startling effects were what men most admire, then such hideous styles as the hobble and the harem skirts would come to stay. That such styles do attract his attention cannot be denied, but that woman is often greatly deceived who fancies that such attention is altogether related to admiration.

On the contrary — frequently it is really nothing but ridicule. It is in criticizing styles of such freakish nature that man is able to express his condemnation in more comprehensive terms — when he says a garment is both ungraceful and unwomanly, he is advancing an argument that can not be controverted by the retort that he “knows nothing about such things anyway,” for on these two qualities the average man has firmly established opinions.

LHJ women fashion beauty 1912 Dollar dresses

Civilized women… and not

I once knew a man who said that for him two kinds of women existed: “those who were civilized, and those who wore earrings.”

I am willing to concede that such a man represents an extreme view, and it is apparent that a wide range of choice lies between such a view and that of the man who is more or less acquainted with the intricacies of feminine attire. But in swinging between these two extremes, the pendulum of masculine opinion passes a point which may be cited as representing the ideas of the average man.

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At this point, one may be sure of finding a general dislike for extremes. There are probably few men who do not experience a justifiable sense of pride when in the company of a woman whose attire is of that attractive quality which bears evidence of good taste and discriminating judgment. Such a woman’s dress reflects her personality, and while her clothes may be admired, the admiration they call forth is usually secondary and expressed in some such term as “how well she sets off her gowns” — it is the woman first and the gown afterward.

But if the average man takes pride in being seen in the society of the well-dressed woman, he is equally sensitive to any criticism invited by the over dressing of the woman in whose company he may chance to be.

How even office girls can look like fashion models (1913)

The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, California) January 26, 1913

Is the working girl to be barred from the Venus contest now in progress, and which has already reached from Buffalo to London?

How office girls can look like fashion models (1913)

“I trust not,” declares Miss Dorothy I Smith, who earns her living in one of the big office buildings near New York’s City Hall by operating a typewriter, and who measures up pretty well to the Venus specifications, as witness these figures:

Venus de Milo

Weight: 149 pounds
Height: 5 feet 8 inches
Bust: 37 inches
Waist: 26 inches
Hips: 39 inches

Venus in business

Weight: 143-1/2 pounds
Height: 5 feet 6-1/2 inches
Bust: 36 inches
Waist: 27 inches
Hips: 38-1/2 inches

She is pretty, too, albeit, her face is more of the Clytie than of the Venus type. She has big brown eyes under arching brows, a mouth that smiles often and delightfully, and a piquant nose.

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Couldn’t office girls be a Venus? (1913)

“Why shouldn’t business girls be represented in this Venus competition?” she laughingly said. “Of course, I am sure the original Venus was not a stenographer, because she has no hands. But I believe that the 1913 ideal girl may be both useful and ornamental.

“A college girl has been compared to Venus, but such a girl undoubtedly owes her good form, at least in a measure, to athletics and gymnasium work. The London Venus is frankly a model, a girl who uses her figure to earn a living.

“But I believe that any girl who works for a living knows how to take care of herself and has a halfway decent figure to start with can stand competition in the Venus class. That is, she need not be professionally expert in the development of her figure.

MORE: Back in 1900, men wanted women to have painfully small corseted waists, because thin wasn’t enough

“How to do it?

“Sleep eight hours and don’t go out oftener than two evenings a week. Walk all you can and indulge in any moderate athletic activities which you enjoy. Don’t buy candy or let anybody buy it for you. When you sit down, always select a stiff-backed chair, and when you stand, divide your weight evenly between both feet. Never wear clothes that are not comfortable.

“I think that ever so many business girls and women, too, make the mistake of not taking enough air,” explained Miss Smith. “They are in an office all day, and when they go home they just sit still in the house. Perhaps they don’t even go out on Sunday, or if they do manage to take a walk that day, it is a slow stroll of a few blocks.

“Personally, I make a practice of never taking a streetcar or the subway when I can possibly walk. Every day I go out to luncheon I take as long a walk as my time allows before returning to the office.”

“Do you go in for any special calisthenics daily?” I asked.

How even office girls can look like fashion models (1913)

“I don’t find it necessary,” responded the stenographic Venus. “Just walking about a good bit and sitting and standing properly are the ‘motions’ I advise.

“Ever so many girls stand with the weight more on one foot than on the other. That is found to throw first the hips and then the whole body out of shape.

“Also I have found that sitting erect in a straight-backed chair with the spine perpendicular and the shoulders well back tends to lengthen the waist and decrease the size of the hips. A long waist is essential to grace and small hips are absolutely necessary for the fashions of the day.”

“What do you eat?” I inquired.

“About what I want,” she smiled. “I breakfast on coffee or a cup of cocoa and have one or two substantial dishes for both luncheon and dinner. I rarely eat candy and go slow on sweets of every description, and never lunch between meals. Otherwise, I eat anything I choose.”

Now if you want to be a Venus, you know how.

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this.
    I love the image of the three young ladies in lilacs and pinks. Where can it be sourced?

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