History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Education of Daughters;
Translanted from the French and Adapted to English Readers
With an Original Chapter, "On Religious Studies."
By the Rev. T. F. Dibdin, B. A. F. A. S
Albany; printed and published by Backus and Whiting, 1806.
The Vanity of Beauty and Dress.
NOTHING is more to be dreaded among young girls, than vanity-.as they are born with a violent desire to please. Those roads which conduct men to authority and fame being shut to them ; they strive to be recompensed by the charms of intellect and person : hence flows their conversation so soft and so insinuating-hence it is that they aspire, as well to beauty, as to all the exterior graces, and become passionately fond of dress. A turban or bandeau is of the greatest importance in their estimation.
This excess is carried farther in our country* than in any other. That volatile disposition so remarkable among
us, causes a continual variety of fashions, so that, to the love of dress is added the love of novelty, which has strange charms for some people. These two follies united, reverses all orders and conditions, and corrupts all manners. As soon as certain rules are done away in respect to our clothes and furniture, the same irregularity prevails in our conditions. -Public authority cannot settle a " table of particulars :" *everyone, therefore, chooses according to his money ; or rather, without money, according to his ambition and vanity.
This passion for splendor ruins families ; and the ruin of families brings with it a corruption of manners. On the one hand, it begets, in
* This is construed in the above manner in preference to " the table of particular persons :" conceiving that Fenelon means " certain rules or laws" to be observed in regard to living and dressing. T.
persons of mean extraction, a passion for a large fortune (which religion assures us is sinful ;) on the other, among people of quality who find their resources exhausted, it produces mean and dirty practices in order to support their extravagance : hence, honor, fidelity, integrity, and benevolence, (even towards their nearest relatives,) are extinguished for ever.
These evils arise from the influence of vain women in directing the fashions ; they ridicule those, as antiquated dames, who wish to preserve the gravity and simplicity of ancient manners.
Be particularly zealous, therefore, to make girls understand how much more estimable is that honor which flows from an upright conduct and sound capacity, than that which arises from the elegance and splendor of dress. Beauty, you may say, deceives the possessor of it much more than it does those whom it dazzles it agitates and intoxicates the soul , we are more foolishly idolising ourselves, than the most passionate lovers the object of their affection. A few years only make the difference between a beautiful and ordinary woman. Beauty is not desirable unless it produces advantageous marriages : and how should it effect this, unsupported by merit and virtue ? A girl, merely beautiful, can only hope to be united to a giddy young man, with whom she is pretty certain of misery : on the contrary, her good sense and modesty would cause her to be sought for by prudent men, sensible of such solid qualifications. Those whose fame consists only in their beauty, soon become ridiculous : they approach, without perceiving it, to a certain age in which their charms begin to fade ; still, however, indulging the dear delusion of self-gratification, when the world has long ago been disgusted with their vanity. In short, it is as unreasonable to be attached solely to beauty, as to concentrate all merit in strength of body ; a maxim, which barbarians and savages only inculcate.
From beauty let us pass to DRESS. True grace does not depend on a vain and affected exterior ; although propriety, and some little skill may be shewn in our necessary clothing.- But after all, these silks or satins,- which may be pretty enough, can never be considered as ornaments which confer beauty.
I would even make young girls remark that noble simplicity which appears in the drapery of statues, and in many figures which yet remain of Grecian and Roman costume. They should contemplate the superiority of hair negligently tied behind, and of the broad folds of a full and floating drapery. It would also be as well for them hear painters and connoisseurs, who possess a true taste for the antique, inverse on these subjects.
In proportion as their understanding rose superior to the prejudices of fashion, they would hold in contempt those artificial modes of twisting and curling the hair, and all the paraphernalia of a fashionable woman. I am aware that one should not wish them to assume an entirely-antique costume of dress, which would be extravagant, and sometimes indecent : but they mighty without the affectation of singularity, model their taste on that simplicity of attire, which is so noble, so delightful, and in all respects conformable to the manners of Christians.-Make them observe often, and by times, the vanity and frivolousness of that mind which is sacrificed to the inconstancy of fashion.* True grace follows, but never does violence to, nature.
Fashion, however, soon destroys it self : it is perpetually aiming at perfection, and never finds it ; at least, it never -stops when it has found it. It would be reasonable enough if all changing and alteration were to cease after having found perfection, comprising
* A preceding and subsequent sentence in the original is here omitted ; because it has an allusion to antiquated high bead dresses s which are now, I believe, banished not only from France, but from Europe. The present simple and unaffected mode of female dress, (with some ridiculous and indelicate exceptions) is in general very conformable to the taste and advice of Fenelon.
both elegance and utility : but to change for the sake of changing, appears very much like sacrificing true politeness and good taste to inconstancy and confusion ! Fashions are frequently founded on mere caprice. Women are the sole arbitrators of them ; and it being difficult to say, who is to be believed or imitated, the most giddy and least informed seduce and influence the rest. They neither choose nor leave any thing according to rule: it is quite sufficient if one thing, though useful, has been long adopted : it ought to be discarded:- and another thing, though perfectly ridiculous, but having the charm of novelty, is immediately substituted in its place, and becomes the admiration of all. After having laid a proper foundation, describe to them the rules of Christian modesty. We learn, you will say, that man is born in the corruption of sin : his body, exposed to a contagious malady, is an inexhaustible source of temptation to his soul. Our Saviour has taught us to place all our virtue in fear and distrust of ourselves. Would you, we may exclaim, hazard your own soul and that of your neighbour by the indulgence of a foolish vanity ? Look, therefore, with horror upon the exposure of the bosom and all other indecencies!. When these absurdities are even committed without any premeditated passion, they, at least, savour strongly of vanity, and betray an unbridled desire to please. Does this variety justify, before God and man, so rash and scandalous a conduct, and so likely to be imitated by others ? This blind passion of pleasing, is it conformable to a Christian character, which should consider every thing as idolatrous, that perverts the love of God, and kindles the contempt of his creatures ? When such giddy female characters strive to please--what is their real object ? Is it not to excite the passions of men ? And can they regulate these passions when in their possession ? If women go too far, ought they not to be answerable for the consequences ? And do they not always go too far, when their minds have been but little inlightened ? You are absolutely preparing a subtile and deadly poison, and pouring it on the spectators beneath, and yet you imagine yourself innocent ! When you address your pupils in this strong manner, add to it, the example of those whom modesty has recommended, and those whom indelicacy has covered with dishonor. Above every thing, never suffer childrens' minds to be filled with ideas that suit not with their condition.- Repress severely all their whims and fantasies-shew them the inevitable danger which follows-and how much they make themselves despised by wise and discreet people, in thus assuming a character which does net belong to them.
What now remains to be effected, is, the managing of children of high and animated spirit. If care be not taken of this, when they have any vivacity, they intrigue: they wish to speak on every topic : they decide on works the least calculated for their capacity, and affect, through extreme delicacy, to be easily fatigued and overpowered. A girl should never speak but when necessity prompts: and then, with an air of deference and doubt : they should never even discuss subjects above the level of a common understanding, how well soever versed in them. Let a child possess a good memory and vivacity-shew pleasant little turns, and a facility of graceful eloquence-all these qualifications she may have in common with a great number of other stupid and contemptible women. But an exact and uniform conduct-an equal and regulated spirit-when to be silent, and when to speak-these rare qualifications will indeed distinguish her among her sex. As to squeamish delicacy and affectation of ennui, she must be repressed in both-by shewing her that a correct taste and good understanding consist in accommodating oneself to every thing in proportion to its utility.
Good sense and virtue are alone estimable. These will teach her to consider disgust and ennui, not as a commendable delicacy, but as the weakness of a diseased mind.
Since one must sometimes associate with gross characters, and mingle in occupations not altogether congenial -reason, which is the only real delicacy to be indulged, should instruct us to accommodate ourselves according to every emergency. An understanding which knows in what true politeness consists, and practises it- but which aspires to objects beyond it, is the hope of enjoying more solid attainments-is infinitely superior to delicate and merely polite characters, who are subject to be disgusted by their own nicety and refined taste.
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