as beautifully dressed as birds

by Erin on June 29, 2007


DORA. Then, we are all to learn dress-making, are we?

OLD LECTURER. Yes; and always to dress yourselves beautifully—not finely, unless on occasion, but then very finely and beautifully too. Also you are to dress as many other people as you can; and to teach them how to dress if they don't know; and to consider every ill-dressed woman or child whom you see anywhere, as a personal disgrace; and to get at them, somehow, until everybody is as beautifully dressed as birds.

from John Ruskin, The Ethics of the Dust (1891)

Why doesn't Ruskin's "Old Lecturer" tell the girls to "get at" men, too? Why are ill-dressed men not a "personal disgrace" to them? Discuss.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

xstpenguin June 29, 2007 at 12:51 pm

Because Dressmakers made clothing for women & children and Tailors made clothing for gentlemen. Not sure who made the clothes for the working men!Class. Politics. Gender Inequality. Oh the glory days. ?!?And now we have a different regime, everyone can wear what they wish. The fashion victims follow the cult of the celebrity, no matter how ugly it is, everyone else should follow their own personal style. And yet, and yet there are so many people on the street who meet my criteria for an “ill-dressed…personal disgrace”. Sigh. I’m too timid to be the fashion police.


Jonquil June 29, 2007 at 1:41 pm

” until everybody is as beautifully dressed as birds. “I realize that it is ad-hominem, but I feel it is well worth reporting that when Ruskin attempted to undress his wife to be as naked as a bird, he was disgusted and put off by sex forever. This makes me discount his opinions about women’s dress.


Anonymous June 29, 2007 at 1:52 pm

jonquil, I was just about to mention that. We can only hope that he was better with fully clothed women than naked ones.


twollin June 29, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Well, perhaps Ruskin only LIKED the IDEA. It was the implementation that was the problem.


Anonymous June 29, 2007 at 2:17 pm

Okay we are looking at a guy that’s into fashion and not into his wife. Hmmmm maybe he was married because that was what was expected of men in that time period. If you’re getting my drift. Maybe he wasn’t into women other than for dressing them. Not sure why he wouldn’t have been into men’s fashion though. Perhaps men’s fashion was too typical. Suits, ties…??!!


Charles June 29, 2007 at 3:47 pm

1) Because men are already hopeless?2) Because mens clothes are boring; ringing the changes of “black pants, grey pants, blue pants” (Which sounds like a Boynton book) being the common idea of a sense of variety?3) Because he knew you had to get to them in the “child” stage and covered the gender in that part of the remark. Once they grew up the “teaching” part becomes futile.


Latter-Day Flapper June 29, 2007 at 4:11 pm

Men all wore black coats then, anyway. Not that one can’t have an exceptionally well-made black coat, but it’s not really in the same league as a well-made, colorful, dress, is it?And Ruskin was a quirky dude at best in the first place.


Kate in England June 29, 2007 at 4:41 pm

I think that whole quote is rather lovely. As for the men – at the time, what men wore was rigorously prescribed and any gentleman would have been appropriately attired. It was precise, but boring. But I think men work better within a set of fixed rules anyway – which is why 99.99% of businessmen are still wearing traditional suits to this day.


Anonymous June 29, 2007 at 5:28 pm

Quite often the greatest faux pas are found in twos – stained shorts & old running shoes husband and pink sweats wife go hand in hand. The answer is simple: police your significant other and ask them to police you. When traveling with that special person – no matter whether it is to Majorca, the mall, the grocery store – make it a point to dress ever so slightly better than they are and freely shame them if they are wearing something that you wouldn’t want them wearing at a social occasion. The process is slow, but the bar will gradually rise, sort of like the way that one person on the block planting some flowers can turn a neighborhood into a series of beautiful gardens.


Anonymous June 30, 2007 at 3:35 am

On a side note, I’m finally in a relationship with a guy who has his own finely developed sense of style after having to overhaul my last two boyfriends.The last one used to wear baggy T-shirts tucked into high-waisted jeans. And his favourite going out shirt was fluorescent green lycra. I’m not sure how I fell in love with him in the first place.Not much else to add to the discussion except that men in general are not expected to dress as well as women are.It’s ye olde double standarde but what can you do…


Anonymous June 30, 2007 at 6:40 am

Maybe an “ill-dressed” man is not a disgrace because a fashionably dressed man is often perceived to be homosexual… In the minds of many men, tis better to be a slob than be thought a fop.


theresa June 30, 2007 at 7:58 am

To quote ZZ TOP – “Every girl’s crazy about a sharp dressed man.”


Anonymous June 30, 2007 at 8:04 am

Because it’s also the woman’s job to teach men how to dress… the mother must teach her son, and if she does not it’s left up to the poor wife. So OBVIOUSLY if a man is poorly dressed it is a woman’s fault as well.AH, what a lovely enlightened society!


Anonymous June 30, 2007 at 11:39 am

Was going to say the same thing as xstpenguin — it would have been considered indecent for a female dressmaker to clothe men in 1891. I think this is just an anachronism.Ruskin’s personal life aside.


fashionplease June 30, 2007 at 11:46 am

I’m a man and I envy the freedom women have in being able to wear a wide choice of colours, fabrics, styles, and accessories compared what we have to wear. For a long time I’ve wanted to learn sewing so that I could become an amateur fashion designer. Since I used to be a glam-punk art-student years ago, its not such a big step. So if anyone in the UK would like to teach sewing to a Julian Clary look-a-like, please let me know!


Anan June 30, 2007 at 11:46 am

My dream is to start the mens dress police. We would run around and yell at people when we see their boxer shorts and when they would get down on their knees and beg for mercy we would shown them how a belt works and even toss one in for FREE! My mom and I were tempted to go back around the block a couple days ago so I could yell at this ninny out mowing his lawn: “YOU HAVE A BELT!!! USE IT!”


Mary Tess July 1, 2007 at 10:07 am

Perhaps Ruskin limited his “get at them” advice to women and children because in that era it would have been completely inappropriate for a woman to correct a man’s behavior in any way, including his mode of dress.


Anonymous July 1, 2007 at 10:33 am

It’s because men’s attire is based on two models and two models only: farmers, and military officers. But the quote is lovely.


Anonymous July 1, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Women rarely get a glimpse into the workings of the male mind where clothes are concerned, and me, I won’t even attempt it. A man who seems to have had his clothes picked out by the woman in his life gets less respect from other men He picks out his clothes and I pick out mine. He always looks well dressed, but if your man is really sloppy, walk past high-end menswear stores and pause to look in the window from time to time. If he gets the hint and goes in, let the gentlemen who work there guide him.


Beth July 1, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Although- just a comment about “men’s clothing”- us women may complain about fashion, but we have a much bigger choice of where to shop. My husband fits into the “big and tall” category. I can shop either at Penny’s or at Casual Male for him- for dig through the “urban” looks at stores like Marshall’s or TJ Maxx. It is very hard to find clothing that is not jeans/sweats/t-shirts or “business suits” for him. Business casual just does not exist for the “Big and Tall” man.


Nora July 1, 2007 at 4:04 pm

Ye gads anan, do you really expect a man to wear a belt while he’s mowing his own lawn? (Which begs the question: is it a bigger crime to show a little boxer while doing household chores, or to waste water by having a lawn – I know what the answer is here in uber-casual California.)But I did snort out loud listening to This American Life last week, during the David Sedaris story in which he describes a (depressingly casually dressed) American couple on the subway, then says something like “I’m all for comfort, but it just seems a little rude to visit other people’s countries dressed as if you are there to mow their lawns.” Then I wondered about my own internalized classism, and how I think it’s cool for me to walk around wearing skirts and Jack Purcells but it’s not cool to walk around Paris in pleated shorts and, say, white Nikes.But for me I think the main fashion faux pas is not having a personal sense of style. Also, though it was before my time, I still miss men wearing hats.


Anonymous July 1, 2007 at 4:42 pm

Take a good hard look at your average American out and about…shabily dressed no mater the age of sex. A friend of mine just back from Paris and Rome couldn’t get over the well dressed people all over. The sloppy look is one we have adopted here all in the name of comfort, or the other extreme…inappropriate dress. I don’t care if this Ruskin guy was singling out women and children, but being well dressed is something everyone should aspire to.Trying to be well dressed in Massachusetts.


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Balwearie July 2, 2007 at 6:33 am

xstpenguin hits the nail on the head – dressmaking and tayloring are two different things.


Theresa July 2, 2007 at 7:04 am

I am so glad someone mentioned David Sedaris and the couple in Paris…I too snorted out loud…and then thought of this blog.Obviously, most people don’t know what to wear or there wouldn’t be so many shows on TV — “What Not to Wear” (British and American) “How do I look” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” “10 Years Younger” “I Have Nothing to Wear” — Obviously it’s an epidemic. People also don’t know how to clena their houses — “Clean Sweep,” “How Clean is Your House,” etc.


La BellaDonna July 2, 2007 at 3:57 pm

Ahhh, John Ruskin. Rendered impotent on his wedding night by the discovery that his bride was not as smooth and hairless as Greek statue. Imagine that; a simple Brazilian was could have saved that marriage. Of course, I would vote for two waxes; one for her, one for him. It would be only fair.This was a period of time when Thorsten Veblen was writing about his Theory of Conspicuous Consumption; bright colours and fancy fabrics were worn by the wives and children of men, rather as proxies for the men themselves, since “gentlemen” did not wear bright colours, by and large, through much of the Victorian period. So women wore bright colours for and on behalf of their men. Quentin Bell references Veblen in his book On Human Finery, and it’s worth a look for his book.(Ruskin had many amazing qualities, but I’m glad I wasn’t his wife. So would he have been, I’m sure.)


fashionplease July 2, 2007 at 5:17 pm

I apologise on behalf of all men for not being as well dressed as you girls. But please be aware that it is impossible to buy anything apart from either jeans or suits. Mens clothes are very boring, and I am seriously interested in making myself some Goth outfits. Or even in becoming a drag-queen so I could dress up. I have read Ruskins Ethics Of The Dust and some other of his works years ago, shortly before becoming an art student. Would anyone like to give me any advice on how a man can learn sewing and using/making patterns please? I wish I could be friend with some nice mature lady who would teach me, sigh.


anthrok8 July 2, 2007 at 10:32 pm

Didn’t Ruskin’s wife run off with… some painter or other? And then he ended up with… a much, much, much younger woman? Victorian Culture and History Class was a long time ago…Anyway…I think it’s interesting that menswear became the Dark Suit Of Whatever Kind only 100 years or so previous to Ruskin’s quote. Wealthy men were embroidered and peacock-ified in powder blue and rose pink to the beginning of the 19th c. (Beau Brummel, the original dandy apparentley really introduced the idea of wearing dark coat and pantaloons with no powdered wig, and he did this during the Regency.)The film Orlando represents the switch in the way men dressed very interestingly, with Orlando becoming a woman just before men started wearing the dark suit.Ahem.


Nanette July 3, 2007 at 10:21 pm

To give the Beau his due, he also vigorously campaigned for the daily bath!


Robinson July 5, 2007 at 8:06 am

Because refined women had no purpose but to be ornamentation for men and bear them well dressed children. And, in some circles, that seems to still hold true.Kate, I looked it up and Ruskin and his wife did divorce. She married his protege, John Everett Millais, who, as it turns out painted one of my favorite depictions of Ophelia.


Duran March 12, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Jen?! Like, THE Jen??? jen, I saw your cakewrecks turohgh craftlit podcast shownotes. Chris and I looked it over and laughed and laughed a few days ago. thanks for being there for Abby. I was soooo upset when I heard about James. How are they doing? I am grieving,Laura Ricketts


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