What to Wear: A Book for Women

I have no image and no link for this title: try googling it yourself and see how far you get! I checked this out on a whim from the library, and not fifty pages in I had made half-a-dozen notes (not IN the book — jeez, what kind of barbarian do you think I am?). It's a treasure.

Belle Armstrong Whitney is the triple-named, strong-willed author, and all I know about her is that she looks in her photographs as if she dearly wants to come take the camera away from the photographer and show him how to do things RIGHT. The book was published in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1916, and if that is not evocative of an overwhelming urgency to tell other folks how best their lives might be arranged to the satisfaction of all concerned (but primarily to the satisfaction of the advice-giver) I don't know what would be.

Belle (I will take the liberty of such familiarity, since I know that if I had been lucky enough to meet her we would have been fast friends immediately) says such things as this: "There is no reason why when we go shopping we should take what is set before us to take, providing the standard of what is set before is common, and our standard is higher."

She also quotes Redfern ("the head of that dressmaking house in Paris") as saying "Fashion without art is snobbism." Sing it, sister!

And how about: "We need not apologize for our love of dress if we love what is worthy of being loved." (I have a sneaking suspicion that there's some kind of logical fallacy there, but so be it.)

And: "One of the reasons for the kaleidoscopic changes in styles is because so many women wear the same thing at once that everybody becomes tired of it in a hurry. If women would choose their own style, instead of trying to wear what they–the wholly mythical they — are supposed to sanction, fashions would be much less unstable."

"Every woman who buys poor fabrics helps to discourage makers of fabrics from producing better ones. Every woman who buys ready-made clothes that are vulgar in design, helps to increase that type of designing. Every woman who buys ill-made garments, assists in adding to their number."

"The woman who knows what she wants is not common, and the woman who knows what she ought to have is positively rare."

"Women are not uniform in size, shape, complexion, and social requirements, and when they dress as if they were, the result is most unsatisfactory."

Of course, Belle is not without fault. There are many, many pictures of her in what can only be called "draperies", some with that touch of self-conscious exoticism that makes the modern reader wince. She also devotes three pages to instructions for making a maternity CORSET. (Don't worry, the steels of your regular corset "may be broken quickly when their covering is ripped off.") But all in all, her advice of ninety years ago is better than anything I read in this month's Vogue.

0 thoughts on “What to Wear: A Book for Women

  1. Here is what I found on Ms. Belle p.cxiWHITNEY, MRS. BELLE ARMSTRONG, journalist, author, was born Sept. 27, 1861, in Boston, Mass. She is editor of The Gentlewoman of New York City. She is the author of The Art of Dress.


  2. “There is no reason why when we go shopping we should take what is set before us to take, providing the standard of what is set before is common, and our standard is higher.”I suspect one would have to walk around naked if this bit of (very theoretically sound) wisdom was adhered to.


  3. I was walking by the bebe store on my way to work yesterday and saw this (let’s see if I can get it to link)link The Duro strikes again!


  4. Imagine Belle being confronted with Rostitchery’s skirt made from a pulled down tee shirt! Now that would have been worth a picture!Why didn’t you take a picture of the cover of the book while you had it in your hands? Or photo copied/scanned the whole thing? Copyright surely is expired by now! Kate, if you catch this, ask your IP attorney hubby what he thinks.Check into this and create a link to the pages, this book needs to be available to the masses. Or at least to we few, we happy few, we band of dresswearing sisters.


  5. It’s way too fragile to scan, or even to photocopy. When I take it back to the library I’m recommending it go in Special Collections. But I will take a picture of the cover!


  6. 22 libraries in America have the book. Ask your local librarian to go on WORLD CAT and get a copy sent to you through ILL. The librarians will know what that means.Meantime, check her writing out in Google scholar. I love this quote:”Many women wish to improve their looks, but do not know how. Others fear it might not be quite modest to make the effort”.If only!Belle also went by the name Diana Sturgis, and sued the New York Herald for non-payment.


  7. I desperately need to have this book. I love collecting the different vintage texts on sewing and on What to Wear/How to Dress, and I obviously need to add this gem to my collection. I have the Lippincott sewing manual from 1916; it would make a lovely companion piece.Don’t be too horrified at the idea of a maternity corset: it doesn’t need to be pulled so tight that it’s unsafe or even uncomfortable. For those ladies who’ve been pregnant, think about it: support for the increasing bosom that doesn’t leave dents in your shoulders, and some gentle support for that swelling stomach so that it doesn’t bounce so much, or try to swing separately, if you’re running up and down stairs; and a little snug support for that aching back.Battle Creek Michigan, land of health foods, breakfast cereal, and sanatoria! I’m not surprised it spawned one more person who needed to tell the world What to Do and How to Do It. I happen to agree with a lot of what she says, of course.I think we’ve all seen plenty of items of dress lately that were not worthy of being loved, and the sheer ugliness of them makes admitting to a love of fashion an embarrassment. If we could still buy the pretty dresses that you showcase, it wouldn’t be nearly so embarrassing an admission. I spent last night going through Dover’s compilation from 1950’s Sears catalogs, wanting to buy 90% of the dresses and suits they showed.


  8. “There is no reason why when we go shopping we should take what is set before us to take, providing the standard of what is set before is common, and our standard is higher.”The mantra of ‘fashion police’ everywhere-just because they made it doesn’t mean you have to wear it! Which leads me to my giggle fit the other night at my neighborhood Thai restaurant and one of the other patrons was wearing that lovely “Tikiboutique” dress. Erin, it’s horrible in person, not merely kitchy. Ill fitting, cheezy fabric. The poor girl looked like it was ‘stripper’s day off.’ My date thought I was terribly mean as I kept on snickering; he merely saw a girl wearing a sundress on a hot day.


  9. Delurking because I have to comment on this post!! :)I love these old fashion books; in some way they always date themselves and yet in others they hold up time-honored advice. I think my favorite quote that you shared was: “Every woman who buys ready-made clothes that are vulgar in design, helps to increase that type of designing.” So is that why we’re still seeing second-skin tshirts and bell bottoms a full decade after they came back on the scene???? And yet it takes a book from 1916 to finally explain to me why massproduced retailers continue to churn out junk year after year… *giggle*Keep up your blogging–I love reading this blog; your humor and enthusiasm (not to mention you like vintage/retro designs!) are what keep me coming back. 🙂


  10. Oh no! Last night I wore the tiki boutique huge polka dot dress with a shirt underneath for modesty)to my neighborhood Thai restaurant. Good thing I AM a stripper–and it WAS my night off.


  11. That is a truly wonderful sounding book. I will have to see if I can find it somewhere here in Canada. I enjoy reading vintage books on clothing.


  12. wow…it is on abebooks…man, i wish i had $56 for that right now 🙂 i will have to watch for it elsewhere 🙂


  13. On the 7th paragraph “Every woman” Hallelujah!!! She hit it spot on.If she written this stuff in stone 200 yrs ago it would not have mattered. It would still have same meaning to me. I would so, love to have this book. If you order this book from Abebooks and do not live in the U.K be prepared to pay $10 in shipping.I had figured out years ago that if peeps keep buying gawd awful desgined clothing, manufacturer’swill keep making it. Retailers will keep selling it. I dont buy the gawd awful clothing!!! I can’t stop other peeps from buying it tho . What are you supposed to do then???


  14. Hubby isn’t here at the moment but I believe the general rule is copyright runs life PLUS 75 years. That’s unless some corporation (publishing house) owns the copyright. Will ask when he gets home. No accident how many folks are making $$$ on ebay these days copying old millinery texts. Easier to copy someone else’s work than to write your own. On the other hand, these great old books need to be available. The world should be a prettier place!Kate Q:-)


  15. Second what Jill of the Extraordinarly Pleasing Nomenclature said: If I were at work, as I typed this (unlikely, because then I would be working, rather than amusing myself with the dressaday fun), I could tell you which library(ies) across the U.S. (and Canada) had a copy available for your reading pleasure.And get it for you.


  16. Sorlil – no, no joke; no more so than a bra worn when pregnant. In the centuries when women wore corsets, they also wore them when pregnant; not, obviously the same size as when they were not pregnant.People who’ve never worn one generally think corset=instrument of torture, worn to squash the person as small as possible. Not true. The function of a corset, among other things, was to reshape the body to give it the popular silhouette; sometimes that included reducing the waist size, but it wasn’t always the primary aim. 16th, 17th and 18th century corsets would generally support and flatten the bust; the avowed 18thC goal was to be perfectly flat in front (not up top, of course – heaving bosoms, and all that), and to provide a cone-shaped torso which was round, rather than oval, in cross-section; with a properly fitted 18thC corset, it’s possible to fit your closed fist between your stomach and the corset itself. I would guess that you’ve never worn a period corset fitted to you, or that you haven’t had to support the kind of weight I mentioned (of course, I could be wrong): but they can be not merely comfortable, but orthopedic (ugh. that sounds awful. “Helpful” sounds better); I know one girl who always wore one when she had her period, to help keep her back from hurting. I wore one while doing martial arts to keep from tearing my intercostal muscles. you’ve never supported


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