[Editorial Note: "Nothing to Wear" created a sensation when first published in Harper's Weekly. So popular did it prove that Harper's other magazine, the Illustrated Monthly, reprinted it some nine months later. The illustrations come from this latter source. The poem's popularity inspired first a good deal of speculation about its author, since it was initially published anonymously, and then a bit of controversy.1 When reprinted in the Illustrated Monthly, the author -- William Allen Butler -- received credit. Horatio Alger, Jr., just beginning his literary career, wrote a similar poem, Nothing to Do, which he dedicated to Butler and in which he made use of Butler's character, Flora M'Flimsey. Six years later, one of the most talked about pictures at a New York exhibition was "Nothing to Wear," evidence of the poem's continuing hold on the popular imagination.
It is clear the poem recommended itself as highly moral -- owing to its closing stanzas -- despite its sarcastic tone. Harper's Weekly itself published a tart rebuttal, supposedly by a female reader. The actual author of "Prattle and Tattle," for some months a regular feature of the magazine, is unknown. Here is her/his response. On the other hand, the "belle's" continuing fascination with fashion provoked a continuing stream of moral condemnation. "A Wholesome Conclusion," a cartoon published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, made the same point as "Nothing to Wear," but with a bit more subtlety. "Lady Crinoline" had become a standard symbol of fashion. The reference to the "narrow" church door played upon a standard Christian notion that the path to salvation, as in Pilgrim's Progress, is straight and narrow.
Flora M'Flimsey, the society belle with "nothing to wear," did have her defenders. 1857 was a year of financial "panic." Businesses were going bankrupt, millions lost their jobs. And some went so far as to blame the frivolous spending of fashionable wives and daughters for the economic downturn. This, some chivalrous defenders of the Buchanan administration maintained, was completely untrue.]
Harper's Weekly, February 7, 1857, P. 84.
Miss Flora M'Flimsey, of Madison Square,
Has made three separate journeys to Paris,
And her father assures me, each time she was there,
That she and her friend Mrs. Harris
(Not the lady whose name is so famous in history,
But plain Mrs.H., without romance or mystery)
Spent six consecuitve weeks without stopping,
In one continuous round of shopping;
Shopping alone, and shopping together,
At all hours of the day, and in all sorts of weather;
For all manner of things that a woman can put
On the crown of her head or the sole of her foot,
Or wrap round her shoulders, or fit round her waist,
Or that can be sewed on, or pinned on, or laced,
Or tied on with a string, or stitched on with a bow,
In front or behind, above or below:
For bonnets, mantillas, capes, collars, and shawls;
Dresses for breakfasts, and dinners, and balls;
Dresses to sit in, and stand in, and walk in;
Dresses to dance in, and flirt in, and talk in;
Dresses in which to do nothing at all;
Dresses for winter, spring, summer, and fall;
All of them different in color and pattern,
Silk, muslin, and lace, crepe, velvet, and satin,
Brocade, and broadcloth, and other material,
Quite as expensive and much more ethereal;
In short, for all things that could ever be thought of,
Or milliner, modiste, or tradesman be bought of,
From ten-thousand-francs to twenty-sous frills;
In all quarters of Paris, and to every store,
While M'Flimsey in vain stormed, scolded, and swore,
They footed the streets, and he footed the bills.
The last trip, their goods shipped by the steamer Arago
Formed, M'Flimsey declares, the bulk of her cargo,
Not to mention a quantity kept from the rest,
Sufficient to fill the largest sized chest,
Which did not appear of the ship's manifest,
But for which the ladies themselves manifested
Such particular interest, that they invested
Their own proper persons in layers and rows
Of muslins, embroideries, worked under-clothes,
Gloves, hankerchiefs, scarfs, and such trifles as those;
Then, wrapped in great shawls, like Circassian beauties,
Gave good-by to the ship, and go-by to the duties.
Her relations at home all marveled no doubt,
Miss Flora had grown so enormously stout
For an actual belle and a possible bride;
But the miracle ceased when she turned inside out,
And the truth came to light, and the dry goods beside,
Which, in spite of Collector and Custom-house sentry,
Had entered the port without any entry.
And yet, though scarce three months have passed since the day
This merchandise went, on twelve carts, up Broadway,
This same Miss M'Flimsey, of Madison Square,
The last time we met, was in utter despair,
Because she had nothing whatever to wear!
NOTHING TO WEAR! Now, as this is a true ditty,
I do not assert--this, you know, is between us--
That she 's in a state of absolute nudity,
Like Powers' Greek Slave, or the Medici Venus;
But I do mean to say, I have heard her declare,
When, at the same moment, she had on a dress
Which cost five hundred dollars, and not a cent less,
And jewelry worth ten times more, I should guess,
That she had not a thing in the wide world to wear!
I should mention just here, that out of Miss Flora's
Two hundred and fifty or sixty adorers,
I had just been selected as he who should throw all
The rest in the shade, by the gracious bestowal
On myself, after twenty or thirty rejections,
Of those fossil remains which she called "her affections,"
And that rather decayed, but well-known work of art,
Which Miss Flora persisted in styling "her heart."
So we were engaged. Our troth had been plighted,
Not by moonbeam or starbeam, by fountain or grove,
But in a front parlor, most brilliantly lighted,
Beneath the gas-fixtures we whispered our love.
Without any romance, or raptures, or sighs,
Without any tears in Miss Flora's blue eyes,
Or blushes, or transports, or such silly actions,
It was one of the quietest business transactions,
With a vry small sprinkling of sentiment, if any,
And one very large diamond imported by Tiffany.
On her virginal lips while I printed a kiss,
She exclaimed, as a sort of parenthesis,
And by way of putting me quite at my ease,
"You know, I'm to polka as much as I please,
And flirt when I like--now stop, don't you speak--
And you must not come here more than twice in the week,
Or talk to me either at party or ball,
But always be ready to come when I call;
So don't prose to me about duty and stuff,
If we don't break this off, there will be time enough
For that sort of thing; but the bargain must be
That, as long as I choose, I am perfectly free,
For this is a sort of engagement, you see,
Which is binding on you but not binding on me."
Well, having thus wooed Miss M'Flimsey and gained her,
With the silks, crinolines, and hoops that contained her,
I had, as I thought, a contingent remainder
At least in the property, and the best right
To appear as its escort by day and by night;
And it being the week of the STUCKUP'S grand ball--
Their cards had been out a fortnight or so,
And set all the Avenue on tip-toe--
I considered it my duty to call,
And see if Miss Flora intended to go.
I found her--as ladies are apt to be found,
When the time intervening between the first sound
Of the bell and the visitor's entry is shorter
Than usual--I found; I won't say--I caught her--
Intent on the pier-glass, undoubted meaning
To see if it didn't need cleaning.
She turned as I entered--Why, Harry, you sinner,
I thought that you went to the Flashers' to dinner!"
"So I did," I replied, "but the dinner is swallowed,
And digested, I trust, for tis now nine and more,
So being relieved from that duty, I followed
Inclination, which led me, you see, to your door.
And now will your ladyship so condescend
As just to inform me if you intend
Your beauty, and graces, and presence to lend,
(All which, when I own, I hope no one will borrow)
to the STUCKUP'S, whose party, you know is to-morrow?"
The fair Flora looked up with a pitiful air,
And answered quite promptly, "Why Harry, mon cher,
I should like above all things to go with you there;
But really and truly--I've nothing to wear."
"Nothing to wear! Go just as you are;
Wear the dress you have on, and you'll be by far,
I engage, the most bright and particular star
On the Stuckup horizon"--I stopped, for her eye,
Notwithstanding this delicate onset of flattery,
Opened on me at once a most terrible battery
Of scorn and amazement. She made no reply,
But gave a slight turn to the end of her nose
(That pure Grecian feature), as much as to say,
"How absurd that any sane man should suppose
That a lady would go to a ball in the clothes,
No matter how fine, that she wears every day!"
So I ventured again--"Wear your crimson brocade,"
(Second turn up of nose)--"That's too dark by a shade."
"Your blue silk"--"That's too heavy;" "Your pink"--
"That's too light."
"Wear tulle over satin,"--"I can't endure white."
"Your rose-colored, then, the best of the batch"--
"I haven't a thread of point lace to match."
"Your brown moire antique"--"Yes, and look like a Quaker;"
"The pearl-colored"--"I would, but that plaguey dress-maker
Has had it a week"--"Then the exquisite lilac,
In which you would melt the heart of a Shylock."
(Here the nose took again the same elevation)
"I wouldn't wear it for the whole of creation."
"Why not? It's my fancy, there's nothing could strike it
As more comme il faut--" "Yes, but dear me, that lean
Sophronia Stuckup has got one just like it,
And I won't appear dressed like a chit of sixteen."
"Then that splendid purple, that sweet Mararine;
That superb point d'aiguille, that imperial green,
That zephyr-like tarleton, that rich grenadine"--
"Not one of all which is fit to be seen,"
Said the lady, becoming excited and flush.
"Then wear," I exclaimed, in a tone which quite crushed
Opposition, "that gorgeous toilette which you sported
In Paris last spring, at the grand presentation.
When you quite turned the head of the head of the nation;
And by all the grand court were so very much courted."
The end of the nose was portentously tipped up,
And both the bright eyes shot forth indignation,
As she burst upon me with fierce exclamation,
"I have worn it three times at the least calculation,
And that and the most of my dresses are ripped up!"
Here I ripped out something, perhaps rather rash,
Quite innocent, though; but, to use an expression
More striking than classic, it "settled my hash,"
And proved very soon the last act of our session.
"Fiddlesticks, is it, Sir? I wonder the ceiling
Doesn't fall down and crush you--oh, you men have no feeling,
You selfish, unnatural, illiberal creatures,
Who set yourselves up as patterns and preachers.
Your silly pretense--why what a mere guess it is!
Pray, what do you know of a woman's necessities?
I have told you and shown you I've nothing to wear,
And it's perfectly plain you not only don't care,
But you do not believe me" (here the nose went still higher).
"I suppose if you dared you would call me a liar.
Our engagement is ended, Sir--yes, on the spot;
You're a brute, and a monster, and--I don't know what."
I mildly suggested the words--Hottentot,
pickpocket, and cannibal, Tartar, and thief,
As gentle expletives which might give relief;
But this only proved as spark to the powder,
And the storm I had raised came faster and louder,
It blew and it rained, thundered, lightened, and hailed
Interjections, verbs, pronouns, till language quite failed
To express the abusive, and then its arrears
Were brought up all at once by a torrent of tears,
And my last faint, despairing attempt at an obs-
Ervation was lost in a tempest of sobs.
Well, I felt for the lady, and felt for my hat, too,
Improvised on the crown of the latter a tattoo,
In lieu of expressing the feelings which lay
Quite too deep for words, as Wordsworth would say;
Then, without going through the form of a bow,
Found myself in the entry--I hardly know how--
On door-step and sidewalk, past lamp-post and square,
At home and up stairs, in my own easy chair;
Poked my feet into slippers, my fire into blaze,
And said to myself, as I lit my cigar,
Supposing a man had the wealth of the Czar
Of the Russias to foot, for the rest of his days,
On the whole, do you think he would have much to spare
If he married a woman with nothing to wear?
Since that night, taking pains that it should not be bruited
Abroad in society, I've instituted
A course of inquiry, extensive and thorough,
On this vital subject, and find, to my horror,
That the fair Flora's case is by no means surprising,
But that there exists the greatest distress
In our female community, solely arising
From this unsupplied destitution of dress,
Whose unfortunate victims are filling the air
With the pitiful wail of "Nothing to wear."
Researches in some of the "Upper Ten" districts
Reveal the most painful and startling statistics,
Of which let me mention only a few:
In one single house, on the Fifth Avenue,
Three young ladies were found, all below twenty-two
Who have been three whole weeks without any thing new
In the way of flounced silks, and thus left in the lurch
Are unable to go to ball, concert or church.
In another large mansion near the same place
Was found a deplorable, heart-rending case
Of entire destitution of Brussels point lace.
In a neighboring block there was found, in three calls,
Total want, long continued, of camels'-hair shawls;
And a suffering family, whose case exhibits
The most pressing need of real ermine tippets;
One deserving young lady almost unable
To survive for the want of a new Russian sable;
Another confined to the house, when it's windier
Than usual, because her shawl isn't India.
Still another, whose tortures have been most terrific
Ever since the sad loss of the steamer Pacific,
In which were ingulfed, not friend or relation,
(For whose fate she perhaps might have found consolation.
Or borne it, at least, with serene resignation)
But the choicest assortment of French sleeves and collars,
Ever sent out from Paris, worth thousands of dollars,
And all as to style the most recherche and rare,
The want of which leaves her with nothing to wear,
And renders her life so drear and dyspeptic
That's she's quite a recluse, and almost a skeptic,
For she touchingly says that this sort of grief
Can not find in Religion, the slightest relief,
And Philosophy has not a maxim to spare
For the victims of such overwhelming despair.
But the saddest by far of all these sad features
Is the cruelty practiced upon the poor creatures
By husbands and fathers, real Bluebeards and Timons,
Who resist the most touching appeals made for diamonds
By their wives and their daughters, and leave them for days
Unsupplied with new jewelry, fans or bouquets,
Even laugh at their miseries whenever they have a chance,
And deride their demands as useless extravangance;
One case of a bride was brought to my view,
Too sad for belief, but, alas! 'Twas too true,
Whose husband refused, as savage as Charon,
To permit her to take more than ten trunks to Sharon.
The consequnce was, that when she got there,
At the end of three weeks, she had nothing to wear,
And when she proposed to finish the season
At Newport, the monster refused out and out,
For his infamous conduct alleging no reason,
Except that the waters were good for his gout;
Such treatment as this was too shocking, of course,
And proceedings are now going on for divorce.
But why harrow the feelings by lifting the curtain
From thse scenes of woe? Enough, it is certain,
Has been disclosed, to stir up the pity
Of every benevolent heart in the city,
And stir up Humanity into a canter
To rush and relieve these sad cases instanter.
Won't somebody, moved by this touching description,
Come forward to-morrow and head a subscription?
Won't some kind philanthropist, seeing that aid is
So needed at once by these indigent ladies,
Take charge of the matter? Or won't Peter Cooper
The corner-stone of some splendid super-
Structure, like that which to-day links his name
In the Union unending of honor and fame;
And found a new charity just for the care
Of these unhappy women with nothing to wear,
Which, in view of the cash which would daily be claimed,
The Laying-out Hospital well might be named?
Won't Stewart, or some of our dry-goods importers,
Take a contract for clothing our wives and our daughters:
Or, to furnish the cash to supply these distresses,
And life's pathway strew with shawls, collars, and dresses,
Ere the want of them makes it much rougher and thornier,
Won't some one discover a new California?
Oh ladies, dear ladies, the next sunny day
Please trundle your hoops just out of Broadway,
From its whirl and its bustle, its fashion and pride
And the temples of Trade which tower on each side,
To the alleys and lanes, where Misfortune and Guilt
Their children have gathered, their city have built;
Where Hunger and Vice, like twin beasts of prey,
Have hunted their victims to gloom and despair;
Raise the rich, dainty dress, and the fine broidered skirt,
Pick your delicate way through the dampness and dirt,
Grope through the dark dens, climb the rickety stair
To the garret, where wretches, the young and the old,
Half-starved and half-naked, lie crouched from the cold.
See those skeleton limbs, those frost-bitten feet,
All bleeding and bruised by the stones of the street;
Hear the sharp cry of childhood, the deep groans that swell
From the poor dying creature who writhes on the floor,
Hear the curses that sound like the echoes of Hell,
As you sicken and shudder and fly from the door;
Then home to your wardrobes, and say, if you dare--
Spoiled children of Fashion--you've nothing to wear!
Where the soul, disenchanted of flesh and of sense,
Unscreened by its trappings, and shows, and pretense,
Must be clothed for the life and the service above,
With purity, truth, faith, meekness, and love;
Oh, daughters of Earth! Foolish virgins, beware!
Lest in that upper realm you have nothing to wear!
Some initial reflections:
Flora was the "true woman's" evil twin. Harper's New Monthly (June 1854) offered this definition of the "true woman":
for whose ambition a husband's love and her children's adoration are sufficient, who applies her military instincts to the discipline of her household, and whose legislative faculties exercise themselves in making laws for her nursery; whose intellect has field enough in communion with her husband, and whose heart asks no other honors than his love and admiration; a woman who does not think it a weakness to attend to her toilette, and who does not distain to be beautiful; who believes in the virtue of glossy hair and well-fitting gowns, and who eschews rents [tears] and raveled edges, slipshod shoes, and audacious make-ups; a woman who speaks low and who does not speak much; who is patient and gentle and intellectual and industrious; who loves more than she reasons, and yet does not love blindly; who never scolds, and rarely argues, but who rebukes with a caress, and adjusts with a smile: a woman who is the wife we all have dreamt of once in our lives, and who is the mother we still worship in the backward distance of the past: such a woman as this does more for human nature, and more for woman's cause, than all the sea-captains, judges, barristers, and members of parliament put together--God-given and God-blessed as she is!
Flora did "not think it a weakness to attend to her toilette" nor did she neglect her make-up. She had no intention of becoming a sea-captain or a member of parliament. And she certainly believed "in the virtue of glossy hair and well-fitting gowns." Indeed she believed all too devoutly. She believed in being beautiful and in little else. What is striking is that, throughout the 1850s, men spent more time and energy castigating fashionable belles than they did woman's rights advocates. Here is another, briefer, poetic assault. Here is a suggestion that a Maine Law should be established in every state to prohibit fashion.
Fashion was an American fascination throughout this period. Popular magazines featured "fashion plates," full-page features of the latest designs, many from Paris. Yet fashion seemed to have inspired as much guilt as pleasure. Hence "Flora." Further, no fashion excited more male distain and opposition than the hoop skirt. "The Horrors of Hoops" appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. For a fuller discussion, go to the page on dress reform.
Cora Hatch's public appearance had elements of both Harper's New Monthly "true woman" and Flora M'Flimsey. In her initial divorce petition, she complained that B. F. Hatch refused to buy her flannel petticoats even though he freely paid large sums for her gowns and, especially, frilly and fashionable undergarments. The point of such garments was to be seen wearing them. The view that hoop skirts were designed to hide a woman's legs is exactly wrong. They were to show them off.
In the first cartoon, Clara is consulting with her friend Julia. She has rigged up an "imitation set of front door steps. "What is the effect now, Julia dear?" Julia replies: "Charming, love, you might even flirt just a little more with safety." In the second, a voyeur is shocked to discover that the young woman's calf is padded. It is titled "The Padded Calf -- Veal A La Mode." The cartoon warns the young woman (rather than chastises the man): "Don't stuff your calves with bran, lest you should re-veal the real state of your understanding." The "Patent Padded Calf" was a real product. Women did pad their calves, if they were insufficiently plump, because their dresses rose in the back whenever they bent over or ascended stairs and in the front whenever they sat down.