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Dress as Fine Art: 19th-Century Self-Improvement Manuals

by Allison Meier on July 8, 2014

Illustration from "Dress as a Fine Art" by Mrs. Merrifield (1854) (all images courtesy New York Public Library,  Art and Architecture Collection)

Illustration from “Dress as a Fine Art” by Mrs. Merrifield (1854) (all images courtesy New York Public Library, Art and Architecture Collection)

In the 19th century, when books were more available to the public, titles on how to improve yourself were among the most prevalent. The New York Public Library’s Art & Architecture Collection recently posted some of the more curious ones online.

"The Gentlemen’s Art of Dressing with Economy" by a Lounger at the Clubs (1879)

“The Gentlemen’s Art of Dressing with Economy” by a Lounger at the Clubs (1879)

In a post called “Bustles, Bear Grease, & Burnt Brandy: 19th Century Self-Improvement Manuals in the Art & Architecture Collection,” Doris Straus writes:

Rapidly evolving developments in printing technology and paper manufacture during the 19th century were a democratizing process which lowered costs and made books of all kinds accessible to a wider audience. In that context it is interesting that, even early on, one of the most popular genres of these inexpensive books was self-improvement.

The pages and pages of advice range from the questionable — applying “fat of a red stag” for aching pains — to sensible. Good health is a repeated refrain, especially against the “tight lacing” of confining corsets. Ethel Gale perhaps takes this to a dramatic extreme in the 1872 Hints on Dress or What to Wear, When to Wear it, and How to Buy It, asserting that “sudden death is not the infrequent result of tight lacing.” (Although that was hardly the only fashion danger at the time.)

There’s also an emphasis on authenticity, with “Mrs. Merrifield” in the 1854 Dress as a Fine Art stating:

We violate the laws of nature when we seek to repair the ravages of time on our complexions by paint, when we substitute false hair for that which age has thinned or blanched, or conceal the change by dyeing our own gray hair; when we pad our dress to conceal that one shoulder is larger than the other.

Illustration from "Dress as a Fine Art" by Mrs. Merrifield (1854) (all images courtesy New York Public Library,  Art and Architecture Collection)

Illustration from “Dress as a Fine Art” by Mrs. Merrifield (1854) (all images courtesy New York Public Library, Art and Architecture Collection)

Much of it is set in treating the self with the same care as any art, with the choices of color and decorum having a promise of class and psychological improvement. Some of it feels outdated now, and often culturally insensitive, as books like the 1863 Taste versus Fashionable Colours by William and George Audsley giving varying shades of white for its color suggestions based on complexions.

To take the self-improvement books a step further, they are also an echo of the moralistic tone to much of societal development at the time. For example, when Central Park was opened in 1857, it was meant to improve the social conscience through an egalitarian, shared experience. Class was much more flexible in the United States than in Europe, and there was this sudden access to knowledge that had previously been transmitted orally among the elite about how to present yourself in a certain standing. The opportunities for women were also advancing, and despite all the rambling on choosing the right color of umbrella or cut of gown for the evening, these books were an opportunity to put that voice in print. For example, Eliza Leslie’s The Behaviour Book has an assertive chapter on “Conduct to Literary Women,” albeit chasing an “Obligations to Gentlemen” chapter, telling readers to not ask a female writer about how much she’s paid, to interrupt her work or treat it flippantly, or make assumptions based on her unconventional career:

When in company with literary women, make no allusions to ‘learned ladies,’ or ‘blue stockings,’ or express surprise that they should have any knowledge of housewifery, or needlework, or dress; or that they are able to talk on ‘common things.’ It is rude and foolish, and shows that you really know nothing about them, either as a class or as individuals.

Illustration from "Dress as a Fine Art" by Mrs. Merrifield (1854)

Illustration from “Dress as a Fine Art” by Mrs. Merrifield (1854)

Read more about 19th-century self-improvement manuals at the New York Public Library blog, or visit the Art and Architecture Reading Room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, Midtown East, Manhattan).  

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