The Abominations of Modern Society

T. De Witt Talmage, Brooklyn, January 1st, 1872


One cannot always tell by a man's coat—what kind of a heart he has under it; still, his dress is apt to be the out-blossoming of his character, and is not to be disregarded. We make no indiscriminate onslaught upon customs of dress. Why did God put spots on the pansy, or etch the fern leaf? And what are flowers good for—if style and color are of no importance? The realm is as wide as the world, and as far-reaching as all the generations, over which fashion has extended her scepter. For thousands of years she has sat queen over all the earth, and the revolutions that rock down all other thrones have not in the slighest, affected her domination. Other constitutions have been torn, and other laws trampled; but to her decrees conquerors and kings have bowed their plumes. Victoria is not Queen of England; Napoleon was not Emperor of France; Isabella was not Queen of Spain. Fashion has been regnant over all the earth; and lords and dukes, kings and queens, have been the subjects of her realm.

Fashion has arranged the mantle of the patriarch, and the toga of the Roman; the small shoe of the Chinese women, and the turban of the Turk; the furs of the Laplander, and the peace pipe of the Indian chieftain. Hottentot and Siberian obey her mandate, as well as Englishman and American. Her laws are written on parchment and palm-leaf, on broken arch and cathedral tracery. She arranged how the Egyptian mummy should be wound, and how Caesar should ride, and how the Athenians should speak, and how through the Venetian canals, the gondoliers should row their pleasure-boat. Her hand has hung the pillars with embroidery, and strewn the floor with plush. Her loom has woven fabrics graceful as the snow, and pure as the light. Her voice is heard in the gold mart, in the roar of the street, in the shuffle of the crowded bazaars, in the rattle of the steam-presses, and in the songs of the churches.

You have limited your observation of the sway of fashion—if you have considered it only as it decides individual and national costumes. It makes the rules of behavior. It wields an influence in artistic spheres—often deciding what pictures shall hang in the house, what music shall be played, what ornaments shall stand upon the mantle. The poor man will not have on his wall the cheap wood-cut that he can afford, because he cannot have a great daub like that which hangs on the rich man's wall, and costing three hundred dollars.

Fashion helps to make up religious belief. It often decides to what church we shall go, and what religious tenets we shall adopt. It goes into the pulpit, and decides the suit, and the style of rhetoric. It goes into literature and arranges the binding, the type, the illustrations of the book, and oftentimes the sentiments expressed and the theories evolved. Men the most independent in feeling—are by "fashion" compelled to submit to social customs.

Fashion has been one of the most potent of reformers, and one of the vilest of usurpers. Sometimes it has been an angel from heaven, and at others it has been the mother of harlots. As the world grows better, there will be as much fashion as now—but it will be a different fashion. In the future life, white robes always have been and always will be in the fashion. There is a great outcry against this submission to social custom, as though any consultation of the tastes and feelings of others were deplorable; but without it the world would have neither law, order, civilization, nor common decency.

There has been a canonization of bluntness. There are men and women who boast that they can tell you all they know and hear about you, especially if it be unpleasant. Some have mistaken rough behavior for frankness, when the two qualities do not belong to the same family. You have no right, with your eccentricities, to crash in upon the sensitiveness of others. There is no virtue in walking with hoofs over fine carpets. The most jagged rock is covered with blossoming moss. The storm that comes jarring down in thunder strews rainbow colors upon the sky, and silvery drops on orchard and meadow. There are men who pride themselves on their capacity to "stick" others. They say "I have brought him down: Didn't I make him squirm!"

Others pride themselves on their outlandish apparel. They boast of being out of the fashion. They wear a queer hat. They ride in an odd carriage. By dint of perpetual application they would persuade the world that they are totally indifferent to public opinion. They are more proud of being "out of fashion" than others are of being in. They are utterly and universally disagreeable. Their rough corners have never been worn off. They prefer a hedge-hog to a lamb.

Good manners and a respect for the tastes of others, is indispensable. The Good Book speaks favorably of those who are a "peculiar" people; but that does not sanction the behavior of queer people. There is no excuse, under any circumstances, for not being and acting the lady or gentleman. Rudeness is sin. We have no words too ardent to express our admiration for the refinements of society. There is no law, moral or divine, to forbid elegance of demeanor, ornaments of gold or gems for the person, artistic display in the dwelling, gracefulness of gait and bearing, polite salutation, or honest compliments; and he who is shocked or offended by these had better, like the old Scythians, wear tiger-skins, and take one wild leap back into midnight barbarism. As Christianity advances, there will be better apparel, higher styles of architecture, more exquisite adornments, sweeter music, grander pictures, more correct behavior, and more thorough ladies and gentlemen.

Slavery to excessive fashion, is to be charged with many of the worst evils of society, and its path has often been strewn with the bodies of the slain. It has often set up a false standard by which people are to be judged. Our common sense, as well as all the divine intimations on the subject, teach us that people ought to be esteemed according to their individual and moral attainments. The man who has the most nobility of soul should be first, and he who has the least of such qualities should stand last. No crest, or shield, or escutcheon, can indicate one's moral peerage. Titles of duke, lord, esquire, earl, viscount, ought not to raise one into the first rank. Some of the basest men I have ever known, had at the end of their name D.D. (Doctor of Divinity). Truth, honor, charity, heroism, self-sacrifice, should win highest favor; but inordinate fashion says—"Count not a woman's virtues; count her rings; see the way she combs her hair." Ask not what good sense was in her conversation—but "in what was she dressed." Ask not whether there was hospitality and cheerfulness in the house—but "in what style do they live." As a consequence, some of the most ignorant and wicked men are at the top, and some of the most virtuous and intelligent people at the bottom.

During the late war, we suddenly saw men hurled up into the highest social positions. Had they suddenly reformed from evil habits? or graduated in a science? or achieved some good work for society? No! They simply had obtained a government contract! This accounts for the utter chagrin which men feel at the treatment they receive when they lose their property. Hold up your head amid financial disaster, like a Christian! Fifty thousand subtracted from a godly man leaves how much? Honor; Truth; Faith in God; Triumphant Hope; and a kingdom of ineffable glory, over which he is to reign forever and ever. If a millionaire should lose a penny out of his pocket, would he sit down on a curb-side and cry? And shall a man possessed of everlasting fortunes wear himself out with grief, because he has lost worldly trifle? You have only lost that in which hundreds of wretched misers surpass you; and you have retained that which the Caesars, and the Pharaohs, and the Alexanders could never afford.

And yet society thinks differently; and you see the most intimate friendships broken up as the consequence of financial embarrassments. You say to someone, "How is your friend ___?" The man looks bewildered, and says, "I do not know." You reply, "Why; you used to be intimate." "Well," says the man, "our friendship has been dropped—the man has failed in business." Proclamation has gone forth: "Velvets must go up, and homespun must come down;" and the question is "How does the coat fit?"—not, "Who wears it?"

The power which bears the tides of excited population up and down our streets, and rocks the world of commerce, and thrills all nations, is—clothes. It decides the last offices of respect to a dying friend; and how long the dress shall be totally black; and when it may subside into spots of grief on silk, calico, or gingham. Men die in good circumstances—but by reason of extravagant funeral expenses are well near insolvent before they get buried! Many men would not die at all—if they had to wait until they could afford it.

Excessive fashion is productive of a most ruinous strife. The expenditure of many households is adjusted by what their neighbors have, not by what they themselves can afford to have; and the great concern is—who shall have the finest house and the most costly equipage. The weapons used in the warfare of social life are not guns and canons—but chairs and mirrors, and vases, and decorations and clothing. Many household establishments are like racing steamboats, propelled at the utmost strain and risk, and just coming to a terrific explosion. "Who cares," say they, "so long as we only come out ahead?" There is no one cause today of more financial embarrassment, and of more dishonesties, than this determination, at all hazards—to live as well as or better than other people. There are people who will risk their eternity upon one fine looking-glass, or who will forfeit the splendors of heaven—to get another trinket. "But godliness with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains!" 1 Timothy 6:6-10

"My house is too small." "But," says someone, "you cannot pay for a larger." "Never mind that; my friends have a better residence, and so will I." "A dress of that pattern I must have. I cannot afford it—but who cares for that? My neighbor had one from that pattern, and I must have one." There are scores of men in the dungeons of the penitentiary, who risked honor, business—everything, in the effort to shine like others. Though the heavens fall, they must be "in the fashion." The most notorious frauds of the day, have resulted from this feeling. It keeps hundreds of men struggling for their commercial existence. The trouble is, that some are caught and incarcerated, if their larceny is small. If it is great, they escape, and build their castle on the Rhine. Men go into jail, not because they steal—but because they did not steal enough.

Again—excessive fashion makes people unnatural and untrue. It is a factory from which has come forth more hollow pretenses, and unmeaning flatteries, and hypocrisies, than the Lowell Mills ever turned out shawls and garments. "Fashion" is the greatest of all liars. It has made society insincere. You know not what to believe. When people ask you to come, you do not know whether or not they want you to come. When they send their regards, you do not know whether it is an expression of their heart, or an external civility. We have learned to take almost everything at a discount. They say, "The furnace has just gone out," when in truth they have had no fire in it all winter. They apologize for the unusual barrenness of their table—when they never live any better. They decry their most luxurious entertainments, to win a shower of approval. They apologize for their appearance, as though it were unusual, when always at home they look just so. They would make you believe that some nice sketch on the wall was the work of a master painter. "It was an heir-loom, and once hung on the walls of a castle; and a duke gave it to their grandfather." People who will lie about nothing else—will lie about a picture! On a small income we must make the world believe that we are affluent—and our life becomes a cheat, a counterfeit, and a sham.

Few people are really natural and sincere. When I say this, I do not mean to slur cultured manners. It is right that we should have more admiration for the sculptured marble, than for the unhewn block of the quarry. From many circles in life, fashion has driven out vivacity and enthusiasm. A frozen dignity instead floats about the room, and iceberg grinds against iceberg. You must not laugh outright—that is vulgar. You must smile. You must not dash rapidly across the room—you must glide. There is a round of bows, and grins, and flatteries, and "oh's!" and "ah's!" and simperings, and namby-pambyism—a world in which is not worth one good, round, honest peal of laughter. From such a hollow round, the tortured guest retires at the close of the evening, and assures his host that he has enjoyed himself!

Thus social life has been contorted, and deformed, until, in some mountain cabin, where rustics gather together for a quiet evening, there is more good cheer than in all the elegant ice-houses of the metropolis. We need, in all the higher circles of society, more warmth of heart and naturalness of behavior, and not so many refrigerators.

Again—inordinate fashion is incompatible with happiness. Those who depend for their comfort upon the admiration of others, are subject to frequent disappointment. Somebody will criticize their appearance, or surpass them in brilliancy, or will receive more attention. Oh! the jealousy, and detraction, and heart-burnings of those who move in this bewildered maze! The clock strikes one, and the company begins to disperse. The host has done everything to make all his guests happy; but now that they are on the street, hear their criticisms of everybody and everything! "Did you see her in such and such apparel?" "Wasn't she a fright!" "What a pity that such a one is so awkward and uncouth!" "Well, really—I would rather never be spoken to, than be seen with such a man as that!" Poor butterflies! Bright wings do not always bring happiness. "She who lives in pleasure, is dead while she lives."

The revelations of high life which come to the challenge, are only the occasional croppings out of disquietudes which are, underneath, like the stars of heaven for multitude—but like the demons of the pit for hate. The misery that tonight in the cellar cuddles up in the straw—is not so utter as the princely disquietude which stalks through splendid drawing-rooms, brooding over the slights and offences of high life. The bitterness of trouble seems not so unfitting, when drunk out of a beer mug—as when it pours from a golden chalice. In the sharp crack of the voluptuary's pistol, putting an end to his earthly misery, I hear the confirmation that in a hollow, fastidious life, there is no peace.

Again—Excessive devotion to fashion is productive of physical disease, mental imbecility, and spiritual withering. Apparel insufficient to keep out the cold and the rain, or so fitted upon the person that the functions of life are restrained; late hours, filled with excitement and feasting; free draughts of wine, which make one not beastly intoxicated—but only fashionably drunk; and luxurious indolence—are the instruments by which this unreal life pushes its disciples into extravagance and the grave. Along the walks of high life—Death goes a mowing—and such harvests as are reaped! Medicine has been exhausted to find curatives for these physical devastations. Dropsies, cancers, consumptions, gout, and almost every infirmity in all the realm of pathology, have been the penalty paid. To counteract the damage, quacks have gone forth with their panaceas! Tonight, with swollen feet, upon cushioned ottoman, and groaning with aches innumerable—is the votary of luxurious living, not half so happy as his coal-heaver. Fashion is the world's undertaker, and drives thousands of hearses to the cemetery!

But, worse than that, this folly is an intellectual depletion. This endless study of proprieties and etiquette, patterns and styles, is bedwarfing to the intellect. I never knew a man or a woman of extreme fashion, that knew much. How belittling is the study of the cut of a coat, or the tie of a cravat, or the wrinkle in a shoe, or the color of a ribbon! How they are worried if something gets untied, or hangs awry, or is not nicely adjusted! With a mind capable of measuring the height and depth of great subjects; able to unravel mysteries; to walk through the universe; to soar up into the infinity of God's attributes —hovering perpetually over a new style of dress!

I have known some, who have no regard for their character, or their momentous and eternal interests, exasperated by the shape of a shirt-button! What is the matter with that sad woman? O, her hat is out of fashion! Worse than all—this folly is not satisfied until it has extirpated every moral sentiment, and blasted the soul. A wardrobe is the rock upon which many a soul has been dashed to hell. The excitement of a luxurious life has been the vortex that has swallowed up more souls—than the sea has ever devoured ships. What room is left for elevating themes—in a heart filled with trivial and petty things? Who can wonder that in this haste for gilded baubles—that men should tumble into eternal ruin! The travelers to destruction are not all clothed in rags. On that road chariot jostles against chariot; and behind steeds in golden-plated and glittering harness—they go down to the hot pavements of hell. Clear the track! Bazaars hang out their colors over the road; and trees of tropical fruitfulness overbranch the way. No sound of woe disturbs the air; but all is light and song, and wine and gorgeousness. The world comes out to greet the dazzling procession with "Hurrah! Hurrah!" But, suddenly, there is a halt and an outcry of dismay, and an overthrow worse than the Red Sea tumbling upon the Egyptians. Shadow of grave-stones upon finest silk! Wormwood squeezed into impearled goblets! Death, with one cold breath, withering the leaves and freezing the fountains!

In the wild tumult of the last day—the mountains falling, the heavens flying, the thrones uprising, the universe assembling; amid the boom of the last great thunder-peal, and under the crackling of a burning world—what will become of this fop and fashion?

Watch the career of one who is devoted to fashion. Through inheritance, or perhaps his own skill, having obtained enough for purposes of display, he feels himself thoroughly established. He sits aloof from the common herd, and looks out of his window upon the poor man, and says—"Put that dirty wretch off my steps immediately!" On Sabbath days he finds the church—but mourns the fact that he must worship with so many of the inelegant, and says, "They are so uncultured!" "That man that you put in my pew had a coat on his back, that did not cost five dollars." He struts through life unsympathetic with trouble, and says, "I cannot be bothered." He is delighted with some doubtful story of Parisian life—but thinks that there are some very indecent things in the Bible. He walks arm in arm with a millionnaire—but does not know his own brother. He loves to be praised for his splendid house; and when told that he looks younger than ten years ago, says—"Well, really—do you think so!"

But the brief strut of his life is about over. Upstairs—he dies. No angel wings hovering about him. No gospel promises kindling up the darkness—but exquisite embroidery, elegant pictures, and a bust of Shakespeare on the mantel. The pulses stop. The minister comes in to read of the Resurrection, that day when the dead shall come up—both he who died on the floor, and he who expired under princely upholstery. He is carried out to burial. Only a few sincere mourners—but a great array of carriages. Not one common man at the funeral. No befriended orphan to weep a tear upon his grave. No child of poverty pressing through the ranks of the weeping, saying—"He is the last friend I have; and I must see him." What now? He was a great man. Shall not chariots of salvation come down to the other side of the Jordan, and escort him up to the palace? Shall not the angels exclaim—"Hark! a prince is coming." Will the bells chime? Will there be harpers with their harps, and trumpeters with their trumpets? No! No! No! There will be a shudder, as though a calamity had happened. Standing on heaven's battlement, a watchman will see something shoot past, with fiery downfall, and shriek: "Wandering star—for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever!" With the funeral pageant, the brilliant career terminated.