THE entertainments of this unusually festive season, so far as I am personally concerned, have at last subsided into a temporary lull. I and my family actually have one or two evenings to ourselves, just at present. It is my purpose to take advantage of this interval of leisure to express my sentiments on the subject of evening parties and ladies’ dress.

Let nobody turn over this page impatiently, alarmed at the prospect of another diatribe against Crinoline. I, for one, am not going to exhibit myself in the character of a writer who vainly opposes one of the existing institutions of this country. The Press, the Pulpit, and the Stage have been in the habit of considering themselves as three very powerful levers, capable of being used with terrible effect on the inert material of society. All three have tried to jerk that flourishing foreign plant, Crinoline, out of English earth, and have failed to stir so much as a single root of it. All three have run full tilt against the women of England, and have not moved them an inch. Talk of the power of the Press!—what is it, compared to the power of a French milliner? The Press has tried to abridge the women’s petticoats, and has utterly failed in the attempt. When the right time comes, a French milliner will abridge them at a week’s notice. The Pulpit preaches, the Stage ridicules; and each woman of the congregation or the audience sits, imperturbable, in the middle of her balloon, and lets the serious words or the comic words go in at one ear and come out at the other, precisely as if they were spoken in an unknown tongue. Nothing so deplorably deteriorating for the reputation of the Press, the Pulpit, and the Stage has ever happened, as the utter failure of their crusade against Crinoline.

My present object in writing is likely, I think, to be popular—at least, with the ladies. I do not want to put down Crinoline—I only want to make room for it. Personally, I rather like it—I do, indeed, though I am a man. The fact is, I am a thoroughly well-disciplined husband and father, and I know the value of it. The only defect in my eldest daughter’s otherwise perfect form, lies in her feet and ankles. She is married, so I don’t mind mentioning that they are decidedly large and clumsy. Without Crinoline, they would be seen; with Crinoline (think of that, scoffing young men!) nobody has the slightest suspicion of them. My wife—I implore the reader not to tell her that I ever observed it—my wife used to waddle before the invention of Crinoline. Now she swims voluptuously, and knocks down all the light articles of furniture, whenever she crosses the room, in a manner which, but for the expense of repairs, would be perfectly charming. One of my other single daughters used to be sadly thin, poor girl. Oh, how plump she is now! Oh, my marriageable young men, how ravishingly plump she is now! Long life to the monarchy of Crinoline! Every mother in this country who has daughters to marry, and who is not quite so sure of their unaided personal attractions as she might wish to be, echoes that loyal cry, I am sure, from the bottom of her affectionate heart. And the Press actually thinks it can shake our devotion to our Queen Petticoat? The Press, ladies? Pooh! pooh!

But we must have room—we must positively have room for our petticoat at evening parties. We wanted it before Crinoline. We want it ten thousand times more, now. I don’t know how other parents feel; but unless there is some speedy reform in the present system of party-giving—so far as regards health, purse, and temper, I am a lost man. Let me make my meaning clear on this point by a simple and truthful process. Let me describe how we went to our last party, and how we came back from it.

Doctor and Mrs. Crump, of Gloucester Place (I mention names and places to show the respectable character of the party), kindly requested the pleasure of my company and my family’s a week ago. We accepted the invitation, and agreed to assemble in my dining-room previous to departure at the hour of half-past nine. It is unnecessary to say that my son-in-law (now staying with me on a visit) and I had the room entirely to ourselves at the appointed time. We waited half-an-hour: both ill-tempered, both longing to be in bed, and both utterly silent. As the hall clock struck ten, a sound was heard on the stairs as if a whole gale of wind had broken into the house, and was advancing to the dining-room to blow us both into empty space. We knew what this meant, and looked at each other, and said, "Hullo! here they are!" The door opened, and Boreas swam in voluptuously, in the shape of my wife, in claret-coloured velvet. She stands five feet nine, and wears—No! I have never actually counted them. Let me not mislead the public, or do injustice to my wife. Let me rest satisfied with stating her height, and adding that she is a fashionable woman. Her circumference, and the causes of it, may be left to the imagination of the reader.

She was followed by four minor winds, blowing dead in our teeth—by my married daughter in Violet Tulle Illusion; by my own Julia (single) in Pink Moiré Antique; by my own Emily (single) in white lace over glacé silk; by my own Charlotte (single) in blue gauze over glacé silk. The four minor winds and the majestic maternal Boreas entirely filled the room, and overflowed on to the dining-table. It was a grand sight. My son-in-law and I—a pair of mere black tadpoles—shrank into a corner, and gazed at it helplessly.

Our corner was, unfortunately, the farthest from the door. So, when I moved to lead the way to the carriages, I confronted a brilliant, intermediate expanse of ninety yards of outer clothing alone (allowing only eighteen yards each to the ladies). Being old, wily, and respected in the house, I took care to avoid my wife, and succeeded in getting through my daughters. My son-in-law, young, innocent, and of secondary position in the family, was not so fortunate. I left him helpless, looking round the corner of his mother-in-law’s claret-coloured velvet, with one of his legs lost in his wife’s Tulle Illusion. There is every reason to suppose that he never extricated himself; for when he got into the carriages he was not to be found; and, when ultimately recovered, exhibited symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion. I am afraid my son-in-law caught it—I am very much afraid that, during my absence, my son-in-law caught it.

We filled—no, we overflowed—two carriages. My wife and her married daughter in one, and I, myself, on the box—the front seat being very properly wanted for the velvet and the Tulle Illusion. In the second carriage were my three girls—crushed, as they indignantly informed me, crushed out of all shape (didn’t I tell you just now how plump one of them was?) by the miserably-inefficient accommodation which the vehicle offered to them. They told my son-in-law, as he meekly mounted to the box, that they would take care not to marry a man like him, at any rate! I have not the least idea what he had done to provoke them. The worthy creature gets a great deal of scolding, in the house, without any assignable cause for it. Do my daughters resent his official knowledge, as a husband, of the secret of their sister’s ugly feet? Oh, dear me, I hope not—I sincerely hope not!

At ten minutes past ten we drove to the, hospitable abode of Doctor and Mrs. Crump. The women of my family were then perfectly dressed in the finest materials. There was not a flaw in any part of the costume of any one of the party. This is a great deal to say of ninety yards of clothing, without mentioning the streams of ribbon, and the dense thickets of flowery bushes that wantoned gracefully all over their heads and half-down their backs—nevertheless, I can say it.

At forty minutes past four, the next morning, we were all assembled once more in my dining-room, to light our bed-room candles. Judging by costume only, I should not have known one of my daughters again—no, not one of them!

The Tulle Illusion was illusion no longer. My daughter’s gorgeous substratum of Gros de Naples bulged through it in half a dozen places. The Pink Moiré Antique was torn into a draggle-tailed pink train. The white lace was in tatters, and the blue gauze was in shreds.

"A charming party!" cried my daughters, in melodious chorus, as I surveyed this scene of ruin. Charming, indeed! If I had dressed up my four girls, and sent them to Greenwich Fair, with strict orders to get drunk and assault the police, and if they had carefully followed my directions, could they have come home to me in a much worse condition than the condition in which I see them now? Could any man, not acquainted with the present monstrous system of party-giving, look at my four young women, and believe that they had been spending the evening, under the eyes of their parents, at a respectable house? If the party had been at a linendraper’s, I could understand the object of this wanton destruction of property. But Doctor Crump is not interested in making me buy new gowns. What have I done to him that he should ask me and my family to his house, and all but tear my children’s gowns off their backs, in return for our friendly readiness to accept his invitation?

But my daughters danced all the evening, and these little accidents will happen in private ball-rooms. Indeed? I did not dance, my wife did not dance, my son-in-law did not dance. Have we escaped injury on that account? Decidedly not. Velvet is not an easy thing to tear, so I have no rents to deplore in my wife’s dress. But I apprehend that a spoonful of trifle does not reach its destination properly when it is deposited in a lady’s lap; and I altogether deny that there is any necessary connection between the charms of society, and the wearing of crushed macaroons, adhesively dotted over the back part of a respectable matron’s dress. I picked three off my wife’s gown, as she swam out of the dining-room, on her way up-stairs; and I am informed that two new breadths will be wanted in front, in consequence of her lap having been turned into a plate for trifle. As for my son-in-law, his trousers are saturated with spilled sherry; and he took, in my presence, nearly a handful of flabby lobster salad out of the cavity between his shirt-front and his waistcoat. For myself, I have had my elbow in a game-pie, and I see with disgust a slimy path of once-trickling, but now extinct custard, meandering down the left hand lappel of my coat. Altogether, this party, on the lowest calculation, casts me in damages to the tune of ten pounds eighteen shillings and sixpence.*

* For the information of ignorant young men, who are beginning life, I subjoin the lamentable particulars of this calculation:

A Tulle Illusion spoilt

£2 0s 6d
Repairing gathers of Moiré Antique 0 5 0
Cheap white lace dress spoilt 3 0 0
Do. blue gauze do. 1 6 0
Two new breadths of velvet for Mama 4 0 0
Cleaning my son-in-law’s trousers 0 2 6
Cleaning my own coat 0 5 0
Total 10 18 6

 In damages for spoilt garments only. I have still to find out what the results may be of the suffocating heat in the rooms, and the freezing draughts in the passages, and on the stairs—I have still to face the possible doctor’s bills for treating our influenzas and our rheumatisms. And to what cause is all this destruction and discomfort attributable? Plainly and simply, to this. When Doctor and Mrs. Crump issued their invitations, they followed the example of the rest of the world, and asked to their house five times as many people as their rooms would comfortably hold. Hence, jostling, bumping, and tearing among the dancers, and jostling, bumping, and spilling in the supper-room. Hence, a scene of barbarous crowding and confusion, in which the successful dancers are the heaviest and rudest couples in the company, and the successful guests at the supper-table, the people who have least regard for the restraints of politeness and the wants of their neighbours.

Is there no remedy for this great social nuisance? for a nuisance it certainly is. There is a remedy in every district in London, in the shape of a spacious and comfortable public room, which may be had for the hiring. The rooms to which I allude are never used for doubtful purposes. They are mainly devoted to Lectures, Concerts, and Meetings. When used for a private object, they might be kept private by giving each guest a card to present at the door, just as cards are presented at the opera. The expense of the hiring, when set against the expense of preparing a private house for a party, and the expense of the injuries which crowding causes, would prove to be next to nothing. The supper might be sent into the large room as it is sent into the small house. And what benefit would be gained by all this? The first and greatest of all benefits, in such cases—room. Room for the dancers to exercise their art in perfect comfort; room for the spectators to move about and talk to each other at their ease; room for the musicians in a comfortable gallery; room for eating and drinking; room for agreeable, equal ventilation. In one word, all the acknowledged advantages of a public ball, with all the pleasant social freedom of a private entertainment.

And what hinders the adopting of this sensible reform? Nothing but the domestic vanity of my beloved countrymen. I suggested the hiring of a room, the other day, to an excellent friend of mine, who thought of giving a party, and who inhumanly contemplated asking at least a hundred people into his trumpery little ten-roomed house. He absolutely shuddered when I mentioned my idea: all his insular prejudices bristled up in an instant. "If I can’t receive my friends under my own roof, on my own hearth, sir, and in my own home, I won’t receive them at. all. Take a room, indeed! Do you call that an Englishman’s hospitality? I don’t." It was quite useless to suggest to this most estimable gentleman that an Englishman’s hospitality, or any man’s hospitality, is unworthy of the name unless it fulfils the first great requisite of making his guests comfortable. We don’t take that far-fetched view of the case in this domestic country. We stand on our own floor (no matter whether it is only twelve feet square or not); we make a fine show in our houses (no matter whether they are large enough for the purpose or not); never mind the women’s dresses; never mind the dancers being in perpetual collision; never mind the supper being a comfortless, barbarous scramble; never mind the ventilation alternating between unbearable heat and unbearable cold—an Englishman’s house is his castle, even when you can’t get up his staircase, and can’t turn round in his rooms. If I lived in the Black Hole at Calcutta, sir, I would see my friends there because I lived there, and would turn up my nose at the finest marble palace in the whole city, because it was a palace that could be had for the hiring!

And yet the innovation on a senseless established custom which I now propose is not without precedent, even in this country. When I was a young man, I, and some of my friends, used to give a Bachelors’ Ball once a-year. We hired a respectable public room for the purpose. Nobody ever had admission to our entertainment who was not perfectly fit to be asked into any respectable house. Nobody wanted room to dance in; nobody’s dress was injured; nobody was uncomfortable at supper. Our ball was looked forward to, every year, by the young ladies, as the especial dance of the season, at which they were sure to enjoy themselves. They talked rapturously of the charming music, and the brilliant lighting, and the pretty decorations, and the nice supper. Old ladies and gentlemen used to beg piteously that they might not be left out on account of their years. People of all ages and tastes found something to please them at the Bachelors’ Ball, and never had a recollection in connection with it which was not of the happiest nature. What prevents us, now we are married, from following the sensible proceeding of our younger days? The stupid assumption that my house must be big enough to hold all my friends comfortably, because it is my house. I did not reason in that way when I had lodgings, although my bachelor sitting-room was, within a few feet each way, as large as my householder’s drawing-room at the present time.

However, I have really some hopes of seeing the sensible reform which I have ventured to propose, practically and generally carried out, before I die. Not because I advocate it, not because it is in itself essentially reasonable; but merely because the course of Time is likely, before long, to leave obstinate Prejudice no choice of alternatives and no power of resistance. Party-giving is on the increase, party-goers are on the increase, petticoats are on the increase,—but private houses remain exactly as they were. It is evidently only a question of time. The guests already overflow on to the staircase. Give us a ten years’ increase of the population, and they will overflow into the street. When the door of the Englishman’s nonsensical castle cannot be shut, on account of the number of his guests who are squeezed out to the threshold, then he will concede to necessity what he will not now concede to any strength of reasoning, or to any gentleness of persuasion. In the mean time, our daughters’ gowns get all but torn off their backs; and our sons—if they are fond of dancing—go to casinos. We all of us groan over the depravity of our young men. How many of us remember that the laws of respectable society refuse them the casino-privilege of having room enough to dance in?

Taken from Household Words 13 February 1858 XVII 193-196

go back to e-text list

go back to Wilkie Collins front page

visit the Paul Lewis front page

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2006