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4-062 (Text)

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addressee,male author,male,Twopeny, Richard E.N.,26
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Private Written
Private Correspondence
Webby, 1989
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4-062-plain.txt — 13 KB

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I doubt whether in my preceding letters I have made the distinction between Melbourne and its sister capitals sufficiently plain. I shall perhaps best convey it by saying that Melbourne is quasi-metropolitan, while both Sydney and Adelaide are alike provincial in their mode of life. In the matters of which I have been writing, the difference has hardly been sufficient to warrant a separate treatment; but with regard to dress, it becomes so noticeable, that not to treat of Melbourne separately would convey a false idea. For in dress it is not too much to say that the ladies of Melbourne are luxurious - a charge which could scarcely be brought against Australians in any other particular that I can think of. And take them all-in-all, they do not dress badly; indeed, if one considers the distance from Paris, and the total want of a competent leader of fashion, they may be said to dress well, especially of late years. The highly fantastic and gorgeous costumes for which Melbourne used to be notorious are fast disappearing. Successful diggers no longer take their wives into a shop, and ask how much colour and stuff can be put into a dress for fifty pounds. Already outrageousness is confined to a few, and when I say that it is generally agreed to be "bad form", you will understand that its death-blow has been struck and the hearse ordered. Bright colours are still in vogue, but they are not necessarily loud or unpleasant beneath the austral sun, and the art of combining them is beginning to be understood. When one remembers how their houses are furnished, and what their general style of living is, it is astonishing to find Melbourne ladies dressing so brilliantly and yet with so little vulgarity. 
But it is not among the grand monde - if the term be not ridiculous as applied to Victoria - that you must go to discover taste. I am not sure that, class for class, the rich do not show the least taste in their apparel. Many of them send to Paris for their dresses, and pay sums, which make one's mouth water, to be dressed in the latest fashion; but I fancy that the French modistes manufacture a certain style of attire for the Australian taste, just as the French merchants manufacture clarets for the Australian market. It is a compound of the cocotte and the American. Nor when she has got a handsome dress does the Melbourne grande dame know how to wear it; she merely succeeds in looking what a Brighton lodging-house keeper once defined to me as a "carriage-lady". A lady of the English upper middle-class dressed by a London milliner looks infinitely better.
There are some costumes worn by Victorian ladies which you will never see worn by any other ladies; but for all that, the middle and even the lower class are by no means destitute of ideas about dress. Compare the Melbourne with the Birmingham or Manchester factory girl, or the young lady in a Collins Street retail establishment with the shop-girl in any but the most aristocratic part of London; the old country will come out second-best. And why is it? It is no easy question to answer; at the bottom is undoubtedly that general love of display, which is almost as characteristic of Melbourne as it is of Paris. But then what is the cause of that? And a love of display, though it may be and is amongst the wealthy productive of grand dresses, as it is of grand dinners and grand furniture, does not make taste - e.g., the Second Empire; and though it would be going too far to say that the ladies of Melbourne dress tastefully, it is within the truth to give them credit for a tendency towards taste. Throughout England the middle and lower classes dress hideously. Why should the first generation of Victorians show a disposition to abandon the ugly? I leave it to some aesthetic philosopher to find out the reason, and content myself with noting the fact. If I wanted to moralise, I have little doubt that the drapers' and milliners' accounts of these "young ladies" would furnish a redundant text, and that, although a large number of them make up their dresses themselves from paper patterns or illustrations in Myra's Journal. How they can afford to dress as well as they do, they and their mothers best know; but the bow here and the flower there are not costly things, and the mere fact of being able to cut out a dress so as not to look dowdy shows natural taste. It is the rarest of sights to see a real Melbourne girl look dowdy. Her taste sometimes runs riot: it is exuberant, and becomes vulgar and flash; but even then the vulgarity and flashness are of a superior type to those of her equals across the ocean. 
Sydney and Adelaide are distinctly superior to English towns of the same size in the matter of apparel; but they will not bear comparison with Melbourne. On the other hand, gorgeous and flash dresses are very rare in the smaller cities. If they have not the talent of Melbourne, neither do they share its blots. They go along at a steady jog-trots and are content to take their fashions second-hand from Melbourne, but with modifications. Their more correct and sober taste will not tolerate even many of the extravagances of which London is guilty - such extravagances, for instance, as the Tam O'Shanter cap, which was warmly taken up in Melbourne. But with all this good sense, they remain dowdy.
I have said nothing hitherto of married ladies' dress. When a colonial girl marries, she considers herself, except in rare instances, on the shelf, and troubles herself very little about what she wears. As a rule, she has probably too many other things to take up her time. She has got a husband, and what more can she want? He rarely cares what she has on, as soon as the honeymoon is over. There is no one else to please, and I fear that colonial girls are not of those who dress merely for themselves; they like to be admired, and they appreciate the value of dress from a flirtation point of view. Their taste is rather the outcome of a desire to please others than of a sense of aesthetics. It is relative, and not absolute. When once the finery has served its purpose, they are ready to renounce all the pomps and vanities of this wicked world. And if the moralist says that this argues some laxness of ideas before marriage, let him remember that it is equally indicative of connubial bliss. Once married, her flirtations are at an end - "played out", if I may use the term.
In another respect the Victorian is the direct opposite of the Parisienne. If you leave general effects, and come to pull her dress to pieces, you find that the metal is only electro, to whatever rank of life she may belong. The general appearance may be pleasing, but in detail she is execrable. Not but that the materials of her dress are rich enough, so that my electro simile will hardly hold water; but money does not make the artist. Let us being with the bonnet. Walk down Collins Street at the time of the block on Saturday, and I doubt whether you can count half a dozen bonnets which are both pretty and suitable to the face and head of the wearer. Bien chaussée et bien gantée might be Greek as far as Australia is concerned, and if by chance you see a stocking or any portion of the under-clothing, you will have your eyes opened. Whatever does not meet the eye is generally of the commonest. It would be thought a sinful waste of money to have anything particularly good or expensive which other people could not see. The light of Melbourne is never likely to hide itself under a bushel; external adornment is the mot d'ordre. Ribbons and laces, or anything that helps to improve the look of a dress, the colonial lady will indulge in freely and even extravagantly; but you must not penetrate her tinsel armour. 
Owing to the climate, hats are much more frequently in use than bonnets, and if the merit of subdued tints is unappreciated, it is not often that the eye is shocked by the glaring discords to which Englishwomen are so prone. Fringes are much worn, and the hair is often parted on the side. In spite of the heat, gants de suede find very little favour; they look dirty, and with a 25 per cent duty cannot be renewed every day. The usual English fashions find their way to Melbourne in about eight months, and this is the more convenient, because your summer is our winter, and vice versa. Spring and autumn we agree to forget; this is rather a pity, because practically nine-twelfths of our year are spring and autumn, and on a bright July or August day the dress which is appropriate to a London fog in December looks singularly out of place. Sealskins and furs are worn till you almost imagine it must be cold, which during daylight it hardly ever is in this country. In summer, suitable concessions become obligatory, and dresses are made of the thinnest and lightest materials. Pompadour prints and white calicoes reign supreme, and look better than anything else. It is then that the poorer classes are able to dress best, the material being cheap. Winter stuffs are expensive, and to a great degree their effectiveness is in direct ratio to their cost; but during quite half of the Australian year the poor meet the rich, if not on an equality, at any rate on much fairer terms than at home with regard to dress.
Servants, of course, ape their mistresses' dresses as in England, and generally manage to produce a delightful sense of incongruity in their attire; but for all that, they are much less dowdy than English servants.
So much for ladies' dress. Change the sexes, and the picture is by no means so pleasing; for thorough untidiness of person, there can surely be no one to beat the Australian. Above all must one beware of judging a man's position by his coat. It is impossible to tell whether the dirty old man who slouches along the street is a millionaire or a beggar. The older his coat, and the dirtier his shirt, the more the probabilities are in favour of the millionaire. Perhaps he thinks he can afford to dress as he pleases. The city men are more careful of their personal appearance, and have kept up the shadow and image of London. They wear shiny frock-coats and the worst-brushed and most odd-shaped of top-hats, and imagine they are well-dressed; at least I suppose they do, for they seem to have a sort of contempt for the spruce tweed suits and round hats of "new chums", and such of the rising generation as have followed their example and adopted that fashion. Can you imagine yourself wearing a black coat and high hat with the thermometer jogging about from 70° to 110° in the shade? If the coat were decently cut and of good cloth and well-brushed, and the silk hat well-shapen and neat, I might put you down a fool, but would admit your claims to be a dandy.  But as it is, most of our city men are both uncomfortable and untidy. Their clothes look as if they had been bought ready-made at a slop-shop. The tie they prefer is a black bootlace if not, it is bound to be of the most tasteless colour and pattern you can think of. A heavy gold watch-chain and diamond ring is de rigueur, but otherwise they do not wear much jewellery. Their hair, like their clothes, generally wants brushing, and hands and nails are not always so clean as they might be; but one knows that for the most part they tub every morning: this is a consolation.
The bushman, at least, dresses sensibly. When he comes into town, he puts on a slop-coat, but retains, if not a cabbage-tree, at any rate a wide-brimmed soft felt hat. Sacrificing comfort to ceremony, he generally puts on a collar, but he often kicks at a tie: he finds he must draw a line somewhere. But there is something so redolent of the bush about him, that one would not have him otherwise; the slop clothes even become picturesque from the cavalier fashion in which he wears them. Note that his pipe never leaves his mouth, while the city man does not venture to smoke in any of the main streets. He is a regular Jack ashore, this bushman. A bull would not be more out of place in a china-shop, though probably less amusing and more destructive. The poor fellow meets so many friends in town, that by the end of the day he has probably had more nobblers than are altogether good for him. It is a very hard life that he leads, and he takes his pleasure, like his work, hardly.
If the Adelaidians are perhaps the least got-up, they are certainly the most suitably dressed of the inhabitants of Australian towns. With them the top hat is comparatively of recent introduction. Silk coats and helmets are numerous still, though becoming more rare every day. Melbourne and Sydney think it infra dig. to allow themselves these little comforts, and Adelaide is gradually becoming corrupted. It must, however, be added that the Adelaide folk are the most untidy, as the Melbourne are the least untidy of Australians. Comfort and elegance do not always go hand in hand. Tweeds are beginning to come into use amongst the upper middle, as they long have in the lower middle and lower classes. Capital stuffs are made at Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat, and Geelong; but the patterns are very common. In a dusty place like this it is impossible to keep black clothes clean, and tweeds give far the best wear and appearance of any stuff. For my own part, I wear them winter and summer.
The working-classes can, of course, afford to be, and are, better dressed than at home; for though clothes are in reality much dearer, they are much cheaper in proportion to wages. They do not often Wear black coats in the week, but keep them for Sundays and grand Occasions. Directly an immigrant has landed, he feels that his first earnings must be devoted to a Sunday go-to-meeting suit.  His fellowmen all have one, and he does not like to feel himself their inferior, even with regard to a coat.