Letters to Young Women

Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married

Josiah Gilbert Holland


— o —



A creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

A perfect woman, nobly planned
To warn, to comfort, and command.


I have observed, among all nations, that the women ornament them
selves more than the men.

John Ledyard.

I ACCOUNT a pure, beautiful, intelligent, and well-bred woman, the most attractive object of vision and contemplation in the world. As mother, sister, and wife, such a woman is an angel of grace and goodness, and makes a heaven of the home which is sanctified and glorified by her presence. As an element of society she invites into finest demonstrations all that is good in the heart, and shames into secresy and silence all that is unbecoming and despicable. There may be more of greatness and of glory in the higher developments of manhood, but, surely, in womanhood God most delights to show the beauty of the holiness and the sweetness of the love of which he is the infinite source. It is for this reason that a girl or a young woman is a very sacred thing to me. It is for this reason that a silly young woman or a vicious one makes me sigh or shudder. It is for this reason that I pray that I may write worthily to young women.

In getting at a piece of work, it is often necessary, as a preliminary, to clear away rubbish; and I say at first that I do not write to masculine young women. I deem masculine women abnormal women, and I therefore refer all those women who wish to vote, who delight in the public exhibition of themselves, who bemoan the fate which drapes them in petticoats, who quarrel with St. Paul and their lot, who own more rights than they possess; and fail to fulfil the duties of their sphere while seeking for its enlargement — I refer all these to the eight letters recently addressed to young men. They will find some practical remarks in those letters upon masculine development and a manly discharge of life’s duties. My theory may be very unsound, but it is my belief, that the first natural division of the human race is marked by the line that distinguishes the sexes. I believe that a true woman is just as different from a true man as a true man is different from a true woman. The nature and the constitution of the masculine are one, and the nature and constitution of the feminine are another. So of the glory attached to each ; so of the functions; so of the sphere. Therefore, if there be “strong-minded women” who read these letters, I bid them, with all kindness, to turn to the other series for that which will most benefit them.

I shall talk first of that thing which, worthily or most unworthily, engages the minds of all young women, viz — dress. I speak of this first, because it is part of the rubbish which I wish to get out of the way before commencing more serious work ; and yet this is not altogether trivial. I believe in dress, I believe that God delights in beautiful things, and as he has never made anything more beautiful than woman, I believe that that mode of dressing the form and face which best harmonizes with their beauty, is that which pleases him best. I believe the mode of female dress prevalent among the Shaker women is absolute desecration. To take anything which infinite ingenuity and power have made beautiful, and capable by the gracefulness of its form and the harmony of its parts of producing the purest pleasure to the observer, and clothe it with a meal bag and crown it with a sugar scoop, is an irreverent trifling with sacred things which should be punished by mulet and imprisonment.

It is a shame to any woman who has the means to dress well, to dress meanly, and it is a particular shame for any woman to do this in the name of religion. I have seen women who, believing the fashionable devotion to dress to be sinful, as it doubtless is, go to that extreme in plainness of attire which, if it prove anything touching the power that governs them, proves that it is a power which is at war with man’s purest instincts, and most elevated tastes. I say it is a shame for a woman to dress unattractively who has it in her power to dress well. It is every woman’s duty to make herself pleasant and attractive by such raiment and ornament as shall best accord with the style of beauty with which she is endowed. The beauty of woman’s person was intended to be a source of pleasure — the fitting accompaniment of that which in humanity is the most nearly allied to the angelic. Surely, if God plants flowers upon a clod they may rest upon a woman’s bosom, or glorify a woman’s hair!

But dress is a subordinate thing, because beauty is not the essential thing. Beauty is very desirable; it is a very great blessing ; it is a misfortune to possess an unattractive person ; but there are multitudes of women with priceless excellences of heart and mind who are not beautiful. Beauty, so far as it is dependent upon form and color, is a material thing, and belongs to the grosser nature, Therefore, dress is a subject which should occupy comparatively few of the thoughts of a true woman, whether beautiful or not. To dress well, becomingly, even richly, if it can be afforded, is a woman’s duty. To make the dress of the person the exponent of personal taste, is a woman’s privilege. But to make dress the grand object of life; to think of nothing and talk of nothing but that which pertains to the drapery and artificial ornament of the person, is but to transform the trick of a courtesan into amusement for a fool. There are multitudes of women with whom dress is the all-prevalent thought. They think of it, dream of it, live for it. It is enough to disgust one to hear them talk about it. It goes with them from the gaiety of the ball-room into the weeds of the house of death. They use it as a means for splitting grief into vulgar fractions, and are led out from great bereavements into the consolations of vanity, by the hands of numerators and denominators. They flatter one another, envy one another, hate one another — all on the score of dress. They go upon the street to show their dresses. They enter the house of God to display their bonnets. They actually prize themselves more highly for what they wear than for any charm of person or mind which they may possess!

One of the most vulgar and unbecoming things in the world is this devotion to dress, which, in many minds, grows into a form of insanity, and leads to the worship of dry goods and dress-makers. Now it will be impossible for me to give you special directions upon this subject of dress. Your dressmaker and your books, and, better than all, your own taste and experience, will tell you what colors become your complexion, what style of make best accords with your form and style of movement. I shall only speak generally ; and I say, first, dress modestly. It is all well enough for little girls to show their necks, but for a woman to make her appearance in the society of young men with such displays of person as are made in what is so mistakenly called “full dress,” is a shame to her. I know what fashion allows in this matter, and fashion has many sins to answer for. Thousands of girls dress in a manner that they would discard with horror and disgust, if they knew the trains of thought which are suggested by their presence. I know young men, and I know there is not one in one hundred who attends a “full dress party,” and comes out as pure and worthy a man as he went in. There is not one in one hundred who does not hold the secret of a base thought suggested by the style of dress which he sees around him. This may tell very badly for young men. Doubtless it does; but we are obliged to take things as we find them. The millennium has not dawned yet, and we have receded to a considerable distance from the era of human innocence. I tell you a fact; and, if you are modest young women, you will heed its suggestions. If you choose to become the objects of foul fancies among young men, whose respect you are desirous of securing, you know the way.

Again, shun peculiarities of dress which attract the attention of the vulgar. Just now the red petticoat is the talk of the newspaper world. It is the inspiring theme of many a sportive pen, and when one of these is seen upon the street, it attracts the attention of the prurient crowd. A modest woman will shun a notoriety like this, until it ceases to be such. I should deprecate the appearance upon the street of a sister of mine with such a garment, ostentatiously displayed, as a calamity to her; and yet I do not believe I am a squeamish man. I know that a young woman can dress in such a way as to excite a chaste and worthy admiration among her own sex as well as mine, and my judgment tells me that that is the proper dress for her to wear. I feel that it is right and well for her to dress like this, and that it is not right and well for her to dress otherwise.

Again, dress in such a manner that your attire will not occupy your thoughts after it is upon you. Let every garment be well fitted and well put on — ugly in no point, fussy in no point, nor made of such noticeable material that you necessarily carry with you the consciousness that people around you are examining it. Make it always subordinate to yourself — tributary to your charms, rather than constituent of them. Then the society in which you move will see you, and not your housings and trappings, “Jane was dressed very becomingly,” or “how well Jane looked,” are very much more complimentary comments than “that was a splendid dress that Jane wore ;” and a tolerably acute mind may gather from these expressions the philosophy of the whole thing.

There is, as a general thing, no excuse for attire which is not neat and orderly, at any time in the day. A thoroughly neat and orderly young woman is presentable at any hour, whether she be in the kitchen or parlor; and I have seen specimens of womanhood that were as attractive at the wash-tub, with their tidy hair and their nine-penny calico, as in their parlors at a later hour, robed in silk and busy at their embroidery. Materials may be humble, but they may always be tastefully made and neatly kept. There are few habits that a young woman may acquire which, in the long run, will tend more to the preservation of her own self respect than that of thorough tastefulness, appropriateness, and tidiness of dress, and certainly very few which will make her more agreeable to others.

So, I say, dress well if you can afford it, always neatly, never obtrusively, and always with a modest regard to rational ideas of propriety. Scorn the idea of making dress in any way the great object of life. It is beneath you. A woman was made for something higher than a convenient figure for displaying dry goods and the possibilities of millinery and mantua-making.

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