Too Much Hat

hatSnippets 183.  In 1889 French travel writer Max O’Rell wrote about American society in great detail in Jonathan and his Continent, making the book an important piece of work from a social history perspective.  The following are the edited highlights of his thoughts on how people dressed in America towards the end of the 19th Century:

In America, gentlemen’s dress is plain, even severe: a high hat, black coat, dark trousers. Fancy cloth is little used, even in travelling.

I remember well the sensation I created with a pair of light-grey trousers in a small Pennsylvanian town. Everyone seemed to look at me as if I had been a strange animal; in the hotel the waitresses nudged one another, and scarcely repressed a giggle; and the street-urchins followed me as if I had been a member of the Sioux tribe in national costume. The day after my arrival, one of the local papers announced that ‘‘a Frenchman had landed in the town the day before in white trousers, and that his popularity had been as prompt as decisive.”…

American ladies dress very well, as a rule; but there are a great number who cover themselves with furbelows and jewels, and, so long as each item is costly, trouble themselves little about the general effect…

Yes, in the large cities they dress well; but they lack the simplicity of style which the Princess of Wales has so happily inculcated in the English-women who surround her. American women have plenty of style of their own, and have certainly also a great deal of distinction and grace; but they always look dressed for conquest. It is well to be it, but not well to show it. They are apt to laugh at the toilette of Englishwomen, and model their own dress more on French lines. For my part, I think that nothing can surpass a fresh young English girl in a cotton dress and simple straw hat.

The fashionable headgear, during my sojourn in the States, was a high, narrow construction, perched on the top of the head, and surmounted with feathers. At a certain distance it gave its wearer the look of an irate cockatoo. These monuments looked very heavy and difficult to maintain in equilibrium, and the ladies wearing them walked like grenadiers in busbies…

At the theatre, women wear silk, which prevents one from hearing, and hats a foot high, which prevent one from seeing.

An American was once asked what a play — which he might have seen — was like. “Very much like the back of ladies’ bonnets,” he answered.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Humor, Humour, People, Snippets, Travel, USA and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Too Much Hat

  1. This is the most interesting bit of History I’ve read in a while. Especially this: “so long as each item is costly, trouble themselves little about the general effect…” Do post more of these, Rog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Vish! Max O’Rell is one of my favourite writers, although he has been virtually forgotten nowadays. He had a sense of humour that seems very modern in comparison to most 19th Century writers. I’m sure I will be including plenty more quotes from his books in future.

      Liked by 1 person

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