Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
By Joseph Addison (16721719)
(Spectator, NO. 98.)
THERE is not so variable a thing in nature as a ladys head-dress: within my own memory I have known it rise and fall above thirty degrees. About ten years ago it shot up to a very great height, insomuch that the female part of our species were much taller than the men. The women were of such an enormous stature, that we appeared as grasshoppers before them: at present the whole sex is in a manner dwarfed and shrunk into a race of beauties that seems almost another species. I remember several ladies, who were once very near seven foot high, that at present want some inches of five: how they came to be thus curtailed I cannot learn; whether the whole sex be at present under any penance which we know nothing of, or whether they have cast their head-dresses in order to surprise us with something in that kind which shall be entirely new; or whether some of the tallest of the sex, being too cunning for the rest, have contrived this method to make themselves appear sizeable, is still a secret; though I find most are of opinion, they are at present like trees new lopped and pruned, that will certainly sprout up and flourish with greater heads than before. For my own part, as I do not love to be insulted by women who are taller than myself; I admire the sex much more in their present humiliation, which has reduced them to their natural dimensions, than when they had extended their persons and lengthened themselves out into formidable and gigantick figures. I am not for adding to the beautiful edifices of nature, nor for raising any whimsical superstructure upon her plans: I must therefore repeat it, that I am highly pleased with the coiffure now in fashion, and think it shews the good sense which at present very much reigns among the valuable part of the sex. One may observe that women in all ages have taken more pains than men to adorn the outside of their heads; and indeed I very much admire, that those female architects, who raise such wonderful structures out of ribbands, lace, and wire, have not been recorded for their respective inventions. It is certain there has been as many orders in these kinds of building, as in those which have been made of marble; sometimes they rise in the shape of a pyramid, sometimes like a tower, and sometimes like a steeple. In Juvenals time the building grew by several orders and stories, as he has very humourously described it.
But I do not remember in any part of my reading, that the head-dress aspired to so great an extravagance as in the fourteenth century; when it was built up in a couple of cones or spires, which stood so excessively high on each side of the head, that a woman, who was but a pigmie without her head-dress, appeared like a colossus upon putting it on. Monsieur Paradin says: That these old-fashioned Fontanges rose an ell above the head; that they were pointed like steeples, and had long loose pieces of crape fastened to the tops of them, which were curiously fringed and hung down their backs like streamers.
The women might possibly have carried this Gothick building much higher, had not a famous monk, Thomas Conecte by name, attacked it with great zeal and resolution. This holy man travelled from place to place to preach down this monstrous commode; and succeeded so well in it, that as the magicians sacrificed their books to the flames upon the preaching of an apostle, many of the women threw down their head-dresses in the middle of his sermon, and made a bonfire of them within sight of the pulpit. He was so renowned as well for the sanctity of his life as his manner of preaching that he had often a congregation of twenty thousand people; the men placing themselves on the one side of his pulpit, and the women on the other, that appeared (to use the similitude of an ingenious writer) like a forest of cedars with their heads reaching to the clouds. He so warmed and animated the people against this monstrous ornament, that it lay under a kind of persecution; and whenever it appeared in publick was pelted down by the rabble, who flung stones at the persons that wore it. But notwithstanding this prodigy vanished, while the preacher was among them, it began to appear again some months after his departure, or, to tell it in Monsieur Paradins own words, The women that, like snails, in a fright, had drawn in their horns, shot them out again as soon as the danger was over. This extravagance of the womens head-dresses in that age is taken notice of by Monsieur dArgentré in the history of Bretagne, and by other historians as well as the person I have here quoted.
It is usually observed, that a good reign is the only proper time for making of laws against the exorbitance of power; in the same manner an excessive head-dress may be attacked the most effectually when the fashion is against it. I do therefore recommend this paper to my female readers by way of prevention.
I would desire the fair sex to consider how impossible it is for them to add anything that can be ornamental to what is already the master-piece of nature. The head has the most beautiful appearance, as well as the highest station, in a human figure. Nature has laid out all her art in beautifying the face; she has touched it with vermilion, planted in it a double row of ivory, made it the seat of smiles and blushes, lighted it up and enlivened it with the brightness of the eyes, hung it on each side with curious organs of sense, given it airs and graces that cannot be described, and surrounded it with such a flowing shade of hair as sets all its beauties in the most agreeable light: in short, she seems to have designed the head as the cupola to the most glorious of her works; and when we load it with such a pile of supernumerary ornaments, we destroy the symmetry of the human figure, and foolishly contrive to call off the eye from great and real beauties, to childish gewgaws, ribbands, and bone-lace.
Note 1. Tot premit ordinibus, tot adhuc compagibus, etc . Aliam credas. With so many rows she weighs down her head, with so many twists she builds it up on high. You will see her in front a very Andromache; but behind she is but a dwarf, you would believe her another woman. [back]