Disclosures in a recent divorce suit in New York again call attention to the insane rivalry among wealthy Americans to outdo one another in dress and luxurious living. The wife who was suing, in this instance, maintained that a woman in her position required from thirty-five to forty thousand dollars a year for dress alone; and that this was a comparatively small item in the cost of maintaining her household.
She stated, on the witness stand, that no society woman could afford to appear twice in the same dress in public or at the same hotel; that if she did, she would be "in very bad form." She also stated that it was necessary to change her clothing, completely, three times a day, and that many women change, throughout, four times a day.
Another New York woman says that she spends from one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year on her wardrobe; that she has many dresses that cost a thousand dollars each, and that her shoes, the leather for which is imported and dyed to match the dresses with which they are worn, cost fifty dollars a pair.
Some of these society women exhaust so much of their time and energy in catering to their vanity that they have comparatively little left for the things really worthwhile. Mrs. Grundy has more abject slaves in America than in any other country on the globe. Multitudes of devotees neglect their children, their homes, and their mental improvement, and resort to all sorts of expedients and extravagances to cater to their vanity.
It is not so much the purpose of the author to condemn the rich for their wicked extravagance, as to point out the demoralizing influence of their vicious example upon those who cannot afford either luxurious dress or living. Not only much of the discontent and unhappiness, but also a large part of the immorality and crime in this country, is due to the influence of the ostentatious flaunting of wealth in the faces of those who are less favored. It is a powerful undermining force in our civilization.
The mere possession of money does not give one the right to debauch their fellows, or to set an example which will make them discontented, unhappy, and tempt them to strain to keep up an appearance of wealth, at the possible sacrifice of their integrity and virtue.
Some of these wealthy people attempt to justify their extravagance on the ground that it gives employment to a great many. No greater delusion ever crept into a human brain than that wanton extravagance is justified on the ground that it gives employment, for the demoralizing and debauching influence of it all, upon those uselessly employed, infinitely outweighs any possible good it may accomplish.
It is true that many poor women and girls are enabled to eke out a miserable existence by spending years of precious time and energy working upon a piece of lace, embroidery, or a thousand-dollar gown to be worn only once or twice by a rich woman.
But is there no better destiny for human beings made in God's image than to wear their lives out and ruin their eyesight, as is done in numerous instances, in making that which appeals only to the vanity of women, many of whom, in all their lives, never earned the equivalent to the good which they consume in a single month?
The vulgar flaunting of wealth, which we see on every hand, is a constant suggestion, a perpetual temptation, to the poorer classes to strain every nerve to keep up appearances, "to keep up with the procession" at all hazards.
Women who pay from five hundred to a thousand dollars for a dress, and fifty dollars for a pair of shoes, do not realize that a multitude of young girls, some of whom work for two years for what one of these gowns cost, and some for only a few dollars a week, are influenced to do all sorts of questionable things in order to ape the style of their rich sisters.
There are young women in New York, receiving comparatively small salaries, who live in high-class apartments, wear expensive tailored gowns, extravagant millinery, and indulge in other luxuries which are out of all keeping with their rank and means. Many of them have accounts at livery stables, florists, and dry-goods stores; they even buy jewelry and many unnecessary things on credit.
Some of them think nothing of frequenting pawnshops and borrowing money on furs, clothing, anything which they do not happen to want for the moment.
Driven to extremes, they often grow so bold in their borrowing that they will "work" their friends, as they put it, without blushing. They brag of how much they can make a man spend on them when out for amusement.
Recently a young man on a small salary told me that it cost him from fifteen to twenty dollars an evening to take a girl to a theater, and to supper at an expensive restaurant afterwards. Is it any wonder that so many young men in moderate circumstances remain single, and that vicious results follow such abnormal living?
One of the curses of city life is the unwillingness of young men to marry and assume the responsibility or obligations of a family. The consequent absence of the refining, elevating influence of home and family upon the character of both men and women is most disastrous. They live unnatural and unhealthful lives and often become abnormally selfish because they are completely absorbed in getting the most they can for themselves, and consequently think very little about others.
The false ideas, expensive habits, and passion for show of many women are, in a great measure, responsible for this deplorable condition of things.
A New York young man, typical of a large class, told me, recently, that he had no idea of marrying, because, by remaining single, he could live at the best hotels—"live like a prince", as he expressed it—that he could patronize good tailors and could take an occasional trip abroad, whereas if he married and had to divide his income with a family, he would be obliged to live in a poorer part of the city, in much cheaper quarters, and could not begin to keep up the appearance and make the display which he can now afford. He said that girls expect so much today that young men require a lot of courage to assume the responsibility of marriage.
Many girls seem to think that their chances of marrying men who can support them in luxury are much enhanced by extravagant dressing. This is a delusion. Girls who dress beyond their means, as a rule fail to attract, permanently, the wealthy men whom they would like to marry, and often frighten away the young men of small means who would be drawn to them by their good qualities of mind and heart, which their foolish clothing and hollow pretense serve only to conceal.
Young men who are determined to make something of themselves will think a great many times before they marry a young woman with extravagant notions, for they know that once a woman has contracted a taste for luxuries and formed the habit of living beyond her income, she is rarely content with what a man in moderate circumstances can afford to give her.
It is the young woman who resists the temptations of vanity and is content to dress as attractively as she can honestly afford, instead of turning into debt and resorting to all sorts of things to procure what she cannot afford, who scouts the idea of bedecking herself with cheap imitations, refuses to wear lies or act them—she is the sort of girl a manly young fellow will want to marry, or who will make a successful career for herself.
The examples of vicious living and reckless extravagance of the very rich are no less demoralizing to young men than to young women. It used to be considered a disgrace for young men to be in debt unless they were in business for themselves, or there was some other justification for it; but now it is the commonest thing to see young men with small salaries heavily in debt — for luxuries.
Never, in the history of mankind, was there such a perfect mania among certain classes to keep up appearances in all hazards, to make a big show in the world, as exists in America today. Everywhere we see people toiling to keep in the social swim, struggling to break into the stratum above them, straining every nerve to do things they cannot afford, mainly because others do them.
In Europe it is possible to classify people largely by their dress and appearance. They do not pretend to be what they are not, so much as in America; but here, where shop girls dress like millionaires' daughters, and thousands of clerks dress better than their employers, where so many are trying to appear to be better off than they are, to make others think they amount to a little more than they do, it is impossible to judge correctly by appearances.
Not long ago a New York man who had passed as a multi-millionaire, and whose family lived in the most extravagant manner, died, and when his will was probated, it was found that his entire estate scarcely inventoried two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
The fortunes of a great many people who are supposed to be enormously rich are bubbles just as empty as that of this man. There are people passing themselves off as millionaires who may be, in reality, worth less than nothing — hopelessly in debt. But, because they are believed to be wealthy, they have almost unlimited credit; everybody is anxious to sell to them; tradespeople do not like to ask them for money for fear of losing their patronage.
There are plenty of people, in all of our large cities, who do not allow themselves enough to eat, and practice all sorts of pinching economy at home, for the sake of keeping up appearances in society. What terrible inconvenience, hardship, and suffering we endure on account of other people's eyes and opinions! What slaves, what fools we make of ourselves because of what other people think! How we scheme and contrive to make them think we are other than we really are!
It is other people's eyes that are expensive. It is other people's eyes that make us unhappy and discontented with our lot, that make us strain, and struggle, and slave, in order to keep up false appearances.
The suit, the hat must be discarded, not because they are badly worn, but because others will think it strange that we do not change them.
The effect of all this false living, this constant practice of deception in appearances, in our manner of living, our dress, is undermining the American character, ruining our genuineness, making us superficial, unreal, false.
No man can really respect himself, when he is conscious that he is sailing under false colors.
If you are wearing clothes and living in luxury which you cannot afford, these things label you all over with falsehood, and are perpetual witnesses against you. There is only one possible result upon the character of falsehood, whether acted or spoken, and that is perpetual deterioration. It does not matter whether you wear lies, tell lies, or act lies, the effect upon your character is precisely the same.
Trying to make people think that you are better off than you really are is a boomerang which strikes back with a fatal rebound. It is impossible for you very long to pretend, successfully, one thing and be another, for your reality is always asserting itself.
Do not deceive yourself into thinking that good clothes, or a palatial home, can made a man or a woman. All the wealth in the world could not raise manhood one degree in the scale of excellence.
It is spending upward, living upward, living in honesty, in simplicity; living the real life the life that is worthwhile, that will produce the finest character and give the greatest satisfaction.
Not long ago I was visited by a dear friend who has the courage to live the simple life, even in the midst of the pyrotechnical social life in New York. This man, who has not laid up a thousand dollars has a magnificent character, strong, vigorous, yet sweet, gentle, kind.
He envies no one; bows to no one; he has a superb independence; he walks like a conqueror. He has no anxiety about the future. He lives a full, complete life as he goes along. The moment one enters his atmosphere they are conscious that they are in the presence of a rich personality.
It does not require so much courage to live the life we can afford; to be genuine, true, indifferent to what our neighbors think or say. Even those who are wealthy will think more of us for this manly, this womanly independence.
Everyone owes it to themselves to live a real life, whether they are rich or poor; to be, and not to seem. They owe it to themselves at least to be genuine.
"Paint me as I am, warts and all, or I will not pay you for the picture." exclaimed Oliver Cromwell to the painter who was smoothing his rude features in a portrait. This is the sort of rugged honesty that is sorely needed today.