“A Thin Damnedness”
I, Mary MacLane (1917)
I own Two plain black Dresses and none besides.
And I need no more.
In which two sentences I touch the crux and the keynote and the thin damnedness of my life as it is set: of my life, not of myself, for myself lives naked inside the circle of my life.
But my outer life is spaced by my Two plain Dresses. My Two Dresses measure how far removed I presently am from the wide world of things.
In the world of things a woman is judged not specifically by her morals: not invariably by her reputation: not absolutely by her money: not indubitably by her social prestige: only relatively by her beauty: and as to her brain or lack of it—la-la-la! She is judged in the matter-world simply, completely, entirely by her clothes. It is tacitly so agreed and decreed all over the earth—wherever women are of the female sex and men pursue them.
It is no injustice to any woman. It is the fairest fiat in the unwritten code.
Only a few women, the few specialized breeds, can express the fire or the humanness in them by play-acting or suffragetting or singing or painting or writing or trained-nursing or house-keeping. But there’s not one—from a wandering Romany gypsy, red-blooded and strong-hearted, to an over-guarded overbred British princess—who doesn’t express what she is in the clothes she wears and the way she wears them.
Her clothes conceal and reveal, artfully and contradictorily and endlessly.
It is all a limitless field.
No actor could act Hamlet without that perfect Hamletesque black costume.
A nun’s staid beautiful habit interprets her own meanings within and without.
A woman naked may look markedly pure: the same woman clothed conventionally and demurely may achieve a meanly ghoulishly foul seeming.
One either is made or marred by one’s habiliments.
A woman by her raiment’s make and manner can express more of her wit, her ego, her temper, her humor, her plastic pulsating personality than she could by throwing a bomb, by making a good or bad pudding, by losing her chastity or by traducing her neighbor. The germ and shadow and likelihood of each of those acts is in the fashion and line and detail of her garments.
A jury thinks it tries a woman for a crime. Some of the twelve good and true may admit each to himself that they are trying the color of her eyes or the shape of her chin or the droop of her shoulders. But it’s only her clothes they unwittingly try for murder or theft or forgery, or whatever has tripped her. It may be an alluringly shabby little dress that saves her from the gallows. It may be a hat worn at the wrong angle that is found guilty and sentenced to death. A glove in her lap, a fluttering veil, a little white handkerchief dropped to the floor by her chair—those are what the court tries for life or liberty.—
But it is I I tell about, I and my Two plain Dresses.
In me a smart frock or an unbecoming one makes a surprising difference. I impress my costume with my mixed temperament and it retaliates in kind.
One day I looked a beautiful young creature—one August Saturday in New York it was—in a tailored gown of embroidered linen. With it I wore such a good hat: its color was pale olive: its texture was soft Milan straw: its price was forty dollars. My shoes were gray silk. I so fancied myself that day that I feared lest my writing talent had gone away from me. For God takes away the beer if he gives you the skittles. And in ill-conditioned clothes—some days the weather, the devil, the soddenness of life get into one’s garments and make even fair ones look ill-conditioned—I am plain-faced, plain all over—so plain that the villainies of my nature feel doubtful and I half-think I may be a good woman.
In a life full of people I would own varied delicate beautiful clothes since it is by them one is judged, and since I am quite vain. But no people are in my life. I feel deadlocked. I am caught in a vise made by my own analytic ratiocination. I am not free to live a world-life till I’ve someway expressed Me and learned if not whither I go at least where I stand.
So it’s Two plain Dresses I own and none besides.
It may be I shall not ever again need more.
The Two Dresses are at present of serge and voile. Their identity changes with change of fashion and with wearing out. They are cut well and fit me well. But the Two does not change, nor the plainness. I change only from one Frock to the other and from the other to the one again.
I have various other clothes. A woman—whatever her traits and tempers—garners what she can of handmade under-linens and dainty nightgowns and silk hose and all such private panoply. They are the apparel of her sex rather than her individuality. The uncognizant world is unable to judge her by them. But the woman herself judges and respects herself by the goodness of her intimate garments.
My sex is to me a mystic gift. I marvel over it and clothe it silkenly.
Also I own a healthful-looking percale house-gown or two in which I do housework.
But my passing life, my eerie lonely life, is lived in my Two Dresses and none besides, and I need no more.