It is a little unfortunate that hygienic dress is, in the mind of the average person, associated with frumpiness.
This is partly because our views of what is fashionable are somewhat distorted, and a sort of pseudo smartness passes in the opinion of those who do not know any better as invariably correct.
But the truth is that no woman can be well dressed who looks absurd, and Englishwomen are coming to recognise this. Our habits and our ideas are changing at the same time. The outdoor girl has done more to reform the wearing apparel of her sex than all the caricatures and masculine abuse of the eternal feminine. The woman who lives the outdoor life cannot have her movements impeded by long skirts, tight corsets, or a gigantic hat. So that there is always a type of Englishwoman who does not require to learn very much about dress reform.
But, it may be said, the tight skirt has only recently been with us, in spite of the supposed emancipation of woman from fashionable absurdities. What could have been more grotesque than the "hobble"? Well, its day was short, and in all forward movements there are periods of retrogression, when the pendulum swings back for a time. The day of the "hobble" was brief as fashions go. On the other hand, the short skirt is universal in the street, and millions of microbes are kept out of our homes in consequence. The dress with bodice and skirt all in one has become fashionable, and it was introduced by Continental dress reformers in Holland and elsewhere whose idea was to take the pressure exerted by skirtbands off the waist. Thus the all-in-one type of dress can be worn without corsets, and the "reformers," of course, invariably wear it so.
From force of habit the corset has still to meet with some measure of abuse. The fact is that the modern article, when well made, is quite a hygienic garment. The old-fashioned stay was a diabolical contrivance, which did a good deal of harm by its stiff, unhygienic pressure upon vital organs. But the modern corset is pliable and cut more intelligently. It keeps the body warm, and although the properly developed man or woman should need nothing in the shape of external support, there are many people who are all the better for some assistance in maintaining an erect carriage. The corsetless woman is too apt to be floppy, and feminine floppiness is one of the unforgivable sins. To go without corsets altogether is one extreme. To encase oneself in a rigid "stay" is the other, and the more dangerous one from the medical point of view.
Corsets for Girls
Growing girls should never be allowed to wear corsets which exert the slightest pressure. It is at this period that the ribs are yielding and can be pressed inwards, altering the natural contour of the body and the internal organs. So much has been said upon the evils of tight lacing that there is nothing left to add. The woman who does it pays the penalty more than she knows. There is a long list of ailments, from red nose to indigestion, which can be directly traced to the exertion of unnatural pressure on the lungs, heart, and digestive organs. The woman who wants to be healthy, to keep young and look her best, should pay very serious attention to the question of corsets. Whenever possible, she should have these made for her, and pay as good a price as she can afford.
There are modern corsetmakers who make a speciality of fitting on medical lines, and who excel in the art of making a corset a "support" in the best sense. The girl who cannot afford to pay much for her corsets should select light ones, which are comfortably loose, of the flexible or ribbon variety. Many girls could dispense with all but the lightest corset if they would do daily physical exercises. Such exercises develop the muscles of the back, shoulders, and ribs, so that the body is held erect without artificial assistance.
Clothes are worn primarily for protection against cold, and the aesthetic factors of the question need not be considered here. The skin is the ideal garment, because it has the power of contracting to a cold influence and relaxing to a warm influence. It is also porous, in that it excretes poisons from the body through its pores. We must wear clothing in order to keep heat in the body, because, in spite of the skin's contractile power, the warm body under physical laws loses heat when the surrounding atmosphere is below a certain temperature. The clothing, if it is to come into the category of hygiene, should give us the maximum of warmth with the minimum of weight.
The ideal amount of clothing for any person is the least that will provide protection from undue depression of temperature in going about usual employment. It is, therefore, a self-evident fact that most people are over-clothed. We wear too many and too heavy clothes, and the habit of wrapping children up and coddling them with regard to clothing, so that there is no incentive for them to run about and keep warm, is responsible for impaired development, weak chests, adenoids, and other ailments. Fashion favours hygiene in this respect, because the heavy multiple petticoats are out of date, and the very lightest underskirts and dresses are all that are required by the modern woman.
With regard to underclothing, the one essential factor is that it should be porous. For long flannel has been considered the ideal material for undergarments. The dress reformers have struck a blow at its popularity and declare that flannel is not absorbent, and therefore does not allow moisture to pass from the skin. Flannel is warm in the sense that it is a non-conductor of heat, because it is full of air spaces.
Silk, linen, and cotton do not possess these air spaces, and so are less warm than flannel. But now that these are being manufactured so that they contain air spaces, they have become at least as suitable as flannel for underclothing. Linen mesh is a very hygienic material, and for those who wish what they consider a warmer material, very fine, loosely knitted wool should be chosen.
Men's clothing is more sensible than that of women, because it consists of fewer and lighter garments, and the hygienic housewife should decide with regard to her children and herself against wearing numbers of garments whenever the cold weather comes. Body warmth is kept up by food and exercise more than by clothing, and if a woman works for health and hygiene in the home, she will soon find the family naturally resistant to cold. That is because the circulation is good, and the skin is healthy and contracts to keep the body warm in the natural way. To do this, the points emphasised in the article on baths (page 4249, Vol. 6) must be followed. To be continued.