John Newton's Letters
On Female Dress
Women who profess godliness, and who have the care of young people of their own gender, are perhaps in no point more blamable, than in the example which some of them set, and the liberty which perhaps a greater number allow, of undue conformity to the world, in the article of 'dress'. Few ministers touch upon this subject in their public discourses; and indeed, it is not very easy to treat it with propriety from the pulpit. Yet whatever is unsuitable to the Christian profession, whatever is an inlet to temptation and productive of evil consequences, should in some way or other be dealt with, by those who have the honor of the gospel, and the welfare of their fellow-creatures at heart. I make no further apology, for offering a few hints, which I hope will not give offence, and which I pray, so far as they are agreeable to the Holy Scripture, and confirmed by experience and observation, may be attended to.
I have no doubt that many godly parents who desire to see their children brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, give them many excellent lessons in the nursery. They endeavor to impress their tender minds with a sense of their sinful state by nature, of the evil of pride, and of the vanity of the world. But, when their children begin to appear in public view, for lack of due reflection, or resolution, or both, they either encourage, or at least permit them, to form habits, which have a direct tendency to counteract all the benefits which might otherwise be hoped for, from the instruction of their early years.
I am certainly no connoisseur in the article of 'dress'; but I know how I am affected by what I see—and I can hear what other people say. A simple neatness, according to different situations in life, seems a tolerable definition of a befitting dress.
But Christian women should aim to comply with the apostle's advice, to adorn themselves in modest apparel, with decency and propriety. When he adds, "Not with gold or pearls or expensive clothes," I do not think it necessary to take this restriction so rigidly, as to affirm, that such ornaments are, universally, and without exception, unlawful. I think this is one of the many expressions in Scripture, which are to be understood in a comparative sense. Thus, when our Lord declares, "That unless a man hates parents, wife, children, and his own life—he cannot be my disciple;" we are sure he does not contradict, what, by his authority, is expressly enjoined in many other passages, that we should pay a due regard to our relations. He only teaches us, that whenever our dearest temporal concernments stand in competition with what we owe to Him—they must be given up and renounced.
If clothes are considered merely as a covering for the body, and a defense from the cold, it will be difficult to draw the line, and to determine exactly between what is necessary, and what is superfluous. But it is more for the honor of the gospel, that a woman professing godliness should be distinguished from others, by modesty, sobriety, and good works, than by the shape of her hat, or the color of her garment.
Yet even to ladies of the greatest affluence, who love and fear the Lord, I will venture to suggest a word of caution. To you I say nothing of the expense—you can, as the phrase is, very well afford it. And, if in other respects, you are generous and bountiful, ready to distribute, and willing to share—the cost of what you choose to wear is of no great consideration. But a careful attention to 'dress' will cost you much of what is more valuable than money—that is, your precious time! It will too much occupy your thoughts, and that at the seasons when you would wish to have them otherwise engaged. And it certainly administers fuel to that latent fire of pride and vanity, which is inseparable from our fallen nature, and is easily blown up into a blaze!
I hope you will not be among the first of those, who are eager to catch at, and give sanction to every new fashion; nor is it necessary, if the style is decent and modest, that you should be the very last to adopt it. But there should be something in your dress, to indicate, that, though you do not affect a needless and scornful singularity, (which is often the source of censoriousness and envy,) yet your heart is not set upon these little things. If a woman, when going to public worship, looks in the mirror, and contemplates, with a secret self-delight, the figure which it reflects to her view—I am afraid she is not in the frame of spirit most suitable for one, who is about to 'cry for mercy as a miserable sinner'.
There are likewise women, who, we would hope, are pious, and therefore, of course, benevolent. But an attachment to dress, and a desire to approach, as near as they can, to the standard of those who are their superiors in fortune, blunt their compassionate feelings, and deprive them of the usefulness, comfort, and honor—which they might otherwise attain. The expense of their dress is so great, compared with the smallness of their income, that when they have decorated themselves to their mind, they have little or nothing to spare for the relief of the poor. I doubt not—but they take it for granted, that, upon the supposition that our Lord and Savior was again upon earth in a state of poverty and humiliation, as when he walked in the streets of Jerusalem, and they knew that he needed a garment, when they were about to spend their spare money in some useless piece of finery, they would gladly forego their purpose for the honor of assisting him. But the heart is deceitful. If we live in the neglect of present duty, we have no right to suppose we would act better in different circumstances. He has said, "Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me." And, if we are inattentive to the needs of those whom he appoints to be his representatives, we cannot be sure that we would be properly attentive to himself, if he was with us in person, and in a low obscure condition.
But I am not so much concerned by observing the materials, as by the manner of female dress, by what we call the fashion, and the eagerness with which every changing fashion, however improper, is adopted, by people whose religious profession might lead us to hope they had no time to attend to such trifles. If some allowance is to be made for youth on this head, it is painful to see mothers, and possibly sometimes grandmothers, who seem, by the gaudiness and levity of their attire, very unwilling to be sensible that they are growing older!
It may be a sufficient censure of some fashions—to say they are ridiculous. Their chief effect is to disfigure the female form. And perhaps the inventors of them had no worse design, than to make a trial, how far they could lead 'the passive unthinking many' in the path of absurdity. Some fashions, which seem to have been at first designed to hide a personal deformity, have obtained a general prevalence with those who had no such deformity to hide. We are informed, that Alexander had a wry neck, and therefore his courtiers carried their heads on one side, that they might appear to be in the king's fashion. We smile at this servility, in people who lived in Macedonia twenty centuries before we were born; yet it is little less general among ourselves in the present day.
The improprieties of 'the tyranny of fashion' are not simply ridiculous. They are serious evils in a religious view; and, to speak of them in the gentlest terms, they are signs of a careless, inconsiderate spirit, very unsuitable to a professed regard to the gospel. We are required to attend to the things that are lovely and of a good report. Every willful deviation from this rule is sinful. Why should a godly woman, or one who wishes to be thought so, make herself ridiculous, or hazard a suspicion of her character, to please and imitate an ungodly world?
But the worst of all the fashions are those, which are evidently calculated to allure the eyes, and to draw the attention of men. Is it not strange that modest and even pious women should be drawn into an immodest compliance? Yet I have sometimes been in company with ladies of whose modesty I have no doubt, and of whose piety I entertained a good hope, when I have been embarrassed, and at a loss which way to look. They are indeed noticed by the men—but not to their honor nor advantage. The manner of their dress gives encouragement to vile and insidious men, and exposes them to dangerous temptations. Their immodesty has often proved the first step into the road which leads to misery and ruin. They are pleased with the flattery of the worthless, and go on without thought, "like a bird flying into a snare, little knowing it would cost him his life!" But honest and sensible men regard their exterior, as a warning signal, not to choose a companion for life, from among people of this light and volatile turn of mind.
How far does the richest dress which studious vanity, can procure from the spoils of birds, beasts, and insects, fall short of the delicate texture and elegance, and the beautiful tints, which we admire in a flower or a butterfly! "Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!" The resemblance is chiefly in the frailty of the wearer. Soon, and perhaps suddenly—the body, now adorned with so much extravagance and care, must be deposited in the grave, and be food for worms!
An attention to ornament and dress is peculiarly unseasonable at present. The dark aspect of the times rather requires a spirit of humiliation and abasement. The judgments of God are abroad, his hand is lifted up. We know not what is before us—but we have reason to fear dreadful tokens of his displeasure for our national sins. Perhaps the day is coming when the words of the prophet, "Tremble you women that are at ease, be afflicted you careless ones," may be no less applicable to us, than they were to the Israelites of old.
I earnestly request my fair readers carefully to peruse the following: "The LORD will judge the women of Jerusalem, who walk around with their noses in the air, with tinkling ornaments on their ankles. Their eyes rove among the crowds, flirting with the men. The Lord will send a plague of scabs to ornament their heads. Yes, the LORD will make them bald for all to see! The Lord will strip away their artful beauty—their ornaments, headbands, and crescent necklaces; their earrings, bracelets, and veils of shimmering gauze. Gone will be their scarves, ankle chains, sashes, perfumes, and charms; their rings, jewels, party clothes, gowns, capes, and purses; their mirrors, linen garments, head ornaments, and shawls. Instead of smelling of sweet perfume, they will stink. They will wear ropes for sashes, and their well-set hair will fall out. They will wear rough sackcloth instead of rich robes. Their beauty will be gone. Only shame will be left to them." Isaiah 3:16-24