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It was the bicycle, by the way, that began a real revolution in women's dress. Dr. Mary Walker's trousers left a world of women wholly unconvinced. Wheels made shortened skirts undebatable, and shortened skirts made anatomy undebatable. If this change did not always increase reverence for the literal facts of anatomy, if it proved that gallantry had often, if not generally, gone further in assumptions of beauty than the facts warranted, it helped to sweep away a hypocrisy which reverence learned not to need and modesty learned to ignore. This coming into collision of mechanism and modesty had, in fact, extraordinary evolutionary consequences. The athletic girl, a type older than Greece, was emancipated from encumbering devices. What a girl could and could not do had been settled in a huge percentage of instances by the length of her skirts. Her physical needs and rights as a human creature had been circumscribed by a lying hem. She could not throw a ball scientifically because her clavicle was too short, but she could dance better than a man when she had a fair chance. Her wish and her need to dance freely were permitted expression mostly on the stage. Social dancing, perhaps as confessing, closely and untheatrically, that she really must have legs, always met its frowns. Byron insulted the waltz; but, then, he had a bad foot. Thackeray was violently in opposition. "A man who loves dancing," he said, "may be set down as an ass; and the fashion is gradually going out with the increasing good sense of the age." Oddly, it was the irascible bachelor Nietzsche who proclaimed dancing as
"the highest symbol of perfected human activity."
During the long period when the stage might make its confessions, but normal life was held to rigid concealments and subterfuges, the joke reached its cowardly limit, and the poor word had the effect of sending decency, as in the presence of a hunted mouse, to the vantage of a chair or table, with skirts gathered against an awful possibility. The evasion entailed immense difficulties of description. A man could break a leg, but a woman could break only a limb, and since this designation, though decent, was indefinite, she was permitted to break a "lower limb." No ribaldry could seem to shame the false shame. The jokesmith's fun about the spinsters who draped the naked "limbs" of the piano was looked upon as at best only illustrating how levity can grimace in the presence of serious things. The timid could not be jested out of their shelter. Hypocrisy was darkest just before the dawn.
I remember an early evening on a certain Western train that had stopped for the twentieth time in an exhausting effort to butt its head through a snowstorm. We were still eighteen miles or so from the city in which I was to lecture, and every pause plainly lessened the chance that my audience, if there should happen to be one on such a night, would have the high pleasure of hearing what it came for. In the seat beside me was a quiet girl who had begun to eat her supper out of a package. By various signs, across-the-car exclamations and visits, I came to understand that she was a member of a theatrical company. At last her question as to my opinion of the hazard, seeing how late it already was, made it
plain that a stage awaited her, as a lyceum platform awaited me. Her anxiety did not seem to equal mine, but she had a curiosity as of one who had been through many perils and retained a normal sense of gambling chances, and the curiosity, shining through a pretty demureness, made me wish that I might have had a conviction one way or the other. Yet I had nothing to offer. I only hoped. And it came about that I asked her the name of the play in which she was to appear.
"Oh, it is n't a play," she answered through the sandwich; "it's only a leg show."
The "leg show" of those days expressed the sharp differentiation between the prosaic and the spectacular. That lower limbs are still visible on the stage the remark of our clerical friend sufficiently attests, but they are no longer called "leg shows." The leg is no longer a specialized lure, or at all events not one to be so labeled, for the plain reason that the utter familiarity of a fashion has, perhaps for all time, though I suppose we should not be too sure of that, robbed mischievous frivolity as well as ingenious prurience of its
Prurience was able to trade on a hypocrisy. With the hypocrisy in flight, the game lost flavor. You can't tease a concealment that has stopped concealing. You can't steal that which is freely yielded. Fashion takes all satisfaction from an evil blow by turning the other leg.
At the hour of this writing the mode has made its mark at the knee. Since fluctuation belongs to the essence of fashion, and since fashion cannot escape the dilemma of the irreducible minimum, the barometer of change is certain to show a fall. But, to what
ever final effect, the point has been made. The leg complex has undergone an extraordinary jolt. A new psychology must be drafted. In ways which no theory could have suspected, a bitterly debated revolution in dress has made it necessary to consider from new angles questions that are not merely artistic and not merely whimsical. If it is true that in abandoning concealments women have abandoned any of their real modesty, the event has been lamentable indeed. If it is true that in abandoning these concealments women have only kicked off archaic shackles, and with them various incrusted coquetries invented in a man-made world, there is nothing to weep about but the hazards of weather. If the attitude of men is to be a vital consideration, it will be important to find out whether men have lost by the change any real respect for women, have experienced any lowered impulses either of reverence or attraction, or have lost nothing but a sense of "legshow" mystery that once was so fertile and foolish in the drama of sex.
Both sides of the contention have been vociferously presented. One side has gone so far as to imply that woman has been utterly abased. The other has gone so far as to insist that at last she has been utterly liberated, that by a happy synchronization she is at the same hour both physically and civically free. There is, I trust, nothing wrong in my standing aside from the affray, or in my momentary absorption by the spectacle of the mere word, sheepishly alone in its new liberty.
Yet I venture to remark that women themselves seem likely to settle the whole question in their own
way. A deeper student of such matters reinforces me. Havelock Ellis gives the weight of his profound analysis to the statement that women, once they acquire the privilege, are more direct than men. Ellis has found that women not only think more directly, but have, when they wish to have it, a more direct way of getting their thought said. He mentions, for instance, that Parisian lawyers have discovered that women can explain things better, and that these lawyers say to their working-class clients, "Send me your wife." How complicated such study is we may discover in Ellis's revelation that, nevertheless, women are preternaturally clever in "attaining results by ruses." This trait is, we are told, "so habitual among women that, as Lombroso and Ferrero remark, in women deception is 'almost physiological.' Surely now you forgive me for standing aside. If women think more directly, yet are addicted to ruses, if their thought is straight and their action devious, it would be absurd for a man to decide that she is wrong in what she is doing when it is deeply impossible that he should know what she is doing. One thing is certain: she has a sense of humor in the matter of clothes that has been denied to men. It is not alone the failure in man's sense of humor that induces him to think that she is dressing solely for him. That blunder has a remoter explanation. I suspect that no man is fitted to give this explanation in full. Evidently there must be a duality in many explanations, and sex truth must have bi-logic as well as the biologic. Woman's understanding with her own
sex has been much underrated. It has created vast areas of obscurity for men. Even Havelock Ellis must only be guessing. He is ruthless and circumstantial. He seems to know. He diagrams mind and body with the same assurance. But how are we to judge whether, if he is possibly in error as to her mentality, he may not also be in error as to her anatomy? For I am compelled to admit that the arch critic finds one supreme fault with her structure. "This obliquity of the legs," he says, "is the most conspicuous æsthetic defect of the female form in the erect posture, while it unfits women for attitudes of energy, and compels them to run by alternate semicircular rotations of the legs." Would it be cynical to suspect that Ellis was influenced by "semicircular rotations" to believe that the get-what-she-wants instinct gave the mind of woman a circuitous facility?
It is more significant to note that in the future no commentator in this field can occupy the position of one privileged to analyze the obscure. The unhampered mind of woman has chosen to acquire an unhampered and a describable body. It does not matter that some one might point out that the describable body was last to be acquired, and draw out any frippery of thesis from that case. It does not matter how the quarrel may be decided as to the immediate reaction upon men. Without considering fashion extremists, who are a quite negligible minority for the use of cartoonists, women have taken one practical means of leaving the malice or mischief or sentimentalism of men no leg to stand on.
HAD been telling Vignolles about my stay in Cairo, about the stables and horse transport I had taken over at Abu Ella, and how at the end of a fortnight, after a hard struggle and quinine tablets and a day here and there in bed, I had gone down with malaria, giving up the fight and yielding soul and body to slops and hospital and that accursed arsenic they give you when you 're beginning to come round again, till you feel like a person being slowly poisoned in a shilling "shocker." And when I was recovered and convalescent, they had sent me home, with all my curiosity about the place unsatisfied.
"I was in Cairo for close on three months," I had ended it, "and I hardly know anything; might just as well never have been there. That 's the worst of the army and soldiering.
"It was a blow. I had read so many of those stories, heavily perfumed, dark and stealthy, and full of jewels,
great pearls and emeralds, and lovely ladies-"
"I know the stuff," said Vignolles, interrupting me. "Most of it 's rot, written by men who 've half digested 'The Arabian Nights,' or who 've stayed a month at Shepheard's and been round with a guide, and who get an easy living by thrilling lascivious cockneys with stories of ladies of the harem and Eastern mystery. Oh, the 'mysterious East!'" He laughed. "I'm sick of it. I've tried it; I 've worked in it and paid my way,-you never know a place till you 've done that, and I 've had exactly one adventure I can remember-or is it two? Yes, two. There was a lady of the harem and a European lady; she does not matter so much. She might have happened in England or anywhere else; but the lady of the harem was of the country. She made it clearer to me, and I was young enough to learn my lesson."
I had settled down prepared to lis
ten; for Vignolles, once started, was sure to be full and brimming with his subject, and the night was young enough as well. We were cozily aloft, up in my chambers in the Temple, the fire burning, the curtains drawn, and smoke and refreshment easily to hand.
"Let's hear about the lady of the harem," I had said, "the one I missed." For I'd seen dozens of them, driving about in white and semi-transparent veils, black-silk overalls, or whatever they call the costume. They were mostly eyes, those ladies, and some looked exquisite and very much like delicate birds. I had just had time to see them and surrender.
"Yes, they look nice," admitted Vignolles, dubiously. "Most things look nice out in the East," he added; "that's the way of it. But when you pass beyond the looking and begin to understand, most times you 're inclined to prefer the plainer West.
"This is n't a sentimental or a respectable story," he pursued; "for, to begin with, Egypt and respectability don't seem to agree with each other, and you can't be either, can you, unless you 've a little money to spare and a settled job? I had been to Athens out of curiosity, because I wanted to see, and for the same reason I'd worked my passage about the Greek islands in a steam yacht that carried expensive tourists, and when the summer came, I'd been dumped down at Alexandria. This was in the nineties, when Egypt was beginning to revive. It was n't the place it 's become since; still, it was good enough. I did n't like Alexandria, too European, too Levantine, for my taste; good spot to make money in or bathe in the sea, but otherwise dull, so I pushed on to Cairo and found a job. It was a very
simple one, but enough to keep me going, and the duties were n't too heavy. I became a proof-reader at the government printing works over in Bulak. They'd got regular men, but one of 'em had been given leave to go home over the summer, and they wanted a man to take his place while he was away. I found this out through asking, and when the head man, a very decent fellow out of Yorkshire, had tested me and was satisfied that I could spell all right and punctuate and do the work, he let me in, and the other chap departed.
"It was the hot season, but as you began early and finished at lunchtime, it did n't so much matter. I lodged with an English family, Todd by name, and very good-natured people. Of course no Moslem family would take me as a lodger, because of the women, and I did n't fancy Syrians or Levantines, because of the bugs and fleas; so that when somebody told me that the Todds had a spare room, I jumped at it, and there I settled down.
"It was a queer life. Early in the morning I took the tram to the printing works and did my job in a big, cool room away from the machines. It came very easy to me, for I 'd read a lot and the matter was interesting, all kinds of reports about the country, every blessed side of it, from datepalms to irrigation, from water-buffalo to religion; and when the real heat of the day hit you, I was off duty, and had nothing to do but doze and perspire under the net that kept the flies off. It was all very nice and cool till one came out into the sunlight after one's morning's work. Then Cairo blazed away at you. The whole city had become an oven, your strength departed, and you could just manage to
blazed away at you.