Why do women love to dress up?’ asked Dr Charles Theodore Ewart, in 1913. To compete with women? To please their husbands or admirers? For their own pleasure? No.
Ewart said women loved dressing up because they are ‘slightly insane’. What would he have thought of fashion-icon Posh Spice, or of Kate Middleton (with her €40,000-a-year wardrobe), women who don’t just love their clothes, but adore them?
Ewart, senior assistant medical officer at the London County Lunatic Asylum, in Claybury, in Ilford, lectured to an all-male audience of psychiatrists at the Royal Society of Medicine on May 17, 1913. A married man with a daughter, he based his conclusion on scientific research in his pathology laboratory (one of the first asylum laboratories in the UK), where he had studied those “of an unsound mind”.
One case was a 48-year-old woman Ewart referred to as ‘E’. For 16 years, she had a mania for washing herself all day, because she believed her skin was full of insects and gave off “a strange, disagreeable odour,” and this produced in her feelings of disgust and unworthiness. By keeping scrupulously clean, she felt good about herself.
Many women, Ewart said, have a similar mania for wearing pretty clothes. He identified two types: a ‘type one’ woman is motivated by a desire to “show off” her latest fashion accessories — hand-sewn straw hats, elegant, high-waist silk coats and Flame Crêpe de Chine evening wraps.
By taking great care of her appearance, she is hoping for compliments and approving looks, and making other women jealous. Yet, the surprising thing about this woman is that she is often careless, even disgusting in appearance (‘a slattern’) when alone, or when only her family are around.
Even when she is “on parade”, the unseen parts of her clothing are “usually of an entirely different order from that seen.”
The ‘type two’ woman dresses up because she is “in love with the beautiful, dainty, the delicate”.
Just like the patient who had a mania for washing, this type of woman is obsessive about the care and condition of her garments.
Eward said he could explain this theory scientifically: the muscular movements involved in brushing clothes, washing them, and hanging them gave a woman’s brain satisfaction.
Unlike ‘type one’, this woman is painstaking about the state of her underwear (which is probably made of top-quality silk), especially the items closest to her body.
Both types of woman are likely to be middle-class, and to have grown up to envy beautifully-gowned women at society dinners, and mannequins in the window displays of expensive shops, such as those in London’s Oxford Street.
There, they could linger and inspect, with no pressure to buy, drooling over the latest Paris fashions, ostrich ruffles, dainty dress shoes, sets of furs and reindeer gloves.
Trying on these clothes, said Ewart, produced “sensations which bring deep peace and perfect contentment” to the female mind.
The same elation felt by, say, caressing the soft fur of a puppy dog, or sensing the velvety texture of chocolate on the tongue — both shown in a popular anti-suffrage poster of the time, which drew attention to the limited capacities of women’s minds to think about anything beyond trivial matters.
“Until now,” said Ewart, sternly, as he neared the end of his lecture, “most people thought that the behaviour of these women, who are forever dressing up, a form of vanity. But this fails to recognise it for what it really is — a neglected form of insanity.” That’s not to say that they need to be restrained in straitjackets or be confined to padded cells.
They are not violent and are unlikely to cause damage to themselves or others. Well, not yet, provided their obsession is cured before it becomes more serious.
Reasoning with these women might help, up to a point. But what they need is treatment for their nerves, a tonic, and “a complete change and rest.”
He recommended plenty of sleep, and that they take up cycling and walking in peaceful surroundings.
And, of course, where better than in the grounds of his own asylum, with its oak trees and bluebells, landscaped gardens and secluded ponds.