When you examine a collection of prints showcasing costumes from different eras, it is often amusing to see how ludicrous most of them appear, especially those that are unfamiliar to you in your own time. These costumes not only seem inappropriate and inconvenient to your eyes but also offend your sense of taste. However, if you reflect on your own memory and maintain honesty, you may recall that a costume which now seems ridiculous once had your wholehearted approval a decade ago. It is astonishing to think how you could have ever accepted a costume that lacks grace and bears no resemblance to the human figure, just as Mambrino's helmet had no connection to a crown of glory. You cannot fathom how you once admired the enormous balloon skirts that made your sweetheart look like the great bell of Moscow or how you yourself could have been content in a coat with tails reaching your heels and buttons placed awkwardly between your shoulder blades. Now, your preferences are drawn to a female figure resembling an old-fashioned churn topped with an isosceles triangle.
These shifts in taste, which distort correct proportions and conceal deformities, are most evident in the illustrations accompanying works of fiction. The artist collaborating with a contemporary novelist faces a challenging fate. If they faithfully depict the fashions of the day, they are often labelled as artistically depraved by the next generation. While the novel may become a classic, representing human nature or the quirks of a specific era, the illustrations only elicit a smile because they capture the nonessential and transitory aspects. The interest in their work becomes archaeological rather than artistic. Although the genius of a great portrait painter may partially overcome the limitations of contemporary costume, if the fashion of their time is hideous and lacks essential beauty, their work may require the excuse of quaintness. Greek artists and medieval painters never encountered this posthumous challenge because the costumes of their periods were genuinely picturesque and made us overlook the absence of simplicity in their sumptuousness.
When examining costumes from different cultures and historical periods, we also observe that primitive or isolated societies experience minimal variations in their attire from one generation to another. Fashion trends remain unrecognized, and dress habits dictated by climate or proven comfort are passed down. In contrast, nations considered highly civilized, including Western and progressive societies, undergo frequent and dramatic fashion changes not only across generations but even within decades and years of a generation. It seems as though the masses have no independent taste or judgment but submit to the whims of tailors, fashion designers, and novelty-seeking manufacturers. In this so-called higher civilization, both artistic and becoming costumes have no chance of permanence, just like their ugly and inconvenient counterparts. This suggests that this advanced civilization does not necessarily possess better taste, discrimination, or independent judgment in clothing or literature. The amusing vagaries in Western fashion throughout the past millennium, without going further back, would be embarrassing to those who consider taste and art essential to civilization. Interestingly, some of the longest-lasting and most remarkable civilizations, renowned for their achievements in learning, science, art, and the comforts of life—such as the Egyptian, Saracenic, and Chinese civilizations—did not exhibit such costume vagaries. They adhered to costumes determined by taste, climate, and experience to be the most useful and appropriate. This highlights the irony of our modern conceit, as we make our own fickleness and changeability, rather than any fixed principles of art or utility, the basis for judging other cultures and historical periods.
The study of past fashion trends in engravings and paintings reveals an important underlying result. It demonstrates a fundamental and primitive law of beauty present in all illustrations, from the simplicity of Athens to the artificiality of Louis XIV and the monstrosities of Elizabeth, and even the unexplained fashion inventions of recent times.