Monday, May 21, 2007
Final question in our etiquette quiz: Why is it that young ladies were once counseled not to wear perfume or large pieces of real jewelry before the age of thirty?
This is an old rule that has persisted in some form or another even up until today. However, in our times, we do not follow it so strictly as it was followed at the height of the Victorian era.
It used to be strongly felt that a young lady's fresh and natural beauty needed very little ornamentation. It was also thought that she should not wear real perfume, but only the lightest scent, as she needed little fragrance other than to keep herself fresh and clean. Similarly, it was thought that her youthful beauty was most flattered by wearing fresh flowers in her sash or as a corsage instead of by wearing jewelry. If a young girl did wear jewelry, it was delicate in nature. Larger and more ornate pieces were left to the more mature woman.
In her book, "Trying to get to Heaven," actress Dixie Carter says that she was alarmed to find brown spots on behind her ear and on her neck. This was not too long after she turned thirty. Fearing that she had some unknown skin disease, she made an appointment with the doctor. He laughed and told her the brown spots came from some kind of interaction with her perfume and her skin. He said the spots were perfectly harmless. Since she had followed the old Southern rule and had not worn perfume before the age of thirty, she had never encountered this problem. She learned to rotate the spots where she places perfume so that these brown spots do not occur. (I have never had this type of reaction from perfume, but apparently, some people do).
I grew up in Atlanta in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Most of my friends and I were allowed to wear eau de toilette, cologne, or even a very subtle perfume beginning in our early teens. Because retailers were appealing to the huge baby boom generation, they made several scents that were light and delicate and suitable for young women. (Anyone remember Yardley perfumes? How about Love's Baby Soft, which smelled like baby powder? Some of my friends and I even used real baby powder as a way of achieving a light, fresh scent,) There were even children's versions available that could be worn by little girls -- but these were used only for playing dress up and not on a daily basis.
I picked my signature scent -- Shalimar -- at around age 16 or 17. In truth, it is a bit heavy for a girl of that age. But, that was my choice. My father would buy it for me for Christmas, just like he bought my mother's favorite -- L'Heure Blue -- for her. So, that scent now has sentimental meaning for me. I'm glad my father buys it for me, because our budget doesn't allow for the price tag! I did not then and do not now wear Shalimar every day, though. I often wore lighter scents.
Though we were allowed to wear some form of fragrance and to use skincare products, few of us were allowed to wear facial cosmetics or to shave our legs as early as we would have liked to. Of course, we all wanted to be glamorous and grown-up, like the models we saw in fashion magazines. And, there were always a few families who pushed the envelope and let their daughters wear mature fashions and cosmetics much sooner than other girls were allowed to. The rest of us didn't know how lucky we were to be protected from growing up too quickly!
For the main, most of my parents' generation believed that young girls were not mature enough to handle looking like adults before their time. Actually, some adults were very conservative when using cosmetic enhancements themselves. My mother, who was an extraordinarily beautiful woman, wore only lipstick and a bit of blush throughout her entire life. And, her skin remained gorgeous well into her mature years. It was only when she contracted a terminal illness that she began to show her age. Similarly, my mother-in-law never wore foundation until she turned thirty-five. I look at photos of my mother and and of my mother in law when they were young and wore no makeup, and they both looked beautiful and elegant.
My father had a saying, "Why gild the lily?" He meant that a lily was beautiful enough in its bloom without trying to coat it with gold; or, in other words, a young girl's fresh face was lovely without covering it with artificial color. He was fond of saying this to me whenever he thought I was wearing too much make-up. He persisted in saying this until I married, when my husband took up the cause.
Dh often complimented me by saying, "You know, you are so pretty just as you are. You don't even need makeup." Funny how both men quit telling me that I didn't need make-up once I passed thirty-five or forty. LOL.
When I look back on it, I realize that there were certain milestones that my friends and I were gradually allowed to pass on the route to becoming adult women. Our parents believed that there was a certain birthday for each of the following:
1) The age a girl got her her first stockings (pantyhose today).
2) The age a girl wore her first pair of heels (no stilettos, of course)
3) The age a girl and her mother purchased her first training bra. (This was tied more to need than to a specific birthday.)
4) The age a girl might discreetly cover a shiny nose with a bit of powder from a compact (often around thirteen). About this time, a girl might also be allowed to use a bit of clear lip gloss.
4) The age a girl finally, finally get to use a little mascara and some blush. Eyeshadow came somewhere in there.
5) The age a girl was first allowed shave her legs.
6) The age a girl might go on a "real" date.
The years for each of these milestones varied slightly from family to family. But, in general, our parents supported each other in the belief that young girls should dress appropriately for their age. Parenting is never easy, and we baby-boomers were by no means a picnic to raise. But, at least my parents generation presented somewhat of a united front. I know mothers of young girls now who either get little support or even opposition from their friends when attempting to help their daughters dress age-appropriately.
As much as my generation chafed at having to wait for certain things, there was an air of sweetness to these rites of passage. We learned that none of these things were to be hurried. Each one was a step along the way. When each one arrived, it was to be celebrated. Attaining these milestones one by one gave a girl the sense that it was a very special thing to grow up to be a woman.
Also, there was a distinct difference between the dress of a little girl and the dress of a mature woman. Dress for the preteen or teen girl was somewhere in between -- not little-girly, but still with a youthfulness appropriate to our years.
Of course, we were the generation that popularized jeans and broke down school dress codes. I lived in a conservative area, and our school was probably one of the last to cave in. But, eventually, we pushed until we were allowed to wear pants and jeans to school.
This massive shift in clothing styles that took place during my teens further divided adult clothing from teen clothing, though perhaps not beneficially so. We went from being a very neat lot to being a very scruffy lot. Some middle-aged adults tried to wear the styles of the young, but these experiments seldom came off very well.
Even then, however, you seldom saw girls below the age of twelve dressed as little miniature adults, as you do today. Much of our society seems bent on pushing seven year olds into the same type of outfits that Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears wear.
Today, when I look at little girls, who are decked to the hilt in "adult" fashion, I feel a bit wistful for them. Actually, many an adult woman would blush to wear styles that are now sold to little girls. But, I do wonder if some of these girls are going to look back one day and feel that they missed a part of childhood.
Preteens probably have the hardest sailing in this area. Going through puberty is fun, but also challenging. Why make it harder for young girls by allowing them to dress in such a way that calls attention to their developing bodies?
Of course, the young are always impatient to grow up. My friends and I certainly were! And, thus, it has probably always been. In the days when a girl had to be sixteen to put her hair up, girls in braids begged to be able to wear their hair like a "grown-up".
Yet, until our formative years have passed, we can't fully appreciate how sweet our youth is. Therefore, its up to adults -- who should understand this concept -- to help a children slow things down and to enjoy the process of growing up.
Some of us would find the no perfume/no jewelry until thirty rule a bit extreme today. Some of us might have convictions that women of any age should not wear jewelry or makeup. Many of us fall somewhere in between.
Maybe, we can all give some thought to the principle behind the rule. Perhaps, we should think of ways to help our girls and our boys to dress and act in ways appropriate for their age. How we each decide to put this principle into practice may vary. But, we probably all agree that it's a wise idea.
After all, a young girl's face and form is lovely simply by virtue of innocence and of youth. Perhaps, my father has a good point. Why gild the lily?