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I HAVE often wondered why there were no professed beauties now-a-days, while every past age can boast its Helens; our generation may number many pretty faces, but it is the only one among the thousands already counted, that produces no beauties whose name shall descend imperishably to the generations yet to come.
We cannot open a page of history that does not record the fame of some beauty; the Bible has its Rachel, - so lovely that twenty years of service were deemed a light fee for her affections; the world was lost for Cleopatra; the beautiful mistresses of the French kings ruled that world through the hearts of their imperial lovers; even down to the days of George IV. there has always been some lady whose charms have been more powerful than monarchs and prime ministers.
But I think the problem may be solved : it is the difference of dress, -costume does it all; revive the robings of by-gone ages, and you will revive all the beauty and the ugliness of those days. For there must have been a good deal of ugliness, other
wise beauty would not have been so forcibly appreciated ; had there been more pretty girls in the days of Troy, Helen would have had few suitors, and Ilium might have been standing yet. What I mean to say is this — in those times people dressed so unbecomingly, that unless their features were perfect, they were literally nothing; all the mirror graces which set off a mediocre person now were totally unavailable under that system of costume.
For instance, Helen must have worn a loose robe, a broad girdle, bare arms, sandals on her feet, and her hair bound back in those rich, magnificent braids, termed to this day “Grecian plaits.”
But imagine for a moment all your acquaintances dressed in this way. Would not the majority be frightful ? How few faces, how few complexions, could stand that banding back of the thick hair! how few forms would show well beneath the simple robe, without stays or stiff petticoats ! how few feet would be endurable in sandals ! how few arms would bear the noonday sun and the sharp winds, which would soon reduce them to the pattern and form of a washerwoman's !
Perhaps the Jewish costume of Rebecca and Rachel may have been a shade better; but here was the same exposure of neck and arms, with the additional disadvantage of a robe that showed a leg encased in hideous boots and hose, and that refused to sweep with Grecian amplitude round the limbs of the fair wearers.
Cleopatra, who is represented as being both dark and stout, could wear only the robes of white or purple, the heavy diadem, the strings of pearls that were the allotted garb of Egyptian princes. How dark and how uncomely must have been the majority of her country women may be judged from the sensation she made.
The Roman ladies were famed for their stately carriage, and somewhat large but noble features ; and when to these charms are added those of regularity, and delicacy, and beautiful coloring, no doubt their simple peu coquette style of dress was especially becoming to them ; but without these latter qualifications how gaunt and coarse they must have appeared !
What can be more lovely than the figure of Agrippina — bending that stately head above the ashes of Germanicus ? The robe falls in long sweeping folds; the bare arm, naked to the shoulder, supports the urn; the hair braided back, the smooth brow, the magnificent eye, in its large and lofty chamber; not a ribbon, not the gleaming of a jewel, breaks the calm outline or disturbs the severe unity. Perhaps among the circle of our acquaintance there are two or three women who would appear to advantage so attired ! — but, O, how well for the dumpy and the scraggy “nez retrousse," and the "nez snub," that they fall upon better days!
As we descend the stream of time, the number
of celebrated beauties decreases; this we may attribute to the increasing knowledge of the art of dress; indifferent complexions, bad figures, irregular features, began to have something like fair play shown them; exigencies of person met with some assistance from costumes, and in the same degree as the plain women were made to appear less plain, were the beauties rendered less prominent, and the distance between the parties lessened.
Still we hear of some so strikingly lovely, as to be known to all the world by the fame of their eyes only; of these we may name Edith of the Swan Neck, so called from the brilliant whiteness of a skin capable of resisting the exposure to sun and wind, which tanned and freckled into frightfulness the queens and lofty ladies of those rude days; Rosamund the Fair. so fair that it was said of her, “None but a jealous and exasperated woman could have harmed her ;” Beatrice Cenci, whose beauty makes one shudder, so mysterious seems the light in those large untroubled eyes, soon about to close beneath the pressure of so awful a fate; Lucrezia Borgia, an angel in face, a demon in heart; Mary of Scotland, whom “no man ever beheld without love," and some few others, until we reach that famous trio recorded in the letters of Horace Walpole, as the loveliest women of their time, the Misses Gunning.
One of these, the Duchess of Hamilton, was so renowned for her charms, that her fame spread far
and near, insomuch that, when travelling once from the north to town, the mob, in the places where she rested at nights, assembled round the hotels, nor would they depart until she had appeared on the balconies to display to them her world-famed face.
And there is something strangely sad in the account of the death of another of the sisters, Lady Coventry, who perished of consumption while in the highest pride of youth and beauty. She is recorded as patiently awaiting the approach of death - her looking-glass her constant companion — as scarcely ever removing her eyes from the reflection of her own face, and as bewailing only the too early extinction of a beauty worthy of immortality.
At a later time, when the names of some favorite beauties are again recorded, the costume, totally different, was so hideous, that no one could wear it with impunity - hence the high reputation for beauty of Pauline Bonaparte and Madame Recamier. The former is described as appearing at a party, given by her mighty brother, in a tunic of white muslin, reaching little below the knee, and commencing far below the shoulders, the waist exceedingly short, and bound with a narrow girdle ; sandals clothed the small feet, while a mantle of leopard skin hung around the perfect form of Canova's fairest model.
And there are many who can remember the appearance of Madame Recamier in the parks of London, clad in a robe as scanty and as simple — her