When man first emerges from savagery, he evolves two classes to which are paid special honors and emoluments. These offices are those of the Soldier and the Priest.
At first the priestly offices are performed by the warrior himself, and consist in incantations, cajolings of the Great Spirit, pacifications, and prayers for victory.
Later, the warrior begins to set apart certain people to do certain things, and he delegates this office of dealing with the Unseen to another.
The priestly office always subsists on sufferance of the soldier, although, in times of peace, it seemingly takes precedence of it, and this fiction the soldier helps carry out. Doubtless, in degree, the soldier actually does become the creature of what he creates, just as men become enslaved by their business. But in emergency, when the stress comes, depend upon it, the weight of priestly temporal power is quickly dissipated, and soldiers bivouac in the temple of the Most High.
The danger being past, the soldier comes back to the priest for absolution, assurance and consolation. Kings are always crowned by priests—it is the priest who applies the vaseline of authority. The priest is the mysterious agent of Deity. As the priest is made by the soldier, so the soldier bends his knee only to the priest, and both devoutly believe in their Divine Right. In olden times the priests usually explained to the people that the king was really not a man—he was a half-god. His motherhood could be proved, so they did not trifle there with the fact, but his father was a god—this pedigree could not be disproved. The priest said it, the soldier-king, himself; thought it must be so, and he even cut off the heads of all who questioned it.
Therefore, the people grew to believe it as a matter of convenience, for we believe the thing that is profitable to believe. Emboldened with their success, the priests even declared that the Chief Priest, or their own ruler, was a half-god.
I have said that the priest was at first a servant, just as in Germany, in the time of Mozart, the musicians and artists ranked with cooks and scullions.
The priestly office was a trifle higher, but even yet the priest is more or less of a slave. In England he dresses like a butler and looks like one. Both wear a look of woeful desolation, and a penalty is attached for spontaneous or natural behavior.
I know a butler who had his pay cut in two because he ventured a word of suggestion in a conversation between the hostess and a guest. The guest nearly fell off his chair in amazement to think a butler had opinions upon any subject, and the hostess flew into a rage. Later, the recalcitrant one smiled at a witticism of one of the guests, and he was summarily dismissed from service, and his name placed on the Black List. You can kick a good butler from behind and not a shade of emotion will pass over his face. It is much the same with the priest—he is supposed to reveal pious passivity and nothing else.
He is paid to do certain things—officiate at burials, weddings, christenings, and to pray and preach. Any relaxation of dignity is quickly resented. When he enters, laughter ceases and children crawl under the bed. So true is this that, when an exception is noted, people call your attention to it by saying, “Our pastor plays cards and is a jolly good fellow.” The exception but proves the rule—the priest in his livery rebukes levity and spreads a pretence of solemn piety.
Let him attempt to mix in politics or business and he is mighty soon called back to his proper position by a reduction in both pay and honors.
The offices of soldier and priest absorb all honors and all emoluments at first—they divide every good thing between them. And the chief characteristic of each is that neither does any work of a useful kind.
They are non-producers—and conspicuously so.
They advertise themselves and the dignity of their office in two ways—by a Conspicuous Leisure and by a Conspicuous Consumption. Their entire abstention from industrial production reveals this Conspicuous Leisure, and the ownership of a vast number of things they do not need reveals Conspicuous Consumption.
Thus great soldiers and great priests have always lived in conspicuous palaces, and worn peculiar and costly raiment and trappings.
Silks, robes, jewels, golden crowns, bracelets, rings, breastplates, miters and red hats are all a part of this Conspicuous Consumption or this Conspicuous Waste. And as if these things were not enough, and for fear some one would overlook this Waste, the great soldier or great priest always had banners and flags carried ahead of his presence, and also there were trumpeters and players upon tom-toms who beat their drums and blew their horns and rode ahead upon gaily caparisoned horses that cavorted to the sounding of the music.
Then came the great man himself, upon a horse or a throne, in a carriage or carried in a palanquin.
These things all remain with us, more or less. A one-horse carriage might carry our President, but this would mean social damnation and the laughter of the groundlings: four horses for the Governor’s carriage and six for the President’s—this is the rule.
To be sure, we are a little rusty in these things, so the horses occasionally run away when the band plays, or the trolley-car runs into the President’s carriage, and, with an irony known only to inanimate things, kills the guard; but pageantry survives and will survive.
The objection can be made that Washington society is only a small number, and, if they alone form the Superior Clan, are really not worth consideration. The point is worth considering. Society at Washington is a grade below Biltmore, partaking of strenuosity and uncertainty: it is not quite sure that it is respectable, while Biltmore and Shelburne never doubt. These people, it is true, are not of much consequence, excepting to themselves, and are mentioned merely as an extreme type. They are like a picture painted with a broom, very much in evidence.
The fact is that every city, town and village has its self-appointed Superior Class, and this class gets its tone and takes its fashions from the extreme types just mentioned.
That these people in the smaller towns actually do work with their hands, and help carry the burdens of the world, is true, yet on Sundays and other holidays they delight in parading themselves in a dress which seems to advertise that they do not work.
Their raiment, when they can afford it, is the dress of those who habitually indulge in Conspicuous Waste.
Almost without a single exception they look forward to a time when they will not have to work. And those who do have to work unremittingly here, are offered an equivalent through a promise of endless rest and a mansion in the skies.
No heaven has yet been pictured excepting as a place of idleness and Conspicuous Waste.
Your country storekeeper, if he is prosperous, straightway advertises his prosperity in Conspicuous Waste. He builds a house five times as big as he needs.
One might at first suppose that the size of a house would give the beholder some idea of the number of people who live in it, and this is true: excepting that small families live in large houses and large families in small houses. Indeed, the number in any given family is usually in inverse ratio to the size of the house. If prosperity smiles, the wife has two servants, and the daughter ceases to work, in order to advertise the father’s prosperity.
The mother will tell you her servant-girl woes, and of all she suffers, but what can she do? She was far happier when they lived in a cottage and she did her work, but now there are all these things to care for, and the social duties besides. Yet she is very happy in her misery. They are respectable and must advertise the fact; so the fashion that Paris decrees in dress is followed as it filters through New York, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Galesburg, and Des Moines, Iowa, as the case may be. And this fashion is always with a design of Conspicuous Waste.
Thus the starched shirt, high, stiff collar and white cuffs come straight from men who did no work, and dressed so they could not.
Formerly the stiff “billed shirt” was worn only by preachers, doctors and lawyer—it was the badge of exemption from manual labor. But now every farmhand on Sunday will get into this uncouth and uncomfortable apparel and go to church.
He endures the discomfort and goes to church because these things lend him eclat—he is, forsooth, respectable.
In truth, in rural communities this is the test, “Does he go to church?” If he does not, he is not respectable.
And if he goes to church, he must dress like the others. So his clothes take on the priestly touch: for the collar, cuffs and shirt-bosom all trace a direct pedigree to the vestments of the priest, who wore his robes to prove to everybody that he was different, set apart, peculiar, and had no place in the plain, industrial life of the community. Woman’s dress reveals more than that of a man in reaching out for Conspicuous Waste.
# # # #