[Spencer's "On Manners and Fashion" originally appeared in the April 1854 Westminster Review. This text has comes from the Project Gutenberg online version of the Everyman edition — George P. Landow]

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hese social restraints, and forms, and requirements, are not small evils, but among the greatest. Estimate their sum total, and we doubt whether they would not exceed most others. Could we add up the trouble, the cost, the jealousies, vexations, misunderstandings, the loss of time and the loss of pleasure, which these conventions entail—could we clearly realise the extent to which we are all daily hampered by them, daily enslaved by them; we should perhaps come to the conclusion that the tyranny of Mrs. Grundy is worse than any other tyranny we suffer under. Let us look at a few of its hurtful results; beginning with those of minor importance.

It produces extravagance. The desire to be comme il faut, which underlies all conformities, whether of manners, dress, or styles of entertainment, is the desire which makes many a spendthrift and many a bankrupt. To "keep up appearances," to have a house in an approved quarter furnished in the latest taste, to give expensive dinners and crowded soirées, is an ambition forming the natural outcome of the conformist spirit. It is needless to enlarge on these follies: they have been satirised by hosts of writers, and in every drawing-room. All that here concerns us, is to point out that the respect for social observances, which men think so praiseworthy, has the same root with this effort to be fashionable in mode of living; and that, other things equal, the last cannot be diminished without the first being diminished also. If, now, we consider all that this extravagance entails—if we count up the robbed tradesmen, the stinted governesses, the ill-educated children, the fleeced relatives, who have to suffer from it—if we mark the anxiety and the many moral delinquencies which its perpetrators involve themselves in; we shall see that this regard for conventions is not quite so innocent as it looks.

Related Materials


Spencer, Herbert. "On Manners and Fashion." Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects. London: Dent/Everyman, 1966.

Last modified 17 November 2019