Good grooming, advises Amy Vanderbilt in the 1967 edition of her book of etiquette, which I received as a wedding present, means “a daily, and often twice daily, shower or bath, [and] fresh underwear and stockings daily or twice daily….” Even in my most perfectionistic moments I was not insane enough to follow her advice to the letter, but since my arrival in the land of endless hot water nine years earlier, I had taken to heart the American custom of daily showering and frequent shampooing. “You’ve washed your hair again?” my mother would exclaim as I struggled to fit the dryer hood over my twenty-seven rollers. She was also amazed that, along with my schoolmates, I felt obliged to wear a different outfit every day, which meant tossing everything I had worn the day before into the washing machine.
Back then, America’s bathroom shelves mostly featured a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo. But in the ensuing decades bath products proliferated to include soaps for different kinds of skin, shampoos for different kinds of hair, conditioners (both rinse-out and leave-in), and body scrubs, butters, and gels. Showers grew longer as we applied the right product to the right body part and then made sure that whatever we had slathered on was sluiced down the drain.
Now, trillions of gallons of water and mountains of plastic bottles later, things may be changing. According to the New York Times, during the pandemic many Americans stopped showering every day, and were amazed when their body did not exude pestilential smells, their skin did not erupt in gruesome infections, and their scalp did not drip grease onto their shoulders.
On the contrary, many people who had been bedeviled with dry, flaky, itchy skin noticed that the condition improved when they stopped scrubbing every square inch of their bodies every single day. And, when given a break from too-frequent shampoos and blow drying, formerly lank, straw-like hair showed its gratitude by growing glossier and more manageable.
With an eight-minute shower using up to 17 gallons of water, not to mention the electricity to heat that water, plus the products being washed down the drain, the trend towards less-frequent showering is good news for the environment. But why stop there? As long as we’re moderating our cleaning compulsions, we should think about laundry.
If we had to wash clothes by hand we would think twice before tossing a shirt we’ve only worn once into the dirty clothes basket. But since washing machines are here to do the work, that carefree flick of the wrist at the end of the day requires less time and energy than looking at the shirt, deciding if it can be worn again, and hanging it carefully on a hanger.
The Swedish designer Gudrun Sjoden believes that we should reevaluate our laundry habits: “Generally we all wash far too often! Wear your clothes until they are dirty, before which you can air your clothes and remove individual stains.” I know how to air a grievance, but I’m not sure how you air a shirt (by hanging it out the window?) but lately I have taken to hanging outfits I’ve worn once or twice in the bathroom overnight to get rid of whatever noxious odors may be clinging to them. As for removing individual stains by hand and then wearing the item again, I haven’t reached that level of ecological virtue yet.
This is a world away from Amy Vanderbilt, who advised us to “wear a simple, starched [my italics] house dress, a clean one daily, if you must do housework…” Once the house was sparkling, the dress went into the hamper, since changing for dinner was one of the hallmarks of gracious living: “Fresh clothes and make-up, even if you are to be alone with the children for a simple meal, are psychologically sound and bring a needed change in the day’s pace.”
Her writing bursts with the exuberance of an era when belief in progress and the endless availability of resources was at its peak. It is also a celebration of indoor plumbing, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other mod cons that made possible this manic changing of dresses and stockings, showering and grooming, even in the absence of domestic staff.
No wonder so many housewives in mid-century America became addicted to Valium. Today our stress comes from a different source: the knowledge of the havoc that our way of life has wreaked on the planet, and our obligation to do something about it right now, by whatever means are available to each of us, even if it requires giving up habits that would make Amy turn in her grave.