Quote Origin: The Struggle Between the Admitted Desire To Dress and the Unadmitted Desire To Undress

Lin Yutang? Sydney J. Harris? Carl Bakal? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator®
4 min readSep 26

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Dress with a revealing slit from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: The kaleidoscopic world of fashion contains fluctuating hemlines, shifting necklines, transparent fabrics, and revealing slits. A pundit once stated that fashion embodies the struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress. Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1937 “Vogue” magazine published an essay by Chinese linguist and inventor Lin Yutang which discussed contemporary fashion. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

At present, probably the most sophisticated innovation is the long gown with a high slit at the sides, coming away above the knees. The instinct, I feel, is essentially French. For women’s dress is most bewitching when there is a subtle interplay between the art of concealment and the art of revelation. All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal theme of struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1938 the Canadian magazine “Maclean’s” published a page of “Wit and Wisdom” which included a slightly simplified version of the quotation. The phrase “theme of” was omitted. No ascription was provided; instead, “Maclean’s” acknowledged a literary periodical:²

Unadmitted Desire — All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress. — Literary Digest.

In 1949 “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” compiled by Evan Esar included another variant of the quotation. The phrases “in every age and country” and “theme of” were both omitted:³

LIN YUTANG, born 1895, Chinese philologist, essayist, and miscellaneous writer.

All women’s dresses are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.

In 1951 popular syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris printed the quotation while crediting Yutang. The phrase “theme of” was omitted:⁴

The new summer styles for women boldly illustrate the truth of Lin Yutang’s remark that “all women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.”

In 1956 “Popular Photography” magazine published “50 Glamour Tips” by Carl Bakal which included a simplified instance. The phrases “in every age and country” and “theme of” were both omitted:⁵

Let us take as our text a sage saying from the Orient: “All women’s dresses are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.”

In 1983 “Webster’s Treasury of Relevant Quotations” included an instance with the phrase ‘theme of” removed. The citation pointed to a 1945 publication in “Ladies’ Home Journal” instead of the 1937 publication in “Vogue”:⁶

All women’s dresses, in every age and country, are merely variations on the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.
Lin Yutang, quoted in Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1945

In conclusion, Lin Yutang deserves credit for the quotation he wrote in an essay published in the fashion magazine “Vogue” in 1937. Modern instances have evolved via streamlining. The phrases “in every age and country” and “theme of” are often excised.

Image Notes: Dress with a revealing slit from WedMaid Dresses at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

[1] 1937 July 1, Vogue, Volume 90, Issue 1, Features: A Chinawoman’s Chance by Lin Yutang, Start Page 42, Quote Page 42, Column 1, Condé Nast, New York, (ProQuest)

[2] 1938 March 15, Maclean’s, Volume 51, Number 6, Wit and Wisdom In Fewer Words, Quote Page 70, Column 2, The Maclean Publishing Company, Toronto, Canada. (ProQuest)

[3] 1949 Copyright, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Lin Yutang, Quote Page 131, Bramhall House, New York. (Verified with scans)

[4] 1951 June 11, Newsday, Strictly Personal: Syd Asks Help for Meat Carver by Sydney J. Harris (Syndicated column), Quote Page 39, Column 3, Long Island, New York. (ProQuest)

[5] 1956 April, Popular Photography, 50 Glamour Tips by Carl Bakal, Start Page 52, Quote Page 54, Column 1, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[6] 1983, Webster’s Treasury of Relevant Quotations, Compiled by Edward F. Murphy, Topic: Clothes, Quote Page 157, Column 2, Greenwich House, New York. (Verified with scans)

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Quote Investigator®

Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year