Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: William Shakespeare memorably wrote that:
Brevity is the soul of wit.
The wordsmith Dorothy Parker famously transformed the Bard’s phrase into a humorous and erotic remark:
Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
Several quotation references list Parker’s statement, but the earliest citation I’ve seen is indirect; a friend named Alexander Woollcott attributed the quip to her in 1934. Would you please help me to find better evidence?
Quote Investigator: In October 1916 “Vogue” magazine published a lengthy profusely illustrated article titled “Vogue Pattern Service”. One page displayed drawings of models wearing nightgowns and chemises together with the following caption in capital letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
FROM THESE FOUNDATIONS OF THE AUTUMN WARDROBE, ONE MAY LEARN THAT BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF LINGERIE
Dorothy Parker was employed at “Vogue”, and QI believes she crafted the caption; indeed, a few years later she used the quip again. By 1919 she had moved to “Vanity Fair”, and the magazine printed a comical piece she composed titled “Our Office: A Hate Song: An Intimate Glimpse of Vanity Fair—En Famille”. She leveled light-hearted criticisms at each department of the publishing enterprise: 2
I hate the office;
It cuts in on my social life.
There is the Art Department;
The Cover Hounds.
They are always explaining how the photographing machine works.
And they stand around in the green light
And look as if they had been found drowned.
When Parker mocked the editorial group she employed the adage under investigation:
Then there is the Editorial Department;
The Literary Lights.
They are just a little holier than other people
Because they can write classics about
“‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie’, said this little chemise to itself”;
And “Here are five reasons for the success of the Broadway plays”.
They are all full of soul;
Someone is forever stepping on their temperaments.
They are constantly having nervous breakdowns
And going away for a few weeks.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The Shakespearean adage about wit was spoken by the character Polonius in the play Hamlet. The except below presents the modern spelling of three lines together with the irregular spelling used in the 1604 quarto held by the Folger Shakespeare Library. In the Bard’s time the word “wit” had a different sense, and the adage meant roughly: the essence of wisdom is being concise: 3
Therefore brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad.
Therefore breuitie is the soule of wit,
And tediousnes the lymmes and outward florishes,
I will be briefe, your noble sonne is mad
In October 1916 Parker wrote the following caption for “Vogue” as noted previously:
FROM THESE FOUNDATIONS OF THE AUTUMN WARDROBE, ONE MAY LEARN THAT BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF LINGERIE
In May 1919 Dorothy Parker published the following in the pages of “Vanity Fair” as noted previously:
“‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie’, said this little chemise to itself”
The content of “Vanity Fair” was compelling, and a reader using the initials R. W. S. took a short item without acknowledgement and submitted it to a columnist at the “Chicago Tribune” newspaper where it was published. Shortly afterward on May 5, 1919 a different sharp-eyed reader of both periodicals noticed the lifted material and complained to the columnist. This reader also mentioned the sharp line about lingerie: 4
Sir: It’s unfortunate you can’t read everything. Otherwise you would have had R. W. S’s “Eyeful” first hand from the current Vanity Fair. I’m surprised he didn’t say something about brevity being the soul of lingerie. There was quite a lot of clever stuff this month. A.H.H.A.
In 1927 a newspaper in Galveston, Texas printed an image showing several lingerie clad models under the title: “Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie; Even Nightgowns Are Following Modern Trend”. No one was credited with the witticism, and the caption stated the following: 5
Nighties are following the skirt in the trend toward brevity, it is indicated by models shown at annual lingerie fashion show in New York.
In 1931 “The New York Times” reported on a conference about job training, and noted that one of the speakers was a magazine editor: 6
Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, after announcing that he was continually in search of young geniuses, said that from his standpoint it was equally as important that they should know how to speak English.
Crowninshield described his experience hiring a valuable new employee. He also presented a variant of the lingerie joke line containing the words “camisole” and “peignoir” instead of “chemise”:
. . . sparks of genius in advertising copy brought offers from elsewhere as it did in the case of a young woman advertising copy writer who broke out with this line: “‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie,’ said the camisole to the peignoir.”
“I asked the young lady if she would not write for me,” added Mr. Crowninshield, “and in that way I discovered Miss Dorothy Parker whose recent book of poems many of you perhaps are now reading.”
In August 1933 the prominent critic Alexander Woollcott published a profile of Dorothy Parker under the title “Our Mrs. Parker” in “Cosmopolitan” magazine. This piece was also reprinted in his 1934 collection “While Rome Burns”: 7 8
Then she got a job writing captions on a fashion magazine. She would write “Brevity is the Soul of Lingerie” and things like that for ten dollars a week. As her room and breakfast cost eight dollars, that left an inconsiderable margin for the other meals, to say nothing or manicures, dentistry, gloves, furs and traveling expenses.
In 1962 “Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts” printed an article about the members of the Algonquin Table-Round Table titled “High Spirits in the Twenties”, and the author John Mason Brown presented another version of the jesting line with the words “petticoat” and “chemise”: 9
If her apprenticeship of writing captions for Vogue had been brief, it was because she chose to dash off for a page display of undergarments such a caption as “Brevity is the Soul of Lingerie, as the Petticoat said to the Chemise.” Thereby she made it clear to those in authority that “fashion would never become a religion with her,” and Crowninshield claimed her at a small salary for Vanity Fair.
In 1989 a biography “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” by Marion Meade presented an interesting version of the statement that the author stated was printed in “Vogue”: 10
At first Dorothy felt thrilled to be working there. For a page of underwear she chose a line from Shakespeare, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” to which she applied a fashionable twist: “From these foundations of the autumn wardrobe, one may learn that brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Producing this drivel proved to be a tedious, thankless task. Before long she lost her determination to sound literary and tried to relieve her frustration as best she could.
In conclusion, Dorothy Parker should be credited with the expression “Brevity is the soul of lingerie”. She employed the quip in a caption she wrote for “Vogue” magazine in October 1916. She also included it in a piece for “Vanity Fair” in May 1919.
Image Notes: Picture of lingerie shop display photographed by Lucarelli who released the image into the public domain. Early picture of Dorothy Parker in the public domain. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Ben Zimmer, Jesse Sheidlower, and Martha Higgins for help verifying the “Vogue” citation.)
- 1916 October 1, Vogue, Vogue Pattern Service, Start Page 89, Quote Page 101, Conde Nast, New York. (ProQuest Vogue Archive) ↩
- 1919 May, Vanity Fair, Volume 11, Number 3, Section: Domestic Products, Our Office: A Hate Song: An Intimate Glimpse of Vanity Fair—En Famille by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6 and 8, Conde Nast, New York. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- Website: The Shakespeare Quartos Archive, Document: 1604 Quarto held by Folger Shakespeare Library, Play Title: Hamlet – The tragicall historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, Transcription: Created from digital images of the Quarto, Website description: A joint project of six institutions in the U.K. and U.S. that hold pre-1642 Shakespeare quartos including the Bodleian Library, the British Library, the University of Edinburgh Library, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. (Accessed quartos.org on February 24, 2016) link ↩
- 1919 May 5, Chicago Daily Tribune, A Line O’ Type Or Two, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 February 27, The Galveston Daily News, Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie; Even Nightgowns Are Following Modern Trend, Quote Page 17, Column 5, Galveston, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 June 19, New York Times, Business Men Find Collegians Lacking: Few Can Even Write a Business Letter, Quote Page 4, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, (Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan), “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Start Page 70, Quote Page 88, Column 2, International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies; great thanks to the Florida librarians) ↩
- 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors: IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Quote Page 146, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1962 July, Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts, “High Spirits in the Twenties” by John Mason Brown, Quote Page 38, Column 1, Volume IV, Number 6. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1989, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? by Marion Meade, Chapter 3: 1915-1919 Vanity Fair, Quote Page 35, (Reprint of 1988 edition from Villard Books: Random House, New York), Penguin Books: Penguin Group, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩