Through the looking glass: fashion in literature

The only choice we ever had was a man in a blue tie replaced by another man in a blue tie. Knowing ‘What Leaders look like’ has meant a succession of Prime Ministers, ministers and real estate agents who all dress the same – invariably clad in suits and ties for the reliability, traditional values and (boring) ‘business sense’ that such clothing suggests, although as Anne Hollander points out in Sex and Suits (1994), job applicants wear suits to their interviews, and ‘men accused of rape and murder wear them in court to help their chances of acquittal’. We all know how to manipulate our image and exploit sartorial codes in order to achieve our ends and we know full well that preferring board shorts to business suits doesn’t make you a lesser person – but we vote for the ‘trust me’ guy in the blue tie anyway.

Undoubtedly dress retains a wealth of significance in our social system, but it’s a mistake to divine fixed meanings in certain ‘looks’ or individual items of clothing, because sartorial codes are completely arbitrary, ever-changing, and often contain their own opposite. Black clothes for example are both servile (self-effacing) and powerfully present – think black-clad retail assistants, ushers, hospitality staff and stage-hands– the people intending to go unseen who are in fact running the show – and the immense black shoulder-padded silhouettes of movie villains, Nazis, Spanish kings and clergymen (the people who want to insist they’re in control). Then there’s the subtle, sexual glamour of Cary Grant in a shining black tuxedo or John Sargent’s majestic Madame X (of 1884).

‘Femininity’ or ‘masculinity’, power or servitude (both at the same time): it’s all a put-on. As RuPaul once said, ‘We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.’

Why is clothing so important to us? Why does it speak so voluminously? The answer lies perhaps in the answer to the question, why do we wear it at all? We’re the only animals that do. (Even orangutans use tools; a variety of animals including crows and dolphins are known to communicate with each other using a kind of language.) Far from modesty and protection, clothes first became important to us because they were linked to eroticism, magic and adornment.

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival and Melbourne Spring Fashion Week overlapped slightly this year, which is not as great a juxtaposition as it may seem at first. The ‘naturalistic’ presence of clothing in literature is also the naturalistic presence of Fashion; and indeed words and fashion tap some of the same wells of magic and eroticism.

What is fashion? Despite what the David Jones catalogue would have you believe, fashion isn’t a thing in any department that you can buy and take home with you. Valerie Steele writes that ‘Fashion is defined as a distinct sub-category of dress… [that first appeared in Europe in about the fourteenth century] characterised by a comparatively rapid succession of changing styles.’ No object ‘is’ fashion and you can’t literally wear it. Instead it’s like a pageant of clouds: no sooner is a fashion established than it begins to change.

Consequently, it could be difficult for fashion to have more than a generic presence in literature, with details of a particular fashion serving only as ‘period detail’ (there’s nothing easier than to use clothing signifiers to place characters in their specific social and historical milieu: Dickens did it; Raymond Chandler did it; historical romances do it, badly). But surely there is a common quality of fashion which links periwigs to 1920s boy-short bobs, or 1880s dresses which had bustles that stuck out two feet behind to Vionnet gowns of the 1930s, cut on the bias with such a perfect feeling for fabric they seemed like liquid? Something common to all fashions, a quality other than their place in any social or economic system?

Herbert Blau calls this quality ‘fascination’. In Nothing in Itself: Complexions of Fashion, he writes, ‘What is primary in fashion is its tactility, wearing it or seeing it, the effects upon the senses, its visceral content, the affectivity of the thing, the tact, what compels the look or its retraction whether you like it or not.’

For Blau, this quality of fashion – and the ‘particularity of fashion itself’ – is exemplified by poets and authors. He quotes TS Eliot, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Wallace Stevens and Mallarmé; privileges Balzac for his “ instinctive sense of detail in his obsession with dress … the fineness of it’, Proust, ‘who could tease the lagoon of Venice from a Fortuny gown’, Colette, Virginia Woolf in Orlando and Mrs Dalloway, Henry James in ‘an exquisite passage of exquisite women parading at the racetrack in Saratoga Springs’, and other ‘remembered sensations’ from Jane Austen and the Brontë novels.

The fashions of which these authors wrote are long gone and might today be thought quaint or frumpy-looking, a bit funny if not vulgar. In fact, it’s characteristic of fashion that things that were the height of good taste, fashion and beauty in their own time are the epitome of bad taste and ugliness in another. Punch in the 1880s (the bustle period) talked of ‘that ancient hideous fashion’, the crinoline. Paul Poiret, around 1908, accelerated the trend from Edwardian wasp-waists that made women look like they were hauling a caravan behind them to the upright, lean ‘empire line’, which Valerie Steele says extended logically all of the way into the 1920s with the slim, tubular ‘flapper’ look that reached its most geometric, short, square and sparse line about 1927 before the silhouette began lengthening and softening again. (There was even a ‘Victorian revival style’ around 1934). Then in the mid-1940s, when the voluminous, voluptuous, cinched-waist, va-va-voom ‘New Look’ (with crinoline-style petticoat) was just about to explode (had, in fact, been about to explode prior to the war but understandably the war set it back a bit) fashion know-it-all James Laver asserted that, in retrospect, the modes of the 1920s ‘look absurd enough with their low waists, their denial of all the curves of the feminine body’. (Evidently he didn’t anticipate Twiggy: the ‘Deco’ revivals that have occurred in cycles since the seventies, exemplified by Biba; the ‘Great Gatsby’ madness this year.)

No fashion could be more different to the 1840s than the lean lines of the 1920s. Herbert Blau, however, implies that the quality of fashion and its fascination remains in the texts – that hasn’t dated or died or become ‘absurd and repulsive’, unlike the fashions themselves. In Charlotte’ Bronte’s Jane Eyre (first published 1847) the dresses of Mr Rochester’s fashionable houseguests gleam ‘lustrous through the dusk’ and ‘Sweeping amplitude[s] of array… [seem to] magnify their persons as mist magnifies the moon.’ Even though the poor, plain tiny orphan Jane is savvy to the vanity and hypocrisy attached to dress, she can still manage to be impressed by the aesthetic; throughout the novel, Jane’s Quakerish habits and appearance are betrayed by her materialistic and sensual taste in things such as red velvet curtains. Even though we modern women would hesitate to wear such bulk ourselves on a daily basis, we are fascinated, too, and brides imagine they replicate this ‘charming old fashion’ in their powder-puff wedding dresses, sparkling with diamantes. When a snake fascinates its victim with its fixed look, it deprives them of the power to escape.

Almost eighty years after the fashions of Jane Eye have ceased to be ‘fashion’, fashion still exists (it is the eternal present). Virginia Woolf  has the eponymous Mrs Dalloway in a ‘silver-green mermaid’s dress’, ‘having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed’. Her daughter Elizabeth wears a fawn coloured coat: ‘already, even as she stood there, in her well-cut clothes … people were beginning to compare her to poplar  trees, early dawn, hyacinths…’  Meanwhile Peter Walsh wanders the streets of London and fashion falls like jewels combed from the streaming stuff of his consciousness. There’s a girl, ‘silk-stockinged, feathered, evanescent’, ‘an old dame, in buckled shoes, with three purple ostrich feathers in her hair’, and ‘ladies wrapped like mummies in shawls with bright flowers on them, ladies with bare heads’ – they all elicit some instant of attention and engagement. Woolf also has Miss Kilman, ‘in her mackintosh’. Repugnant to Mrs Dalloway for whatever reason, Miss Kilman’s mackintosh repels the look but still fascinates it. Whatever else the silver-green mermaid’s dress or the mackintosh might represent in the narrative, to the fashion theorist they represent a quality or ‘complexion’ of that “(im)palpable thing”, Fashion.

Fashion is like the idiosyncratic and probably imagined garments of Proust’s Madame Swann, of whom ‘… young men attempting to understand her theory of dress would say: “Mme Swann is quite a period in herself, isn’t she?” As in a fine literary style which overlays with its different forms and so strengthens a tradition which lies concealed among them …’ (my emphasis).

Proust’s narrator perceives so many things ‘half –hinted’ in Mme Swann’s wardrobe: ‘memories of waistcoats or of ringlets, sometimes a tendency, at once repressed, towards the “all aboard”, or even a distant and vague allusion to the “chase me” kept alive beneath the concrete form the unfinished likeness of other, older forms which you would not have succeeded, now, in making a tailor or a dressmaker reproduce, but about which your thoughts incessantly hovered, and enwrapped Mme Swann in a cloak of nobility …’

All these things, blurred and running madly about, are the quintessence of the fascination to be found in fashion: the engrossing aesthetic, history, memory, sex (‘all aboard’), and something atavistic, the memory of a time, perhaps, before dress, when the human body was so new it was itself inherently fascinating: Adam and Eve tired of it first, started fashion with fig leaves, and we’ve been piling it on and taking it off playing hide-and-seek ever since.

And then Proust’s narrator quite by chance wanders into the most contested realm of fashion – its point, its substance – and comes to the same conclusion as Blau.  The title of Blau’s book is in fact the scathing summation of fashion by William Hazlitt: ‘Nothing in itself.’ As Blau writes, ‘the remark, as is often the case with the most passionate criticism, is acute beyond intention, based among other things in his looking at fashion, like the Puritans who hated the theatre while almost unable to look away.’ Blau happily concedes fashion is ‘nothing in itself’, frivolous, ephemeral – all the more fascinating for that, and not without substance. Indeed Mme Swann obtains her cloak of nobility ‘–perhaps because the sheer uselessness of these fripperies made them seem meant to serve some more than utilitarian purpose, perhaps because of the traces they preserved of vanished years, or else because there was a sort of personality permeating this lady’s wardrobe, which gave to the most dissimilar of her costumes a distinct family likeness. One felt that she did not dress simply for the comfort or the adornment of her body; she was surrounded by her garments as by the delicate and spiritualised machinery of a whole form of civilisation.’

Fashion connects the body to a ‘personality’, to culture, to civilisation and to history. Further to this, fashion itself could be said to constitute ‘a whole form of civilisation’, an ancient or alien one with its own language and customs, which is sub-rational and composed of ‘line and form’ and ‘sex and poetry’. As Blau writes, ‘[Any detail can be] decoded, sucked into the semiotic, […] but in my own encounter with fashion the order of things is this: before the signs, the senses, though the senses are surely signs.’

Stephanie Barham

Stephanie Barham is an emerging writer based in Melbourne. She studied a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Hons) at the University of Melbourne (2006).

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  1. Nice piece. Great insights. And historically, I guess people (individuals) had to make all their own things – clothes, furniture, house etc – before the days of outsourcing. As to fashion after the mass production of goods, what sense does it make? If something is mass produced to be sold on the open market, anyone who is able to buy an item can have it. But if everyone has it, after a while you don’t want it. And if no one is wearing something you wouldn’t be caught dead in it either. The purpose of fashion seeming to be oneupwo/manship: to be the first to be part of a select crowd, and then not part of the very large crowd wearing something. Or a freak (true individual). Either way, fashion does the head and purse in.

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