Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Literature
Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The following entry discusses the representation of fashion in nineteenth-century art and literature.
The study of the depiction of fashion in literature has proven to be a valuable tool in deducing and evaluating societal constructions of gender and class. Critical discussion of fashion in nineteenth-century life and art derives from two principal sources: primary documents such as etiquette manuals and trendy periodicals, and its representation in notable works of literature and the visual arts. The close examination of this material reveals fashion to be a signifier of wealth and status, as well as a method of exposing cultural restraints and demands on women.
The use of clothing to denote social class is not unique to Victorian society, but the prescribed rules of dress dictated by manuals of etiquette and social decorum, as described by Philip Perrot, created an attention to dress that rivals any other period. Perrot details the challenges that women endured in keeping up with the latest trends. Mandates in style were ever changing, so that only the wealthiest women could dress fashionably. Valerie Steele contends that as the middle-class grew and increasingly emulated the manners and dress of the aristocracy, the evolution of style increased to where only those belonging to the uppermost circle of wealth could keep up with the latest fashion, thus reinforcing class lines.
The very fabric of Victorian-era dress worked to strengthen these social lines. Working men and women, no matter how careful, would invariably have clothing faded by the effects of time and labor. In this era an emphasis was placed on any clothing that reinforced the perception of “idleness,” a quality that only the very wealthy could afford. Both Perrot and Steele detail the importance put on impractical fabrics and shoes, sleeves that made it impossible to raise one's arms, and full crinolines that made it cumbersome for a woman to maneuver beyond her own drawing room.
Rules of morality necessitated certain articles, such as gloves, to be worn at all times. Perrot discusses how touching a woman's bare hand was considered too risque for public behavior. Likewise, revealing a laced up boot or uncovered ankle was a provocative maneuver that could be considered scandalous. Men were not immune to restrictions. Both Perrot and Steele describe the expectation that men also adhere to the latest fashion in hat size and shape, cravat size and shape, and changes in coat length and style, so that a gentleman was easily distinguished from a merchant or other working-class male.
Secondary sources, such as literary texts, also delineate the social and cultural implications of clothing, specifically in relation to the development of a consumer society and the growth of the middle class in the nineteenth century. In his essay on Louisa May Alcott's novels, for instance, Peter Stoneley considers the author's implied discomfort with a materialist middle class in which a person's clothes are a purported sign of his or her virtue. Similarly, Joel Kaplan and Sheila Stowell's study of Oscar Wilde's dramatic works describe the tensions between a character's costuming and the manner in which a dramatic character is portrayed, revealing that costuming influenced the audience's reaction as much as the acting. In her analysis of Joanna Baille's introduction to a collection of her dramas, Andrea Henderson illuminates the playwright's interest in fashion as illustrative of the passion for consumerism and the growing emphasis on the acquisition of material goods.
Various works of literature have been examined for the light they shed on the relationship between fashion and gender. In particular, critics often explore the connection between clothing and power. Keith Wilson studies women's dress in Thomas Hardy's work as both a method for depicting female characters as well as a representation of society's struggle to control the female body. Therese Dolan, in her study of Emile Zola's Nana (1880), highlights the use of clothing by women to demonstrate self-control and empowerment. Dolan uses Nana and her style of dress to elucidate gender issues, which in turn point to larger issues of social hierarchy.
Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (novel) 1868
An Old-Fashioned Girl (novel) 1870
*“Introductory Discourse” (essay) 1798
Madame Bovary (novel) 1857
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (novel) 1891
The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy (poetry) 1982-85
Journal des Femmes [editor] (journal) 1831
Lady Windermere's Fan (play) 1892
A Woman of No Importance (play) 1893
An Ideal Husband (play) 1895
Nana (novel) 1880
*This work is an introduction to the first volume of a collected edition of the author's plays.
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Perrot, Phillipe. “The Imperatives of Propriety.” In Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, translated by Richard Bienvenu, pp. 87-123. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in French as Les dessus et les dessous de la bourgeoisie: une histoire du vêtement au XIXe siècle in 1981, Perrot examines rules of fashion as outlined in nineteenth-century manuals of etiquette.]
“Clothing is to the body what education is to the mind. Clothing consists of similar elements for everyone, yet it varies according to the taste, attitude, order, care, elegance, and distinction everyone brings to it.”1 In cases where appearances are concerned, as in many other domains, social characteristics matter only in their opposition to others, that is, when they are perceived as being different. This raises the question of the respective positions of these differences and their relationships within a common hierarchy, which is revealed through the dominant classes' sartorial discourse and practice, as seen from the top rung of the social ladder where these originate. Only in high society did decorum find its supreme expression; only there was the supreme model of propriety developed and defined, always negatively in relation to the rising classes for whom it served as a unique reference....
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SOURCE: Steele, Valerie. “Victorian Fashion.” In Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age, pp. 51-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Steele traces the development of Victorian fashion as reflected, in part, in manuals of etiquette and popular women's magazines of the time.]
WHAT IS VICTORIAN FASHION?
What we think of as “Victorian” or “nineteenth-century” fashion lasted just under a century—from about 1820 (almost two decades before Victoria was crowned Queen of England) to about 1910. The period encompassed is thus synonymous neither with the nineteenth century nor with the reign of Queen Victoria. Rather, Victorian fashion begins with the transition away from the immediately preceding—and very different—female fashion known today as the “Empire” or “Regency” style. Victorian fashion ends with the appearance of a “Neo-Empire” look.
During the first Empire period (circa 1795-1815), the fashion was referred to as the “Greek” or “Classical” mode; and the primary garment was the “chemise dress,” which closely resembled the traditional undergarment of that name. Consequently, it has been said that “the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries met in the middle of a decade of undress.” In fact, however, the Empire dress was worn with...
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Criticism: Fashion And American Literature
SOURCE: Stoneley, Peter. “‘The Fashionable World Displayed’: Alcott and Social Power.” Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 1 (spring 1999): 21-36.
[In the following essay, Stoneley considers the use of fashion in Louisa May Alcott's work as a consequence of her upbringing. He asserts that Alcott's treatment of fashion also reflects tensions concerning the nineteenth century's consumer-driven middle class.]
Fashion, though in a strange way, represents all manly virtues. It is virtue gone to seed: it is a kind of posthumous honor. It does not often caress the great, but the children of the great: it is the hall of the Past.
Self-presentation was a source of both pleasure and anxiety for nineteenth-century American women. Louisa May Alcott often felt awkward about how she appeared, especially as she became an increasingly public figure. She knew that she needed to project an image that was “bright and comely,” but she also knew that, after years of ill health and over-work, such an image would be deceptive. At the same time, she was reluctant to risk a portrait that would “disappoint the children.”1 When she and her publisher, Thomas Niles, were searching for suitable images for promotional purposes, Alcott expressed dissatisfaction with all the photographs of herself. She eventually sent Niles one...
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Criticism: Fashion And English Literature
SOURCE: Kaplan, Joel H., and Shelia Stowell. “The Glass of Fashion.” In Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes, pp. 8-33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Kaplan and Stowell consider the influence of the London theater on fashion, focusing their analysis on the use of costumes in Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan.]
On 25 February 1892, the Lady, a gentlewoman's magazine that had begun publication some seven years earlier, introduced a column dealing with “Dress on the London Stage.” In a brief preamble, Thespis, the column's pseudonymous author, set out its rationale. Hitherto, we are told, London fashion was fed by the couture houses of Paris, especially the great Maison Worth. Now, however, even the most casual observer might note “another source from which costumiers and others interested in dress draw largely—namely, the London stage.” In a handful of West End theatres, especially in plays of modern life, audiences regularly encountered novelties of cut, color, and silhouette that offered alternatives to the formalism of the Parisian Houses. Playgoers, moreover, were beginning to incorporate such items into their own wardrobes, initiating, in the process, a pragmatic if sobering form of theatre criticism. Can any play really be bad, Thespis asks, if we gain from it “a new idea for a bonnet, hat, or other feminine trifle?”...
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SOURCE: Henderson, Andrea. “Passion and Fashion in Joanna Baille's ‘Introductory Discourse.’” Publications of the Modern Language Association 121, no. 2 (March 1997): 198-213.
[In the following essay, Henderson considers Baille's introduction to her plays as not only a treatise on writing but as an examination of consumerism.]
In 1802 a reviewer for the British Critic remarked that “Miss J. Baillie, even if her pen were now to be inactive, which is not likely, would be always celebrated among the brightest luminaries of the present period” (Rev. of Series, 194). Although relatively little known today, Joanna Baillie arguably “exerted the most direct practical and theoretical force on serious drama written in the Romantic period” (Curran 186); indeed, she was hailed in her time as the finest British dramatist since Shakespeare. Emphasizing the importance of her work to an understanding of Romanticism, Stuart Curran notes that in her 1798 “Introductory Discourse,” the preface to her first volume of plays, Baillie champions the use of simple, natural, common language in literary composition—thereby anticipating Wordsworth's now more famous pronouncement, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, on the value of rustic language. Her innovations extend beyond style, however, as Anne Mellor argues: “by moving the realm of private, psychological feelings from the domestic...
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SOURCE: Wilson, Keith. “Thomas Hardy's ‘The Ruined Maid,’ Elsa Lanchester's Music Hall, and the Fall into Fashion.” Thomas Hardy Journal 15, no. 2 (May 1999): 41-8.
[In the following essay, Wilson asserts Hardy's poem was adapted from a popular music-hall song. Wilson examines how these works, along with works like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, characterize compromised women and use of fashion in making statements about power.]
In 1941, the actress, comedienne and singer Elsa Lanchester (then best known for her film rôles in The Bride of Frankenstein  and as supporting actress to her husband, Charles Laughton, in his career-defining performances in The Private Life of Henry VIII  and Rembrandt ) joined forces with a group called the Yale Puppeteers to stage a review at the Turnabout Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles.1 She continued to appear there periodically for more than ten years, performing songs that were a combination of nineteenth-century music-hall and more contemporary material. The music-hall element was a natural resource upon which to draw, for reasons more related to Lanchester's former varied career than to Hollywood's wartime affection and cultural nostalgia for all things British. Back in the winter of 1920-21, she had opened in London's Charlotte Street, in collaboration with the actor Harold Scott (who was also...
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Criticism: Fashion And French Literature
SOURCE: Dolan, Therese. “Guise and Dolls: Dis/covering Power, Re/covering Nana.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 26, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1998): 368-86.
[In the following essay, Dolan discusses Emile Zola's use of clothing in his novel Nana to reveal and to confront hierarchies of class and status.]
Before Nana ever sets foot on stage at the Théâtre des Variétés in the first chapter of Emile Zola's novel, the reader knows her by her surfaces. Bordenave, scoffing at Hector de la Faloise's lame attempt to find talent in Nana, will praise only her skin: she is outer husk, not inner core, a commodified spectacle for visual and physical consumption. “Elle n'a qu'à paraître,” (6) claims Bordenave, implying that a wordless appearance by Nana would suffice because her subjectivity and identity were synonymous with her visibility. The primary interest of the fictional world of Nana's time and the critical world of our own has rightly focused on the textual manifestations of her nude body and the meanings implicit in its display.1 Although the most dramatic episodes in the novel center on the appreciation of Nana's nudity by herself and by others, she most often appears to the reader clothed by Zola in day or evening dress. I intend to speak about Nana's second skin, her clothed body, how it marks her place in the social and political world of the Second Empire and serves as a...
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SOURCE: Morgan, Cheryl A. “Unfashionable Feminism? Designing Women Writers in the Journal des Femmes (1832-1836).” In Making the News: Modernity and the Mass Press in Nineteenth-Century France, edited by Dean de la Motte and Jeannene M. Przyblyski, pp. 207-32. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Morgan considers the juxtaposition of fashion with literary and scientific articles and feminist concerns illustrated throughout the publishing history of Journal des Femmes.]
Je suis donc content qu'elles fassent leurs romans et leurs chiffons. Le temps viendra peut-être bientôt où l'homme qui fera un roman sera aussi ridicule que ceux qu'on voit aujourd'hui faire des robes et des bonnets. [I am then happy to let them (women) make their novels and their clothes. The time will come perhaps when the man who makes a novel will be as ridiculous as the ones who today make dresses and bonnets.]
Le goût du siècle, la toute-puissance des hommes, a dépossédé les femmes d'un genre de littérature qui, après plus d'un siècle, leur semblait dévolu, car ce sont les hommes aujourd'hui qui font les romans. [The style of the century, the omnipotence of men, has dispossessed women of a literary genre that, after more than a century, seemed granted...
(The entire section is 9269 words.)
Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, 844 p.
Examines visual and verbal representations of women between 1876 and the end of World War I.
Blum, Stella, ed. Fashions and Costumes from “Godey's Lady's Book”: Including 8 Plates in Full Color. New York: Dover Publications, 1985, 90 p.
Provides commentary on fashion illustrations first published in Godey's Lady's Book, including material from 1837 to 1869.
Cannon, Aubrey. “The Cultural and Historical Contexts of Fashion.” In Consuming Fashion: Adorning the Transnational Body, edited by Ann Brydon and Sandra Niessen, pp. 23-38. Oxford: Berg, 1998.
Examines the relationship between fashion and the North American fur trade.
Fields, Jill. “‘Fighting the Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930.” Journal of Social History 33, no. 2 (winter 1999): 355-84.
Focuses on the attempts by corset manufacturers and retailers to influence the debate on corsets with regard to health, morality, the female body, and feminism.
Foster, Helen Bradley. ”New Rainments of Self”: African American Clothing in the Antebellum South. Oxford: Berg, 1997, 359 p.
(The entire section is 416 words.)