Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.