Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Representative Works

Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (novel) 1868
An Old-Fashioned Girl (novel) 1870

Joanna Baille
*“Introductory Discourse” (essay) 1798

Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary (novel) 1857

Thomas Hardy
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (novel) 1891
The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy (poetry) 1982-85

Fanny Richomme
Journal des Femmes [editor] (journal) 1831

Oscar Wilde
Lady Windermere's Fan (play) 1892
A Woman of No Importance (play) 1893
An Ideal Husband (play) 1895

Emile Zola
Nana (novel) 1880

*This work is an introduction to the first volume of a collected edition of the author's plays.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Phillipe Perrot (essay date 1981)

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,...

(The entire section is 17278 words.)

Valerie Steele (essay date 1985)

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 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...

(The entire section is 11218 words.)

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.


(The entire section is 6182 words.)

Criticism: Fashion And English Literature

Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 11268 words.)

Andrea Henderson (essay date March 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 8543 words.)

Keith Wilson (essay date May 1999)

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 [1935] and as supporting actress to her husband, Charles Laughton, in his career-defining...

(The entire section is 3560 words.)

Criticism: Fashion And French Literature

Therese Dolan (essay date spring-summer 1998)

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....

(The entire section is 6561 words.)

Cheryl A. Morgan (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 9269 words.)

Further Reading


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:...

(The entire section is 416 words.)