Fashion in FictionThere are more details here, and the deadline for submitting an abstract is the 15th of October 2006.
26-27 May 2007
An International Transdisciplinary Conference,
University of Technology, Sydney Australia
It was Roland Barthes who proposed that fashion was not an 'industry' but rather a set of fictions. By this Barthes did not wish to ignore the economic function of fashion, but rather underline fashion's mythic dimension, and suggest that fashion is a literature in itself. Fashion and fiction have long existed in close proximity; writers have been driven by their experience of fashion; fashion has been developed through and by literary tropes. What makes dress and fashion such a fascinating subject for writers? And how are fashion's mythologies constructed and disseminated through fictional texts?
I've been thinking about fashion and clothing in romance for a while, ever since I read Janice Radway's comments on the topic, and as I won't be able to go to the conference, I thought I'd blog about the subject.
I'll start with a long quotation from Radway, who had observed
the genre’s careful attention to the style, color, and detail of women’s fashions. Extended descriptions of apparel figure repeatedly in all variations of the form, but they are especially prominent in gothics and long historicals. However, even the shorter Harlequins and Silhouettes make use of pared-down descriptions that still manage to evoke the aura of the female world. While relatively short, the following is a characteristic fashion vignette:Outwardly, she must look much as they did. She had worn a simple white silk brocade of her own design, and with it the set of diamonds and sapphires on the silver filigree chain which she had completed recently. In her small ears were sapphire studs, and on one finger an immense sapphire ring. The white and silver set off her dark curly hair and luminous gray eyes. Leah, her abigail, had set her hair in a high pile with long curls to her neck. Some stray tendrils drifted about her ears, and she brushed them back nervously.The clothes described in these passages almost never figure significantly in the developing action. Instead, the plot is momentarily, often awkwardly, delayed as the narrator accidentally notices seemingly superfluous details for the reader. The details, however, are not really superfluous at all. They are part of an essential shorthand that establishes that, like ordinary readers, fictional heroines are “naturally” preoccupied with fashion. Romantic authors draw unconsciously on cultural conventions and stereotypes that stipulate that women can always be characterized by their universal interest in clothes. However, at the same time that the fictional characterizations depend on these previously known codes, they also tacitly legitimate them through simple repetition, thereby justifying the readers’ own likely preoccupation with these indispensable features of the feminine universe. The final effect of endless attention to “pink-striped shirt waists”, “sandy-tweed jackets”, “long-sleeved dresses”, “emerald-green wrappers”, may be the celebration of the reader’s world of house-wifery. (Radway 1991: 193-194)
It's interesting that the romance novel from which Radway quotes is called Star Sapphire, a romance written by Rebecca Danton (published in 1979 by Fawcett Coventry). Even without having read the book, I'm certain that the sapphires the heroine is wearing in the quotation selected by Radway must have something to do with the Sapphire in the title of the book. And if the Star Sapphire is in the title, it's probably important to the plot. Furthermore, the colours blue and white together may suggest innocence (or a wish to appear innocent). In religious art, for example, the Virgin Mary's 'gown is white or pink whereas the cloak is always blue'.
It seems to me that while romances may sometimes use descriptions of clothes as a way to demonstrate the heroine's interest in fashion, it is very more often the case that her clothes are described because they give the reader information about her personality, or, as in the example given by Radway, because clothing is being used as a form of disguise.
Identity is often expressed through material possessions such as a person’s clothing and the way they adorn themselves (through hair-style, makeup and jewellery). This aspect of fashion seems to have been overlooked by Radway, who appears to take a very reductionist approach to descriptions of clothing. Her analysis implies that all heroines (and all readers) are interested in fashion, but she ignores the possibility that individual heroines (and many readers) will adapt fashions to suit their tastes, their lifestyle, their budget etc, and that the nuances and clues offered by these personal variations will be read and understood by the romance reader.
Jennifer Crusie responds to Radway, stating that ‘Women are preoccupied with details like clothing and environment because most of us are mistresses of unspoken communication. [...] In particular, the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning.’ (Crusie 1997). Certainly it seems unwise to overlook the importance of clothing as a marker of social status, as an indicator of the wearer’s wealth, sexual availability, occupation etc. In the Middle Ages, for example, detailed sumptuary laws were often passed by monarchs in order to restrict certain items of clothing to members of particular classes. Then, as now, clothing was often an indicator of social status. Colour could also be used to indicate the emotional state of the wearer, as in literary depictions of clothing such as Nicolás Núñez’s late fifteenth-century continuation of Diego de San Pedro’s Cárcel de Amor (on colour symbolism in late-medieval Castilian literary texts, see Goldberg 1992). Radway’s assertion that clothes are described in romances solely, or primarily, due to women’s preoccupation with fashion seems to ignore the possibility that descriptions of clothing may be read on a variety of levels.
It's not just romance heroines who show an interest in their clothes, or whose clothes are described in detail; the hero's clothing may receive considerable attention too. In Amanda Quick's Wait Until Midnight the heroine, who is an author, observes the hero, who
was attired from head to foot in tones of deepest, darkest gray. His shirt was the singular exception. It was a pristine white. The collar was turned back in the new “gates ajar” mode that appeared to be infinitely more comfortable than the usual high-standing styles. His tie was knotted in a precise four-in-hand.For Quick, then, clothing is not merely a covering for the body. It can be read and understood by both the onlooker and the reader of the romance. Writing as Jayne Ann Krentz, in her Sweet Fortune she gives us a hero who is extremely aware of the messages that can be sent by clothing:
No wonder she had been having so much trouble trying to decide how to dress Edmund Drake [a character in her latest novel]. She had been attempting to put him into the sort of boldly striped pants and brightly patterned shirts that she had observed on any number of fashionable gentlemen lately. Such glaringly bright attire was entirely wrong for Edmund. He needed to project menace and an aura of resolute determination. Polka dots, stripes and plaids did not suit him at all. (Quick 2004: 11-12)
Hatch was very conscious of the sober, restrained elegance of his attire. He was careful about such details as the width and color of the stripes on his ties and the roll of the collars on his custom-made shirts. He did not pay attention to these things because of any natural interest in fashion, but because he did not want to accidentally screw up on something so basic. In the business world a lot of judgments were made based on a man’s clothes.What's explicit here is that an attention to details need not reflect any 'natural interest in fashion', as suggested by Radway, but may be due to a need to project a particular image.
Hatch had grown up in boots and jeans and work shirts. Even though he had been functioning successfully in the corporate environment for some time now, he still did not fully trust his own instincts when it came to appropriate dress, so he erred on the side of caution. (1999: 22)
As suggested by the quotation from the description of the 2007 International Transdisciplinary Conference, descriptions of fashion are most certainly not limited to the romance genre. Here, for example, is an extract from Oscar Wilde's essay 'The Truth of Masks - A Note on Illusion, in which he comments on the minute details of clothing which can make such a difference to a performance of a Shakespearian play:
the climax of The Tempest is reached when Prospero, throwing off his enchanter's robes, sends Ariel for his hat and rapier, and reveals himself as the great Italian Duke; the very Ghost in Hamlet changes his mystical apparel to produce different effects; and as for Juliet, a modern playwright would probably have laid her out in her shroud, and made the scene a scene of horror merely, but Shakespeare arraysI'll stop now, before this post gets any longer, but I hope I've shown that descriptions of clothing may indicate much more than an interest in fashion for its own sake and, as the holding of this conference demonstrates, descriptions of clothing in fiction are not limited to the romance genre.
her in rich and gorgeous raiment, whose loveliness makes the vault 'a feasting presence full of light,' turns the tomb into a bridal chamber, and gives the cue and motive for Romeo's speech of the triumph of Beauty over Death.
Even small details of dress, such as the colour of a major-domo's stockings, the pattern on a wife's handkerchief, the sleeve of a young soldier, and a fashionable woman's bonnets, become in
Shakespeare's hands points of actual dramatic importance, and by some of them the action of the play in question is conditioned absolutely.
- Goldberg, Harriet, 1992. ‘A Reappraisal of Colour Symbolism in the Courtly Prose Fiction of Late-Medieval Castile’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 69: 221-237.
- Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1999. Sweet Fortune (London: William Heinemann).
- Quick, Amanda. 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Press Limited).
- Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, With a New Introduction by the Author (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press). Original edition published in 1984.