Thursday, August 31, 2006

Clothing and Fashion in Romance

Continuing on from Eric's post about Hawaii, here's another forthcoming conference:
Fashion in Fiction
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?

There are more details here, and the deadline for submitting an abstract is the 15th of October 2006.

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.
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)
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:
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.
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)
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.

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 arrays
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.
I'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.
  • 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.


  1. Yes, I absolutely agree with you: descriptions of clothing can be used to add depth to a story. It can also be used as a means to transport the reader into the story, especially where historical fiction is concerned. In real life, class and social standing, among other things, are often expressed through clothes, so it is only natural that clothing should be part of the fabric of a story.

    In The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer accuses a M&B author of having a foot fetish because she describes the shoes of the heroine. NEW shoes. Which she hadn't been able to afford before. So, of course, the heroine is incredibly happy about her new shoes... (Flesch writes about this in From Australia with Love, and as always she manages to drive her point home with a vengeance.)

  2. j as in jennifer03 September, 2006 07:44

    Radway says: 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.

    While I don't think that women can "always" be characterized in having an interest in clothes, I don't think Radway means an interest in "fashion" like runway models necessarily. If that were true, then where are the illustrated romance novels? But it does have some elements of truth, I think. Women are probably the main audience for costume dramas, after all. When I watch them, I do pay attention to the details, the costumes, the hair, because I am a woman and little things are important to me. For instance, I noticed that in the most recent remake of "Pride and Prejudice" Kyra Knightley's hair was terrible. And I wondered in one scene why Mr. Bingley's valet hadn't shaved him. My not-husband did not notice any of these things. In the 1995 BBC version, the costumes were light and graceful, lending a lighter and more comedic touch to the story. In the 1995 Ang Lee "Sense and Sensibility," set in the same time period, the costumes were heavy and stodgy and lent a rather more serious and somber tone to the film.

    And that's just me, who has barely any personal sense of fashion at all. But I think you are more right than Radway when you say that identity is expressed through a person's clothing. Aren't we taught when evaluating a man to check out his shoes first of all? Women generally use dress to try to stand out from a crowd (without being obvious, of course) while most men try to dress exactly like every other man of their social class. Seriously, you'd think they all shopped at the same store.

    In romance novels, if a woman wears her hair in braids, you know she is neat, practical, modest and self-controlled. It is the undoing of her hair that leads to her eventual undoing. If she is a self-styled bookworm, then she is ink-stained, with gowns years out of date.

    The contrast between the women genres and others was brought home to me when my not-husband was reading some of my chickish lit (not quite romance) and he complained about having to read all these details about the heroine's clothes, her hair and where she shopped. I explained the author was trying to show that she was a woman who liked to look neat and careful but who didn't care much about clothes, which just made him laugh. When the heroine does put on an attention getting outfit, you know there is going to be action or trouble of some kind, and her nice clothes will probably get ruined. It seemed obvious to me.

    In some romances, there is the scene when the hero provides the heroine with an outfit, and it is always a perfect fit, always beautiful, a gift wrap meant for him, but for her it is the Cinderella moment when she realizes the hero has examined everything about her. I wonder if it ever happens in real life...

  3. Women are probably the main audience for costume dramas, after all.

    I couldn't find any statistics on this, unfortunately. I wonder if it depends on the type of costume drama - for example, Gladiator or Pride and Prejudice. I did find this, though:

    The highest-minded film academics will all tell you that this is precisely the erotic appeal of the genre - the chance to see your favourite stars wearing fetching (and, in some cases, fetishising) attire from bygone days.

    It's only when there's a deeper correlation between the clothes and the way people behave when wearing them that a costume drama really takes off - when clothes become metaphor for manners and vice versa. The best Cannes costume extraganza in recent memory was Patrice Leconte's Ridicule. The entire story, about court politics in Versailles, revolved around the question of how you wore a wig, what you said when you wore it, and what sins of vanity and folly those wigs covered: it's a film about costume and custom.
    (The Guardian's coverage of Cannes 2000)

    During that period, as the article mentions, men at court were very interested in fashion. And all the old sumptuary laws were passed by men. So I think that while interest in clothes/fashion may be gendered, it's not always been gendered in the same way as it is currently (and nowadays it varies from one society/class/group to another).

    Aren't we taught when evaluating a man to check out his shoes first of all?

    We are? No-one ever told me that. My grandmother's piece of 'wisdom' was to inform me that men were 'only after one thing'. As she'd been divorced several times and, from what she said, was never very happy in her relationships for long, I tried not to listen to her advice. My mother did occasionally say 'handsome is as handsome does'.

  4. In The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer accuses a M&B author of having a foot fetish because she describes the shoes of the heroine. NEW shoes. Which she hadn't been able to afford before. So, of course, the heroine is incredibly happy about her new shoes... (Flesch writes about this in From Australia with Love, and as always she manages to drive her point home with a vengeance.)

    I've been reading the Greer this past week. The quote is:

    All romantic novels have a preoccupation with clothes. Every sexual advance is made with clothing as an attractive barrier; the foot fetish displayed in Miss Walker’s descriptions is an optional extra. (Greer, Germaine, 1993. The Female Eunuch (London: Flamingo), p202)

    She's talking about Lucy Walker's The Loving Heart (London, 1969) and I think one has to be a bit careful when interpreting Greer, because although she's serious about what she's saying, she does, it seems to me, sometimes exaggerate to make her point. For example, earlier she quotes a bit of a Barbara Cartland novel:

    >>She turned towards the door and then suddenly Peter Harvey had dropped on one knee beside her. She looked at him wonderingly as he lifted the hem of her white muslin gown and touched his lips with it. ‘Amanda,’ he said, ‘that is how a man, any man, should approach you. No one – least of all Ravenscar – is worthy to do more than to kiss the hem of your gown. Will you remember that?’<<

    Greer's comment on this passage is:

    That’s the kind of man you marry. On his knees chewing her muddy hem and still her moral tutor. (1993: 199)

    Clearly Greer is (a) being ironic and (b) doesn't really think the hero is literally chewing the hem of the heroine's gown. I think she's using a similar level of exaggeration in her comment about the foot fetish.

  5. "Aren't we taught when evaluating a man to check out his shoes first of all?"

    Oops. I wish I'd known that in high school. Why doesn't anyone tell the BOYS these rules?

    (Seriously, though, as the father of a son and a daughter, I've been able to watch first-hand as the former learns that to be male means NOT to worry about your appearance--"I'm a boy, I don't have to think about what I wear," he has repeatedly said--while to be female means to have your clothes doted on, inspected, praised, reviled, bickered over, and otherwise attended to in detail on a daily basis. (All this, and my daughter is only 7.)

    As a male reader, I negotiate the fashion descriptions in romance novels in a variety of ways. Sometimes I pay attention, with an eye to the sorts of codes and signals that Laura and Sandra and j-as-in-jennifer describe. Sometimes I simply note that a signal is being sent, and skip on. Sometimes, as in LaVyrle Spencer's "Spring Fancy," the fashion statements are so delicious--such period pieces, or so tied in with the fashion horrors of my youth--that they add a whole new element of charm to the novel. And every now and then, as in "Bet Me," they teach me something useful. I've paid much more attention to shoes since reading that one!

    As for Radway, it's one of the several ironies in her book--delicious or sour, take your pick--that the same critic who sniffs at the "superfluous" emphasis on fashion in romance fiction makes a point of telling us that "Dot," her bookseller-informant, planned to meet her at the airport "wearning a lavender pants suit" (47).

    Nuff said.


  6. j as in jennifer03 September, 2006 18:40

    Re: men's shoes

    I suppose this comes from reading women's magazines in my younger days. But it is viable. Not only can you make a guess about his general income, you can determine whether he is style conscious, pretentious, totally conventional, into looks or comfort -- lots of things. Think about all the films you've seen with "shoe shot." A man or woman steps out of a car and the camera shows you the shoes first. In "Bet Me," Min dresses very businesslike and serious, but her whimsical shoes are a dead giveaway to the woman within. Calvin was definitely fetishizing her feet.

    I have recently been reading an author, and I cannot remember which one, one of whose signature "moves" is for the hero to advance on the heroine so that he is standing so close that his shoes are peeking just beneath her skirts, an obvious sexual metaphor. If it had only been once, I would not have remarked it, but this author repeated it in other books.

    I enjoyed "Ridicule," by the way. But I love costume dramas. And I cannot forget that in "Gone with the Wind" Scarlett announces she's giving up marital relations with Rhett Butler because she has decided not to have anymore children after the loss of her 16-inch waist! The cruellest blow to any man's ego. You can't blame him for not giving a damn.

  7. Jennifer, I think there were always suspicions that 'tight-lacers' (i.e. those who used their corsets to get a very, very tiny waist) were averse to motherhood, and perhaps even that tight-lacing was responsible for making them miscarry:

    Tight-lacing in its heyday, and especially during the ‘cuirasse’ period, may thus be interpreted as an unconscious (and perhaps conscious) protest against the total absorption of woman into a life of constant child bearing and rearing, and the limitation of her sexuality to exclusively procreative ends. Increased competition for a husband contributed to a heightened sexual consciousness, which left woman reluctant to enter passively into that traditional maternal role already undermined by economic conditions. The families of tight-lacers seem to have been small (two to three children). Women were accused of tight-lacing as an abortion device; they probably used contraceptives.
    (Kunzle, David, 2004. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-lacing & Other Forms of Body-Sculpture (Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited), p. 36)

    On the pantsuit question, there was a recent blog post by Jami Alden about them. She said that:

    For whatever reason, contemporary heroines - especially young(ish) heroines - who wear pantsuits are like nails on a chalkboard for me. Seriously, when is the last time you wore a pantsuit? Okay, if she were a corporate bigwig, or an attorney, or in another profession requiring business dress, then yes, it would be perfectly appropriate for her to wear a pantsuit. Preferably an Armani, or Jil Sander, in sassy black pinstripe with fabulous heels. But not coral silk. And not on a date.

    A few chapters later the heroine made (in my mind) another fashion faux pas. Another date with the hero, and this time she put on a blue sundress. Okay, no problem there. Then white sandals. Slightly cringe inducing, but really, not too bad. Then she topped off her outfit with… wait for it…. matching white earrings.

    There are definitely plenty of fashion pitfalls an unwary writer can fall into.

  8. Hi, Laura. Visiting your site for the first time -- what fun!

    In some Romance novels, I've noticed a recurrent scene in which the hero takes the heroine to the mantua-makers or the couturier's to buy her a complete wardrobe. He sits in a chair while some eccentric, brilliant Frenchwoman (with whom the hero has often had previous dealins) bosses the heroine around & gets her into clothing that's superior to the heroine's usual attire. The scenes I'm thinking of generally take place within the erotic romance subgenre. (Susan Johnson's "Sinful" and several books by Robin Schone come to mind, but I am sure there are others.) There's the Cinderella thing going on, obviously, but also, the dressing up before the hero seems be a sign of the heroine's exploring her sexuality and growing acceptance of and comfort with her body. The hero's sexual attentions have taught her to value herself, when generally, she didn't before. Now, as she gains self-confidence, she wants to show off her body. Sometimes the scenes almost serve as a kind of foreplay, since the hero's enthralled by the heroine's "modeling" the new clothing. (I also think there's a scene like this in "Four Weddings & a Funeral" in which the heroine models wedding gowns before the Hugh Grant character.) These heroes can also be surprisingly knowledgeable about female fashion -- even more so than the heroine. (Didn't Loretta Chase recently have a hero like this?) It's a sign of the hero's sexual experience & his love of women & his close observation of their ways.

  9. Welcome, Sherry! I do recall that scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral. It happens in contemporary romances too, I think. I can vaguely recall bossy heroes taking the heroine along to have a makeover, sometimes because she's his convenient bride/pretend fiancée and then he realises how attractive she is, and she feels ambiguous about it because she isn't sure if the clothes reflect her true self-identity and/or she can't work out whether that really is a gleam of attraction in the hero's eye. I don't recall this in historicals, but that's probably because of the types of historicals I've read. I have noticed that in the historicals I've read heroes tend to be aware of the heroine's clothes when they are (a) dandies (like Freddy, in Heyer's Cotillion, or (b) rakes (like the Duke of Avon, in Heyer's These Old Shades. And there's often a scene in which the heroine descends a grand staircase, to find the hero observing her. He is overwhelmed by her beauty, but is unable to say so, so she thinks he isn't impressed.