Book Review: Edith Wharton & the Making of Fashion

This week, I am pleased to bring you a book review from Clare M. Sauro, an assistant teaching professor and the curator for the historic costume collection at Drexel University. Prior to her work with Drexel, Ms. Suaro worked for the Fashion Institute of Technology, in a variety of museum related positions (including assistant curator of accessories and of costume). She holds a Masters degree in Museum Studies: Costume and Textiles from F.I.T. and a Bachelors in English from the State University of New York College at Oswego. Among many other publications, Sauro contributed the chapter, “The Artful Accessory,” in Ralph Rucci: The Art of Weightlessness(Yale 2007).

Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion (Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies) (University of New Hampshire Press) by Katherine Joslin is a recent publication in the exciting series Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies by University of New Hampshire Press. Joslin is a professor of English at Western Michigan University who has published biographies of Edith Wharton and Jane Addams. The publication of this book and the accompanying title, Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing (Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies) (by Daneen Wardrop) represents the growing recognition of clothing by scholars outside the historic costume community. This interdisciplinary approach is appreciated and long-overdue. Joslin’s analysis of Wharton’s work is fascinating and has inspired me to dust off my old paperbacks and head to the library for the rest. Organized into thematic chapters, such as “The Underside of Fashion” which deals with the harsh realities of the nineteenth century garment industry and “Desire in the Marketplace”, which documents the rise of couture and the department store, the book attempts to trace the history of costume through the writings of Edith Wharton. Her assertion that Wharton deliberately depicted her protagonists in clothing that would resonate with the readers at the time of publication is a strong one and worthy of further discussion .

However, despite my initial enthusiasm, I was sorely disappointed with this book. While Joslin is obviously a confident literary scholar, it is clear she has only recently begun to study costume history. Throughout the book she relies heavily on secondary sources to provide historical context for her assessments . The footnotes for these portions of the text are frustrating and inadequate. For example: when analyzing the attire of Ellen Olenska (who was notoriously allowed to wear black to her coming out ball) in The Age of Innocence Joslin references the designs of Madame Paquin. The couturière is credited with introducing black as a fashion color- an intriguing bit of new information for me but- alas- no footnote !

The mention of Paquin, a couture house founded in the 1890s, while discussing a novel set in the 1870s, is another problematic aspect of the book. Joslin frequently jumps across decades in her analysis of fashion and while this approach works in the context of her assertion that Wharton did not always dress her characters with historical accuracy, Joslin’s intent (with this exploration) is not always clear to the reader. Her approach also excludes the historical and social context of clothing described in the novels. Joslin cites the chaste virginal attire of May Welland in The Age of Innocence as indicative of her sexual allure and rightful place as the future wife of the protagonist, Newland Archer. However, Joslin neglects to point out that this was the “correct” dress for all unmarried women in the 1870s and what Ellen Olenska should have been wearing for her coming out ball .

Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion is an ambitious book that feels rushed and underdeveloped. Joslin’s analysis  would have been enhanced by primary sources such as etiquette books and fashion publications such as Harper’s Bazar. Consulting a fashion historian as a reader in the editing stages would also have helped with the dating and identification of garments in the photographs as well. While Joslin makes some excellent points in her analysis of specific works and characters, she stumbles when she attempts to address the “making of fashion.”

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  • Tove Hermanson February 17, 2010 11.55 am

    That’s so frustrating when you find a book that addresses an issue you’ve been craving, but then falls short! That’s happened to me recently with “the Supergirls: Fashion, feminism, fantasy, and the history of comic book heroines” whose title was so alluring, but alas, it’s unsophisticated writing style and lack of clear thesis makes it almost intolerable to wade through. Have you read “Fashion in Fiction”? It’s been on my to-read list for awhile, and since it’s written by the accomplished fashion historian Aileen Ribeiro, it should be meatier than Edith Wharton….

  • Ava Trimble February 17, 2010 01.36 pm

    Despite my inclination to side with the misgivings of the reviewer, I requested the book from my library system. The mere fact that it exists is encouraging. There’s so little crossover between academia and the study of historic clothing – especially any kind of study that goes beyond theory and symbolism. I’m doing an independent study this semester that tries to have its feet on both sides of that divide, and I hardly even know where to look for precedents.

    I wonder if the Emily Dickinson book in the same series has the same flaws….

  • Clare February 17, 2010 05.16 pm

    I wanted to like this book so badly and really struggled with this review. I have read parts of “Fashion and Fiction” and it is very good. I also really enjoyed “Dressed in Fiction” by Clair Hughes and would recommend it heartily.

  • Kimberly February 17, 2010 06.29 pm

    “Fashion and Fiction” is excellent, but not really about fiction–rather, the title refers to “fictional” forms of 17th-century dress like masquerade and allegorical costume. However, the book does draw upon contemporary poems, essays, sermons, and plays.
    I wonder how the Wharton book compares to the article I published in Dress on the same subject back in 1998? Hope I got a footnote at least! But it sounds like footnotes are few and far between…how frustrating.

  • clair hughes July 20, 2010 03.36 am

    I’ve come in on this a bit late – only just discovered But narcisstically pleased with nice remark on my book…. Having read Joslin’s book with great hopes I have to agree with much of what you all have said. It was a ‘curate’s egg’ of a book; good in parts – the apercus on the novels were excellent but alas the dress bits unravelled. It is very difficult to be inter-disciplinary – to be equally informed and equally interesting on several fronts. When writing myself on Wharton i became aware of how much more there was to be said, how subtle and interesting she is with her deployment of dress. Just as careful as James, but different, one could say with a very feminine sensibility and discrimination. Pity she sometimes looked a bit OTT herself!

    Would welcome more debate… more frocks and novels!

  • Clare July 29, 2010 09.56 am

    It is a comfort to know that you felt much the same way about this book. I wanted to like it, and as Ava (above) points out, there are not that many books that attempt to connect fashion and literature. However, while I acknowledge that this is a difficult task, I felt Ms. Joslin should have made more of an effort to reach out to fashion scholars. They could have helped her to understand the context of the clothing and also help with the dating and identification of garments in some of the illustrations.


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