Fashion in Literature

I just read a fun list on Flavorwire of their 10 favorite fashionable literary characters. Allow me to summarize:

  1. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth
  2. Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
  3. Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  4. Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  5. Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
  6. Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  7. Dorian Gray in Gustave Flaubert’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
  8. Rupert Psmith in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse
  9. Lady Brett Ashley in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
  10. Darling Daintyfoot in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers

A wonderful property of literature and other art forms is that textiles — fragile under the best of circumstances — may be preserved in alternate mediums. Greek, Roman, and Ancient Egyptian statues may be studied for information on what people wore in eras almost impossible to find fragmented remains of clothes, much less full ensembles, as can paintings and literature. Though literature removes the visual aspect of fashion, it can supplement readers with information not gleaned from sculptures and pictures: how fabric moved; how heavy and cumbersome (or light and airy) it was; what necessary undergarments created the ultimate silhouettes. Most valuable, perhaps, is that literature is able to synthesize the mise en scène of a particular country, era, class, time of day, and personal circumstance, explicitly emphasizing the relationship of fashion with these other variables. Though not impossible, conveying this complex set of relationships is more challenging in fine arts, where the visual language may be forced to reduce information to simplified symbols, to be absorbed and interpreted by a viewer in a moment.

Within a written narrative, an author has space to develop characters and settings: personality, gender roles (how constrictive / seductive women’s gowns were communicates volumes), class (fabrics vary according to a person’s wealth), aspirations (class deception is commonly exploited with the use of clothes), sexual preference (homosexuals are often marked as such by a flamboyance of appearance that’s slightly out of step with current fashion)…. Though fashion historians often concentrate on the nitty-gritty details of garment descriptions — which is absolutely valuable — this information should contribute to the overall character development and plot structure of a novel as well. In the hands of a competent writer, dress details will not distract a non-fashion reader, but only add depth to what is already taking place.

The course of events in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, for example — war, displacement, poverty, the helpless role of women — lead directly and naturally to the memorable scene where Scarlett converts her destroyed mansion’s drapes into a fashionable dress and hat with which to impress and seduce Rhett Butler (thereby securing new wealth). (The dress from the original film, by the way, is in dire need of restoring.)


Scarlett O'Hara in drape dress, Gone with the Wind

This dress has become so iconic that costume designer Bob Mackie specifically spoofed it, within Carol Burnett’s 1976 general farce “Went with the Wind” (which I strongly encourage you to watch in its entirety):

Carol Burnett Show, Went with the Wind

As I hope you can see, Mackie left the curtain rod in, used drape ties with tassels for a belt, and left the contrasting fringe exactly where it would’ve been on the curtain, drawing attention to Scarlett’s desperation and deception sooner rather than later — taking Margaret Mitchell’s initial use of fashion one step further.

Presenters will be dissecting the relationship between fashion and literature in an upcoming Drexel University conference (at which I will be presenting): Fashion in Fiction: The Dark Side of Fashion. If you will be in Philadelphia October 8-10, please drop me a line (see my Profile for email address)!

Feel free to add your own best-dressed characters in fiction in the Comments….

Further Reading:

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  • clair hughes October 06, 2010 02.00 am

    I am delighted to note so much interest in this topic. As I first struggled in the late 1990s to persuade academics and publishers that this was a subject worth taking seriously it is good to see now, ten years later, that it has taken off.

    Narcissistically – may I point to the results of that first grim struggle – my book on dress in Henry James and then when Berg came on the publishing scene – ‘Dressed in Fiction’ of 2006.

    I would love to attend the various conferences i now see on the topic – alas – mainly in far-away USA. But I try to keep abreast of what is going on.

    Best Wishes, Clair HUghes.

    PS – are you like me of Scandinavian extraction, Tove?

  • Tove Hermanson October 06, 2010 10.00 am

    Well, Ms. Clair Hughes, what a delight to hear from you!

    I think as serious fashion history scholarship has slowly taken hold, the relationships between fashion and other respected “high” art forms has likewise been viewed with more seriousness– in great part due to interdisciplinary scholars like you. I know it was (and still can be) difficult to dispel the myth that all things fashion-related are insipid, superficial, or unimportant. Which is why I’m especially excited to participate in Drexel’s Fashion in Fiction conference this weekend, to learn what other work is being done in this crossover field!

    As for the Scandinavian name, it’s true that “Tove Hermanson” is Danish– but it’s somewhat of a family joke. “Hermanson” passed down the patriarchal lineage hundreds of years ago, but my father enjoys exaggerating the eccentric, and so gave Danish first names to all his children. In fact, we’re predominantly British, with a smattering of German. I think you may be the 9th person in my lifetime to recognize the Scandinavian roots, though, Dad would be pleased!

    Thanks for writing,


  • Mary January 12, 2013 12.21 am

    Dear Tove, I am looking for sources on uniforms/work costumes in particular — say, cowboy gear and native costume — and wonder if you can suggest anthropological work or any research on this area of clothing? Thanks much!


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