Book Review: Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870-1914

Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870-1914

By Rosy Aindow

Ashgate (October 2010)

Book Review by Sara Bernstein

Today’s book review comes from Sara Tatyana Bernstein, whom I was lucky enough to meet at graduate school (NYU, 2004).   She is a Doctoral Candidate in Cultural Studies at UC Davis, currently completing her dissertation, ‘From Little Black Dress to Little Blue Vest: Fashion, Film and the shifting Position of the American Shopgirl.’ Her essay “In this same gown of shadow: Functions of Fashion in Villette” is included in the collection The Brontës in the World of the Arts (Ashgate 2008).

The relationship between fashion and literature has held a special fascination for scholars for many years, but the last decade has seen a marked increase in works on this topic. Alongside “old chestnuts” by Lou Taylor and Anne Hollander we now find, for example, books by Clair Hughes (Henry James and the Art of Dress, Palgrave 2001, Dressed in Fiction, Berg 2005), Catherine Spooner (Fashioning Gothic Bodies, Manchester UP 2004), as well a new edited collection Fashion in Fiction (Berg 2009) inspired by a conference of the same name held in Sydney in 2007. Rosy Aindow’s Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870 – 1914 is a welcome addition to this growing area of study.

As Aindow explains in her introduction, whereas the bulk of this scholarship has focused on a close reading of clothing within a particular text or within texts by a single author, her aim is to look more broadly at the role fashion played in the “literary culture” of late 19th/early 20th century Britain. Working from the generally accepted premise that the novel negotiated specifically bourgeois values and concerns, Aindow finds patterns across a wider sampling of texts to illustrate the anxieties that the increased dissemination of fashionable clothing generated among the upper middle class. Aindow explores how fashion works as a set, especially of class and sexual codes, the knowledge of which was a tool for differentiating among an increasingly affluent, but not necessarily bourgeois population. Of course, fashion was also a tool for blurring the same boundaries. Drawing heavily from authors such as Wilkie Collins, George Gissing, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy, Aindow seems to suggest that in the end, most of these narratives used “fashionable” characters (usually women) to map and contain the threat of class mobility and sexual liberation that fashionable clothing was thought to engender.

On the whole, this book may be more useful to literary than fashion scholars. The first two chapters, “The Function of Dress in the Novel” and “Development and Innovation in the Nineteenth-century Fashion Industry” are well -researched, concise summaries and read easily. However, if you aren’t already familiar with the history of the fashion industry, the development of consumer culture, and common assumptions surrounding fashion and social class at the time, there are better texts available on these subjects (off the top of my head; Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Daniel Purdy’s The Rise of Fashion, anything by Christopher Breward, Simmel’s Die Mode, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, etc. etc.). That Aindow found it necessary to include such an extensive overview of fashion, while leaving her assumptions about the value and ideology of the novel unexamined, suggests to me that her imagined audience has spent more time reading, for example Ian Watt (The Rise of the Novel, 1957) than Herbert Blumer (Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection, 1969).

That said, chapters four and five, “Fashion and the Art of (Class) Deception” and “Needlewomen and Shop Girls in Nineteenth-century Fiction” are very strong and will probably find their way into my own bibliographies. Of particular interest is Aindow’s discussion in chapter four of the use of dress color as a marker of class and sexual morality in the years following the widespread availability of aniline dyes. Women working in the fashion industry, as seamstresses, milliners, shop girls, etc. were the focus of special attention by novelists and social critics during this time, because of their ambiguous class position, their perceived vulnerability/accessibility, their role as both producers and consumers, etc.  Analyzing a range of texts that focus on the dangers of constant proximity to fashion by the under-classes, Aindow does an excellent job of situating these works of fiction in the context of broader socio-economic concerns.

There is much to appreciate about this book, but I do have some criticisms. For one thing, I am puzzled that a book about British culture from 1870 to 1914 did not contain the words “Empire”, or “Imperialism” anywhere. I don’t think that this is outside the purview of the text, considering that the shifting economy that is at the heart of this analysis would not have been possible without the extraction of raw materials from the colonies, and that textile production is such a storied and integral part of the rise industrialization and British Imperial power, not to mention British national identity.

This leads me to my main critique. I wish that instead of using the first third of the book essentially to summarize and survey previous scholarship, Aindow had used the space to push her own arguments further. For example to complicate it by considering the other issues that overlap with class and gender, such as national identity; or to introduce into her schema depictions of the girls who worked in cotton mills. In other words, while I would never fault a book for being to short (this one is a manageable 154 pages), my primary disappointment is that there is not enough of Aindow’s analysis. But what is there is quite good.

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