You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Literature


In the absence of surviving garments, or to support their analysis, a form of primary source material available to fashion historians and one being explored with increased frequency in academic study is works of literature. In her book, The Study of Dress History, Lou Taylor comments that ‘novels can identify through subtle textural nuances how each stratum and member of society, male or female, rich or poor, young or old, enjoys, flaunts, defies or denies their social place through dress.’ (150) The following books and articles represent some of the most recent studies of fashion in works of literature.

1. Joslin, Katherine and Daneen Wardrop, eds. (2015). Crossings in Text and Textile. Durham: University of New Hampshire Press.

This is a collection of essays about how we dress, what it costs, and how we read it. Writers look at fabrics and designs from the early nineteenth through the early twentieth century, a period of remarkable change in textiles, production, labor, and fashion, especially in the reform of female dress as a sign of modernity…We’ve labeled the study Crossings in Text and Textile to announce up front the cross-disciplinarity that combines prose writing with clothing style, text with textile. This combination offers a fresh twenty-first century emphasis on the overlap between verbal workings and material culture. – Excerpt from Introduction

2. Rieger, K. Irene (2014). ‘Garment No. 5: The New Woman Novel and the First Maternity Clothes.’ CEA Critic 76(3), 259-266.

Attitudes toward maternity in the nineteenth century varied, but there were numerous reasons why many expectant mothers, particularly of the upper classes, wished to hide their growing waistlines. The most obvious reason was that the belly of the pregnant woman was the literal embodiment of sex…However, there were other reasons aside from propriety. Perhaps the most mundane is one still heard today, that the fat belly was simply considered unattractive. In Women, Marriage, and Politics: 1860–1914, Patricia Jalland quotes a diary of a pregnant woman who decides not to travel anymore once she no longer “looks decorative” (143). Another reason, still common today, was fear of miscarriage and the disappointment to follow…One of the few people who did have to know was the dressmaker. Maternity clothing as such did not appear until 1904 (Wertz & Wertz 148), and thus it is during the time of the New Woman that attitudes toward maternity and pregnancy saw a sea change. – Paraphrased Article Excerpt

3. Redmond, Moira. ‘How Nylons Changed Literature.’ The Guardian. 18 October 2014.

In honour of the 75th anniversary of the first limited production of nylon stockings by DuPont, Moira Redmond, a journalist who blogs at Clothes in Books, covers the history of hosiery throughout the twentieth century. Using references to works by Agatha Christie, James Joyce and others, Redmond traces the symbolism of stockings as markers of class and aspiration in the early twentieth century, to a rationed luxury during the Second World War, to an everyday item of clothing by the 1960s.

Image Credit: Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini, via Wikimedia Commons

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