Frock Consciousness

Rosemary Hill

  • The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Fashion Writing edited by Judith Watt
    Viking, 360 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 670 88215 1
  • Twentieth-Century Fashion by Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye
    Thames and Hudson, 288 pp, £8.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 500 20321 0
  • A Century of Fashion by François Baudot
    Thames and Hudson, 400 pp, £19.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 500 28178 5
  • The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life 1860-1914 by Christopher Breward
    Manchester, 278 pp, £45.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 7190 4799 4
  • Black in Fashion by Valerie Mendes
    Victoria & Albert Museum, 144 pp, £35.00, October 1999, ISBN 1 85177 278 2

In A Journal of the Plague Year Defoe’s narrator keeps an eye on premises belonging to his brother, who has taken his own family out of the stricken city. Walking one day towards the warehouse in Swan Alley near London Wall he meets, in the otherwise deserted street, three or four women coming toward him wearing high-crowned hats. Reaching the warehouse he finds it broken open. Inside, half a dozen more women are trying on a consignment of the hats, meant for export, ‘fitting themselves ... as unconcerned and quiet as if they had been at a hatter’s shop’. It is a dream-like scene: the fashionable looters, each looking for her size, while around them London rots and grass grows in the Strand. It is also a striking demonstration of Freya Stark’s maxim that ‘there are few sorrows through which a new dress or hat will not send a little gleam of pleasure however fugitive.’

Clothes, the things that intervene between our naked selves and the world, affect our sense of both. They speak for – or against – us in complex, sometimes unpredictable ways, and they speak even when we are silent. ‘Dressed in a tramp’s clothes,’ George Orwell, quoted by Judith Watt, observed, ‘it is very difficult ... not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.’ The hope that a change of clothes will actually redress our situation is not therefore entirely vain, in either sense of the word.

In the 20th century, of which three of these books offer surveys, the appearance of men altered relatively little while women’s was transformed. An Edwardian office clerk meeting his modern counterpart in the City would know him at once, even without a hat. His wife, however, would be thunderstruck by a trip to Selfridges, for so much of female clothing has been invented since her day, including things it is hard now to believe were ‘invented’ at all. Among the innovations of the last hundred years are knickers with a closed crotch; separates (tops and skirts that could be worn in different combinations); trousers; and, the great couturier Paul Poiret’s stroke of genius, a dress that a woman could put on without assistance.

This discrepancy between women’s experience and men’s may be one reason why dress has come to be seen as a predominantly female subject, or at least one that is expressed in female terms. It is common enough to find books which purport to be about some universal aspect of human experience but turn out, on closer inspection, to be mostly about men. In the glass of fashion, however, all is reversed. Mendes and de la Haye write in their introduction that fashion is ‘an indicator of individual, group and sexual identity’ whose ‘fluidity reflects shifts in the social matrix’; yet of the 280 illustrations that follow, nearly 250 are of women.

High fashion, defined by Oscar Wilde as ‘a form of ugliness so unbearable that we are compelled to alter it every six months’, has been a predominantly female phenomenon since the late 18th century. For reasons historians tend to associate plausibly if vaguely with the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the ever emerging middle class, male dress has been relatively sober and static for two hundred years. What happened in the 20th century, Judith Watt suggests in her introduction to Fashion Writing, was that the whole subject of clothes came to be seen as feminine or effeminate. Hence her anthology, which includes journalism, extracts from novels and some verse, is disproportionately short on male writers. Dickens and Thackeray could use clothes to establish character in a way that was not, it seems, so readily available in the next century.

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