As Good as Nude

Anne Hollander

  • Dressed in Fiction by Clair Hughes
    Berg, 214 pp, £17.99, December 2005, ISBN 1 84520 172 8

In Henry James and the Art of Dress (2001), Clair Hughes gave us a beautifully judged view of James’s delicate way with garments. She showed that he was capable of conveying the effect of an entire ensemble in a few well-chosen words, and of accurately rendering the way dress affects feeling. James, we learn, is at his most quicksilvery when writing about clothes. In Dressed in Fiction she has now expanded her field to take in the use of dress by other English novelists, beginning in 1724 with Defoe’s Roxana; or The Fortunate Mistress, and ending in 1984 with Anita Brookner’s Hôtel du Lac. In the final chapter, she tracks the way wedding dresses have been written about across the whole period. She concludes that the less the novelist says about the dress, the happier the marriage will be: a thorough description of the bride’s finery is a sure sign of forthcoming marital disaster.

This is an arresting thought. One counterexample occurs in Dombey and Son: the doomed Edith Granger becomes Mrs Dombey with no authorial word on what she is wearing (though the little girls watching from the street memorise her attire and dress up their dolls to match it). Dickens does, however, describe the bridegroom’s over-vivid outfit, and perhaps that will do for a warning. Hughes notes that Thackeray’s non-hero is similarly bedecked for his unpromising marriage in Pendennis.

There is no close study of a Dickens novel in Hughes’s book, perhaps because his sense of clothing was so theatrical and burlesque, so atypical in its focus on the fools and eccentrics in all social classes. Edith Granger’s elegance is too comme il faut to bear Dickensian description: he makes plain his boredom with clothed perfection by not describing it, while going on at length about any visible excess. Hughes, intent as she is on pinpointing her writers’ subtle care for sartorial meaning and feeling in a story, must think Dickens an unreliable example.

A lack of detail in the description of a wedding dress, Hughes notes, is one way a writer can indicate a bride’s honesty of intent: too much care over appearances is an age-old literary sign of shallowness in men, and of much worse in women. In English and American fiction, an impression of sexual depravity, mental deficiency and amoral character could for generations be conveyed by describing a woman taking great pains over her toilette, to say nothing of using false hair and cosmetics. A smilingly seductive facial expression might connote the same things, as might a look of perfect indifference like Edith Granger’s or Lady Dedlock’s. Any feminine surface effect was expected to be deceitful and treacherous, including even the mask of facial expression.

The heroine of Roxana practises her deceit by assuming various costumes to further her adventurous career. But although Roxana abandons her children she’s a sympathetic character, displaying female resourcefulness and evenness of temper in the face of unforeseen calamity, as well as quickness of feeling and a respectable amount of conscience. She shows her underlying scruples by taking an unnecessary risk: she has kept a tell-tale Turkish masquerade costume in her trunk, even though she must sense it will bring her eventual exposure. Defoe must have calculated that Roxana’s well-to-do middle-class origins, from which she sinks before transcending them as a successful courtesan, would create sympathy in comfortable, novel-reading London girls destined not for adventure but for tedious marriage or irksome spinsterhood. Any of them might long to dress up as a fetchingly austere Quaker maiden or a wanton Oriental dancing-girl, the better to play a foreign prince’s gilded mistress and feel the illusory freedom of having many men her slaves but none her master – men who would offer worship, diamonds, everything but respectable boredom. Roxana finally recognises the value of the latter when it’s too late, but readers then and now would not want her crushed after her delightfully ruthless and lawless rise. Hughes finds that Roxana expresses the values of consumer capitalism, which were on the rise at the time it was written. The heroine is as hard-headed and hard-hearted about financial management as she is about seizing her chance with available men; but at the same time Defoe uses her dangerous secret dress – in the way Wilkie Collins used his woman in white’s dress – as a troubling sign of irrational forces at work.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, novelists began to use dress to evoke the inner life of characters, and to show the unconscious ways clothes affect wearer and viewer. Instead of merely describing their characters’ costumes, writers could suggest, more or less obliquely, how a character felt wearing and manipulating what he wore, how that affected his temper or behaviour, and how all this might affect other characters. Trollope, for example, has a man calling on a lady to propose marriage. Awkwardly, he looks around her little drawing-room for a place to put down his hat before beginning; the lady, and the reader, share his anxiety.

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