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.

Hughes follows her discussion of Defoe with a chapter on Jane Austen. Unique in her day for her modern way with clothes, Austen never describes directly what anyone is wearing but filters it through another character’s perception. In this way, all manner of impulses – admiration, contempt, satisfaction, dismay, envy, condescension, indifference – are channelled through the smallest references. Austen’s letters reveal that she was endlessly interested in dress, and she found a way to get this into her fiction without stopping the action or crowding the atmosphere. In Northanger Abbey, Austen enacts the conventional belief in the frivolity of dress by having Mrs Allen, Catherine’s chaperone, make embarrassing and comic remarks about finery – its details, its price – in every other utterance. At the same time, however, Henry – who isn’t laughed at – knows all about fashionable muslins, and discusses them cordially with ladies he encounters on the Bath social scene. Austen lets the reader visualise Catherine’s costume by having him describe it aloud to her. Catherine’s unremarkable ensemble has done its job in just the right quarter. This man has a discerning eye for the details of attractive female presentation: he can see her self through her clothes, not just her body and income. Catherine, in turn, inwardly admires the set of Henry’s hat and the capes of his greatcoat. The sexual appeal of dress was not an appropriate topic for public conversation between men and women, but in Northanger Abbey Austen’s readers saw that clothes might reasonably be discussed between the sexes in public: a very modern notion, but perhaps Austen records a practice more common than was allowed in most novels.

Henry’s ferocious father, General Tilney, invites Catherine to Northanger and takes pains to impress her. He has been misled by a false report – perhaps supported, Hughes says, by the costly muslin dresses Mrs Allen has given her – into seeing Catherine as the perfect rich heiress for Henry. When he’s later told, just as inaccurately, that she’s poor, the general throws her out of the house. Hughes says that General Tilney’s lust for new possessions and a free-spending daughter-in-law reflects the new consumerism that drives the novel’s plot. Half the action takes place in Bath, where shopping is a constant pastime and prices a constant subject of conversation. In the streets, men are haggling over horses and gigs, women are comparing the cost and quality of bonnets and imported fabrics; at Northanger, the general is ostentatiously transforming a nondescript old ruin into a luxurious new mansion. While medieval diabolic forces inhabit its unworldly heroine’s head, modern money is everywhere in the story.

Northanger Abbey contains more thoughts and utterances about dress than Austen’s other novels. Mostly, they signal false values, but patient Eleanor’s white attire and her brother Henry’s hat and greatcoat are there to convey virtuous attractions. Hughes notes that a prosaic laundry list Catherine takes for a dangerous document symbolically asserts the modern moral importance of washable white linen and cotton. She omits Austen’s final message, that the list had belonged to Eleanor’s suitor, now her husband. There is a suggestion that the young man’s persistent regard for cleanliness will keep him godly, despite his sudden elevation to rank and riches in the novel’s closing pages.

Hughes notices how much of literary clothing deals only with feminine fashion, certainly in the period and language she deals with. Continental Europe has always had a different view, supported by the ancient assumption that only what men wear is truly important: armour is the primary example, priestly dress another. (See also Castiglione’s The Courtier.) Feminine guises, whether they project absolute modesty, costly display or unbridled licence, are fundamentally bound up with sexual fantasy. In European novels all the way back to Cervantes, the aesthetic and erotic dimension of male fashion (and anti-fashion, and non-fashion) has worked to enhance the superior social and ceremonial importance of men’s dress. Imaginative writers interested in appearances had always paid as much attention to men as to women: Balzac and Flaubert, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann certainly kept that balance.

Thackeray kept it, too. In Pendennis, the ne’er-do-well non-hero’s fortunes are largely reflected in his dress. Beau Brummell’s name is invoked on the first page, to show that this 1850 novel begins back in the glory days of Regency taste, when the dandy (Hughes quotes Ellen Moers) ‘stood on a pedestal of self’, and English male fashion took on an element of sexual fantasy not seen since the High Renaissance. In Brummell’s time, however, the dandy needed no rank, title, land, family, marriage or money to cement his personal superiority. Exquisitely cut, perfectly fitting and very simple clothes worn with ease and perfect linen did it all, on credit indefinitely extended by dazzled tailors and furnishers eager for discriminating celebrity custom. Fatherless young Pen momentarily sways towards a military career, but only because he longs for the spectacular uniform. He has been left, Hughes says, to the feminine influence of his mother and cousin, who adore him unreservedly while he squanders all their money on finery and other women. The cousin even marries him at the end, without expecting that he will change.

Coming to the middle decades of the 19th century, Hughes abandons Thackeray’s small black and white world to explore the influence of contemporary painting on other Victorian writers. She finds the literary force of colour opposed to that of whiteness in feminine dress, and male dress now left completely in the shade, in art as in life. The appearance of men and women had shifted away from their Regency image (that matched pair of pale classical statues – he smoothly tailored, she delicately draped, each looking as good as nude). By the 1850s and 1860s, a modishly dressed lady not only had an artificially moulded torso, but took up three times the space of a correctly clad gentleman. There were changes of emphasis in her shape in subsequent decades, but her garments retained a rhetoric increasingly forbidden to men, especially in the vivid colours made possible by aniline dyes.

Hughes finds this new visual economy reflected in sensational fiction, and examines Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret of 1862 in the light of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Braddon’s male protagonist first encounters the unscrupulous heroine in a full-length portrait: an unnamed Pre-Raphaelite has given his blonde and blue-eyed subject a fiery, lush and diabolic flavour. Only a Pre-Raphaelite, Braddon says, could render such a blonde in such a way. This painting of Lady Audley is not on public view, but hangs in her private dressing-room; it seems to illustrate her baneful ‘secret’.

The figure of the sweet, childlike blonde who wins all hearts but is inwardly a monster (a literary idea going back at least to Spenser) appears, according to Hughes, in such paintings as Arthur Hughes’s ambiguous April Love and The Long Engagement. The angelic-looking women in these two paintings might be monsters, she seems to suggest, because we can feel the throb of their deep blue and violet attire and see the sharp contrast between the anguished intensity of the moment portrayed and the sweet mould of their lovely faces. These figures do have something of Braddon’s heroine, though some of Rossetti’s Titian-like beauties are more fatal-seeming and lusher; and Braddon probably saw those. In any case she evidently saw a deep fear of women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings that made an apt leitmotif for her chilling tale.

Hughes, like Braddon herself, acknowledges the debt Lady Audley owed to The Woman in White of 1860 – which was also a sensation, not least for its title. She doesn’t dwell on the phenomenon specifically, but white dresses can’t help making pulses race, since they reflect any available light and seize all eyes first, especially in near darkness, where no red or purple can compete with white’s ultra-visibility. Hughes finds no link in The Woman in White, however, to the pictorial fashion that would be so important to Braddon two years later: Collins relies entirely on language for his costume effects.

The Woman in White has two sacrificial, fair-haired, white-clad maidens as a double heroine, each ‘blank’ and ‘ghostly’. Laura, rich and timid, is praised for her unassuming and fragile white attire; Anne, poor and mad, wears white garments made of coarse fabrics. The true heroine, however, is dark, ‘ugly’ Marian, whom only the villain openly admires, though the narrator notes her lithe figure. Marian is swarthy, moustached and wears no stays, facts that reflect her active, quasi-masculine virtues – such as intelligence. She knows about the shine of white after dark, and takes off her petticoats before climbing out of a window at night, dressed in dark flannel, to find things out and save the day.

Henry James used white dresses very differently in two stories from the mid-1880s, by which time writers had largely given up elevating pure and helpless women. A white dress in polite society had become customary only for dressed-up little girls, young girls and brides, unless worn in the summer, when it was suitable for ladies of all ages. Free of heavy symbolism but still ultra-visible, a white dress was available for whatever connotation a modern writer might wish to give it; in Impressionist paintings of the period, it was used for its optical and atmospheric effects.

In James’s story ‘The Siege of London’, the beautiful, appealingly crude and much-divorced Mrs Headway, an American adventuress who finally snares her English nobleman in the closing paragraph, is first seen by the narrator at the Comédie Française, wearing white. This is attention-seizing, naked-marble-statue white, signalling candour with no claims to tender youth or modesty. Those qualities appear in her mild, pink-cheeked, fair-haired male quarry – ‘the very model of Victorian womanhood, in fact’, Hughes says – but with no connection to his clothing. At a country house weekend, Mrs Headway appears on Sunday morning in a cloud of white, with ribbon-studded ruffles; she walks with him in the grounds while the others are at church, her flattering costume suggesting Madame de Pompadour receiving Louis XV: ‘dreadfully un-British and un-Protestant’, the disapproving narrator thinks.

Mrs Headway seduces men with her dresses, her innocent white also suggesting an ease and freedom bordering on licence. The first evening, she keeps the assembled dinner guests waiting impatiently for her daily full-dress descent of the stairs. The fashion plates Hughes includes remind us of what James doesn’t describe: in the mid-1880s, the skirts of dinner dresses fitted closely over the hips and thighs, with much fabric and trim creating a large bustle and train at the back. Each downward step would show the movement of the thighs inside the skirt and create a wake of rhythmic sounds and visible shifts in the large structure behind. James mentions only the rustle: the colour didn’t matter.

Hughes refers to James’s great interest in Sargent’s sensation-creating portrait of the real-life Amélie Gautreau (‘Madame X’), whose social career was ruined by it. The lady pictured – also an American adventuress, but at that moment a notorious Parisian adulteress – wears a sleeveless, décolleté and unadorned black satin dress; one tiny chain-like strap has fallen from her shoulder, the other is in place. Sargent had to alter the picture to replace the shockingly fallen shoulder-strap, after James wrote that ‘the lady appears half-stripped,’ and another critic said: ‘One more struggle, and the lady will be free.’ But much of the uproar was surely created by the uninterrupted expanse of skin above the dress, the absence of jewellery or gloves, the implied nakedness of her back and armpits. She appears half-undressed even now, with both little gold chains in place. With no jewels or gloves, Amélie’s exposed, red and vulva-like ear alone adorns the extensive white nakedness of her cheek and neck; her chest and shoulders and arms and hands are all balanced only by the shapely black below. The dress looks incomplete, much as the first 20th-century strapless evening gown did in 1938. Even its bustle and train don’t show. Amélie, moreover, stands off-balance: she leans on one hand against a small table and turns her head away. It was all too suggestive for the decorous Paris salon of 1884, and so was the lady herself. The portrait called scandalised attention both to Amélie’s beauty and to her amours, one of which seemed to be in progress in the picture. James’s ambitious, white-clad American would never take such risks with her behaviour, clothing or portrait-painter.

The white female garments in another of James’s stories from the mid-1880s are wholly anti-seductive, even austere. ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ is narrated by a young American obsessed with an English writer who is famous for a novel expounding the aesthetic mode of experience; the reader infers a veiled celebration of antique homosexuality. During the young man’s visit to their home, the writer’s beautiful, blonde wife, ‘delicate and quiet, in a white dress’, seems amazingly uninterested in her husband’s writing and at odds with him about their little son, whom she dislikes to see accepting his father’s care and love. Her only ornament is a miniature of the child worn on a black ribbon around her neck; it’s there to sound a warning note. Hughes calls it James’s ‘fallen shoulder-strap’, a sign of things not said but sensed.

The wife appears at dinner in a white dress of ‘well-starched muslin’; occasionally she ‘arranged the puckers’. Hughes rightly points out that its fashionable cuirass bodice would have turned it into an ‘armour of light’, though it also has overtones of a shirred surplice. In contrast, the author’s sister, also present for dinner, looks as lank and dank as something out of a Burne-Jones painting. The next day, this Aesthetic Movement sister, in a ‘sad-coloured robe’ with ‘serpentine folds’, is described as ‘sibylline’; in part through her, our hero learns more about the moral opposition of the spouses, and of the abrupt serious illness of their ever more angelic little boy.

On the last morning, the wife sends the doctor away without letting him see the sick child and, in a white dressing-gown, appears as the Angel of Death. The ever more fatuous visitor has persuaded her to read her husband’s latest, most explicit manuscript; and she deliberately lets their son die of diphtheria before his father can contaminate him. In this story, and in ‘The Siege of London’, James’s women demonstrate that for writers (and often for painters), white clothes are the most graphic: where black and colours lurk and fuse, or retreat and confuse, white makes sharp points clear.

Hughes’s essay on George Eliot deals with dress in historical novels, opposing her success in Middlemarch (1873) to her comparative earlier failure in Romola (1863). Fictional dress, which embodies morals and manners and provides colour, plays a large part in creating a convincing historical reality. Rich sartorial language with no reference to bodily experience will make the past notional and fantastic, whereas six words about how it was to wear a helmet or use a purse will fix a truthful moment. Eliot studied 15th-century Florentine dress for Romola, and readers fed up with ‘robes’ and ‘mantles’ will find it refreshingly specific. Hughes, however, agrees with James that Eliot overdid the detail and made it weigh down the narrative, like those early Pre-Raphaelite painters whose relentless historical precision makes for a heavy Victorian look instead of conjuring a vanished past.

In Middlemarch, however, set in and around 1830, Eliot wrote tellingly about what she had seen in her own impressionable childhood and adolescence, sometimes abandoning her omniscient narration to speak feelingly as if remembering (something she had done before in The Mill on the Floss). Details fix character, and Hughes shows how this works in the female principals’ costumes, the contrasting wardrobes of deep Dorothea and shallow Rosamond. Eliot repeatedly rings changes on her opening proposition – ‘Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress’ – with an affectionate irony that conveys Dorothea’s absurdities as part of her charm. The ‘poor dress’ is never poor, only simple; but it is unmodish, and has a strong dissident effect among the wearers of provincial bourgeois fashion. Of these the star is Rosamond, whose golden crown of braids and swan-like neck are set off by perfectly fitting blue silk dresses, embroidered collars, complex quilling inside her bonnet, and ‘a controlled self-consciousness of manner which the expensive substitute for simplicity’.

Aristocracy lies behind Dorothea’s plain but fine toilettes (with ‘sleeves hanging all out of the fashion’) along with inherited Puritan avoidance of show; but Hughes points out that for her honeymoon in Rome Eliot dresses her fashionably. Even while she’s being admired by an art student as a Madonna, and compared to a draped classical statue by the narrator, her round white halo-like bonnet and soft grey dress are perfectly chic in Romantic 1830. Hughes suggests that high-minded Dorothea, finding insufficient suffering to alleviate on her new husband’s estate, has used her ample means and time to concentrate on dressing effectively for public appearances abroad.

Far from not caring what she wears, Dorothea uses superior elegance in dress, which follows an abstract ideal of beauty, purposely to distance herself from any commonly desired fashionable prettiness. We learn, moreover, that the fair-haired, silk-clad Rosamond does not despise Dorothea as unfashionable but looks up to her as ‘someone grand to impress’: Rosamond likes to excite envy for her own perfect finery, and Dorothea duly admires her perfection. But Dorothea’s own fine clothes, a deliberate display of her high mind, are also very becoming, and she need envy no one’s beauty.

As Hughes points out, after Rosamond’s marriage we hear no more of her clothes (‘they have done their work’), but Dorothea’s remain important. Her author pokes fun at her for her exaggeratedly unbecoming widow’s weeds – another careful costume, now for enacting the high drama of self-immolation. Eliot soon gets her out of it, so that love can find her at last. Unlike Austen, this writer really didn’t care a great deal about her own clothes; but she had a keen eye and ear for how much everyone else cared about their own and each other’s.

The use of dress as costume for a specific role is important in Hughes’s study of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905). At the novel’s climax, just as the precariously high-living Lily Bart begins to lose prestige, fortune, luck and life, she appears at a party in a solo tableau vivant, clad only in white classical drapery as the subject of a famous Reynolds portrait. Her aim is to look like the embodiment of high ideals, as Dorothea always dressed to do; but drapery over nudity provokes only lewd laughter from the coarse males in her audience, and her tottering reputation falls instead of renewing itself. Only Lily’s sensitive but ineligible admirer and her poor female friend see her as she intended; her chosen dissolute world despises and crushes her. She had mistakenly thought that the simple white costume would reveal her higher, better self. She forgot she was on a stage under lights, showing off her curves in front of everyone, with no other self on view.

Hughes is especially good at letting us see the mentions of fashion that her chosen writers didn’t dwell on because they were understood in their time. Nevertheless, there are one or two points she misses. After quoting from a Braddon novel of 1884 about the heroine’s shopping spree, Hughes infers that although her luxurious wedding dress will be made to order, the girl is also buying several ready-made dresses. But in 1884 only outerwear and bonnets were sold ready-made: all ‘dresses’ bought in shops would have been dress-lengths of stuff, not garments. The ‘quantities of lace’ this lady also buys would have been used as trim in making them, by herself or by a dressmaker. Hughes sees remodelling only as a resource of the less well-off, but it was common at all levels; Tolstoy describes the richly clad Anna Karenina having one of her bodices remade. It was no disgrace to let precious fabric be reborn in changed form.

In her final chapter, Hughes adds Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa to the white-clad attire (Clarissa makes a shroud from her wedding dress), as well as Dickens’s Miss Havisham. The macabre minutiae of Miss Havisham’s forever worn but never properly used bridal costume eerily confirm the blighting effect that describing a wedding dress can have on marriage. We can almost feel the ceremony being forestalled as the novelist writes each deadly line.