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date: 07 March 2021

Fashion in 20th-Century Literaturefree

  • Cristina GiorcelliCristina GiorcelliUniversità degli Studi Roma Tre


In the Western world, for centuries, clothes were generally seen as indexes of vanity and seduction, and thus stigmatized. Since the birth of fashion in the second half of the 19th century, however, they have finally come to be regarded as one of the manifestations of a society’s culture, and, as the actual “stuff” of any period’s life, they have gradually figured more prominently in literary works. From modernism to post-modernism, from Blaise Cendrars and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bret Easton Ellis and William Gibson, fashion and clothes have indeed signified by revealing individualities, suggesting intentions, manifesting a propensity for play and irony, favoring interpersonal encounters, hinting at class and/or gender relations, and showing connections within the social “fabric.” Today, fashion’s prevailing “mix and match” technique—in which references to designers’ own previous creations and to the medium’s past are frequently made—may be inspired or echoed by writers’ ample employment of self-referentiality and intertextuality: in both media attendant discontinuities and aleatory combinations, on the one hand, invite viewers/readers to create their own style/interpretation, and, on the other, establish a diversified continuum, helping to revive the past in new forms.


To tackle this subject, the fundamental question is, “What is the relationship between textile and text?” Or, even, “What do words do for dress?”1

In the long interview that Diana Vreeland—fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—granted as a kind of autobiography, one reads, “Where would fashion be without literature?”2 The italicized verb is meant—one assumes—to emphasize the role and function that literature plays vis-à-vis fashion: that of giving permanence to what is, by its intrinsic nature, impermanent. In fact, as Coco Chanel (1883–1971) had crisply declared some decades earlier, “A mode becomes demoded.”3

Incidentally but analogously, without the support of other artistic forms, such as the visual4—in ancient times: pottery incisions, tomb inscriptions, murals, mosaics, bas-reliefs, and sculptures—one would know very little of the clothing of the past and, thus, of the way of life of bygone civilizations. What would one know, for example, of Assyrian tunics and shawls, their edges trimmed with fringes and tassels, or of Egyptian pleated fabrics or of the chitons Etruscan women wore under elegant shawls, if it weren’t for the artifacts brought to light by archeologists? And, in the late Renaissance, didn’t Agnolo Bronzino, for instance, convey the magnificence of the 16th-century Medici court through his portraits of Eleanor of Toledo5 in her elaborate and sumptuous costumes and jewels? And, from the end of the 19th century, haven’t photographs, films, and, more recently, installations transmitted the political, social, and moral ethos of specific periods through the clothes and accessories they present? For a contemporary example, one need only think of the installations of the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare: his headless dummies dressed in 18th- or 19th-century British costumes made from Dutch wax–printed cottons comment on, and question, issues of cultural identity, race, and class, along with those of colonialism. In our illusionistic age, one (and future scholars of our art and/or society) might ponder Alex Seton’s everyday clothes carved in marble: as they provide the exact shape as well as the almost tactile sensation evoked by the sculptured fabrics, they testify to both our appearance and our outlook on life. In effect, dress and decoration “are powerful ways to articulate aspects of the self, compose identities, and assert particular relationships with a wearer’s habitus”—namely, “the relationship between a particular body and its lived milieu, the space occupied by bodies and constituted by bodily actions.”6 As Kaja Silverman has affirmed, “Clothing is a necessary condition of subjectivity […] in articulating the body it simultaneously articulates the psyche.”7 In their own ways and with varying degrees of reciprocal influence, clothes have thus been connected to the other arts since antiquity.

Of Fashion and Literature

Reflecting on the relation between fashion and literature,8 one realizes there is something substantial that links the two milieus, different though they might seem: apparel and written language, garments and written words; the former, spatial, the latter, temporal and spatial, in certain respects.9 Indeed, not by chance, textile and text share a common etymology and likewise both depend on materials (threads and graphic/typed letters), on the people who use them (spinners and writers), and on their need to be woven.10 In addition, if garments are intended for the body and adhere to it so as to become one with it, in order to demonstrate the intriguing and fascinating relationship between corporeality and language one should not forget that, from a theological point of view, according to the Jewish Bible, the world11 was created with the Word, that thus was seen as possessing the potential and the potency to become matter, and in the Christian Gospels, the Word became flesh.12 From an historical perspective, in the Western world by the mid-19th century, clothes and accessories were becoming less stigmatized than they ever had been. Already considered the mirror of history by Louis XIV, in those decades, clothes and accessories started to be looked at as reflections of the individual’s self-image, communicating aspects of his or her personality. Thanks to developments in textile and manufacturing technologies (one paramount example being the patenting of the sewing machine in 1842)13 as well as in techniques of mass production—like advertising and distribution—fashion trends began to affect broader sections of society. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), sociologist Thorstein Veblen argued that clothes were the instruments by which a bourgeois, consumerist society could actually construe and proclaim their wearers’ wealth and social status. Since literature is one of the many-faceted records of human experience, it is no surprise that, from the second half of the 19th century, apparel has gradually entered more and more into its milieu. Nowadays, from a rhetorical and analogical point of view, Elizabeth Wilson observes that “Dress is the cultural metaphor for the body, it is the material with which we ‘write’ or ‘draw’ a representation of the body into our cultural context.”14 And Alison Lurie goes as far as to maintain that clothing is a visual language that possesses its own distinctive grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. In Aileen Ribeiro’s opinion, “Fashion itself can be said to produce fiction.”15 If, however, fashion talks, then so do clothes: both have an inescapable significance in literary works.

At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the first writers to bridge the gap between clothes and language was the Swiss-French poet Blaise Cendrars, who, on seeing the “simultaneous” dress created by the painter and fashion designer Sonia Delaunay in 1913, wrote the disconcerting poem “Sur la robe elle a un corps” (“Over the dress she has a body”).16 At a time when cars and machines were becoming ever-present, Delaunay’s dresses—with their broken and asymmetrical lines, strong colors, and juxtapositions of fabrics—“simultaneously” gave the impression of a physical and a psychic dynamism that involved and represented both the body and the mind. Destabilizing the relation between truth and appearance, depth and surface, shape and ornament, Delaunay’s clothes were a sort of autobiography: she seemed to write herself on herself, integrating, as it were, clothing with the body and self-knowledge.17 In the section “Objects,” from Tender Buttons (1914)—in which several items of clothing appear—Gertrude Stein seems to capture the rhythm of Delaunay’s clothes in the poem “A Long Dress,” in which she writes: “What is the current that makes machinery, that/makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a/long line and a necessary waist. […] only a white and red are/black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is/scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it./A line just distinguishes it.”18

The Role of the Reader

In the Western world, clothes and accessories were seen as tools of seduction, vanity, and extravagance from the earliest ages (as the Jewish Bible testifies).19 In fact, for centuries they were not given much importance in serious literature, except when mentioned in order to chastise their wearers. As a consequence, clothes—it is debatable whether one should talk of fashion before the middle of the 19th century20—were mainly viewed as a hygienic, counter-charms, and moral protection, or, for the rich and famous, as a means of displaying their importance. Roland Barthes observes that, in the past, “[e]very social condition had its garment[…], since the gap between the classes was itself considered to be natural. So, on the one hand, clothing was subject to an entirely conventional code, but on the other, this code referred to a natural order, or even better to a divine order.”21 In effect, to keep people under control and confer absolute supremacy on the rich and famous, from the 13th to the 17th century clothing was subject to sumptuary laws: one’s garments, accessories, and fabrics were prescribed according to the socio-economic class to which one belonged.

As if religion and social hierarchies were not enough, Western philosophy also failed to take clothes and accessories into serious account. Similar to other thinkers, G.W. Friedrich Hegel—referring in general to women, but also, implicitly, to the way they dressed—held that “Women have culture, ideas, taste, elegance, but they cannot attain to the ideal.”22 As apparel belongs to the fallen world of matter and shifting surfaces, it is diametrically opposed to the Western concept of the “ideal” as a substance and a value that are unchanging.

For all these reasons, even in relatively liberal times, clothes and accessories were generally not described at length in literature; they tended rather to be conveyed through selected and selective details. Yet, although they were often “visually imprecise,” clothes were indispensable (by and large, characters had to be dressed and, in many situations, also adorned), and, occasionally, highly significant, as “it [was] sometimes necessary to make [them] dramatically cogent.”23 This being the case, the questions posed at the start of this article—including Vreeland’s rhetorical one—might well be qualified by a further one: What is the role of readers—conditioned as they are by their education, sensibility, moods, and the tastes and circumstances of their own times—in bestowing a certain duration, albeit one that might shift, on written fashion? In effect, when clothes and accessories (or details of either) are to be found in literary writings, until quite recently readers (professional critics included) tended to disregard them as trivial and thus negligible, or, at most, to hone in only on their “symbolic” meaning. This was especially true as far as color was concerned: for the most part, white was seen to stand for purity, red for passion, and black for anything sinister or morbid. For centuries, therefore, religious, social, and philosophical prejudices against clothing lived on—and they did so in the academy too.24

The First Fashion Theorists

Historically, it was only after the French Revolution, around the beginning of the 19th century, that Western clothes began to be judged from a cultural, and even from an ontological, perspective. The first to ponder fashion and its purport were indeed writers—and of high literature. Economists, sociologists, psychoanalysts, and anthropologists (such as Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, J. C. Flügel, and Ernest Crawley) followed. So when, and thanks to whom, did fashion enter the realm of cultural reflection? In other words, when, and thanks to whom, did clothing begin to appear literally as “the stuff” of life?

The first Western author to take on the essence of fashion was the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi in his essay “The Dialogue of Fashion and Death” (1824). After presenting herself to Death as his sister (as both are, she says, the children of Caducity), Fashion claims that they have similar roles: by making men and women who love her do everything she dictates, Fashion forces people to put up with weariness and discomfort—and, at times, with pain and mutilation. Moreover, having introduced customs and manners that render existence more dead than alive, and having shown people that, once dead, immortality would be a foolish achievement, Fashion affirms that she has strengthened Death’s power. This dialogue takes place as Fashion and Death, busy as they are, run about madly together. Leopardi’s concept of fashion would be taken up by Walter Benjamin in the following century. A few years after Leopardi, Balzac considered clothes the most powerful of symbols and saw them as the expression of the society that devises them. In his novels and, above all, in his Treatise on the Elegant Life (1830), he goes so far as to make of his descriptions of clothes a physiology of appearances. As a profound connoisseur and exegete of clothes, he also memorably declares, “Nothing dies, everything changes.”25 The philosophical implications of this affirmation would also be elaborated by Benjamin.

Just a few years after Balzac, Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (1836)26 availed himself of a sartorial metaphor (as the title indicates) to discuss a truth originally suggested by Jonathan Swift’s question in A Tale of a Tub (1704): “What is Man himself but a Micro-Coat, or rather a complete Suit of Clothes with all its Trimmings?” Speculating on religion, government, and other public institutions—seen as garments that humans sew to clothe themselves—Carlyle viewed apparel as the shroud of matter thanks to which the spirit makes its appearance in a world of sensible experience. He also maintains, somewhat epigrammatically, that “Clothes gave us individuality, distinctions, social polity; Clothes have made Men of us; they are threatening to make Clothes-screens of us.”27

It was, however, Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé who completely changed the way in which clothes and accessories had been regarded. They acknowledged that fashion was both a cultural phenomenon (partaking as it does of both craft and art) and the epitome of the modern (in French, it is as if the terms mode and modernité derive from each other). The times were ripe for such a recognition: they lived in the age in which an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth (1825–1895), revolutionized the business of fashion and turned it into an industry in line with the emergent consumerism of a capitalist economy. In 1858, Worth established his salon in Paris and became the father of haute couture. Indeed, it is in urban areas, where money is more easily spent and a sense of self more freely developed, that fashion is born and prospers. Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) asserts that modern beauty consists of “an eternal, invariable element […] and of a relative, circumstantial element,”28 which is “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.”29 In his opinion, fashion turns the natural body into a sublime (albeit transitory) presence. As such, he embodied modern beauty in the woman who walks along the Parisian boulevards and, en passant, shows off her elegant clothes. According to him, because the woman’s personality cannot be separated from her clothes, body and clothes form an inseparable whole: exterior and interior converge in her.

Mallarmé’s eight articles on fashion—written under female pseudonyms and published in the review he founded in 1874, La dernière mode—testify to his extraordinary sensibility in extolling the magnificence, as well as the tactile and sensory qualities, of clothes and jewelry: fabrics’ textures—even the rustling sounds they make—garments’ shapes and colors, and stones’ cut and radiance. Like Baudelaire, he believed that fashion, evanescent and short-lived, is the goddess of appearance. His descriptions not only detailed the latest fashion items, but were also a poetic evocation of modern beauty as epitomized by clothing. He was probably the first to see literature (and language) as the visual, rhythmic, onomatopoeic, richly semantic, and, thus, synesthetic means to preserve the fleeting presence of fashion forever.


There is a potentially subversive and transgressive aspect in apparel: for centuries it generally signaled (and constructed) gender differences. In fact, if clothes and accessories cover us in the sense that they guard the body (they are our social shield), they can also cover us in the sense that they disguise the body. As Lurie puts it, “You can lie in the language of dress.”30 Appearances can be manipulated by clothing, contributing to a confusion, if not also a usurpation, of identity. When women were not allowed on the stage, cross-dressing was the norm (in Elizabethan theater, for instance). Since transvestism/cross-dressing31 is based on the fluidity and transformative power of clothes, it perfectly corresponds to the fluidity of gender.32 As Marjorie Garber claims, cross-dressing may be seen as a critique of binary thinking in that it breaks the binary gender distinction.33 By questioning the two categories of “female” and “male,” it creates a third mode of expression as a means of describing another possible space: it is a bridge that crosses from one category to another. In effect, identities had begun to be perceived as fluid in the early 19th century (although Shakespeare, especially in some of the comedies, had already explored such “mutability”). In 1835, Théophile Gautier published Mademoiselle de Maupin, a novel acclaimed for its transvestite protagonist. Ten years later, in 1845, Margaret Fuller affirmed, “Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another […] There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”34 At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of philosophers, physicians, and psychiatrists studied transvestism and homosexuality (from Otto Weininger to Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing), and a number of writers were interested in these issues (from Radclyffe Hall to Hilda Doolittle). In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, in which the gender roles of the protagonist switch: Orlando’s amorous inclinations change frequently, as do her/his clothes, which are used to identify, conceal, reveal, and disguise gender. In particular, in emphasizing the tactile qualities of the fabric, Orlando’s silk dress is singled out as the means through which s/he comes to know her/himself both physically and psychically. As Woolf maintains, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes […] change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”35 Years later, Woolf’s nephew, the writer and artist Quentin Bell, perceptively remarks that clothing is “a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul.”36 Another complex case of transvestism lies at the core of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936): its protagonists, Robin Vote and Dr. Matthew O’Connor, change clothes and gender identity in a sort of mise en abyme of transvestism.

Before Woolf tackled this subject, however, there occurred the innovations in clothing brought about by Chanel. In order to give mobility to women—a mobility that would allow them to carry out new working roles in society and to see themselves (and be seen) as changing the norms of gender—Chanel employed fabrics (jersey, corduroy, tweed) and items of clothing (trousers) conventionally regarded as masculine to create seductive garments for women.37 In the 1920s, on both sides of the Atlantic, the flapper, the garçonne—who had received her dyadic definition in Victor Margueritte’s 1922 homonymous novel—embodied this androgynous “new” New Woman,38 who struck attitudes and adopted habits (manners and clothes) that were deemed quintessentially masculine: she smoked, dated promiscuously, drove a car, and wore under garments that flattened her chest, hips, and buttocks. Zelda Fitzgerald’s article “Eulogy on the Flapper” (1922)39 gives a clear indication of what the new way of dressing and accessorizing meant for the women who chose it.40 Interestingly, around those years, men and women sported similar white flannel trousers. Prufrock, for instance, wears them in T.S. Eliot’s poem (1915), as do Denis Stone in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (1921), Nick Carraway and Dick Diver in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934), respectively, and, as late as 1940, Lindsay Marriott in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Fashion was heading toward a form of unisex garb. It is thus not surprising that, when commenting on Fitzgerald’s fiction, Leslie Fiedler would argue that several of his male characters think, act, and are postured like “females.”41 Suspicions of femininity also arise, for example, with regard to Horace Benbow, the flannel-wearing character of William Faulkner’s Flags in the Dust (1927).

Returning to the masculine attire of women, it must be taken into consideration that the impact of film costumes on fashion trends became inescapable from the 1920s on.42 In 1930, in the film Morocco—based on the novel Amy Jolly (1927) by the French-German writer Benno Vigny—Marlene Dietrich created a scandal by wearing a tuxedo that highlighted her sexually ambiguous looks and postures. It was only in 1966, however, that Yves Saint Laurent proposed the irreverent “Le Smoking” tuxedo suit for women, empowering them with clothes (and short, slicked-back hair) that, until then, had only been worn by men of influence.43 By the time Laurent presented his creation, fashion had become so popular that it was an unavoidable means of communication: as Marshall McLuhan declared two years later, “Fashion is the Medium.”44 Thus not accidentally, over a decade later, from 1980 still 1990s,, a tailored skirt suit with padded shoulders, in gray, blue, or navy, occasionally accessorized with bows and sparse, discreet jewelry, became the professional garb of the career or business woman. This suit, meant to suggest ambition and responsibility (for centuries, male prerogatives), resembled a man’s suit, and was a statement that underlined occupation rather than gender. In a matter-of-fact way, it put gender ambiguity into practice, because, as Oscar Wilde had predicted, “similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits.” One has but to think of the masculine evolution in hairstyles and clothes that characterizes the protagonist’s climb to success in—to take another example from films—Working Girl (1988), based on the script by writer Kevin Wade.

In addition to emphasizing how each human being partakes of more than one gender, transvestism/cross-dressing is now adopted and acknowledged (in life and in literature) not so much as a means to deceive others or to reveal one’s inner identity, but, since it facilitates the discovery of different aspects of the self, as a playful and amusing practice. In its transgendered version, it may also serve to challenge the (male) rules that govern society, as in Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968).

Clothes as Fetishes

According to Freud, fetishes stand, paradoxically, both for the presence of an absence (the mother’s phallus)45 and for indexes of its absence: they simultaneously deny and conjure up the objects they replace.46 As Valerie Steele points out, however, because fashion “is a symbolic system linked to the expression of sexuality—both sexual behavior (including erotic attraction) and gender identity,” fetishism has turned into an integral part of mainstream fashion for both men and women.47 Influenced, in particular, by Baudelaire, Benjamin—who believed that the most typical characteristic of fashion is that of denying the final destination of things: death and destruction—saw fashion as the topos of fetishism: “Every fashion couples the living body to the inorganic world. To the living, fashion defends the rights of the corpse. The fetishism that succumbs to the sex appeal of the inorganic is its vital nerve.”48 In his opinion, fashion implies an oxymoron: as it decrees the eternity of the moment, it connects life with death.49 For they channel longing and desire, and rely on fantasy, fetishes, besides fueling exhibitionism and voyeurism, have often become food for literature: above all, those items of clothing that, worn close to the body, are shaped by the body (women’s underwear,50 shoes,51 and gloves), but also bags52and earrings,53 among others.

Marcel Proust is one of the many writers, who, like Poe, Baudelaire, de Sade, the French symbolists, and the Surrealists—and like much popular literature (such as fairy tales)54—resorted to clothing items to present his characters’ impulses. In his Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927), one may recall the importance assigned to Odette’s corsets (and their implicit tight lacings, with their manifold sexual connotations)55 or to tea-gowns (so allusive to underwear). As to be expected, a prominent role is given to bodices and petticoats in Pauline Réage’s erotic/pornographic novel The Story of O (1954). Mrs. Danvers’s cult of her mistress’s garments is overtly fetishistic in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), as are Humbert Humbert’s paedophilic musings over the adolescent protagonist’s garments in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). With reference to women’s shoes, Italo Calvino asserts: “[the shoe’s] form (its cause and end) is determined by the need to place both heel and toe firmly on the ground and, at the same time, lift them up, detaching them from and putting up resistance to the dust, dirt, or debris lying beneath […] The seductive power of a woman’s shoe is perverse […]: it mingles the height of refinement with direct contact, accepted without shame, with what is degrading.”56 Something similar may have been on Salvador Dalí’s mind when, in 1937, he designed the famous shoe-hat for the “shockingly”57 eccentric designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973). In Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (1963), the speaking voice takes off her clothes like a striptease artist performing for a voyeuristic “peanut-crunching crowd.”58 If her body, disrobed piece by piece, becomes a commodity, the actual clothes that covered this fragmented body—a fragmentation reiterated by the different linguistic registers (Latinate, idiomatic, slangy) and by the sardonic references to past and contemporary lyric poetry (from Shakespeare and Coleridge to Eliot)—acquire an exhibitionistically fetishistic dimension. According to Freud’s “Fetishism,” fur and velvet may also function as fetishes in that they call to mind pubic hair. As a luxurious fashion item of the Jazz Age, many types of fur (soft, warm, glossy, and, being animal-derived, evocative of cruelty) are worn or mentioned by Gloria Gilbert throughout Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Among the items of clothing employed in literature for fetishism and erotic appeal, one may also recall Leon’s gloves in Colette’s Claudine and Annie (1903) or Pierre’s belt in Anaïs Nin’s “Elena,” in Delta of Venus (1977). Some writers have also resorted to fetishist objects to portray male domination over women (contextually turned into commodities: dolls, puppets, or mannequins),59 as in some of Angela Carter’s stories in The Bloody Chamber (1979) and in Black Venus (1985). Today, however, because behavioral norms are less rigid than in the past, objects once regarded as fetishes may be innocently worn simply to amuse oneself.60

The Exotic

Now that McLuhan’s “global village” has become a reality, one reaction to it seems to be an increased desire for Otherness. It has been claimed that “the term ‘exoticism’ can be used in two ways. It can refer either to the enticing, fetishized quality of a fashion or style, or to foreign or rare motifs. […] exotic looks are all the more effective as techniques of display.”61 As for the former acceptation, let us remember that at the beginning of the 20th century it was the French fashion innovator Paul Poiret (1879–1944) who introduced exotic fabrics, motifs, and methods (draping as opposed to tailoring) for the items of clothing he created (turbans, kimonos, caftans), taking inspiration (among other styles of dress) also from Léon Bakst’s costumes for the Ballets Russes (1909). Having eliminated corsets, the many layers of petticoats, and any superfluous decoration, he was the first to design garments that, with their structural simplicity and flowing lines, freed the female body and rendered it beguilingly attractive. As for exoticism’s second acceptation, clothes and clothing practices traditionally play an important role in the genre of travel writing. In Western literatures, this is particularly true when such texts (narratives, poems, diaries, letters) present.

African or Oriental modes of dressing, and when the point of view is that of the colonizer toward the (former) colonized. In fact, Western clothes were generally used by colonizers to impose their customs, while indigenous clothes were generally used by the colonized to resist such impositions. Since they tend to be employed for purposes of stereotypical generalization, exotic clothes and accessories—apart from evidencing the singularity of cut, design, fabric, and the various materials utilized—are frequently detailed in order to project unchanging, timeless, primitive (and, therefore, unsophisticated) habits (it is no coincidence that costume and custom share the same etymology). Consequently, they are often exploited to mark identities that, being alien, extraneous, and divergent, are possibly also dangerous. Indeed, as Edward Said maintained,62 the “exotic” (as an extension of the “orientalist”) is an invention of the Western mind. Characters (and writers), therefore, tend to look to (and describe) the attire of the Other with mixed feelings of admiration and fascination, but also of fear and disgust. Countless literary works have shown clothes and accessories to be the essential characteristics of the Other: from Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862), Pierre Loti’s Le roman d’un Spahi (1881), and Pierre Benoît’s L’Atlantide (1919), to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), from Edith Wharton’s In Morocco (1920) to Pearl S. Buck’s Imperial Woman (1956) and Kate McCafferty’s Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl (2002). A human being, even if s/he was born and lives in the Western world, can be exoticized, however, when s/he belongs to an “other” ethnicity. For instance, the way in which Helga Crane, the mulatto protagonist of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928), is dressed by her white Danish relatives is revealing and extremely mordant. Although she has excellent taste and follows fashion’s dictates, in order to exalt her mulatto traits and thus her “difference,” Nella is given to wear “batik dresses in which mingled indigo, orange, green, vermilion, and black […] a black Manila shawl strewn with great scarlet and lemon flowers, a leopard-skin coat […], turban-like hats of metallic silks, feathers and furs, strange jewelry, enameled or set with odd semi-precious stones, a nauseous Easter perfume.”63 What she wears is fashionable, but, redundant and flamboyant, it is what is considered apt for a marginalized individual. Sarcastically, Larsen cautions her readers that Helga feels like a “veritable savage” decked out in this way.64

Following the rise of ethnic literatures in many countries, clothes are of particular interest when described by writers who, far from their family’s place of origin, live in the Western world where they try to establish their ubi consistam. One such work by an artist of multicultural origin is Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990). In it, one can detect a new, perspective: partaking of two cultures, clothes and accessories are seen from two angles or, rather, in Homi Bhabha’s words, from a “third space,” from an “in-between space,” that, thanks to the “inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity,” dismantles the Manichean categories of prevailing representations.65

One of the most exotic forms of decoration, and much in vogue today, is the tattoo. Of Polynesian origin, it provides “both a badge of identity and a personal signature” for its wearer.66 One only has to think of the complex meanings of tattoos in, say, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), or Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1951).

Between the 19th and the 20th Centuries

Women’s Clothes

Even though some earlier writers understood the expressive power of clothes (from Goethe and Stendhal to Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Nikolai Gogol, William Thackeray, and Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance), it is especially from around the second half of the 19th century that writers (and women writers, in particular) have increasingly and insightfully resorted to apparel in order to allude to (if not actually to describe) characters’ personalities, class, and circumstances in their works. To name but a few: Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Anzia Yezierska, Theodore Dreiser,67 and Kate Chopin. Being the courageous and innovative artist she was, Chopin, for one, centered some of her stories precisely on clothing (be they stockings or bloomers)68 and indicated its importance in memorable scenes in The Awakening (1899). Toward the end of the 19th century, another writer who was very knowledgeable in matters of fashion and paid a discriminating attention to the way he dressed and accessorized his characters was Henry James, a precursor of modernism. It has been eloquently argued69 that as an admirer of Balzac70 and a fine estimator of the visual arts,71 James understood the significance of apparel in presenting and defining a character, although he never lingered on this aspect too long. As he wrote that, in reading a work of fiction, one must “guess the unseen from the seen,” try to “trace the implication of things,”72 and consider that “every touch must count,”73 these admonishments may be taken as also valid when investigating his use of clothing. Toward the end of The Ambassadors (1903),74 for example, Lambert Strether is finally able to reach a decisive conclusion after accidentally noticing the fashionable pink sunshade sheltering Madame de Vionnet,75 accompanied by Chad, in the boat on the river.76

When the 19th century turned into the 20th, while undergoing basic changes in order to answer their wearers’ new demands, women’s clothes were employed in literature and/or in critical writings not only to define characters’ personalities or the times’ tastes and trends, but also to resist fashion’s dictates.

American sociologist and novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who waged a strenuous battle over the conventionally fashionable female clothes of the beginning of the 20th century, particularly in her pamphlet “The Dress of Women,” published in installments in The Forerunner (1915). She judged most contemporary feminine apparel to be preposterous and inimical to women’s physical and emotional welfare as well as to their potential tasks—tasks that would be profitable to them and to society. Gilman did not play down the role of clothing; on the contrary, she claimed with notable foresight that “cloth is a social tissue,”77 but fought against its exaggerations and lack of comfort. In her utopian novels Herland (1915) and With Her in Ourland (1916), she dressed her female characters according to her own principles, based on practicality (skirts, for instance, had to have pockets) and freedom of movement. (At the end of the 19th century, the invention of the bicycle became a decisive agent in women’s mobility and independence, and was also conducive to the creation of appropriate clothing; i.e., knickerbockers and the divided skirt).78 In utopian writings, incidentally, clothes play a crucial role: usually plain and unvarying, they are upheld as indexes of rationality and efficiency, implicitly or explicitly stigmatizing those that, either formerly or in those same years, were designed and worn.79 In Gilman’s opinion, the times’ most outrageous item of female attire was the hat. In its last moment of glory in the history of Western fashion,80 it was very large and highly decorated with pins, feathers, ribbons, and even stuffed birds. Since, according to convention, well-to-do women could not go out without them, hats frequently appeared in literature. Shadowing the eyes, they were thought to add a touch of mystery and glamour, and thus turn into instruments of seduction—as in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure (1889) or in the writings of Edith Wharton. The latter—wealthy, well aware of social norms, and a lover of hats—not by chance portrays some of her poorer protagonists (the Bunner sisters, Lily Bart, and Mattie Silver)81 as carrying out milliners’ tasks: their trimming (or attempts at trimming) hats is meant to signal their delicacy of personality and taste, despite their being on the margins of society. On the contrary, in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1984), set in Saigon in the 1930s, a man’s fedora is defiantly worn by the adolescent protagonist who, rebelling against her drab environment, is about to break society’s ethical rules. Later in the 20th century a number of books were written by intellectuals and feminists—like Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949) or Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch (1970)—to denounce the oppressive, at times castrating, power of clothes. There have also been male writers who were very critical of fashion: for instance, Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain (1924) and—after a period of dedicated dandyism—Franz Kafka in “Clothes” (1912).

The Dandy

In the mid-19th century, the growth in industrialization, emergence of consumerism, and increase in urbanization elicited new possibilities for fashion. As Jennifer Craik has surmised, “Central to the new possibilities opened up by consumerism was the manipulation of appearances. […] [A]ppearance, complemented by ‘artifice and performance,’ combined in new registers of social etiquette and measures of achievements.”82 The century’s most revolutionary changes occurred in men’s clothing83: the austere (black or gray) suit (coat, vest, tight trousers, worn with shirt and cravat) represented the democratic principle and the moral (if hypocritical) rigor of the socially mounting bourgeoisie. Anything that might signal the wearer’s individuality was left to accessories: from spats and walking sticks to watch chains, gloves, snuff boxes, and hats (far from being secondary or subordinate items, accessories, in general, give access—as the word’s etymology indicates—to their wearer’s personality). This suit became “the forerunner of the modern business suit and the necktie”84 and developed from George “Beau” Brummell’s clothing innovations in the early 19th century. Through apparel, Brummell had aimed at highlighting its wearer’s (the dandy) individual subjectivity and personal refinement: two aspects that, eschewing ostentation, he took to an absolute, even metaphysical, level.85 As Wilson remarks, “The dandies invented Cool.”86

In England, in the 1950s and 1960s, a working-class version of the dandy’s suit for young men was that of the mods: with its button-down shirt collar, its bell-bottom pants, and its jacket’s narrow lapels, covered buttons, and slanted pockets, it was memorably described in Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959). An American version of the dandy’s outfit is the zoot suit. Created by black and Chicano dandies, it may be seen as a street variation on the traditional tailcoat suit. Its transgressive significance was taken up by, among others, Zora Neale Hurston in “Story in Harlem Slang” (1942), Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952), in Malcolm X’s Autobiography (1965), and, more recently, in the homonymous play by Luis Valdez (1978).

Another contemporary version of the dandy’s suit is that worn by journalist, essayist, and novelist Tom Wolfe, who has made a trademark of his white suit, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes. In his essay “Funky Chic,” Wolfe maintains that “fashion is a code, a symbolic vocabulary that offers a subrational but instant and very brilliant illumination of the characters of individuals and even entire periods.”87 In his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, he insists on the role of fashion in setting the mood of the times among the affluent and politically advanced people (the “radical chic”) of New York.88

There have been few structural innovations in men’s apparel in the 20th century,89 but there is one garment, based on military clothing, that still retains a “cool” factor: the trench coat. After World War I, in literature (and in films), it has become a “cult” item as the coat of detectives and men of the world: from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929) to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). Today, blurring gender boundaries, it may be worn by women as well as men: it is donned, for example, by agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the X-Files TV series (1993–2016) created by writer (and producer) Chris Carter. The difference between these two characters is determined by personality and expertise, as the coat puts them on an equal footing.90

Modernism and Late Modernism: Of Theory, Writers, and Designers

From a theoretical point of view, the two most important fashion critics in the 20th century have been Benjamin and Barthes. Stressing the interrelation between the eternal and the transitory in fashion (as Baudelaire had argued), Benjamin’s unfinished sociopolitical observations included in The Arcades Project (written between 1927 and 1940 and published posthumously) define fashion as “the eternal return of the new,” or, rather, of the new in the shape of the same: something that “constitutes the eternity of hell.”91 In his dialectical materialism, he thought that—since it does not progressively move toward a goal as it is constantly and erratically looking back—fashion makes “tiger’s leaps into the past”92and does not have a narrative.

An exhaustive and fruitful approach to the subject of fashion and writing, albeit not primarily literature, is Roland Barthes’s The Fashion System (1967)—a semiological analysis of the close bonds between fashion and the written word, as they are both systems of signs. Barthes claims that he does not take literary descriptions of clothes into consideration because, while significant, they are “too fragmentary, too variable historically to be of use.”93 Referring to the language of fashion magazines, however, he pertinently asks, “[C]an clothing signify without recourse to the speech that describes it, comments upon it, and provides it with signifiers and signifieds abundant enough to constitute a system of meaning?” And then he immediately posits that “without discourse there is no total Fashion, no essential Fashion.”94 He goes even further when he reflects that clothing in writing “mobilizes with great variety all the qualities of matter: substance, form, color, tactility, movement, rigidity, luminosity,” and that “touching the body and functioning simultaneously as its substitute and its mask, it is certainly the object of a very important investment.”95 This is also because, as he clearly states, the emphasis placed on aspects of clothing in writing “institutes […] a protocol of unveiling: the garment is unveiled according to a certain order, and this order inevitably implies certain goals.”96 Thus, it takes an active, intelligent reader to decode such substitutions, maskings, and unveilings. In Anne Hollander’s perceptive opinion, clothes can, in fact, be deciphered by “feeling the inner echo of visual memory and unconscious fantasy.”97

From the modernist and late modernist era (that is, from around the start of the 20th century to around the 1960s), the importance attributed to apparel did not come unexpected. On the one hand, fashion reflects social change (of which there was much during that period); on the other, writers realized the affinity between their own goals and those of fashion. Fashion, in fact, “is inherently given to irony and paradox; a new fashion starts from rejection of the old and often an eager embracing of what was previously considered ugly; […] it is a statement of the unnaturalness of human social arrangements; […] it is a statement of the arbitrary nature of convention and even of morality.”98 As heterogeneity, allusions, juxtapositions, and montages—together with a disposition for novelty, contradiction, the search for the absurd, and a love of style for style’s sake—had become paramount in literary experiments, writers noticed that these characteristics had always been pertinent to fashion. In addition, in their own different ways—while coming to terms with the dissolution of the unity of self as well as with the anguish caused by the transition from a (still) structured to a destructured (mass) society—fashion and literary writings joined in asserting the individual’s priority over social norms. At times, however, clothes—those now mass-manufactured consumers’ objects—helped establish emotional relationships between characters, as, for instance, in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North(1932).99

The two major modernist fashion trends were represented by the minimalism100 of Chanel (whose guiding principle—in the tradition of the dandy—was understatement: her “little black dress,” her costume jewelry, her loose-fitting sailor trousers) and by the sophisticated and surrealist creations of Schiaparelli. These two designers exerted a great influence on the way characters in fiction were dressed and adorned, providing a visual subtext to the plots: from Nicole’s clothes in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934),101 to his protagonists’ attires in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), to the garments in André Breton’s Nadja (1928), to Antonin Artaud’s costumes in his “theater of cruelty.” Years later, analogous attention to a female character’s clothes and accessories and to the way she carries them is to be found in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).102 Incidentally, Capote did not disdain to write for a magazine like Harper’s Bazaar: soon after World War II, given their wealthy readers and high fees, chic fashion magazines—with the aim of supporting the American woman, her way of life, and her independence from European models—began to attract talented writers. For instance, in The Bell Jar (1963)103 Plath recounts the eagerness with which her fictitious alter ego, going to work for Mademoiselle, pays attention to American newly-created clothes and accessories.104 From around the 1950s an item of blue-collar men’s clothing, durable and practical, was adopted by rebel youths and also by women (due to their involvement in working roles and sports activities): blue jeans (still in vogue today).105 And if, according to Umberto Eco, their fabric and cut impose an “exterior demeanor,” an “etiquette,” on the wearer’s body,106 they were elected as a statement of an alternative life-style by the Beats (Jack Kerouac’s On the Road [1957]). Later, for poet, novelist, and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975) they became the distinctive garment of the sordid and indecent Roman sub-proletariat, with its bourgeois ambitions and consumerist yearnings.107

In the 1960s, the most astonishing innovation in women’s clothing emerged from the culturally effervescent atmosphere of so-called Swinging London: Mary Quant’s miniskirt, that spoke of youth, joie de vivre, and liberation (the birth control pill had just been discovered). Also thanks to references to fashion and clothes, both Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975) and, twenty years later, Antonia S. Byatt’s Babel Tower (1996) have revived the climate of that decade.

The modernist and late modernist rise in popularity of costume jewelry should also be underlined: made of wood, bakelite, celluloid, crystals, fake gems, and inexpensive metals, imitation jewels, worn for decoration and whim rather than as status symbols, were intrinsically “democratic.” Ostentatious, colorful, generally large, and, in the case of bracelets or necklaces, worn in abundance, they conspicuously figure in the writings of authors like Barnes (especially in some of her newspaper tales, such as “The Terrible Peacock” [1914] and “The Terrorists” [1917]), but also in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and in the poetry and fiction of Charles Bukowski (1920–1994), in which the depravation and vulgarity of the urban downtrodden are presented also through their cheap accessories.

It is worth reflecting that in the 20th century some writers (foremost screen-writers) found collaboration with fashion designers, and vice-versa, extremely stimulating.108 One need only think of D’Annunzio’s collaboration with Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949)—also mentioned in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—who created the costumes for D’Annunzio’s tragedy and opera109Francesca da Rimini (1914) and appears in his masterful novel The Flame of Life (1900); of Jean Cocteau, who, as a friend of Schiaparelli, had his words written on some of her dresses, and even designed, among others, her celebrated 1937 evening coat (on which, to indicate his obsession with the double image, he drew two women’s profiles facing each other as the outline of a vase of roses); of Chanel’s close association with the novelist Colette and the poet Paul Reverdy. More recently, one may think of the importance that Giorgio Armani’s unstructured male clothes—that require a complex cut—play in defining the materialist and narcissistic protagonist of the film American Gigolo (1980), written (and directed) by Paul Schrader.


In this post-modern and cacophonic world of fashion, which may be said to take its inspiration, by and large, from the so-called bubble-up- or street-style,110 it is hard to single out well-defined trends: one can, at most, indicate some tendencies. Meanwhile, however, a leaning toward spectacularization and mass-media communication (in advertising, in films, on television) has turned fashion into a quasi-must in fiction: fashion has become the textbook of the individual. The success of Lauren Weisberger’s novel The Devil Wears Prada (2003)—that became a movie in 2006—testifies to this orientation. Taking into consideration science fiction and cyberpunk writings—the literary phenomena of these years—one has but to think of the popularity enjoyed by Mirrorshades. The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), in which fashion, all kinds of accessories, gangs’ battles, metal giants, and journeys into the past merge in a heterogeneous amalgam. Acclaimed cyberfiction writer William Gibson has donned his characters with a new version of the leather jacket that, inspired by U.S. street subculture and worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953)—the film based on Frank Rooney’s short story “The Cyclists’ Raid” (1951)—symbolized youth rebellion in the 1950s. In Pattern Recognition (2003), Gibson has turned his newly-invented leather jacket111 into a contemporary iconic item (as he had already done with glasses in his 1993 novel Virtual Light).112

Given the nomadic character of fashion—and the fact that nowadays Western and Eastern designers influence one another—the prevailing trend today may be the so-called mix-and- match technique, in which “exotic” elements and widely varying styles, colors, patterns, prints, textures, are freely combined. Through “mix-and- match,” through this kaleidoscope of looks and cultures, the nomadic identities of various diasporas—and our insatiable contemporary need for an elsewhere on which to project our dreams and desires113—find their congenial expression. Indeed, the predominant emphasis on personhood seems to entitle and encourage everyone to pick out the eclectic fragments, the semiological components provided by various fashion designers, and to organize them in an utterly individual, even theatrical, way. Chance and whim play a great part, and result in discontinuities or aleatory combinations that add to contemporary fashion’s vocation to provoke and, possibly, to seduce, while succeeding, at times, in anticipating future developments in culture and society. This attitude calls to mind what has happened in literature and the arts since the end of the 19th century: from Mallarmé’s extraordinarily prescient A Throw of Dice (1897) to Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963), from Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” of found objects (1950s/1960s) to the provisional order given to movements and sections in Pierre Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata (1955–1957), from jazz to rap. It is as if these different artistic media showed fashion the way, and encouraged a disposition for creating changeable forms meant for audience intervention—that is, for a plurality of readings. In the fashion world, this provisionality has possibly become more severe as designers seem to have scoured the principles of their métier: one need only think of the revolutionary (distorting, punk) dresses of Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo, or Vivienne Westwood. By turning their tucks, seams, and cuts inside out, by disrupting the symmetry of their clothes, their garments—besides embodying an allegory of temporality—show the artificiality of the ideal body/beauty,114 of their profession, and of any social dogma. Given such radically subverting features, fashion today is capable of conveying the alienation, fragmentation, ambiguity, and depersonalization present in 21st-century life. Westwood—who for a 1991 collection created a wedding gown made of worn-out, recycled pieces of fabric for Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham (from Great Expectations)—and Margiela—who likes to make new clothes from slashed and mended fabrics—align themselves with post-modern writers who play with intertextuality. Not only but, by rebelliously and extravagantly recreating or quoting past styles (including, with ironical self-referentiality, their own previous ones), writers and designers bring the past into the present, simultaneously toying with the Baudelairean idea of the “rag picker.”115

Because human beings must now be flexible in order to adapt to ever-new situations, unfixed individuals take up the fluctuating focus of fiction, while their clothing and accessories are presented as their only constitutive elements. This is the case, for instance, in Bret Easton Ellis’s novels American Psycho (1991) and Glamorama (1998), in which an ample variety of clothes (at times, with their prices), models, and fashion designers, as well as the shops that sell their creations, are listed with monomaniacal precision. As protagonists are frequently mere mannequins, this information replaces personality: clothes and brands are turned into characters, laden with an implicit expressiveness. These nobodies, these lifeless things, more like ghosts than living human beings fit in perfectly with the atmosphere of these works, in which—in accordance with Benjamin’s (and Leopardi’s) theory—fashion represents the triumph of the commodity and the body is only a cadaver. Revealingly, the protagonist of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman (in whom fashion instigates blood and death), has an unstable personality (he is constantly mistaken for somebody else) and his horrid deeds may be entirely imaginary. In Glamorama, the protagonist, Victor Ward, is a model: the narrative features fashion shows, brand names, clothes, actors, parties, cocktails, drugs, pop music, vile murders, and insipid chatter. These components are mixed and matched in a sort of reality show where outward elegance and terrorism seem to live side by side under the aegis of Jean Baudrillard’s civilization of simulacra116 and Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle.117 As Marx predicted,118 the products of capitalism and mass consumption cannot but induce fetishism, estrangement, and alienation. And yet, the brand names scattered in abundance throughout today’s literary works are poignant: if they undermine narratives’ traditional verbal content, they have the power to evoke visual images. At the same time, as linguistic structuralism affirms,119 it is through language (the actual letters of the alphabet) that the brand name, while transmitting visual images, “effectively ‘animates’ things, bringing what is inert and inorganic to life.” If the garment becomes a name, the name, as a brand, becomes a myth.120 Thus today, in narratives about fashion, language, apparently thrown out the front door (as the visual dimension of the mentioned brand name appears to take the upper hand), re-enters through the back door.

Concluding Remarks

Since fashion “serves as an index and a vehicle of cultural change and possibility,”121 and in literature, “the vestimentary frame enacts a site of aesthetic, social, and political inscription,”122 one may now summarize what the relation between text and textile might be, what words might do for dress, why literature is necessary to fashion, and what their reciprocal role and function might before the alert reader. It has been maintained123 that clothing in literature is more prone to create conventions than transmit them. If this is true, however, as “an embodied activity […] embedded within social relations”124 clothing may still: metonymically represent a character; contribute to the effect of reality; assert or hint at the nature of class and/or gender relations125; give characters a meaning and an identity; communicate intentions; reveal connections between the sartorial and the social fabric; be used even in an anti-fashion way to express individuality; and generate interpersonal dynamics between characters so as to become an agent of inter-subjectivity. As a mark of desire, apparel may also be a dream of alterity, of what one would like to be, while, as hinted at above, it may also be of symbolic importance as part of a social system of signs. The purport of clothes and accessories in literature may be approached, according to the characteristics of the text in which they appear, in terms as different as, for example: the economic, sociological, historical, semiotic, feminist, theatrical, anthropological, psychoanalytical, or painterly. One thing, however, must be kept well in mind: unlike the products of the camera eye, for the most part clothes and accessories in literature cannot be perceived in total or at a glance; in addition, as they are mostly nuanced through carefully chosen words, their significance is mostly polyvalent.

Further Reading

  • Breward, Christopher, and Carolyn Evans. Fashion and Modernity. Oxford: Berg, 2005.
  • Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
  • Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture. Oxford: Berg.
  • Flügel, John C. The Psychology of Clothes. London: Hogarth Press, 1930.
  • Perniola, Mario. The Sex-appeal of the Inorganic. Translated by Massimo Verdicchio. London: Continuum, 2004.
  • Polhemus, Ted. Fashion & Anti-fashion: Exploring Adornment and Dress from an Anthropological Perspective., 2011.


  • 1. Clair Hughes, “Dressing for Success,” in Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film, and Television, eds. Peter McNeil, Vicki Karaminas, and Catherine Cole (Oxford: Berg, 2009), 11.

  • 2. Diana Vreeland, D.V., eds. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), 82.

  • 3. Nancy J. Troy, “Chanel’s Modernity,” in Chanel: Catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition, eds. Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), 21.

  • 4. Dress itself is “a form of visual art, a creation of images with the visible self as its medium” (Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993], 311).

  • 5. She married Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1539.

  • 6. Jennifer Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London: Routledge, 1993), 26 and 4.

  • 7. Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 145.

  • 8. Although oral literatures exist, only written literatures are taken into consideration here.

  • 9. In essence: it takes “time” to read a written page and writing requires the “space” of the page.

  • 10. For the use of weaving in literature, see Cristina Giorcelli, “Writing and/as Weaving: Shadows on the Rock and La dame à la licorne,” Cather Studies 8 (2010): 263–281.

  • 11. Not man, however, who was created with God’s hands. SeeRashi’s commentary on Genesis

  • 12. From a lay perspective, recall that the objectivist poets (Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker) thought of words as “things.” With their sound and their graphic shape, they were viewed as possessing “physical” features.

  • 13. In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan compared the sewing machine to the linotype, given their effect on the evolution of communication. Another revolutionary gadget was the zipper, which was patented in 1917. Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) uses zippered clothes to signify a bleak dystopian future.

  • 14. Elizabeth Wilson, “Fashion and the Postmodern Body,” in Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, eds. Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 6.

  • 15. Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005), 1.

  • 16. See Cristina Giorcelli, “Wearing the Body over the Dress: Sonia Delaunay’s Fashionable Dress,” in Habits of Being: Accessorizing the Body, eds. Cristina Giorcelli and Paula Rabinowitz, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011), 33–53.

  • 17. Paola Colaiacomo, “Letteratura e moda. Scrivere (e leggere) attraverso i vestiti,” in Letteratura Europea, vol. 5 (Torino, Italy: UTET, 2014), 79–97.

  • 18. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (New York: Haskell House, 1970), 17.

  • 19. See Deut., 22:5.

  • 20. Today we conceive of fashion as a system that includes, at the very least, design, manufacturing, retailing, advertising, and consumption.

  • 21. Roland Barthes, The Language of Fashion, trans. Andy Stafford (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 60.

  • 22. Quoted in Michèle Le Doeuff, L’étude et le rouet: des femmes, de la philosophie, etc. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2008), 37 (translation mine).

  • 23. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 420.

  • 24. See Elaine Showalter, “The Professor Wore Prada,” Woman’s Journal, June 1998.

  • 25. Honoré de Balzac, Pensées, sujets, fragments (Paris: Crépet, 1910), 46 (translation mine). This sentence had already been pronounced by Pythagoras in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD).

  • 26. See Giuseppe Nori, “Garment of the Unseen: The Philosophy of Clothes in Carlyle and Emerson,” in Habits of Being: Fashioning the Nineteenth Century, eds. Cristina Giorcelli and Paula Rabinowitz, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 52–81.

  • 27. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, eds. Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 32.

  • 28. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), 3.

  • 29. Baudelaire, The Painter, 13.

  • 30. Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000), 24.

  • 31. I am using the terms transvestism and cross-dressing as analogous, even if in psychoanalysis the former is a pathology, whereas the latter pertains to the social category of play and to the dynamics of culture. For a brief analysis, see Bianca Jaccarino Idelson, “Psychoanalytic Views of Cross-Dressing and Transvestism,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz 3, 12–22.

  • 32. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  • 33. Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (London: Routledge, 2008).

  • 34. Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Larry J. Reynolds (New York: Norton, 1998), 68–69.

  • 35. Virginia Woolf, Orlando, ed. Brenda Lyons (London: Penguin, 1993), 131.

  • 36. Quentin Bell, On Human Finery (London: Hogarth Press, 1976), 19.

  • 37. See Catherine Driscoll, “Chanel: The Order of Things,” Fashion Theory 14.2 (June 2010): 135–158.

  • 38. The New Woman appeared on the social scene in the 1880s. The “new” New Woman of the 1920’s was generally called “the flapper.”

  • 39. It was published in The Metropolitan Magazine.

  • 40. Lynn Dumenil, The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).

  • 41. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Dell, 1960), 313.

  • 42. Recall the film costumes created by (Gilbert) Adrian (1903–1959) in the 1920s and 1930s,and, in more recent times, those of Tom Ford, who, iconizing the 1960s, created the suits for A Single Man (2009), the film based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel (1964).

  • 43. Not by chance, Yves Saint Laurent aroused the interest of the unconventional French writer Marguerite Duras (1914–1996), who manifested her admiration for him in writing on more than one occasion.

  • 44. Marshall McLuhan, “Fashion Is The Medium,” Harper’s Bazaar (April 1968): 152–166.

  • 45. Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism” (1927).

  • 46. According to Agamben, given their synecdochical (or metonymic) nature, fetishes recall the “unfinished” techniques used in painting, in sculpture, and in much romantic and modern poetry (Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993], 31–35).

  • 47. Valerie Steele, Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4.

  • 48. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 79.

  • 49. Significantly, a quotation from Leopardi and one from Balzac figure in exergo in Benjamin’s study.

  • 50. See Paula Rabinowitz, “Slips of the Tongue: Lesbian Pulp Fiction as How-to-Dress Manuals,” in Habits of Being: Exchanging Clothes, eds. Cristina Giorcelli and Paula Rabinowitz, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 149–175.

  • 51. See Paula Rabinowitz, “Barbara Stanwyck’s Anklet: The Other Shoe,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 1, 185–208.

  • 52. See Cristina Scatamacchia, “Traveling Light: Nellie Bly’s All-Inclusive Bag,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 2, 97–119.

  • 53. See Cristina Giorcelli, “Earrings in American Literature: A Showcase,” in Habits of Being: Extravagances, eds. Cristina Giorcelli and Paula Rabinowitz, vol. 4 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 56–77.

  • 54. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976).

  • 55. See David Kunzle, Fashion and Fetishism (Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 2004), particularly the Introduction (“The Special Historic and Psychological Role of Tight-Lacing”).

  • 56. Italo Calvino, “Still-life alla maniera di Domenico Gnoli: La scarpa di donna,” FMR 13 (May 1983): 35 (italics mine). The translation is from the essay by Vittoria C. Caratozzolo, “Enchanted Sandals,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 1, 220–236.

  • 57. She entitled her autobiography Shocking Life (1954).

  • 58. Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 244–247.

  • 59. See Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (New York: Vanguard, 1951).

  • 60. Angela Carter, “1967. Notes for a Theory of the Sixties Style,” in Nothing Sacred. Selected Writings (London: Virago, 1997), 85–90.

  • 61. Craik, The Face of Fashion, 17.

  • 62. Edward Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1979).

  • 63. Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995), 74.

  • 64. Larsen, Quicksand, 69.

  • 65. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2012), 56.

  • 66. Craik, The Face of Fashion, 25.

  • 67. Between 1907 and 1910, Theodore Dreiser was editor of the fashion magazine, The Delineator.

  • 68. See Cristina Giorcelli, “Sheer Luxury: Kate Chopin’s ‘A Pair of Silk Stockings,’” in Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, Habits of Being 2, 78–96; and Cristina Giorcelli, “Gender and Power: Dressing ‘Charlie’,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 3, 229–259.

  • 69. Clair Hughes, Henry James and the Art of Dress (London: Palgrave, 2001).

  • 70. James dedicated reviews and essays to Balzac in 1875, 1877, 1902, 1905, and 1913.

  • 71. Henry James, The Painter’s Eye, ed. John L. Sweeney (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956). See also Viola Hopkins Winner, Henry James and the Visual Arts (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970).

  • 72. Henry James, “The Art of Fiction,” Literary Criticism, vol. 1 (New York: Library of America, 1984), 53. His short story “The Real Thing” (1893) shows, however, that the right clothes and the right physical features are not enough to inspire an artist, whose models must possess, above all, character. See Paola Colaiacomo, “Fashion’s Model Bodies: A Genealogy,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 1, 24–32.

  • 73. Henry James, The Notebooks of Henry James, eds. F O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Braziller, 1955), 15.

  • 74. See Agnes Derail-Imbert, “Imaginative Habits: Fantasies of Undressing in The Ambassadors,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 3, 260–276.

  • 75. Interestingly, she shares her surname with the famous French designer Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975).

  • 76. On the importance of accessories in disclosing the sordid adult world that surrounds the young protagonist of one of James’s novels, see Clair Hughes, “Accessories to the Crime in What Maisie Knew,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 3, 135–155.

  • 77. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Dress of Women,” The Forerunner 6 (1915): 20.

  • 78. The bicycle was much praised by Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. See Daughters of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siécle, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Rutgers University Press, 1993); and Sally Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880–1915 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

  • 79. Ribeiro, however, thinks that “true utopian dress is a contradiction in terms […] it cannot be contemplated in terms of an unknown future” (Aileen Ribeiro, “Utopian Dress,” Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader, 226).

  • 80. Clair Hughes, Hats (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017).

  • 81. Specifically, the short story by the same name (1916); the protagonist of The House of Mirth (1905); and the co-protagonist in Ethan Frome (1911).

  • 82. Craik, The Face of Fashion, 184. Brummell’s suit consisted of a well-tailored coat worn over waistcoat, starched linen shirt, elaborately knotted cravat, and snug pantaloons. He also paid great attention to colors and cleanliness.

  • 83. See Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits (New York: Knopf, 1994).

  • 84. Joanne Finkelstein, The Fashioned Self (Oxford: Polity Press, 1991), 113. According to Barthes, instead, the male business suit was inspired by the Quaker model (Barthes, The Language of Fashion, 60).

  • 85. Barthes, The Language of Fashion, 60-64. In Camus’s words, however, “the dandy […] is always compelled to astonish. Singularity is his vocation, excess his way to perfection. Perpetually incomplete, always on the fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it.” (Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Anthony Bower [New York: Vintage, 1956], 52.)

  • 86. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London: Virago, 1985), 182. Ellen Moers argued that the dandy’s arrogant simplicity is “an affirmation of the aristocratic principle,” since it stands “on an isolated pedestal of self.” (Ellen Moers, The Dandy. Brummell to Beerbhom [London: Secker and Warburg, 1960], 17).Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, and Diana Vreeland see the dandy as a “hero,” that is, as an artist who has originally created himself.

  • 87. Tom Wolfe, Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976), 203.

  • 88. In today’s brand-name culture, Tom Wolfe is also associated with “food fashion.” Its runways feature models accessorized with food trays.

  • 89. For instance, the innovations proposed by the Futurists Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero in the early 20th century. See Franca Zoccoli, “Futurist Accessories,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 1, 54–81.

  • 90. Under the rain, both Holly Golightly and her suitor, Paul Varjack, wear trench coats in the last scene of the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The same outfit may underline the circumstances they now share: at the end, they are both impoverished escorts.

  • 91. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 544.

  • 92. See Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).

  • 93. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. M. Ward and R. Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 10.

  • 94. Barthes, The Fashion System, xi.

  • 95. Barthes, The Fashion System, 236.

  • 96. Barthes, The Fashion System, 16. .

  • 97. Anne Hollander, Feeding the Eye (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 106.

  • 98. Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, 9–10.

  • 99. In “Dress” Bowen writes, “In theory, dress is an art. The architecture of textiles ought to rank only less high than the architecture of stone in so far as textiles are less durable.” (Elizabeth Bowen, Collected Impressions [London: Longman, 1950], 112.) See Vike Martina Plock, “Sartorial Connections: Fashion, Clothes, and Characters in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North,” Modernism/Modernity 19.2 (2012, April): 287–302.

  • 100. This definition has been contested as her creations were expensive. Some of her accessories, such as her costume jewelry, however, are more relevant for their design than for their cost.

  • 101. See Martha Banta, “Coco, Zelda, Sara, Daisy, and Nicole. Accessories for New Ways of Being a Woman,” in Habits of Being, eds. Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, 1, 82–107.

  • 102. Interestingly, even if Holly Golightly’s style of dressing recalls Chanel’s (but in the film version her dresses were designed by Hubert de Givenchy), at one point in the novel she makes a reference to the most prestigious French-American designer of those years, Main bocher, who, with his corsets, had anticipated Christian Dior’s New Look. Main Rousseau Bocher, known as Main bocher (1890–1976), was the celebrated French-American designer, whose headquarters were next to Tiffany’s. He designed much of Wallis Simpson’s wardrobe.

  • 103. This is the name given by Alexander McQueen to his astonishing 2009 dress of glittering stones.

  • 104. “A Pink Wool Knitted Dress,” one of the many poems Ted Hughes dedicated to his late wife, recalls Plath’s outfit on their wedding day. In it Hughes highlights her upper class taste in contrast to his drab clothes.

  • 105. Jeans probably originated in Genoa (thus their name), where they were worn by sailors from the Middle Ages. In the 1850s they were adopted by Californian miners.

  • 106. Umberto Eco, “Lumbar Thought,” in Fashion Theory: A Reader, ed. Malcolm Barnard (London: Routledge, 2007), 315–317.

  • 107. See his novel Petrolio, unfinished and published posthumously (1992).

  • 108. Visual artists too have always had a fertile influence on designers: such as Mondrian and Matisse on Saint Laurent or Lichtenstein and Warhol on Gianni Versace (1946–1997)..

  • 109. Set to music by Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1944).

  • 110. In his important essay, “Fashion” (1904), Georg Simmel argued that fashion “trickles down” from the upper classes (that invent it) to the lower classes (that imitate it), until the former invent a new one to distinguish themselves from the latter. Nowadays, the movement seems to be the reverse: from the bottom up.

  • 111. In a globalized world, this jacket is reproduced and commercialized by Buzz Rickson’s and manufactured in Japan.

  • 112. Glasses have increasingly become the epitome of advanced technology, as in the Matrix film series (1998–2003), that, in content, owes much to science-fiction works by Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Gibson himself.

  • 113. See Ted Polhemus, “What to Wear in the Global Village,” in The Power of Fashion, eds. Jan Brand and José Teunissen (Arnhem, Netherlands: ArtEz Press, 2006).

  • 114. Barbara Vinken, “Eternity: A Frill on the Dress,” in The Power of Fashion, eds. Brand and Teunissen, 36.

  • 115. See “Le vin des chifonniers,” in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). In this poem, the rag-picker (as alter-ego of the poet, artist) transforms the urban debris into flakes of gold.

  • 116. See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

  • 117. See Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nickolson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995).

  • 118. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, vol. I (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983), 78.

  • 119. See Juri Lotman, Culture and Explosion, ed. Marina Grishakova, trans. Wilma Clark (The Hague: Mouton, 2004).

  • 120. See PatriziaCalefato, “Fashion as Sign System,” in The Power of Fashion, eds. Brand and Teunissen, 136.

  • 121. Suzanne Ferriss, “Foreword”, in Styling Texts: Dress and Fashion in Literature, eds. Cynthia Kuhn and Cindy Carlson (Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press, 2007), xv.

  • 122. Cynthia Kuhn and Cindy Carlson, “Introduction,” Styling Texts: Dress and Fashion in Literature, 1.

  • 123. Lou Taylor, The Study of Dress History (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2002).

  • 124. Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body. Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2015), 6.

  • 125. Clair Hughes, Dressed in Fiction (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 2–3.