The language of dress is arguably at its most prevalent in fiction. The use of fashion is an intrinsic tool in constructing and imagining the world in which the characters inhabit. Fashion is noted for its identity forming properties, and in literature it also shapes the identities of characters. The culture, place and period that the book is set in, is also further ingrained into our imagination through the character’s sartorial choices. Dress descriptions are of course the most telling, but often the lack of such or perception by others is just as revealing.
Film portrayals have shown how fashion in literature can be realised. As a result of this, the costume used in the film is at the forefront of our minds and this representation overtakes our perception of the same character in ‘fiction form’. As you read a book you become ensconced in the character’s world, and page-by-page you imagine what they would be like. This imagined image is different for everyone.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is set in America’s Gilded Age, a period of industry expansion and economic growth from the late 1860s to 1896. In cities such as New York, the wealthy got richer and showed it in ostentatious display. The wealthy and the poor were living side by side in the North. In the book, the attractive protagonist Lily Bart has a marked obsession with marriage and wealth and securing her place in society. After what she believed to be investments in stocks and shares, she begins to spend rather lavishly. She longs for extravagant parties and splendour but her increasing debt leaves her to fall into desperation and despair. Lily Bart believes that beauty and fashion are essential in the life that she wishes to pursue, and spends all her money on achieving this ideal. The House of Mirth does not have many descriptions of actual dress, but it is the impression of fashionable excess that enables the reader to enter the Gilded Age. Lily Bart remarks that “If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop--and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership."
Key Scenes/ Themes
Grand Central Station: The opening scene from the book takes place in Grand Central Station. Lawrence Selden notices the arrival of Lily Bart and describes her to the reader.'Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart… Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing.' This reveals Lily's appearance and is one of the only dress descriptions, but perfectly gives us the ability to form the beginning of her identity.
Gilded Age: The extravagance of the parties at Bellomont highlight the place in society where Lily aspires to be and her obsession with materialism and dress. She would embark in games of bridge or chess so she could afford to buy dresses, 'once or twice of late she had won a large sum, and instead of keeping it against future losses, had spent it in dress or jewelry'. The opulence is described in a way that makes it understandable to see why Lily would want to be in this world, 'the seated throng, filling the immense room without undue crowding, presented a surface of rich tissues and jewelled shoulders in harmony with the festooned and gilded walls, and the flushed splendours of the Venetian ceiling.'
Fashionable excess and loss: At the end of the book, Lily goes through her belongings and thinks about her relationship with dress and the consequences it had on her finances. A very poignant scene, set in her boarding house a very different atmosphere to the glamour of Bellomont. This would also be the last moments of her life, 'for weeks past she had been too listless and indifferent to set her possessions in order, but now she began to examine systematically the contents of her drawers and cupboard. She had a few handsome dresses left--survivals of her last phase of splendour, on the Sabrina and in London--but when she had been obliged to part with her maid she had given the woman a generous share of her cast-off apparel. The remaining dresses, though they had lost their freshness, still kept the long unerring lines, the sweep and amplitude of the great artist's stroke, and as she spread them out on the bed the scenes in which they had been worn rose vividly before her. An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past.'
Breakfast At Tiffany by Truman Capote
- The story of New York socialite, Holly Golightly who is a character of intrigue and mystery. Her waif-like demeanour and simple but elegant style, have given her style icon status both in fiction and on screen. For many, the character has transformed into Audrey Hepburn due to her role in the film adaptation. There lies the challenge… to remove this popular image and to go back to the book and imagine the ‘original’ character with her complexities in the book’s setting of the 1940s. Truman Capote introduced us to Holly Golightly, as a free-spirited girl looking for somewhere to feel truly at home. Her effortless appearance and layered personality give us the chance to create different visions of Holly.
Key Scenes/ Themes
Holly’s Apartment: The setting for many great moments in the book, and the suitcases and clothes sprawled everywhere give us an indication of her character. 'She was never without dark glasses, she was always well groomed, there was a consequential good taste in the plainness of her clothes, the blues and grays and lack of luster that made her, herself, shine so....Holly was alone. She answered the door at once; in fact, she was on her way out -- white satin dancing pumps and quantities of perfume announced gala intentions.' One of my favourite quotes from the book is... 'it's like Tiffany's," she said. "Not that I give a hoot about jewelry. Diamonds, yes. But it's tacky to wear diamonds before you're forty; and even that's risky. They only look right on the really old girls. Maria Ouspenskaya. Wrinkles and bones, white hair and diamonds: I can't wait.”
Mailbox area: Holly Golightly’s box is engraved with ‘Miss Holiday Golightly: Travelling.’ What more could define her spirit? The moment the narrator first saw her is a great one 'she was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino blond and yellow caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim, cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.'