The Great Gatsby fashion

Fashion moments in The Great Gatsby

No matter how broad or “worldly” your taste may be, almost every reader has a preferred literary era that he/she habitually returns to. Modernist art, literature, film, and the Avant-garde have positively captivated my attention for quite some time and have also provided a number of aesthetic quandaries to muse over for years, it seems. Many of the theories that the Modernists posed (such as those of Bell, Greenberg, Benjamin, etc.,) often circled around a desire to differentiate the arts by determining their basic criteria for categorization. At the same time, however, artists’ provocations of a medium’s limits yielded immense trans-media possibilities that continued to be realized throughout the 20th century. Cinema beckoned to dancers, painters, and poets; literature drew its metaphors and characters from every dynamic prism of lived experience; and now graphic novels, video games, music, and all of the arts intersect at an unprecedented number of cultural coordinates. While it may seem like the term trans-media can now be used to describe almost all of the art and information we consume, it’s worth taking note of which art forms are not always instinctively paired together.

The visual impact of fashion editorials allows photographers and models to tell a story in a very short amount of time, and it’s easy to catch homages to the Havishams, Lolitas, Guineveres, and Scarlet O’Haras that provide narratives for fashion spreads. Without the same visual immediacy, however, authors must rely on the reader’s imagination to construct the garments. As a result, the art of description is of even more of a vital necessity than usual. Of course, a book with a head-to-toe breakdown of sartorial details threatens to bore its reader. The importance of being selective makes literature a perfect medium through which to encounter a head-turning fashion “moment.” These “moments” are usually few and far between while fashion in literature is rarely explored in criticism. 

Through my reading of Modernist novels I found that several works, such as The House of Mirth, Sister Carrie, The Big Money, and Portrait of a Lady paid a lot of attention to women’s fashion in their portrayals of the rapidly accelerating process of Modernization. When women were first entering the labour market in significant numbers and avenues for women were often limited to working hard or marrying rich (or at least commonly thought of in that dichotomy), many authors focused on female protagonists’ clothing choices and the aspirations they represented. Whether a factory worker, shop girl, chorus girl, or socialite, one’s clothing informed how successful and desirable a woman felt she could be in a male-dominated world. While the social import attributed to fashion hasn’t changed significantly, the Modernists were among the first to illuminate the multitudinous sociocultural significances of the banal, mundane commodities that were slowly beginning to consume American modern life.

The Guardian has offered a few articles that discuss the prevalence of clothing in literature and I would like to contribute my own list of fashion “moments” where I have found fashion to be an especially effective storytelling accessory.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is an obvious choice, to be sure, but few men in literature have grasped the importance of clothing to the ambitious American psyche better than the hard-drinking expat king of 1920s party life. When Carraway first visits the Buchanan home he finds that “The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon,” and the otherworldly, ethereal impression he receives of his wealthy cousin points to the self-absorbed lightness only money can buy. Amid the billowy reams of white cloth, however, there lurks the naval imagery of an anchor, the curtain’s “snap” and a groaning painting, which become especially sinister as the racist, imperialistic Buchanan enters the room. It is worth noting that this scene was expertly rendered in Baz Luhrman’s adaptation and it solidified my confidence in the film’s ability to capture the novel’s aesthetic “essence” (a topic I explore in another Town Crier post). Then, of course, there’s the scene with the silk shirts where Daisy bursts into tears, overwhelmed by beauty. Fitzgerald’s sardonic digs at the rich and vapid serve to deflate the posturing of his protagonists and to make Gatsby’s attempts to impress appear all the more sad, wasted, and misguided.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is on this list because it was the first time I realized Austen had a naughty side. Satirizing the most (dare I quip it) fashionable novels of her time, Austen found her edgy side while writing Northanger Abbey (and proceeded to lose it once taken with marriage plots). I’ve always remembered the scene where Mrs. Allen asks Mr. Tilney whether he “understands muslins” (a type of fabric from India) to which he replies, “Particularly well” and notes of Miss Morland’s gown that “It is very pretty madam […] but I do not think it will wash well; I am afraid it will fray.” I also didn’t think that that exchange was very funny until I learned that muslin bore sexual connotations and that Mr. Tilney was making some cheeky references to Miss Morland’s “innocence.” Austen paid a lot of attention to her characters’ dress and Mrs. Allen, who has a penchant for muslin, functions as the flighty, shallow, sartorially obsessed woman that Austen’s rebels would never aspire to be. And, apparently, clothing-based double-entendres allow Austen to vent her potty mouth.

The Dying Animal by Philip Roth is a novel that imparts the immediate impression that its author has given the female form a lot of thought. One scene toward the end of the book, long after the protagonist’s cruelly rendered relationship with his student has expired, Roth describes Consuela taking off her clothes. Considering how many descriptions there are of women in various states of undress, it would seem as though this would be typical of the licentious, ogling narrator. But Roth’s eccentric attention to the placement of clothing demonstrates that the flimsy boundary between erotic and unerotic often depends on quixotic preference and a predilection to “picture” what is sexy. Kepesh narrates:

 And the way in which she undressed and dropped each item, it was spellbinding. […] And all the time so extremely vulnerable. She took off her blouse first. Then her shoes. Extraordinary to take off her shoes then. Then she took off her bra. And it was as though a man who had undressed had forgotten to pull his socks off, which makes him look slightly ludicrous. A woman in a skirt with naked breasts is not erotic to me. The skirt somehow confuses the picture […] You’d be better off to keep on your bra with a skirt, but a skirt alone with naked breasts is to feed somebody.

At times Roth’s ideas of eroticism are a lot to handle, but I do agree with him about the socks.

Alias Grace by Thomas Morton Prize judge Margaret Atwood weaves the story of Grace Marks who was convicted of murder in Upper Canada during the nineteenth century. Atwood is a skilled writer of historical fiction who has noted the importance of accuracy in portraying a period’s mode of dress, and she definitely distinguishes herself as a writer with a good eye for visual impact and the importance of our changing guises. In Alias Grace, the constant repossession, trading, and taking of clothes establishes a thematic undercurrent that explores the relationship between power, ownership, mobility, and fashion.

Filth by Irvine Welsh. Put plainly, the sordid protagonist suffers from a tapeworm (whose point of view is intermittently included), which he aggravates through unhygienic tendencies. It is very hard to forget the impactful descriptions of his foul, unwashed trousers. Reading it for the second time didn’t mitigate the veracity of the imagined stench either.  While not necessarily a fashion “moment”, the repeated updates on the dejected state of the detective’s pants certainly made clothing a key component of the character’s construction.

Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger. Salinger’s text is set in the unforgiving climate of New York City in the summer. Seymour’s brother Buddy, clad in his army uniform, endures an uncomfortable car ride with (would-be) in-laws after his brother allegedly abandons his bride-to-be.  As in L’Étranger, the unrelenting heat amplifies the stress of the situation, which is made even worse by the close quarters and burdensome attire. Everyone is dressed-up for nothing but a letdown and Buddy, made all the more conspicuous by his uniform, must bear the verbal attacks being launched against his brother. There is, however, one person who seems to be forgiving of Seymour’s absence: the deaf old man who twiddles with his top hat and unlit cigar, unperturbed by the tumult or the temperature.

American Psycho fashion

Fashion in Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis requires little explanation for why it is on this list. Patrick Bateman’s fanatical obsession with the way he dresses and carries himself is a disturbing portrait of a man capable of hiding a monstrous desire by constructing a successful, enviable persona through garments and health regimes. Truly, the book shows how fashion is one of the most commonly-used media forms that exists today. Clothes are, in essence, the way we mediate ourselves and our bodies to the world. With enough attention to detail, it’s possible to become anyone you want to be. Ellis’s relentless enumerations of designers and retailers may seem extreme, but Batemen’s obsession with image and style are hyperbolic extensions (and examinations) of existing social norms.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. One of my favourite novels, The Sound and the Fury artfully disassembles the separation between the past and the present. As in many of Faulkner’s works, the past never passes finally whether it is large-scale trauma like slavery or smaller-scale trauma like family abuse or abandonment. Benjy, one of the main characters, pines for his absent sister and when he’s under duress he relies on his sister’s old slipper for comfort. Many of us can relate to the sentimental reassurance of an inanimate object. The more the token has been used, like a well-worn slipper or a beloved necklace, the more it feels as if it retains some small shred of the person we so terribly miss. Many authors have used objects as capsules for memories and the launching point for Faulkner’s novel was the image of the three brothers seeing the muddied underpants of their sister as she climbed the trees to look in on their grandmother’s funeral. There’s something especially tragic about the futility of Benjy’s repossessed single slipper that resonates with the obsolescence of antebellum values after the Civil War, values that lingered long after there was no more use for them.

One Comment

Brent Stait

An excellent article! I especially liked the analysis of The Dying Animal. I look forward to reading more in future from this very talented young writer.

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