The Henry James Review 24.1 (2003) 89-91
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Clair Hughes. Henry James and the Art of Dress. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 216 pp. $55.00.
Henry James and the Art of Dress is a highly engaging, generally convincing, and much needed intervention in James studies. A variety of critics have made random and scattered observations on the role of dress in Henry James, but as Claire Hughes points out, "dress has not figured much in Jamesian criticism" (2). Yet, as Hughes shows, James was a writer who was more than usually alert to the semiotic possibilities of dress. She brings to the topic not merely a vast knowledge of costume history, but a shrewd and vigilant sense of precisely when dress becomes especially significant in James. The approach to James's fiction is broadly chronological, moving from some of the early novels and short stories, through the 1880s (focusing on The Portrait of a Lady and The Princess Casamassima), to the three major novels of the third phase: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. Hughes establishes beyond doubt the extent to which James was thoroughly aware of the social significance of dress and the relevance of shifting fashions. Her aim is to "develop a reading of James on the basis of such awareness" and to "suggest that dress performs important functions in his fictional world" (1). The strength of the book, however, is in the latter rather than the former: available here are local illuminations rather than revisionary readings. Hughes operates within fairly familiar interpretative paradigms, but no future reader of these texts can afford to ignore the detail she has excavated.
After the introductory first chapter, Hughes juxtaposes Daisy Miller and "The Pension Beaurepas" with the context of "American consumerism" (15). What these texts demonstrate, it is contended, is James's condemnation of both "excessive consumption" and the "snobbery" that rushes to judge it (16). Hughes [End Page 89] has a tendency to accept the expatriate American evaluation of Daisy, asserting that "she has no code to substitute for the one she rejects" (20). It could be argued that her openness, her position as an American woman in more liberated realms, is precisely what she opposes to the appropriation of fossilized European codes by pretentious Americans. For Hughes, Daisy's "consumerism" is redeemed by her evident "taste" (23), whereas the Rucks (in "The Pension Beaurepas") have no taste whatsoever. The "black silk dresses of the Rucks would, by 1879, have been considered oddly outdated"; what they provide is a "hard, shiny setting against which to display the lace and jewellery" they have "amassed" (23). In contrast, the narrative offers the simple and frugal Churches. Adroitly established is the degree to which the Churches and the Rucks have more in common than a hostile narrator is prepared to acknowledge: "Aurora's closely monitored appearance [. . .] is stage-managed towards the matrimonial end, and against her own wishes" (28).
In the remaining chapters, Hughes's method is to identify sartorial wrinkles in the text, offer historical elucidations, and then either to iron them out or, more often, reveal how deliberately (and significantly) refractory they are. In the process, and especially when it comes to texts that may be less familiar, Hughes is adept at recounting just enough of the plot and context to situate her analytical intersections. The nodal point of Washington Square, for example, is "Catherine's awful red dress." It is "the crimson centre of the novel, the soft heart of Catherine's love, or the bleeding heart of her betrayals" (29). In wearing it, Catherine transgresses the "virginal white" required since the eighteenth century for the first public appearance of a young girl (30). Her father, and later Morris, read the dress as a "frank and public statement of her financial expectations" (32), whereas Catherine, or so Hughes speculates, sees herself as "the queen in regal red and gold" as she tries to "be her own lost mother" (35). Much later, when all is lost and her father long dead, Catherine again encounters...