In Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion, Katherine Joslin explores the question of how to read literature through the study of fashion images and actual garments, a methodology she terms “reading dress.” Joslin notes that while previous critics have commented briefly on references to clothing or fashion design in Wharton’s work, her goal is “to pull the seemingly peripheral story of fashion to the center of study.” Joslin’s book participates in the recent focus on material culture in Wharton scholarship or the inclination, as Joslin states, “to think about [Wharton] with an archaeologist’s trowel in her hand” (179).
Joslin herself engages in a fair amount of archaeological work; in identifying and analyzing fashion references in Wharton’s life and work, she draws on her research of actual garments from the period. The book is generously laden with images of these garments including color plates of dresses, hats, art, and magazine illustrations from Wharton’s era. In addition to her compelling readings of the clothing that appears in, or is contemporary to, Wharton’s works, Joslin also provides helpful context about the history of dress design and specific designers invoked by Wharton (including Jacques Doucet, Charles Frederick Worth, Jeanne Paquin, Paul Poiret, and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel) and analyzes the cultural significance of fashion design, dress reform, and the garment industry.
In her first chapter, Joslin identifies a link between Wharton’s love of “dressing up” and “making up,” or storytelling. Joslin reads Wharton’s own dress throughout her career as seen in iconic photographs, and she notes how, through her sartorial choices, Wharton managed her public image and negotiated her “dual strivings for beauty and accomplishment” as a female artist (44). Joslin makes some unexpected connections, such as her analysis of the parallels between Wharton’s dress in a 1907 photograph and a Doucet dress worn by the French actress, Réjane. Joslin also discusses how Wharton’s nonfiction works such as The Decoration of Houses, French Ways and Their Meaning, The Writing of Fiction, and her autobiographical texts reveal that Wharton’s notion of fashion moved well beyond clothing to include home furnishings, window treatments, bodily comportment, tone of voice, societal conduct, and art. Joslin argues that we can see Wharton’s modernity developing in her dress, and in later chapters she more fully discusses the ways in which this modernity shows up in Wharton’s fiction.
In chapters 2 through 7, Joslin provides readings of dress in specific works. She is most successful when discussing The Custom of [End Page 349] the Country, The Age of Innocence, and The Mother’s Recompense. Joslin’s discussion of shopping, mirrors, and plate-glass windows in The Custom of the Country is particularly compelling (though she does not refer to recent scholarship on these phenomena in Wharton’s works) as is her examination of a possible model for Undine Spragg: Medora de Morès, the well-dressed and unconventional daughter of a wealthy New York banker who moved to North Dakota when her husband set up a ranch and meatpacking business in the Badlands. Joslin’s reading of the clothing in The Age of Innocence is noteworthy for the connections that she makes between dress reform and the dresses worn by Ellen Olenska and May Welland, which illuminate the characters’ relationship to social convention and their degree of freedom relative to such convention. Joslin observes how dress directs our attention to the play between the novel’s historical setting and the time of its composition and provides clues to Wharton’s stance on women’s freedom and her feelings toward her adopted country of France. Ellen’s Empire-style opera gown, out of fashion in the 1870s but popular in the 1910s as revived by French designer Paul Poiret, represents, Joslin says, Wharton’s “sartorial salute to France” and reflects her patriotism following World War I (138). Similarly, in her chapter on The Buccaneers, Joslin notes how the anachronistic traces of 1930s fashion in the novel’s Gilded Age setting emphasize Wharton’s relationship to...