- What Women Want:The Modernist Kimono
One way of reading James Joyce’s Ulysses is as a series of fraught efforts to attend to what women want. It is back-dropped by the memory of Stephen Dedalus’s refusal to pray at his mother’s bedside, a decision that not only implicates him in her death but also suggests the traumatic corollary that female disappointment is fatal. The association between his mother and the sea then potentially frames its “signatures of all the things I am here to read” as impossible demands, bearing in mind that, as Stephen Heath puts it, Ulysses “trembles on the edge of unreadability.”1 The shift of focus from Dedalus to Leopold Bloom puts a new spin on the problem of pleasing an absentee woman by making Bloom the servant of two evasive mistresses: the cat, whom he feeds and attempts to let out while she looks at him with “avid shameclosing eyes” (U, 65–66), and his wife, who rejects his offer of breakfast (she prefers tea) and opens a letter from her lover in his presence. Bloom’s bad luck with Molly casts his “separation” from his daughter Milly as a kind of rejection (U, 80), while his flirtations with Martha Clifford and Gerty McDowell are characterized by their non-consummation; Martha’s role is limited to that of a frustrated correspondent, and the half-visible Gerty is primarily an object of fantasy. The statement with which Molly ends her monologue—“yes I said yes I will Yes” (U, 933)—may be taken to express her acceptance of Bloom as a lover, but the use of exclamations throughout the chapter in lieu of punctuation simultaneously preconditions us to find resistance in her acquiescence, as if yes means no. On the other hand, Molly’s enthusiasm for “Japanesey” gowns is unhesitating (U, 672); the idea of leaving Bloom for Blazes Boylan is magically eased by the [End Page 303] prospect of receiving “one of those nice kimono things” as a gift or “going around with him shopping buying those things” (U, 887). Molly is simple in this respect.
Whether we locate Molly’s desire for “one of those nice kimono things” in 1904, when the novel is set, or in the mid-to-late 1910s, when it was being written, her appetite for “Japaneseyness” is fashionable. It was in 1903 that the French designer Paul Poiret debuted a kimono-based cloak called “Confucius”—after the ancient Chinese philosopher—which according to his immodestly titled autobiography King of Fashion marked “the beginning of the Oriental influence in fashion.”3 The Oriental leaning in Western fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century was a response in part to a parallel investment in Japan in modernizing its self-image along Western lines. David Wittner writes in an essay on the Japanese silk industry in the late-nineteenth century, “On the popular level, ‘civilization’ manifested itself in Japan through the adoption of Western clothes [and] hairstyles.”4 In adopting the kimono from China in the seventh century, Japan had also set out to model itself on a more progressive society; Liza Dalby writes that China had become “the model of civilization for all the Far East.”5 But in the early years of the twentieth century, the kimono in its capacity as a token of modernness seemed less persuasive than Western clothing, while the novelty value of its simple cut and exotic fabric recommended it as a symbol of Japanese culture for Westerners. By a neat irony, Japan sought to boost its profile in the West by popularizing a garment that was starting to be phased out: the drive for Westernization led to the decrease of kimono at home and their proliferation abroad.6
One of the main mechanisms for Japan’s self-promotion in the modernist era was the international exhibition; an article of 1909 in the British newspaper Spectacle reports that in the 1880s the most that Japan was prepared to spend on a single exhibition was £20,100, while in the 1900s the costs mushroomed to £80,466 and £180,000 for exhibitions in Paris and St. Louis respectively.7 The...