- At the Mercy of their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture by Celia Marshik
I was extremely glad that I had just finished reading Celia Marshik's excellent new book, At the Mercy of their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture, when a student in my Ulysses class asked me about the notorious man in the mackintosh who haunts the pages of James Joyce's novel. There have, of course, been various attempts made by Joyce scholars to explain his presence in or significance for the novel but none has been as satisfactory as Marshik's. The mac, she proposes, was a literary device used by many writers at the beginning of the twentieth century to express concerns about "a mass-produced garment that turned persons into things, making individuals indistinguishable from one another" (68). For that reason, any attempt to discover the true identity of "McIntosh" must remain futile. He is Joyce's symbolic reminder that individuality is under threat in a modern consumer culture where clothes are not auxiliary but detrimental to individuation.
The case of "McIntosh" is only one of the many superb readings developed in Marshik's wide-ranging book, which engagingly brings into dialogue authors as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Daphne du Maurier, Dorothy Sayers, and Beatrix Potter, and that also includes detailed discussions of contemporary films, advertisements, fashion journalism, and photographs. Although the Introduction suggests that At the Mercy of their Clothes is influenced by and engages with thing theory—Marshik at this point references Barbara Johnson, Bruno Latour, Alfred Gell, Bill Brown, and others—the remainder of this study actually applies a very determinedly historicist approach and develops convincing, context-specific readings of literary depictions of garments. Indeed, the number and the range of the illustrations included already testify to the impressive archival research that has gone into the writing of this monograph. The fashion magazine Vogue is thereby a repository as important as the Harrods Archive, Punch, or the Imperial War Museum for supporting an argument that deliberately and productively works against maintaining ideological distinctions between high and popular cultural forms. Clearly mindful throughout of the thematic and conceptual differences between modernist and middlebrow literary productions, Marshik nonetheless maintains that the critical focus on early twentieth-century garment culture allows critics to identify affinities and continuities between these two presumably disparate literary configurations.
The four chapters of At the Mercy of their Clothes focus on a limited number of clothing types. The evening gown, fancy-dress costume, and second-hand garments have been chosen for analysis in addition to the already mentioned mackintosh because they denote, Marshik explains, "exceptionalism or abjection … and make visible clothing's ability to confound subject and object [End Page 410] status" (8–9). The evening gown, for instance, featured consistently in early twentieth-century popular accounts in Britain and functioned there as a sartorial object that diminished women's agency and forced them into adopting particular kinds of subject identities in line with regressive gender norms. Fancy dress, as it is depicted in du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), is shown to be similarly powerful in determining identity when the unnamed protagonist's sense of self is forever altered after she unwittingly replicates her predecessor's sartorial performance at a costume ball. Here as in many other textual scenarios analyzed by Marshik, fancy dress makes us aware that "the material world does not behave according to our wishes" (126). And second-hand clothing, Marshik's analysis of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922) shows, is particularly threatening for Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus because it remains infused with the bodies and selves of previous owners and therefore creates "a dividual human, one characterized by a compromised—because communal—self" (167). More importantly, however, we also learn that castoffs were important literary devices for modernist authors, because they allowed them to self-consciously articulate anxieties about artistic autonomy. If the insistence on an author's distinctive...