- Reviewed by
In Fashion and Fiction, Lauren S. Cardon asks readers to check their assumptions about the shallow consumerism and superficiality of fashion and instead consider how fashion choices—as they proliferate in the pages of the early-twentieth-century US literary canon, at least—tie directly to issues of socioeconomic mobility and identity. Toward this end, Fashion and Fiction traces the increased accessibility of fashionable clothing made possible through mass production and the corresponding growth of what Cardon calls "American democratic fashion" (10). No longer restricted by the rules or prices of the Parisian haute couture donned by upper-class elites, American fashion's increasing availability and affordability during the early twentieth century enabled, if not implored, Americans to freely augment their identities through clothing and fashion accessories. Cardon's close readings emphasize how characters do not wear clothes in simple obedience to fashion trends but strategically develop and deploy their "fashion knowledge" (6) in attempts to facilitate social mobility and craft personal styles. Fashion and Fiction calls attention to the frequency and nuance with which characters actively observe, contemplate, and discuss fashion choices of their own and of those around them in order to suggest that fashion plays an integral part in the ways literature—and by extension, US society—engages with matters of upward mobility, Americanization, and racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity.
Few readers will be surprised to discover that Fashion and Fiction begins with an opening chapter dedicated to Edith Wharton's Gilded Age classics, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Wharton's novels offer Cardon prime opportunities to illustrate how New York's upper crust, through its commitment to the exclusivity and expense of Parisian haute couture, used fashion to demarcate social barriers and dictate permissible behaviors and expressions of personal desire. In Cardon's reading, the socioeconomic and romantic difficulties of Wharton's heroines, which often play out in relation to their ability to correctly or happily dress themselves, signal the desire for greater freedom and self-determination that the rise of American democratic fashion would later oblige.
Fashion and Fiction proceeds more or less chronologically in a manner that underscores Cardon's thesis that US canonical literature illustrates how "over the years, fashion extends to a larger demographic, transcends lines of class and race, and affords increasing opportunities to express one's personality and lifestyle through a [End Page 760] range of stylish garments and accessories" (181). Like chapter 1, subsequent chapters adopt something of a simplified cultural-materialist approach. Précis of pivotal fashion trends—the pages of Vogue and the designs of Coco Chanel supply most of the book's cultural-historical points of reference—serve subsections devoted to close readings of individual primary texts. This schema makes for tidy analysis, but it also reveals how Fashion and Fiction privileges literary close readings at the expense of more deeply researched, analyzed, and integrated cultural history and cultural theory.
In chapter 4, for example, an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement for women's sportswear in a 1922 issue of Vogue—discussed alongside depictions of the modern woman by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway—does well to add to the reader's visual and rhetorical understanding of the "slim silhouette" (108) and the associated gender play at work in women's fashion at the time. Yet however much Fashion and Fiction works to explicate the various fashions appearing in its primary texts, the close readings funneled through fashion consistently lead to conventional conclusions. In chapter 2, the titular protagonists of Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie still successfully pursue the American Dream and achieve success only to discover "loneliness and alienation, a modern malaise that seems a side effect of embracing the consumer capitalist mentality" (82). In chapter 5, which focuses primarily on Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing, the Negro Welfare League dance remains a pivotal scene for the way the social environs of the black middle class invigorate a temporarily uninhibited...