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Reading Clothes: Literary Dress in William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 1-18 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0013

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The expression “written clothing” derives from The Fashion System, Roland Barthes’s 1967 study of the relationship between visual images and verbal accounts of clothes in fashion magazines. Although Barthes acknowledges the significance of descriptions of dress in “literature proper,” he excludes them from this semiotic study as “too fragmentary, too variable historically to be of use” (10). However, such descriptions have since proved increasingly fascinating to literary scholars and critics. Less concerned than Barthes with a totalizing interpretive system, they have gradually begun to study the ways imaginative writers have mediated the complex and shifting codes of clothing through the complicated language of fiction. Indeed, the inconsistencies and variations of imagined dress that make it less than suitable for Barthes are central to its allure for the critic. The tenuous relationship of imagined dress to real, visually recognizable garments makes it—like the entire realm of fiction—both a valuable and a treacherous field of information, equally tantalizing to antiquarians seeking evidence and indeterminists justifying uncertainty. The intimate and artful relationship of clothing to literary characters renders it a medium of social reproduction and, contrarily, of self-fashioning. It is a minimalist literary trope tailored for maximum versatility.

Literary dress is paradoxical and complex but also utterly commonplace. Its ubiquity and familiarity permit it to hide in plain sight, part of the everyday trappings of fiction, signifying copiously yet evading ostentation. The resonance of dress has pervaded fiction since the rise of the English novel in the eighteenth century. The development of the novel coincided with social and economic transformations that encouraged ideals of selfhood among ordinary people and permitted unprecedented choices in their manner of clothing themselves. Dress acquired “loquacity” because it was no longer a fixed arbiter of rank but a variable sign of individuality as well as condition (Styles 16). Dress offered novelists density of social context while concurrently suggesting metonymic and metaphorical relationships between characters and ideas. From the beginning, fictions of dress enabled authors to speculate, in advance of more formal theories, about determinism and freedom, social construction and human agency, the adaptability and autonomy of the imagination, and the power of language to create novelty from the commonplace.

One of the first critics to identify literary dress as a site for exploring this link between the familiar and the extraordinary in fiction was Carey McIntosh. In her pioneering article, “Pamela’s Clothes,” she distinguishes between “ordinary clothes-consciousness,” which satisfies the need for materiality and spectacle, and the “functional potency” of clothing, which provides clues to character, drives the plot, reveals values, and creates patterns of allusion (81). McIntosh also implies that one of the additional reasons literary dress is so intriguing is that these ordinary and potently extraordinary functions are inseparable rather than distinct. Merely naming some items of dress can have a powerful psychic impact: thus women’s corsets, shifts, and stockings became literal “unmentionables” in early novels. Then the word “unmentionable” itself acquired the taboo suggestiveness of the intimate garments. The writer and reader of literary dress must register its private, psychic effects, recognize its public, social significance, and simultaneously contemplate new meanings derived from its linguistic mediation. The literary experience nurtures and rewards such multiple literacies and indeed McIntosh’s early work on written clothes has received a rich critical elaboration, first in English and later in American literary studies.

In the four decades since McIntosh first looked into Pamela’s wardrobe, literary dress studies have expanded backward to the Renaissance and Middle Ages and forward to the futurist couture of aliens, robots, and cyborgs. Critics have explored the personal relationships of authors to their clothing, examined the impact of the technology of dress production and marketing on fiction, and investigated the manufacture of the raw materials from which literal and literary clothing is created. They have applied the methodologies of historical and formal analysis to the study of literary dress and have brought to it insights from economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, costume history, linguistics, semiotics, and “thing theory.” 1 They have elaborated and theorized on the multiple literacies involved in the reading of apparel and they have speculated on its unique significance as the boundary between the “self...

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