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ELT 45 : 4 2002 Henry James's Strategy of Dress Clair Hughes. Henry James and the Art of Dress. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. χ + 216 pp. $55.00 ALTHOUGH CLAIR HUGHES does not claim that dress is "the figure in James's carpet, the key to all his mysteries," she makes an effective argument that the covering and uncovering of his characters is significant symbolic language. The examples she chooses from James's huge oeuvre are persuasive, and if her sampling does suggest the crucial function of clothes in his art, much of Jamesian fiction, especially his most mature fiction, warrants another look through her lens. She is a joy to read. Little contemporary literary criticism can match the grace and precision of her writing. A careful researcher, too, she has linked costume in every case to the time context of the novels, assuming that James had also done his homework. Her sources range from Godey's Lady's Book, Harper's Bazaar, The Manners and Rules of Good Society (1892), and Woman: Her Dignity and Sphere (1870) to Punch. Where James, whose hours as an art critic were put to practical use in his fiction , draws upon Bronzino, Reynolds, Sargent, Du Maurier, David, Meissonier , Monet and other artists, she is equally knowledgeable. Fashion relates as much to men as to women, Clair Hughes finds, although women's clothes in James's century were always more theatrical . While dress and fashion are often closely allied to money, or to the (sometimes misleading) suggestion of money, she also sees deliberate and dramatic examples of the opposite. Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl,for example, can afford anything, but dresses with "resolute fixity" in a "fossilised" manner, indifferent to climate, country, taste, and time. His closed sartorial imagination reflects his cramped sensibility. Verver 's daughter, Maggie, attempts to dress more grandly in an effort to keep her selfish, sophisticated husband, Prince Amerigo, from straying. As she has neither the figure nor the finesse to carry it off in the manner of her new stepmother, the "silkily seductive" Charlotte Stant, Maggie realizes that it will take other, more conspiratorial, means to preserve the two marriages. Lest Amerigo remain a threat to the false harmony of both mismatched couples, she must distance Charlotte from her lover. And that distance will become the width of the Atlantic Ocean. In another novel the garments are more "potent." Clair Hughes explains that we have lost the former, evocative, meaning of "undress"—in its "eighteenth-century sense of being incompletely dressed, of wearing 458 BOOK REVIEWS an intimate and informal style of dress rather than one intended for social occasions." When Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors sees "a couple clothed for each other's company rather than for the more public circumstances in which, by mischance, they find themselves," their exposure is meaningful. Still, it does not "thrill" Strether with "anticipated scandal." Rather, the scene becomes a stage in the education of his sensibility . Another is the "pared-down Parisian chic" of the lady—the temptress mode of Marie de Vionnet—which ravishes Strether's senses. His world is being reshaped. Strether sees Maria Gostrey at a dinner à deux in the cosmopolitan new fashion of (in his view) "cut-down" bosom, and again his sensibility is affected, although she was careful "not to be too perilously poised on the outer reaches of decency." He observes "an absence of dress ... rather than a presence." It is very different, Clair Hughes suggests, from the Charles Dana Gibson drawing of the period (here illustrated) "in which the foreground figure is that of a highly décolletée young woman whose unadorned charms are placed on the table before the company like an especially delectable dish." Ladies whom one must immediately suspect in James's fiction almost always wear the latest styles—like the "bad" women in Wilde's or Pinero's melodramas. For Hughes, perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of dress in James is the lady in black. Black can signify deep mourning, or it can convey sexiness , and every nuance between the two. In The Wings of the Dove Milly Theale's New York-style black was not "the mourning...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 458-460
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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