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"THE FASHIONABLE WORLD DISPLAYED": ALCOTT AND SOCIAL POWER Peter Stoneley The Queen's University of Belfast Fashion, though in a strange way, represents all manly virtues. It is virtue gone to seed: it is a kind ofposthumous honor. It does not often caress the great, but the children of the great: it is the hall of the Past. —Emerson Self-presentation was a source of both pleasure and anxiety for nineteenth-century American women. Louisa May Alcott often felt awkward about how she appeared, especially as she became an increasingly public figure. She knew that she needed to project an image that was "bright and comely," but she also knew that, after years of ill health and over-work, such an image would be deceptive. At the same time, she was reluctant to risk a portrait that would "disappoint the children."1 When she and her publisher, Thomas Niles, were searching for suitable images for promotional purposes, Alcott expressed dissatisfaction with all the photographs of herself. She eventually sent Niles one (describing it as "a sample of the pensive invalid") that had been taken at Conly's in Boston in the early 188Os (see fig. 1). It is a grand and formal portrait of the writer, seated with an open volume in hand. She is attired in the high Victorian style, in a very draped and elaborate afternoon dress. A professionally made garment, it is mainly of silk, with contrasting velvet basque, bustle with tasselled bow, layers of flounces, and an apron-front with frills. The effect is very much one of opulence and expense, although the dress does not fit very well. And for all that it proclaims its costliness, the dress is not actually very stylish. Alcott had chosen to present herself to her public in a bustle at precisely the wrong moment. By this time the bustle had passed the height of fashion, and there is no sign of the narrower, straighter line that would define the mode ofthe 1 880s. How appropriate that a woman who made a career extolling the virtues of home sewing should look uncomfortable, should get it slightly wrong, when she tried to conform to the image of Boston grande dame of letters.2 Alcott had to "sell" herself to her audience, in that she had to Figure 1. Courtesy of the Concord Free Public Library. Studies in American Fiction23 achieve an authoritative and attractive presence. One obvious way of doing this was to avail herself of the dress codes of the day. But as her diffidence would suggest, she embodied contradictions that did not make such projections comfortable or accurate. In her life and work, she managed several important cultural transformations, notably from rural to metropolitan, from making to buying. She grew up with ideals ofgenteel modesty, but lived with the emergence of "conspicuous consumption ." Even as she acquired the social authority offame and wealth, she was deeply troubled by what Henry James would call "the air of unmitigated publicity."3 In her most important writing for girls, she used the idiom of fashion to express concern over the loss of an older sense ofintrinsic moral worth. This essay investigates her treatment of power in relation to female self-presentation. I begin with the cultural influence of her background, before turning more specifically to her fiction, and to her management of her own professional and social identity. The theme throughout is that of class definition, as defined and regulated through women's fashions. In herjournal for September 1, 1843, the ten-year-old Louisa May Alcott recorded that she had risen at five, taken a bath—"I love cold water"—and spent the rest of the day in lessons, chores, and exercise. She also mentions being read a story called "The Judicious Father," which she then summarizes: How a rich girl told a poor girl not to look over the fence at the flowers, and was cross to her because she was unhappy. The father heard her do it, and made the girls change clothes. The poor one was glad to do it, and he told her to keep them. But the rich one was very sad; for she had to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 21-36
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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