Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 670-674
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Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. By Laura L. Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. Pp. xxiii + 284. $49.50 (cloth); $20.50 (paper).
Laura Doan's remarkable text explores the formation of lesbian identities in England during the years between World Wars I and II. The lack of public knowledge about lesbianism during this period resulted in the absence of a fixed lesbian image, according to Doan, which made possible the articulation of "masculine" femininities as well as the development of one specific lesbian identity that took up modernist practices and forms of expression. Focusing on the appearance of lesbian literary icon Radclyffe Hall and the banning of her book, The Well of Loneliness, and analyzing the uniforms of England's Women Police Service (WPS), women's fashion that adopted a masculine style, photography, and discourses of sexology, Fashioning Sapphism addresses, on the one hand, "the ways in which some lesbians negotiated English modernity in the 1920s and, on the other, how the conditions of English modernity contributed to the early formation not of a self-conscious political agenda or artistic movement as such, but of a public lesbian sensibility" (xviii).
The cornerstone of Fashioning Sapphism is Doan's positing of "Sapphic modernity," a term that she acknowledges is as limited as it is useful. [End Page 670] Modernity has come to signify an array of complex historical and cultural transformations, including rapid technological change and the transformation of agricultural and economic systems as well as notions of cultural and artistic currency. Doan locates Sapphic modernity in cultural vehicles—art, law, and fashion—during the 1920s and early 1930s, when sexual orientation and gender norms were contested without resolution and when the link between lesbianism and what Judith Halberstam has identified as "female masculinity" had yet to be publicly articulated. Doan's study is historically and culturally specific to England; to educated and affluent white women such as Hall, Troubridge, and the artist Gluck; and to other Bright Young People whose work and lifestyles contributed to postwar cultural anxiety over the growing autonomy of women. This historical and geographic specificity sets Doan's work apart from that of other scholars of modernism and of lesbian artists in particular, who Doan suggests have oversimplified Hall's significance and propagated the myth of a privileged Euro-American lesbian subject based in the salons of Paris. By revealing that Hall and Troubridge rarely visited Paris and that The Well's critical reception was tied to larger social anxiety about the masculinization of British women through suffrage and fashion, Doan's work posits that lesbianism was not widely expressed, recognized, accepted, or condemned until after photographs of Hall that appeared in the press subsequent to The Well's banning created a "public face" for lesbianism.
Doan's text debunks a number of myths specific to Hall, among them that photographs of her and her lover, Una Troubridge, wearing monocles, high collars, and masculine-tailored jackets were seen as evidence of the pair's lesbianism. In fact, argues Doan, Hall was less representative of lesbianism than she was of modernism. In reviewing The Well of Loneliness, a critic for the Newcastle Daily Journal and North Star remarked that Hall could be seen at the theater in "what is, save for a tight skirt, a gentleman's evening dress suit, with white waistcoat complete." Yet such an outfit did not, in the days before the banning of her text, mark Hall as lesbian: the critic noted later in the same review that "[w]ith her notably fine forehead and beautiful hands, [Hall's] whole aura is high-brow modernism" (111). Modernism, then, entailed some degree of masculinity. A comprehensive study of how lesbians used this modernism distinctly and toward what political and social ends remains a subject for future scholars.
Fashioning Sapphism also challenges the widespread assumption that The Well of Loneliness was universally condemned and that its banning set off a crusade or...