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  • Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing
  • Elsa Nettels
Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing. By Daneen Wardrop . Durham: Univ. of New Hampshire Press, 2009. 246 pp. Cloth, $30.00.

Readers who know Emily Dickinson as a reclusive figure in a white dress, secluded in the family home in Amherst, will get a different impression of the poet from this book. Indeed, Daneen Wardrop's purpose is to dispel the popular idea of the ghostly figure, to show Dickinson "ground[ed] . . . in the material life of a culture much more complex than the white dress alone can allow."

The significance of the arresting title quickly becomes clear. The labor of making, mending, and laundering clothing was unremitting and required several days' work of all the Dickinson women, as well as their servants. Outside the home, during the years of Dickinson's life, the textile industry expanded in New England. The mills in Lowell were the most famous, but factories in Amherst employed hundreds of workers who manufactured cotton and woolen cloth. The Leonard Hills, owners of the largest hat-making industry in the United States, lived next door to the Dickinsons, who could see factory buildings from their windows and hear the factory whistles throughout the day.

Wardrop shows many ways that Dickinson was "fully engaged in the culture of clothing." The family subscribed to Harper's Monthly, which featured fashion plates (many of them reproduced here) showing the changing styles of women's dress. Letters to cousins and friends show Dickinson interested in fashion, "vitally concerned with how she dressed . . . how she was perceived by others." By stating in an 1860 letter, "My sphere is doubtless calicoes," she expressed her bond with the Irish servant Margaret Maher, who in three decades with the family became an "emotional center of the household." Reference to clothes, Wardrop claims, became a "shared vocabulary," an "interpersonal signaling" between Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan. The "two women shared their camaraderie by speaking in the images of clothing." These words imply a reciprocal response but only Dickinson's letters, which predate the marriage of Susan and Austin Dickinson, are quoted. No evidence is given of how Susan responded or whether the "shared vocabulary" created a real intimacy.

To emphasize the importance of certain garments as markers of age, social class, and changing custom, Wardrop devotes a chapter to "The Bonnet of Dickinson's Family," and another chapter to four garments: tippet, basque, gaiters, and pantalettes. In these chapters and elsewhere, the author discusses poems which refer to many kinds of garments and fabrics—e.g., brocade, cashmere, dun, sackcloth, tulle, and dimity; which make analogies [End Page 88] between writing and sewing; and use nature imagery, "revisionary pastoral," to express awareness of the body that could not be conveyed directly.

The chapter on "Lace Theory" comes closest to demonstrating how study of "prevalent fashions in Dickinson's time" reveals "some of the aesthetic underpinnings of her writing." Like the lace veil, which simultaneously conceals and reveals, so the poem itself is a kind of veil which entices and holds the reader at a distance, thus engaging reader and speaker of the poem in "a kinetic field of interaction." Wardrop quotes the beginning of the poem, which itself expresses a basic paradox of Dickinson's poetry.

Elsa Nettels
College of William and Mary


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pp. 88-89
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