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  • Dress & Identity
  • Benjamin F. Fisher
Rosy Aindow . Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870-1914. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. ix + 172 pp. $99.95

This cultural studies book offers much worthwhile information about the uses of dress in Victorian novels. Although Aindow's coverage, in the main, focuses on the garment trade and its relationships to British fiction between 1870 and 1914, she now and again reaches back to earlier nineteenth-century fiction to illustrate salient points about such connections in the novels she discusses. What a character wears reveals something about her/his intellectual-emotional makeup, thus Aindow's analyses make for interesting, informative reading. A point to remember: this is no "popularizing" book; Aindow's ideas are bolstered by a wealth of citations, which indicate her great knowledge of the clothing trade, as well as no mean grasp of novels during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

To take but one example of the linkages between clothing and characterization, Aindow illuminates George Eliot's portrayal of Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch. Rosamond's love of costly finery and her awareness [End Page 404] of how much it does to make others aware of her status as a gentleman's wife receive detailed attention. Her examination of details of dress also indicates her self-centered nature and vanity. Likewise, the particularizing choices of garments by Dexter, in Wilkie Collins's The Law and the Lady, demonstrates not merely his vanity, but suggests, too, a feminine element in his character that crosses gender lines, thus making him something of a forerunner to Oscar Wilde's later mingling or blurring of long-standing distinctions between male and female garb (that is, his wearing colors when black was typically considered the standard color in men's formal or business wear), thus fueling the fires of those who were repelled at the thought of his being homosexual.

Aindow draws on a panorama of nineteenth-century novels in demonstrating her ideas about how dress reveals, or certainly suggests, much about character. Risking a charge of being overcritical, I note that since she does not confine herself to novels that were published only in the years mentioned in her title, and since she does cite other works by these authors, I find surprising omissions of Dickens's Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood or George Meredith's Evan Harrington. Articles of clothing certainly have significant roles in the Dickens novels (respectively, for example, in Amy Dorrit's sewing for Mrs. Clennam, Headstone's attempt to disguise himself as Riderhood or in Jenny Wren's work as a seamstress; in Jasper's black garb aligning him with the church, as Aindow notes such a tint often suggested in terms of men's black attire; and in the whole concept of Evan Harrington's connections with tailoring). For that matter, Aindow might well have mentioned Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, given the long-lasting influence of that book and its central clothing metaphor. Also, though probably of somewhat less significance, worthwhile mention might be made of Lise Shapiro Sanders's Consuming Fantasies: Labor, Leisure, and the London Shopgirl, 1880-1920 (2006), especially chapter four; and Christopher Kent's "Gentleman's Coat," Victorian Review, 34.1 (Spring 2008), 62-67, with its commentary on the importance of dress to the Prince of Wales, Edward VII.

In sum, Aindow provides a valuable overview of the ways in which dress offers clues to a character's emotional makeup. She expands concepts of a symbol's importance, its revelations of the inner essence in this context of psychological insights. She paves the way for additional studies in which her leads may be followed to include novels that are not part of her present book. A mixed bag, yes, but one that should not be ignored by serious students of the Transition era addressed in the pages of ELT. Moreover, given the importance attached to fashion in [End Page 405] our own day, Aindow's book may also make cogent reading for a readership beyond that of ELT.

Benjamin F. Fisher
University of Mississippi


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pp. 404-406
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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