- Style and the Single Girl: How Modern Women Re-Dressed the Novel, 1922–1977 by Hope Howell Hodgkins
At least in modernist studies, allusions to Helen Gurley Brown are hard to come by and perhaps too few. Hope Howell Hodgkins’s title, Style and the Single Girl: How Modern Women Re-Dressed the Novel, 1922–1977, alludes to Gurley Brown’s bestselling 1962 American how-to-have-it-all Sex and the Single Girl—a moment in feminist history when you could, ahem, have your man and treat him too (a female would necessarily want a male). The reader will search Style and the Single Girl’s index in vain for “Gurley Brown,” however, for this book’s purview is British, not American. A good title can be hard to find, though, and even as “modern women” obscures the book’s actual ken as one nation’s set of (some) women, it makes plain this book’s main draw: a grappling with the delineation of style, focused primarily on what women wear.
Hodgkins states that “clothing is a rhetoric” and, more ambitiously, attempts to correlate literary with sartorial style, arguing that there is a “nexus between dress style and writing style” and that “modern modes of writing are foreshadowed and echoed in modern modes of dress” (pp. xv, xviii, 4). This idea is extremely interesting, and it is hard. Maybe too hard. Maybe wrong. Literary critics like it when words lead to and from other modes of behavior. Sometimes words cooperate, and when this happens it can be wonderful (“grammar” gave us “glamour”). At other times, though, text and textiles do not neatly accord. Even so, Hodgkins is informative and evocative in reminding us that the word “style” is born with the Latin stilus, the business end of a writing instrument. After expanding into the world of architecture—its first nonwriterly appearance—the word “style” moves to the world of clothing, with Hodgkins, like the Oxford English Dictionary, finding the first sartorial usage of the word “style” in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814). There is much to be said here for how words and clothes go together, and Hodgkins’s avenues—bridged by accounts of writers from Dorothy Sayers to Barbara Pym, with a central section on “Literature in Wartime”—often lead to compelling reflections about the appearance of, for example, a Schiaparelli dress in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963; whose title occasions a cruel and fateful pun, one unnoted by Hodgkins).
“Women” in the title encompasses authors and characters, and in pursuing its goal the book moves between accounts of novels and historical biography, a familiar and solid methodology commendable in its lucidity if not entirely current, given that modernism and fashion studies have moved past simply questing the appearance of clothing in literature. [End Page 493] However, you do not have to be edgy to write a serious book; like the little black dress, some forms of criticism never go out of style.
That said, one may exit the book unconvinced as to an actual correlation between how writers write and how they dress either themselves or their characters. Style takes too many forms for this, and the book’s account of writerly style is often vague, with too little attention to close reading. Furthermore, in a section halfway through on Vogue in the 1940s, writerly style falls by the wayside. Hodgkins takes modernism as synonymous with experimental writing and aestheticism; she states unequivocally that “World War II killed modernist styles” (p. xxi). This pronouncement is safe but not entirely critically up to date; modernist styles are not simply experimental ones. Middlebrow modernism does not register much here (Hodgkins gives it a cursory glance), even as some of the book’s authors—the aforementioned Sayers and Pym—might profitably be read under this aegis.
At times the book is torn between being an introduction or being intended for the more specialized reader. Hodgkins is aware of this, and...