- At the Mercy of their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture by Celia Marshik
The recent material turn has helped bring fashion into sharp focus as a symbolic system of signs and meanings as well as an embodied practice and a material culture. The 2017 Modernist Studies Association conference offered two panels and seven papers dedicated to the material aspects of the art and aesthetics of fashion: the body that dresses, the consumption of clothing, the politics of costuming, and the temporality and periodicity of garments.
Celia Marshik's At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture is a seminal text at the fore-front of current conversations bringing fashion studies into the realm of the literary. Marshik explores the agentive capacity of clothing by drawing on object-oriented ontology and the foundational research of Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett.1 By focusing on four distinct categories of modern clothing—the evening gown, the mackintosh, the fancy-dress costume, and the secondhand garment—Marshik claims that clothing is not inert but rather a vibrant force capable of engaging with social history while simultaneously creating and dismantling social identity. Marshik is at her best when she thinks through the shared constitution of self and garment—she sees both as assemblages capable of mutually transforming the other: thus, the mackintosh strips individuality and relegates its wearer to part of the larger collective; the second-hand garment, in contrast, is continually negotiating the body of its initial owner and comes before us always-already "belonging to first person who wore it" (146).
One of Marshik's important contributions is her ability to move beyond ideological distinctions of high- and low-brow in both the literature and clothing she studies. At the Mercy of Their Clothes breaks binaries and blurs the line between modernist and middlebrow by placing Orlando and Ulysses, as well as a variety of relatively unknown short stories, in conversation with Punch cartoons and [End Page 210] Vogue editorials, contemporary films and fashion advertisements.2 Similarly, the clothing Marshik investigates flows along the social and economic scale, taking into account a wide financial range from enormously expensive evening gowns to well-priced, mass-produced mackintoshes, and finally to the second-hand garment intended to "save face and … avoid notice" (145). Such a diverse approach allows readers to trace the deep connections between the varied print cultures of modernity and so notice affinities among writers and artists who might share little more than a historical moment.
The donning of certain clothes, Marshik tells us, "has far-reaching consequences in British fiction" (3), and from her study we learn the way each garment signifies. According to Marshik, the evening gown—that paragon of sex appeal and upper-class leisure—is more appropriately associated with the mourning dress and tropes of death, sadness, and regret, which, at least in her discussion of Jean Rhys, embody all that is wrong with a British national femininity (50–53). The modernist mackintosh, known for its utility and ubiquity, becomes "a marker of diminished agency" as it celebrates national cohesion but muddles an individual's sense of self (19). The fancy dress, too, is associated with identity, though it portrays more deeply questions of construction and costuming. Rather than confirming images of a projected, idealized self, Marshik insists that the fancy dress actually fails at transforming the individual; the donning of such a garment, we learn, reinscribes selfhood, thwarts the desire for change, and demeans "those who had hoped to become something or someone else, if only for a night" (20). Marshik's study concludes by examining second-hand clothing, a category of garments that accounts for subjectivity in relation to the radically evolving economic situation between the world wars. This analysis is particularly captivating, as Marshik charts the tension between the way fiction writers represent castoff clothing and its relation to the affective experience of the self. On the one hand, representations of secondhand clothing become comedic as...