Fashion And Literature Are More Connected Than You Realize
The notion that life imitates art is a tough one to dispute. Oscar Wilde argued it in his 1889 essay entitled “The Decay of Lying.” “Nature is no great mother who has borne us,” wrote Wilde. “She is our creation.” Take a step back, and it’s clear that this sentiment is particularly true now, when everyone’s supposed lives documented on social media are being christened as art, and when Donald Trump’s increasingly influential role in American politics appears more like sustained night terrors that won’t end. And there are manifold instances of this in fashion as well.
Designers, it seems, have taken a particular liking to imitating fairy tale depictions in art. The soft flowing white chiffon dresses at Dior’s Fall 2015 couture show—which was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and of which Raf Simons said “Dior is always a fairy tale, no matter what I’m doing”—looked like something a grown up Maggie Banning (of Peter Pan) would wear. The mere presence of couture—which Vanessa Friedman says often “serves as ‘the dream,’ an aesthetic escape hatch from the grimness of the day”—is enough to elicit strong fairy tale associations. I, for one, could only afford a pair of $4,000 Chanel couture sneakers in my own fairy tale land.
Apparently, others have taken notice of this as well; on January 15th, the Museum at FIT will open its doors to a new exhibit entitled “Fairy Tale Fashion,” which will explore the influence various fairy tales and stories have had on fashion. The press release for the exhibition states that, “in versions of numerous fairy tales… it is evident that dress is often used to symbolize a character’s transformation, vanity, power, or privilege.” Clothing and accessories have always been present in literature, and have a long history of contextualizing characters and scenes. Below are a few noteworthy examples.
“Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all.”
It’s hard to believe now, but clothes weren’t always so gender fluid. In Shakespeare’s time, clothes on stage were one of the chief indicators of a person’s sex. All it took were a couple of knee-breeches, and even Gwyneth Paltrow could pass for a dude. Yet of all the props, clothes, and accessories, it’s the handkerchief that stands out most as a prime example of the power of clothes back then. In Othello, a handkerchief that initially belonged to Othello himself, as a gift from his mother, was then given to his wife Desdemona. It served as a token of both Othello’s love and Desdemona’s fidelity.
So long as she keeps it, the story went, she will never be unfaithful. At first, Othello seems like an tremendously stable and confident man, but the treacherous Iago begins to plant lecherous ideas about Desdemona and the lieutenant Cassio into Othello’s head. Othello’s jealous side surfaces and, as such, the handkerchief’s intrinsic fidelity is called into question. It takes only an amateur ploy to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief and bring it into Cassio’s possession, and thus it’s meaning shifts entirely in Othello’s eyes. By the end, the handkerchief is Othello’s greatest source of anxiety, his visible proof of Desdemona’s hidden demonic side, a filthy and unfaithful thing that is stronger than words—and, eventually, proof of Desdemona’s blood-splattered, tainted innocence.
Shakespeare’s King Lear
Clothes play a central role in King Lear, too. Yet whereas the handkerchief in Othello entirely dictated and controlled Othello’s passion and sanity, King Lear’s clothes, over the course of the play, gradually lose their authority. When the play begins, King Lear sees his power as unshakable, untouchable, all encompassing—and indelibly intertwined with his clothes. But soon after, his own daughters mercilessly betray him, and he is forced to question the nature of his power—and, by extension, the power of his clothes.
This moment of self-reflection is heightened further when Lear meets the beggar Poor Tom, and learns that, despite his haggard appearance and rags for clothes, this man used to be a wealthy courtier. Lear contemplates, “Is man no more than this? Consider him well.” He now realizes that he’s merely a “bare, forked animal,” and tries to rip his clothing as well. And while this revelation may, technically, be only about clothes, for Lear it’s about so much more—that is, the social order that clothes signified at that time. It’s only at the end, when it’s already too late, that King Lear finally gains clarity, “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; / Robes and furred gowns hide all.”
Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus
What King Lear finds out too late—the inherent emptiness of clothes—is what the narrator of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus continuously warns against. “In all speculations they have tacitly figured man as a Clothed Animal,” he says, “Whereas he is by nature a Naked Animal; and only in certain circumstances, by purpose and device, masks himself in Clothes.” The book purports to be about the philosophies of a German philosopher, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, which could be summed up in one line. “True wisdom is looking fixedly upon clothes until they become transparent. Our whole world is tangled up in clothes,” he argues. “And furthermore, all clothes are symbols, and in order to demonstrate any level of discernment, one must realize that these symbols are inept of meaning.” Carlyle, disguised as the narrator, argues that a man in clothes looks as absurd as an animal in clothes, for “Man is called a Laughing Animal: but do not the apes also laugh…?”
But it’s the uniform of authority, which the narrator calls “Red,” that leave a lasting impression. “‘You see two individuals’…’one dressed in fine Red, the other in coarse threadbare Blue: Red says to Blue, ‘Be hanged and anatomized;’ Blue hears with a shudder, and (O wonder of wonders!) marches sorrowfully to the gallows; is there noosed up, vibrates his house, and the surgeons dissect him, and fit his bones into a skeleton for medical purposes. How is this…Red has no physical hold of Blue, no clutch of him, is nowise in contact with him.”
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Carlyle’s point, though rather obvious now, was revolutionary at the time. It definitely would’ve been useful to Pip, the protagonist and narrator of Great Expectations. Pip’s first encounter with the aristocracy is though Miss Havisham, a legendarily crazy and wealthy old woman. Having been left by her fiancée minutes before her wedding was supposed to take place years earlier, Miss Havisham has remained in her wedding dress ever since, surrounded by clocks frozen in time at the exact moment she was jilted.
Miss Havisham’s wedding dress, despite being tattered and wilting away, still impressed the young boy; it stood in such contrast to his ordinary, simple life. And the dress has obviously had a strong impact on Miss Havisham as well. It is the only thing left that is capable of consoling her, of nourishing her heartbreak. So long as she remains wearing the dress (or so she seems to believe), time will continue to stand still and she won’t have to confront her devastation.
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
And while we’re on the topic of clothes that denote a certain social class, who could forget the gratuitous, ostentatious clothes Jay Gatsby traipsed about in throughout The Great Gatsby? When Jay Gatsby emerges in a pink suit, it was as if a bomb had been dropped on the serenely austere and arrogant Tom and Daisy Buchanan—people from Old Money. “An ‘Oxford man!’” Tom exclaims, “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.” Using Gatsby’s pink suit, Tom separates himself from Gatsby and the nouveau riche. But the pink suit does more than reveal the social order of the characters in the book.
Fitzgerald, much like Gatsby, was constantly at the mercy of his finances, perpetually struggling to find his place in the upper echelons of society. According to Fitzgerald & Fashion, “In his own life, Fitzgerald was, as leading scholar Matthew Bruccoli said, ‘in the club on a guest membership.’” Fitzgerald’s keen eye for detail, his charm, and his Princeton degree gave him entrée to a higher socioeconomic stratum. But he and Gatsby didn’t belong there. Nick does and his clothing tells us that.”
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels
We can also find clothes’ far-reaching significance in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Ferrante excels in portraying the female experience, and one way she does this is through the shoes that lead character Lila designed, eventually revealing the patriarchal current that courses through neighbors Lila and Lenu’s hometown of Naples. When praise for Lila’s designs starts pouring in, her brother Rino becomes indignant and angry; in a town that’s governed by such aggressive, macho men, Rino saw his younger sister’s accomplishment as a direct blow to him. But gradually, the shoes begin to open up the valves of the complicated female experience too. Watching Lila become engrossed in this work, Lenu begins to lose interest in what’s in front of her—in her books, homework, and classes—despite the fact that her pursuits are far worthier than Lila’s.
Eventually, Lenu’s chronic dissatisfaction with herself morphs into a fixation with Lila and Lila’s dedication to the shoes. “I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me,” Lenu says, “only what Lila touched became important.” It’s an ilk of envy that countless girls have experienced, but that’s rarely been depicted in literature. Yet through the story of the shoes, Ferrante was able to tell this much larger story, just as James Joyce was able to depict the human experience, in all of its awkwardness and discomfort, hesitations and agony, through Gabriel’s glasses in The Dead.
James Joyce’s The Dead
Gabriel, at his aunts’ annual dance and dinner party, starts up a conversation with the housemaid, Lily. “Tell me, Lily, he said in a friendly tone, do you still go to school?” His words come off as distant, smug almost—as if this conversation is nothing more than a favor to his aunts. It’s between the lines, however—the nuanced descriptions of Gabriel’s movements and gait—that we learn Gabriel’s true nature. Far from big-headed, he is an awkward man, unsure of himself and his life as a whole, whose glasses, like Miss Havisham’s dress, act as a protective shield of sorts, “screen[ing] his delicate and restless eyes.” Eyes, as they say, are the window to the soul.
While Miss Ivors “heckl[ed] at him with her rabbit’s eyes,” his wife Gretta’s eyes “made Gabriel feel awkward.” And immediately after asking Miss Ivors why he should be ashamed of himself, Joyce goes for the eyes—Gabriel’s “blinking” eyes. No, Gabriel is not pleased with himself, he’s not proud to be constantly crouching behind his glasses. He’d much rather live his life purposefully, and “pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” And I can think of no better excuse to go out and buy a pair of couture sneakers.
Stay tuned to Milk for more books and looks.
Images courtesy of the Museum at FIT. Additional images via Vogue Italia and American Vogue.