"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fashion In Fiction–What Did Gatsby Wear?

He wore a white suit, what else? We all know that.  Lee Siegel, writing in the New York Times (10.8.13) observes that modern authors rarely describe what characters wear, although in the past it was a common way of expressing who they were.

For nowhere is Daisy’s essential emptiness exposed more artfully — in the book, and in the movie — than when Gatsby showers her with his opulent shirts. “’They’re such beautiful shirts’ she sobbed.” In one sartorial instant, Daisy stands exposed as a cipher.

“Fitzgerald’s very deliberate portrait of Gatsby wearing ‘a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-colored tie’ when he meets Daisy again after many years” is essential to the novel, for in that one simple phrase the author has portrayed the character as elegant, but a bit ostentatiously so; very middle class, showy, but attractive.  This portrayal, of course, is key to Gatsby’s intriguing character. 

Gatsby is wearing the novel’s themes: white as the fantasy of self-remaking without the blemishes of the past; silver and gold the currency-tinged colors of an impossible happiness.

He is graceful and at home in the old-moneyed environment of the North Shore of Long Island, but those who truly belong and have belonged for a hundred years know he is an imposter at worst, an unwelcome interloper at best.

Emma Bovary’s character is illuminated in tailored glimpses. “She wore no fichu,” Flaubert wrote, a fashion choice that revealed “small drops of perspiration on her shoulders.” Next, she has to pick grass and weeds off her wedding dress, which is too long and trails behind her. In poor Emma’s future lie desperation and a sordid end to her illusions. We know that because her clothes tell us so.

Even the modernists, most of whom scorned realism, couldn’t dispense with clothing. In James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” after the word “peach” recurs several times as a leitmotif, Molly Bloom longs for “a peachblossom dressing jacket” in her famous soliloquy that concludes the book.

With that one reference to fashion, Joyce elevates Molly’s unpretentious desire, stamped by her eccentric romanticism, into the life-force itself.

In the novels of the 19th century descriptions of clothes, fashion, and appearance were as important to defining character as their physical characteristics. Physiognomy and Phrenology were popular during this time, and a depiction of how a character looked – especially the shape, cast, and dimension of his face and head – was a shorthand for suggesting moral stature, intelligence, and ambition. 

Edgar Allan Poe provided many physical descriptions to his readers in his texts as a way of emphasizing the supposedly innate connection between one's disposition and their personality…Many of the characters created by Poe often exemplified unstable mental conditions and other exaggerations of different personalities. Although there are hints towards the connection between the physical and the mental in almost all of Poe's works, "Ligeia" and "The Man of the Crowd" could be considered more directly associate with the sciences.

This reliance on external appearance whether physical characteristics or fashion gradually disappeared in the 20th century as writers chose to focus on the inner workings of the mind, the dramatic interplay between characters, or the influence of society, upbringing, and environment on character development.  The protagonists of Dreiser and Dos Passos were defined by class and society.  Clyde Griffiths (American Tragedy), for example, tries to escape his lower-class past, aims too high, and is brought down by overreaching ambition.  Thomas Sutpen, in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom comes to a tragic end because of the same social ambitions as Clyde Griffiths. For neither author were physical characteristics or clothes important.  Thomas Sutpen and Rosa Coldfield are caught up in Southern history, and their personal ambitions, frustrations, and demands are conditioned by it,

Arthur Miller was very much a product of WWII and the moral dilemmas faced by his characters are conditioned by the period.  Tennessee Williams created his characters, like Faulkner, within Southern tradition, culture and society; and although his lyrical imagery was far removed from the workmanlike language of Miller, he was very much concerned about environmental conditioning.

Writing turned dramatically inward and psychological after James Joyce and Faulkner who imagined the workings of the mind and described them through stream of consciousness.  More than ever descriptions of the physical characteristics or clothes of their characters were irrelevant.

Siegel suggests that the deliberate neglect of clothes in fiction is also due to the changing nature of fashion.  It is less an individual statement than a social one.  Mass culture dominates the middle class and its choice of clothes, and a more sophisticated, but still mass-derived fashion determines the choices of the wealthy.  Clothes are entry tickets to cultural subgroups, disguises rather than personal statements.

I have recently spent time in the hipster neighborhoods of San Francisco, and there is almost no variation in what 30-something men are wearing – long-sleeve shirts worn out; tight but not pipe-stem jeans; and flat, colored canvas shoes.

The conformity is uncanny, but Mission hipsters are not alone.  Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, my son’s private school arranged an exchange program with Russian students.  When they arrived in Washington they were dorky-looking and fashion clueless.  In less than a week they had been transformed and were indistinguishable from the American students.  Clothes were their tickets to social entry, and the first and most important emblem of group membership. We all wear what everybody else is wearing.  We have been subsumed into a larger if not mass culture. What author would ever describe what his San Fran hipster was wearing as a clue to his character?

As some of our best fiction writers have grasped, in this atmosphere of concealment and masquerade, clothes have very nearly ceased to be markers of identity. Perhaps that’s why the craving for self-exposing memoirs has become even stronger than the desire for fiction. We don’t feel we really know anyone until we’ve seen them naked.

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