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At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture.

At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture.

Celia Marshik (New York: Columbia UP, 2016): xiii + 247pp.

Garments, writes Celia Marshik in her latest monograph, can "surprise, delight, or torment" (65). And torment they do. As she argues in At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture, garments assume surprising and sometimes troubling agency, becoming not only animate but aggressive. The book's title, which she adopts from the caption of a 1929 sketch in Punch, suggests the complex ways in which a garment--in this instance, an unruly evening gown--might "impinge and impose on its wearer" (25).

As each chapter demonstrates, wearers and their clothing "work in concert but seldom in harmony" (25). The evening gown diminishes a woman's subjectivity; the mackintosh levels and effaces, eroding individual identities into nameless casualties; fancy-dress costumes promise transformation, but reliably (and often brutally) break these promises; and secondhand clothing distributes and dilutes the subjectivity of its owners. These case studies comprise a fascinating and useful addition to accounts of fashion, material culture, and modernist studies by the likes of Jane Garrity, Elizabeth Outka, Jessica Burstein, and Ilya Parkins. In building her critical framework, Marshik pays tribute to key voices in the field of thing theory, namely Barbara Johnson, Bruno Latour, Alfred Gell, and Bill Brown. But where these writers tend to focus on "mechanical or technical objects that malfunction," Marshik attends instead to "soft technologies" that threaten their wearer even as they do not necessarily malfunction; indeed, they are often "perfectly functional at the very moment that texts represent them as most threatening" (13).

The book's structure is at once inviting and pragmatic: early chapters focus on singular garments, the evening gown and mackintosh, while later chapters turn to types and trends, namely fancy dress and secondhand clothing. In this respect, the book seems to widen in scope with each successive case study. Throughout, Marshik's focus is primarily British, with an archive that ranges from James Joyce and Jean Rhys to Dorothy Sayers and Daphne du Maurier. In each chapter, and for each type of garment, Marshik reads canonical works of high modernism alongside their middlebrow relations--from dress histories and Punch cartoons to biograph films and fashion periodicals. Such an approach, she explains, is essential: "we cannot understand the dynamic relation between clothing worn on the street and that figured in literature by looking to high modernism alone" (5). As a result, each chapter is richly varied in its array of primary sources, and peppered with lively and engaging visuals: photographs, cartoons, advertisements, posters, and portraits. In keeping with these aims, the book scales up and down the socioeconomic ladder, with two chapters focused on especially moneyed fashions (evening gowns and fancy dress) and two more that highlight the effects of thrift and frugality on fashion (the mackintosh and secondhand clothing).

Throughout, Woolf takes center stage. In fact, the book opens with the "all-but-unloved and -unlovable" Doris Kilman of Mrs. Dalloway, whose garments betray particular clues about her class and gender identity (1). Woolfians will appreciate Marshik's careful and capacious attention to Woolf's fiction--Jacob's Room, "The New Dress," Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando--as well as diaries, letters, and even anecdotes about Bloomsbury larks. In writings by Woolf as well as her contemporaries, garments test and often thwart negotiations with self and self-fashioning. Marshik's readings uncover a pattern of "characters who are confused and shamed by selves that do not measure up to a coherent ideal" (17). Writers, of course, tend to fix on moments of delicious disgrace or single out sartorial miscalculations. And Woolf, as her readers well know, is particularly attuned but also sympathetic to the gauche, gawky, and graceless.

Chapter One addresses the evening gown, a lingering vestige of courtship rituals that allowed writers to examine the tense dynamics between women and their object worlds--in many cases, "explor[ing] the way in which women, too, are objects" (28). The evening gown, unusually resistant to mass reproduction, remained a singular form in the early twentieth century, one that "served to synthesize superior having and being" even as other clothing styles had become cheaper and more widely available (30). Modernists, Marshik explains, are particularly attuned to the evening gown's emotional pull--attentive to the "intense longing" and "profound yearning" entangled in such garments (27).

Woolfians will appreciate this chapter's account of young Virginia Stephen's skirmishes with evening dress. In reading Woolf's memoirs for clues about these debacles, Marshik takes care in navigating between the writer's past and present selves, noting that "we should not let the trajectory of Virginia Woolf's life obscure Virginia Stephen's sartorial mortification" (47). The mortifications of dress are nowhere more excruciating than in Woolf's "The New Dress," or in accounts of Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose attire was cruelly caricatured in the era's romans a clef. With each of these examples, Marshik demonstrates how garments can "express a form of material agency that diminishes human fantasies of power and control" (63).

In Chapter Two, readers will be happy to discover that Marshik has expanded the reach of her 2012 article "The Modern(ist) Mackintosh," a staple and well-loved piece of scholarship in modernist studies. The mackintosh, which she traces across a wide range of novels aimed at different audiences, persistently effaces individuality and "cloaks the unscrupulous, deadly, and cruel" (68). Particularly during and after World War I, argues Marshik, the mac transforms men and women into masses "where they were dismissed, disparaged, and killed in numbers"--a pattern that "testif[ies] to the fragility of human bodies, which moved (and continue to move) through an object world seemingly only partially of their, and our, own making" (101).

Especially illuminating is the third chapter's account of fancy-dress costumes of the upper and middle classes--or what Marshik describes as the "supreme sartorial form for projecting an idealized self" (105). But, as this chapter demonstrates persuasively, such an ideal seldom prevails. Wearers of fancy dress, seduced by promises of transformation, tend to find themselves disappointed, even shamed, by the results. This chapter's attention to Orlando may prove particularly useful for readers of Woolf. Here, Marshik surveys the various selves adopted and assembled by Orlando, from reader and gardener to nobleman, concluding that "Orlando's clothes, like fancy dress, do not disguise; they multiply possibilities and suggest that one is in part what one wears" (134-35).

The book's fourth and final chapter explores secondhand clothing in light of changing class strata, specifically the emergence of the "new poor," a population struggling to shore up uncertain class identifications in the wake of World War I. Selling one's clothes (and the private information encoded therein) seemed akin to dispossessing or distributing oneself, a consequence that would prove popular fodder for modernist and middlebrow fiction. In a brief coda, Marshik concludes her argument with the advent of World War II. "The war changed all," she writes. As the economy transformed, entire genres faded; fancy dress, for instance, "became an artifact of prewar life" (178). In its place emerged popular campaigns such as Make-Do-and-Mend, which framed conservation, preservation, and economy as national and cultural values.

At the Mercy of Their Clothes sheds light on the vexed relationships between garments and their wearers in the early twentieth century, and each chapter is engaging as well as versatile in its attention to modernist and middlebrow voices. Throughout, Marshik's research is thorough and absorbing, and her argument persuasive. But most compelling is the undercurrent of unease and disquiet that she uncovers, or to borrow her words once more, "a profound anxiety about the elision of subjects and objects--the ability of particular things to transform humans into passive matter" (181). Garments have indeed promised to transform lives and worlds, and in breaking these promises, they have shown little mercy.

--Emily James, University of St. Thomas
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Author:James, Emily
Publication:Woolf Studies Annual
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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