Modernism, Fashion, and Interwar Women Writers.
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2017) vii + 246pp.
With the material turn in modernist studies, new work on the role of garments, clothing, and fashion is finding solid ground in discourses about identity, self-styling, and celebrity for women writers. The work of scholars such as Caroline Evans, Celia Marshik, Ilya Parkins, and Elizabeth Sheehan has recast fashion as a serious area of inquiry through their readings of sartorial codes and expectations in interwar literature. Now, we can add Vike Martina Plock's Modernism, Fashion and Interwar Women Writers, an engaging contribution, to both fashion and Woolf studies.
Plock's chapters on Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen, and Virginia Woolf address their relationship to fashion, the marketplace, and questions of dress. As a whole, her case studies possess a through-line rooted in the contradiction between originality of expression (differentiation) and acceptance into a community (assimilation). Plock's writers are aware of finding the balance between being too conspicuous and being swallowed up by the masses. These writers grapple with the complexity of determining a public identity through conscientious clothing choices, what Woolf termed "frock consciousness," while also maintaining a personal integrity about their work. Thus, Plock frames her discussion about fashion within the parameters of celebrity culture and publishing demands, showing how five writers "developed their novels and authorial personas in response to contemporary market demands" (2). During the interwar period, Plock observes, the marketing of books took a page from Hollywood and began to depend more on the image of the writer than the content of the pages. Thus, for women writers, in more problematic ways than their male contemporaries, the reception of their work was often dependent on what they looked like, how they dressed, and how they performed in public spaces.
Plock shows how each of these women writers incorporated the "feminine pursuit" of fashion choices into the serious work of literary production (16). It should be noted that fashion has historically been gendered a feminine pursuit, despite the reality that until the mid-century, more men than women filled the roles of haute couture fashion design and production, and while Plock does not enter into this historical terrain too deeply and at no detriment to her argument, it contributes to the sartorial problems her chosen writers face. By beginning with Edith Wharton, not typically included in studies of interwar literary culture, Plock is able to establish her as an early commentator on the tensions between economics and artistic production that later became central to modernism. While Wharton scholars have addressed dress, design, and garments in her life and fiction, Plock sets her study apart by reading Wharton's concerns about fashion as a way to challenge existing discussions about her "antagonistic relationship with literary modernism" (41). Wharton saw mass-produced fashion as aligned with mass book production where marketing and celebrity image became more powerful forces on cultural economies than the individual's discerning artistic taste for good writing. Plock argues that Wharton saw fashion as a "destructive dynamic" that "unsettled the relationship between...deep-seated beauty and cheap originality" (47). The Wharton chapter introduces anxieties about uniformity and loss of individual expression that become central to the Woolf chapter that closes Plock's book, wherein uniformity is linked to fascist ideology, a more severe consequence.
The chapters on Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann are complementary to each other as they focus on each writer's critique of modern fashion and the way that fashion shapes their own self-styling as successful, young, modern writers during the twenties. For Rhys, the experience of constructing herself as a writer is tinged with some darkness which filters into her characters, who are often lonely, without stable finances, and worried about appearances. Plock traces Rhys's critique of the fantasy the fashion industry produces and its tie to economic self-sufficiency through much of her Left Bank fiction. Rhys had a troubled experience with the literary marketplace, Plock contends, due to her idiosyncratic life and writing, which could not be turned into a "commercially viable fashion" until interest in postcolonial themes made Wide Sargasso Sea a success (77). This, of course, was well after most of Rhys's peers thought she had died in obscurity, confirming for Plock, that she was never really an accepted part of the fashionable cafe crowd that we associate with the moderns in Paris during the interwar years.
Like Rhys, Lehmann prioritizes women's professional and personal attempts at self-fashioning and the challenges they face. For Lehmann, assimilating into the literary marketplace meant attempting to align her work with highbrow women writers, a challenge to the prevailing consensus that she wrote specifically for readers with "middlebrow tastes and horizons" (113). By calling Lehmann's style "modish modernism," Plock positions Lehmann in an interesting space between highbrow and middlebrow literary production, which productively destabilizes the way that we look at writing by women and for women. In a sustained reading of Invitation to the Waltz, Plock makes an intriguing claim that the novel's "reverential imitation" of Woolf's To the Lighthouse shows Lehmann's concern with building relationships and community with other women writers (112). According to Plock, Woolf was an important role model for Lehmann. Plock describes some of the correspondence and interaction between the two women to develop her later reading of Woolf's thoughts on how to appeal to wider audiences and the complications of mainstream publishing.
The chapter devoted to Elizabeth Bowen, (a writer also inspired, mentored, and befriended by Woolf), argues that she carefully fashioned and then used her position as a serious writer to critique the trends and whims of mass literary production. In Bowen's novels, fashion's objects become central characters with just as much or more agency than the humans who wear them. The chapter's central text is To the North, which was courted and published by Victor Gollancz, thereby cementing Bowen's reputation as a serious and important writer. While Plock abandons to some degree the discussions about author image and celebrity that were prominent in earlier chapters, she focuses interestingly on Bowen's resistance to industry pressures of writing quickly and dwells on her fastidious and methodical craft. Bowen returns in Plock's concluding chapter, which further develops how fashion served as a vital creative force for both her writing and her long and full life.
The book's final case study on Virginia Woolf focuses on Woolf's thinking about uniforms, an increasingly common sight in the late 1930s, and her attitudes about uniformity in book publishing. With the rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF)--the party led by Sir Oswald Mosley whose members were identifiable by their black uniforms (the Blackshirts)--uniformity in dress signaled more than a loss of individuality, but a dangerous kind of collectivity that sought to eradicate the individual entirely. Evidenced by an extensive collection of clippings she gathered in preparation for writing Three Guineas and The Years, Woolf was making observations and asking questions about this shift toward uniforms for daily dress in England and Germany. Plock offers a significant contribution in this chapter to discussions of Woolf's use of fashion as a way to critique women's roles and argues that her "critical focus on uniformity reveals Woolf's awareness of the political use to which fashion can be put" (183). In contest with scholars who have argued Woolf was categorically against uniformity in dress and in publishing, Plock suggests that Woolf realized a "tactical compromise with modern fashion as the initiator of uniform looks for bodies and books was essential in her attempt to reach her readers" (184). The chapter closes with a fascinating analysis that draws comparisons between sartorial codes of uniformity and how the uniform (and inexpensive) editions of Woolf's works from Hogarth Press made her feminist and anti-fascist perspectives available to a wider readership.
Plock's book is especially relevant to our current times when we should be aware that collective forms of dress like the "dapper" style adopted by white nationalists, the black tactical gear worn by Antifa's members, and hashtag slogan t-shirts initially produced by Black Lives Matter activists and now worn widely demonstrate that fashion is far from trivial and always political.
--Sarah E. Cornish, University of Northern Colorado
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|Author:||Cornish, Sarah E.|
|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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