Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature: Double Threads (2017) by Madeleine Seys

Mar 18, 2019 | Reviews

Alyson Hunt

No reader can have observed Count Fosco’s outrageously colourful waistcoats or Laura Fairlie’s penchant for delicate white dresses without interpreting some aspects of their character from the clothes that they wear. As Madeleine Seys engagingly points out, clothes tell the story of the individual, a text within a text, a narrative thread that can be unravelled, rewoven, fashioned, stained or broken, semantic associations which reveal the close textual relationship between clothing and literature. Yet Seys’s sartorial heroines are resolutely female, there is no space here for Fosco’s eccentricities. Though Seys acknowledges the success of The Woman in White (1860), which “inspired fashions for white bonnets and dressing-gowns” (23), presumably this early merchandising did not extend so far as men’s fashion, or if it did, it is not explored within the parameters of this book. This minor quibble aside, Seys’s astutely observed study breaks new ground, examining the influence of dress and clothing through popular literature from 1860-1900 to trace chronologically the development of the heroine through constructs of fashion and femininity.

The introductory chapter provides a useful literature review including everything from Victorian fashion articles to twenty-first-century analyses of dress culture, highlighting not only the interdisciplinary nature of the study but also the tendency, both then and now, to equate both popular literature and dress with frivolous, shallow or unimportant subject matter. Seys combats this from the outset, using popular literature as a framework for critical reading to prompt reconsideration of the term popular in its political, social and aesthetic symbolism. Citing Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler’s 1899 novel A Double Thread as her muse, Seys seeks to explore the complex interplay between fashion, gender, identity and storytelling through a wide range of novels. Despite the numerous references to periodicals within this section, there is an assumption that popular literature is primarily derived of novels as complete works rather than serialised offerings or short stories. A reference to the sometimes-chaotic patchwork of popular literature and the cumulative nature of serialisation may have enriched the sense that the heroines are gradually and deliberately fashioned.

Chapter one traces the use of white muslin in a number of sensation novels including The Woman in White (1860) and East Lynne (1861) to explore conflicting concepts of femininity embodied by the dominance of the fabric in women’s fashion. Tracing the origins of the fabric through its political and colonial origins reminiscent of Elaine Freedgood’s method in The Ideas in Things (2006), Seys highlights how changing fashions were influenced by a host of political, economic and social factors. Muslin’s material properties, its “fluidity and blankness as a cloth mean that a variety of connotations and meanings are ascribed to its use as a narrative symbol” (33), and Seys presents a convincing argument about the ambiguities of these symbols. The highly visible Angel in the House can also be the invisible, ghostly representation of the repressed woman. The purity of the colour and cloth are expressive of sexual purity but may also indicate frailty and, ultimately, fatality. Seys contends persuasively that Austen’s muslin-wearing, conformist heroines are deliberately subverted by the transgressive villainesses and radical demi-mondes of later Victorian fiction.

From the delicate transparency of muslin to the suffocating luxuriousness of silk and velvet, chapter two transports us into a sumptuous den of gloriously coloured fashionable excess. The demand for exotic goods after 1850 and the vogue for Indian textiles, buoyed by mass-produced, inexpensive reproductions, created what Seys highlights as a series of binary oppositions, garments “both modern and mass-produced, and antique and exotic” (69) and simultaneously European and Asian. Again, Seys emphasises the ambiguity of interpretation and the ways in which these are utilised within fiction, exploring how the materiality of the fabrics enhances the haptic sensations of the narratives. Seys’s close readings of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s heroines are compelling and reveal the extent to which dress acts as “narrative veil” (77), prefiguring plot twists, reflecting feminine development but also acting as red-herring to mislead the reader.

The many and varied examples of silk and velvet in mid-to-late-Victorian fiction are pared down to one single garment in the third chapter as Seys examines the use of the Paisley shawl, also favoured by sensation novelists of the 1860s. The shawls function most overtly as a symbol of empire, but as the period progressed, the garment was constantly refashioned, recoloured and embellished, reinventing its symbolic connotations. There is some unavoidable overlap here from the previous chapter, and though there are lots of textual examples given, there is arguably less room to show sartorial or narrative development within a single character. That said, Seys’s focus on Armadale (1866) and her portrayal of Lydia Gwilt as femme fatale is engaging though sometimes submerged by the complexity of the plot, a complexity mirrored by the shawl itself.

The final chapter considers the use of tweed and wool in the creation of the “Woman in Grey” (133), a late-Victorian New Woman figure epitomised by practical dress and both literal and metaphorical freedom of movement. Seys draws attention to the lack of scholarship on the colour grey and its resulting undefined symbolism, contrasted neatly against the large body of scholarship considering black and white garments in fashion history. There is nothing mundane about the newly fashioned woman however, as Seys describes how flowing gowns gave way to tailor-made outfits symbolising not fashion per se, garments in which to be admired, but modernity, garments in which to act. The Victorian heroine is rewritten as a cycling, writing, working, even cross-dressing female identity, shaping her femininity according to her own designs.

Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature: Double Threads (2017) brings into focus the significance of dress beyond the use of mere description or verisimilitude. Through illuminating study of popular Victorian literary heroines, Seys recasts their appearances and the narratives that they tell through the sartorial lens, revealing the symbolism of dress which may have been lost to the twenty-first-century reader. The study reveals the constructedness of femininity, but it also suggests the difficulties in establishing a definitive aesthetic reading. It is this ambiguity, the constant malleability, the weaving of social, cultural, political and economic discourses which renders the thread metaphor so timelessly apt. A selection of illustrations or photographs would have added weight to the descriptions and arguments, but there is ample here of interest for students and scholars of Victorian studies, fashion history and cultural studies alike – a truly accessible interdisciplinary work.