Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film & Television (Berg)

Fashion in Fiction: Text and Clothing in Literature, Film, and Television
Edited by Peter McNeil, Vicki Karaminas and Catherine Cole
Berg Publishers, 2009

“Fashion is the ‘idea', the non-real,” writes Louise Wallenberg, Director of the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University in her foreword to this book (xv). This broad consideration of what fashion might be, let alone what it might do, is an approach taken up by a range contributors covering historical, theoretical and practical perspectives. The editors’ introduction further clarifies the book’s intentions when they explain that the “anthology does not primarily aim to extract the fashion trace in literature and literary sources, although necessarily many of the anthology’s authors consider this aspect. Rather it is concerned with the imaginative capacity of fashion…” (2).

Unlike textiles, fashion (for better or worse) enjoys a lengthy history of theorisation. Previous publications to tackle the relationship between fashion and fiction include Clair Hughes Dressed in Fiction, also published by Berg, which focuses on European novels. At the other extreme is The Pimlico Companion to Fashion: A Literary Anthology edited by Colin McDowell, which acts as a guidebook to passages in European novels that make reference to fashion. In contrast, the contents of this academic project reflect the variety of voices in attendance at a conference (of the same name), held in 2007 at the University of Technology, Sydney and supplemented by several commissioned contributions.

A loose historical organization has been applied to the order of the fourteen chapters. Appropriately, considering her significant contribution to this area of research, Hughes begins the collection with discussion of male dress in characters that inhabit the fiction of Balzac, Goethe and Thackeray and considers how dress can act as a marker of “rank and status writ large” (11). The remaining contributions consider narrative, fashion and fiction in a broad sense. For example, Sophia Errey writes of the “implied, but plotless, narrative” stylists’ conjure with fashion photography (50). Margaret Maynard focuses on Australian fashion photography. Catherine Harper considers her own personal narrative and the two garments she and her partner wore on the day of their civil partnership ceremony. Sarah Gilligan writes of masculinity and costume in the Matrix films and notes that a “radical shift has taken place in the representation of masculine identities within recent sci-fi and action cinema.” Dagmar Venohr contributes the final essay of the book and in many ways the most abstract. Her stated “aim is to claim more bliss on the subtle textile in written texts” (165).

The use of colour illustrations crowded in the middle of the book do not encourage ease of reading and it may be best to pick and choose chapters rather than tackle this book cover-to-cover as bedtime reading. The title makes a curious reference to television, which in truth gets very few mentions. While the academic style of this book may not provide the most accessible style, the content is far more creative than first glance may suggest.

Embroidery (May/June 2010: 49)