Starting with a discussion of the centrality of fashion in dress to human behavior, independent scholar Clair Hughes takes a look at the employment of dress in select English fiction in her book Dressed in Fiction (Berg Publishers, Oxford-New York, 2006). Clair’s work is a confluence of literary criticism and critical description of scenes of dress in a group of English fictional texts written over a period of about 200 years, from early eighteenth to the late twentieth century.
As the author admits beforehand, most of her discussion in the book is of fashionable, middle or upper class clothes; the reason being that dress of the underclass varies little until the advent of the mass market. The novels chosen for the bulk of the discussion range from Daniel Defoe’s Roxana to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and the author sums up the topic in a quick glance at fiction from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac.
While Clair Hughes makes women’s dress the core of her consideration, she does not fail to relate the ideas of gender, color of the dress, technical terms for costumes, and the excess or absence of dress references. Thus an interest in history and society is at once sated through the medium of clothing. Literary criticism shows in the author’s ingenious foray of the exploration of how fiction authors’ employment of dress and its accessories can illuminate the structure of that text. Ultimately, human values of the specific social world that existed at the time of the text’s creation are researched.
Supplementing the book’s discussion are paintings or engravings of nearly the same date as the text in view, imparting a general image of the period and its particular style of dress. This is a merit of the book that counts.
Dressed in Fiction has its shortcomings. Devoting an appreciable amount of space to history and stories of the fictional works, it fails at places to relate strongly the employment of dress with the main frame of the novel’s plot. An intrinsic connection of situations taken up for explanation with the dress described does not always seem valid.
Endnotes, a bibliography, and an index at the end of the book give an academically professional touch to it.
In its entirety, Dressed in Fiction is an experimental work following the lines of Gillian Beer’s 1989 book Arguing with the Past. It opens up a topic for critical discussion to be fathomed by future studies.