At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture, by Celia Marshik

Kate Macdonald on a study of how garments changed their wearers in early 20th-century Britain

January 19, 2017
Tailor at work
Source: iStock

I read this book’s first two chapters, on the evening gown and the mackintosh, with rising irritation, but chapters 4 and 5, on fancy dress and the second-hand garment, are good enough to redeem that awkward beginning. At the Mercy of Their Clothes rethinks how clothes of the early 20th century in Britain changed their wearers, as seen through Modernist and middlebrow fiction. Unfortunately, there are too many over-reaching claims about British Modernist writing. Modernist scholarship has developed a tendency of appropriating cultural “things” to remind us of its importance by enlarging its boundaries. In demonstrating this, Celia Marshik calls a fancy dress costume from 1894 “Dadaesque” (some 20 years too early), and argues that the raincoat was a negative Modernist statement.

It is not all highbrow posturing, however. Marshik writes very knowledgeably about the middlebrow cultural icons of Lord Peter Wimsey, Bertie Wooster and Punch cartoons. I applaud her use of dress shop advertisements from newspapers, and like very much how she blends evidence aimed at different readerships. Her analyses of fiction by Jean Rhys, Daphne du Maurier and Virginia Woolf are particularly effective, as is her comprehensive synthesis of the history of second-hand clothing with middlebrow fiction and social history. The illustrations are lavish and well deployed.

However, earlier chapters are much less impressive because they try to reinvent the wheel. Arguments about 1920s women’s evening wear could easily be applied to costumes of the 1840s, 1810s and 1780s. A quotation from Georg Simmel about a woman wearing a dress who thus becomes “a stance and a position” is something we all know from Cinderella. Examples of how Modernists wrote about clothes having agency had already been articulated by Jonathan Swift (Letter to a Young Lady), Charles Dickens (Miss Havisham), Louisa May Alcott (Behind a Mask) and Edith Wharton (Undine Spragg). The prescriptions for evening dress were drawn up for the London social club Almack’s around 1800, not in the 1920s, and using dress to identify characters in a narrative was already a convention in ballet in the 18th century. As for the claim that 20th-century “commentators became willing to admit that the purpose of the evening gown was to showcase the female body”, Charles II’s legendarily voluptuous mistress Louise de Kérouaille would have simply laughed.

Marshik’s undeniable knowledge of the fiction she discusses is undermined by her partial grasp of the detail of fashion history. Her authoritative voice is diminished by tonal awkwardness, as in her discussion of mourning wear, and in describing the loss of Lady Rhondda’s evening gowns in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania as their “watery fate”. She draws too heavily from US history: British Vogue first appeared in 1916, not 1892, and the 1930s sartorial rules that she quotes are from Vanity Fair, then, as now, a US magazine. In drawing conclusions from isolated scraps of evidence, too many sweeping and inaccurate assumptions are made, and Marshik skirts around her subject where she should have embraced it all.

Kate Macdonald is teaching fellow in English literature, University of Reading. She is editor of The Masculine Middlebrow, 1880-1950 (2011) and co-editor of Transitions in Middlebrow Writing, 1880-1930 (2015).


At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture
By Celia Marshik
Columbia University Press, 264pp, £44.00
ISBN 9780231175043 and 1542968 (e-book)
Published 29 November 2016

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Print headline: The very fabric of interior life?

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