The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture

At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture. By Celia Marshik. Columbia University Press, 2016. 264 pp. + 24 illustrations. $60.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Sarah Cornish, University of Northern Colorado 

Anyone interested in interwar British culture and who finds pleasure in perusing racks at vintage clothing shops will find Celia Marshik’s At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture to be an engaging read. Marshik vividly and memorably presents rich histories for four categories of clothing: evening gowns, mackintoshes, Fancy Dress, and secondhand garments. Like the weather it’s designed to guard the wearer against, reading about a rain coat might strike some as rather drab. Yet, on a recent rainy, cold night and prompted by Marshik’s social history of the mac, I had an enthusiastic conversation with a friend about outdoor gear that proved otherwise. Despite the book title’s assertion that people are at the mercy of inanimate objects, there is nothing dreary, laborious, or merciless about reading this book. Marshik’s expansive and detailed research brings together an impressive archive of cultural material from fashion periodicals like Vogue, advertisements in magazines and newspapers, cartoons from Punch, early cinema, biographies, letters, and memoirs to accompany readings from a wide array of middlebrow texts as well as well-known high modernist texts published between 1890 and 1940. By exposing the networks of these multifaceted cultural “things” of the archive and the garments they document, Marshik asserts, “we [can] recover the animation of garments in the early twentieth century” by looking to the writers who “figure material’s capacity to carry history, to carry the self, and even to make that self” (23). Through garments, Marshik explores a range of British writers’ characters as they navigate changes in the social, economic, and class fabric of the interwar years.

While fashion historians have long maintained that the advent of mass-production offered consumers a democratized fashion landscape, Marshik’s analysis reveals otherwise. Garments, Marshik deftly argues, have power over the body of the wearer, creating a flat ontology that equalizes the self with the object (17). Thus, clothes carry as much agency, sometimes more, than the human who chooses them, and clothes have the power to push the subject even deeper into visual class markings by their very material and social history. This notion works in contrast to many of the celebratory claims of clothing’s capacity to offer the wearer some kind of internal transformation through access to social mobility, or, at the very least a strong sense of singular individuality. Through her line of inquiry, Marshik affirms J. C. Flügel’s suspicions in The Psychology of Clothes (1930) that clothing has a psyche of its own and can work against the wishes of the wearer. Marshik exposes the darker side of the cultural history of garments in early 20th-century British society and their meanings, wherein clothing choices can become the source for shame, class faux pas, rejection, loss of individuality, and embarrassment. To frame such an argument, Marshik carefully blends fashion history, psychoanalysis, and thing theory (through Bill Brown, Barbara Johnson, Bruno Latour, and Alfred Gell) to argue that the “thingness” of garments disrupts the subject/object binary so prevalent within discussions of modernity’s technologies. The soft technology of clothing, she argues, as it appears within British culture and literature between the wars, profoundly mediates the experiences of “human characters’ interactions and sense of self” (11).

Importantly, Marshik demonstrates that we should look to the overlap of high modernist experimentalism and the everyday attitudes expressed in middlebrow fiction, rather than attempt to keep these two literary arenas distinct. Those of us working on the middlebrow know that by bringing under-read and often forgotten literary texts, especially by women writers, into scholarly view, we risk inadvertently marginalizing these writers further by recovering them in isolation instead of reading them in conversation with the full spectrum of their contemporaries. One of the book’s successes is the way in which Marshik evenly balances introducing lesser-known works of popular and middlebrow writers by putting them into dialogue with more familiar figures like James Joyce, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf. The book’s structure, four main chapters each organized around one clothing phenomenon, provides an excellent model for showcasing a range of cultural materials in order to reveal affinities and divergences in taste, value systems, and desires on the part of readers, authors, and characters.

Each chapter analyzes a particular garment’s implications from economic, commodified, and classed views that situate it within a broad British cultural heritage during the interwar period. The reading of Miss Kilman’s mac, a garment familiar to readers of Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and one that makes Clarissa Dalloway cringe for its overt message of its wearer’s poverty, lack of style, and failed womanhood, evokes new significance when historicized through the lens of the highly charged symbolism of the coat worn by soldiers in the trenches and the lasting scars of World War I in a chapter called “Wearable Memorials: Into and Out of the Trenches with the Modern Mac.” In “What Do Women Want? At the Mercy of the Evening Gown,” the evening gown, ostensibly a luxurious expression of selfhood and individuality, as explored by Marshik, can be anthropomorphized to queer and control its wearer, illustrated through a reading of Jean Rhys’s short story, “Illusion” (1927). The impractical evening gown, we learn, began to take on the symbolism of female entrapment in an era when women were finding more versatility and professionalism in public life. Marshik brings into focus the practice of dressing up in “Aspirations to the Extraordinary: Materializing the Subject Through Fancy Dress,” in which she argues that dressing in costumes to take on the appearance of a famous figure (or as a side of bacon in the case of grocer George J. Nicholls) provided more than popular entertainment; indeed, Fancy Dress became grounds for social critique if the wearer was unable to achieve a convincing resemblance due to body shape, facial features, or sufficient means for a bespoke costume. Marshik’s chapter on secondhand clothing, “Serialized Selves: Style, Identity, and the Problem of the Used Garment,” examines a divergent representation of clothing that has had more than one owner. As the “new poor,” a class of previously upper to middle-class people came out of World War I having lost estates and other sources of income, they became reliant on buying and selling secondhand garments, but wanted assurance that they would look like new. The implications of wearing clothing that had covered another body and, at times, bore the stains of another’s daily experiences, lends well to Marshik’s argument that the binary between subject and object is blurred. This last chapter recalls the chilling details about the mackintoshes of those killed on the Front being cleaned and sold secondhand to be worn by both soldiers entering the war and civilians—functional garments with heavy pasts.

That clothing carries with it social codes, histories of style, and cultural references is made convincing through all four of Marshik’s garments of study. Interestingly, the coda leans into the marked shifts in clothing’s “thingness” and its effect upon the body of the wearer once the rationing of World War II limited economic power and stressed national solidarity, especially visible through the “Make-do-and-Mend” campaign. While Marshik’s book makes fascinating suggestions about the meanings of this shift, she leaves space for further research on garment culture during World War II and how it appears in the literature of the war years. Ultimately, At the Mercy of Their Clothes offers a brilliant compendium of archival material woven into a tightly articulated and important argument about material culture’s intersections with the literary and art worlds that will enrich readers’ scholarship and teaching.

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