Book Review | Modernism, Fashion, and Interwar Women Writers
Reviewed by Celia Marshik, Stony Brook University
Modernism and fashion are in the spotlight. Following trailblazing work by Randi S. Koppen (Woolf, Fashion, and Literary Modernity, 2009) and Caroline Evans (The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America 1900–1929, 2013), scholars have opened up the relationships among modernism, popular literature, and the fashions that influenced and enraged artists. Recent books by Elizabeth M. Sheehan (Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature, 2018) and by this author (At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture, 2017) suggest that reading literature through fashion illuminates a range of topics, including subject-object relationships and modes of inquiry. Vike Plock’s Modernism, Fashion and Interwar Women Writers contributes to this conversation by demonstrating that Anglophone women writers represented fashion as a means of exploring the tension between individuality and conformity. Moreover, Plock argues that fashion reflected (at a remove) writers’ concerns about literary style, market demands, and “an embattled field of cultural production” (3).
Plock offers five case studies in support of her claims. Chapters on Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Bowen, and Virginia Woolf let her range across registers as these writers often wrote for different audiences. Lehmann, for example, had artistic aspirations but wanted commercial success; Wharton was critical of modernism while Woolf remains modernism’s doyenne. Despite differences of style and temperament, the novelists in the study are united in reflecting on modernism as well as in honing their own literary “brand”; fashion, Plock shows, was a discourse that these authors engaged in their fiction as well as when they focused on “correctly negotiating the relationship between idiosyncrasy and conformity, between attacking and confirming expectations about literary standards” (13). Fashion required writers to confront the relationship between style and reception, whether through representing characters’ responses to a tie or dress or through honing an authorial brand that might distinguish them from the other options available to interwar readers.
Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz, Bowen’s To the North, and Woolf’s The Years receive Plock’s most extensive attention. In each case, Plock starts chapters by examining how fashion operates in the fiction and then traces how writers understood their own work in relationship to the dictates of a literary marketplace that rewarded unique style but also welcomed a degree of standardization. Thus Wharton “began to see fashion as a democratising force that produced increasingly uniform looks and forms and that limited—in spite of the often proclaimed veneration of novelty—the subject’s ability for creative expression through clothes” (39). While the garments her characters wear reflect this fundamental irony, Wharton also looked skeptically at modernism, which she regarded as a faddish quest for the new. Rhys criticized what Plock calls the “Chanel myth” that modern couture “was synonymous with access to emancipatory opportunities” (78) by depicting the implosion of her (more or less) well-dressed protagonists while also attempting to “turn nonconformity into a potentially productive incentive for artistic self-fashioning” (98). Wharton and Rhys, along with Woolf, emerge as most critical of the fashion system even as Plock demonstrates that the authors found in fashion’s focus on the new a provocation to reflect on their own writing practices.
Plock casts Lehmann and Bowen, in contrast, as comparatively more positive about sartorial and literary fashions. This stance might seem obvious given their pursuit of commercial success, and yet Plock demonstrates that both authors were canny in their representation of clothing and in the cultivation of their personal reputations. Lehmann was willing to follow “existing (sartorial and literary) patterns,” a path “motivated by her desire to represent communality and solidarity among women as desirable social dynamics” (111). Lehmann’s prose style, which Plock describes as “modish modernism” (112), included “a composition practice that is intentionally citational” (112): Invitation was modeled on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in its structure, thematic interests, and self-consciousness about “patterns, shapes and forms” (127). Bowen, like Lehmann, regarded fashion as a means of building personal relationships, and To the North repeatedly depicts how clothes “determinedly generate interpersonal energies” (153). Characters get to know one another through garments, and Plock argues that Bowen’s novel also invites readers to understand characters through what they wear. In contrast to the high modernists of the 1920s, who valorized interior monologue as a way to convey character, Bowen practiced a kind of qualified realism in which particular objects open up her protagonists. While fashion thus plays an informative role in her fiction, Bowen worried about becoming merely fashionable herself as she increasingly turned to short fiction and essays to make money. Plock convincingly depicts the author as preoccupied with protecting the style and brand of her literary fiction.
Plock’s Modernism sensibly concludes with Woolf, the author whose relationship to fashion has received the most scholarly attention. Plock notes that Woolf was suspicious of conspicuous dress, but she reserves most of her attention for the author’s attitude toward uniforms and uniformity, which reveal “Woolf’s awareness of the political use to which fashion can be put” (183). The Years highlights sartorial “uniformity and distinctiveness” and suggests that clothes can connect or separate women (193). Although wary of uniforms proper, Woolf understood that a standardization of looks could help tame the complexity of everyday life and that clothes are “important props that mediated desires for affiliation” (209). Plock spends considerable time on Woolf’s navigation of publishing practices and on the Hogarth Uniform Edition of her work, which standardized and commercialized her books in the name of accessing and influencing a wider readership (201). Through the Hogarth Press and the Uniform Edition, Woolf tried to “preserve her intellectual autonomy” and also to speak to a wider audience (206).
Throughout the book, Plock amply demonstrates the necessary preoccupation of women writers with fashion as a cultural phenomenon: “It is hardly surprising that women authors of the period, whose images and biographies were used strategically for marketing purposes, were aware that fashion determined more than the choice of one’s clothes” (4). Readers who pick up Modernism, Fashion and Interwar Women Writers hoping for insight into authors’ personal relationship with fashion will be disappointed; barring an occasional reference to Bowen’s flashy costume jewelry or to Wharton’s love of beautiful Parisian clothes (68, n. 4), Plock’s focus is on fashion in fiction and on literary styles. The volume truly shines in its exposition of the latter. The readings of individual novels are illuminating, but the issue of how interwar women novelists negotiated readerships and registers most repays a reader’s attention. Plock returns us to a time when distinct audiences and modernism’s looming presence required writers to place bets on what types of plots, styles, allusions, and even publication formats would ensure critical success, a long-term position in the emerging canon of 20th-century fiction, or lucrative sales. One leaves the book with a greater understanding of why some women writers were canonized while others have needed recovery; although fashion did not infallibly help women game the literary marketplace in the 1920s and 1930s, it posited a choice between the ephemeral and the permanent, the distinctive and the standardized, that writers would ignore at their peril.