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I just read a fun list on Flavorwire of their 10 favorite fashionable literary characters. Allow me to summarize:

  1. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth
  2. Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
  3. Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  4. Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  5. Scarlett O’Harain Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind
  6. Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  7. Dorian Gray in Gustave Flaubert’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
  8. Rupert Psmith in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse
  9. Lady Brett Ashley in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
  10. Darling Daintyfoot in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers

A wonderful property of literature and other art forms is that textiles — fragile under the best of circumstances — may be preserved in alternate mediums. Greek, Roman, and Ancient Egyptian statues may be studied for information on what people wore in eras almost impossible to find fragmented remains of clothes, much less full ensembles, as can paintings and literature. Though literature removes the visual aspect of fashion, it can supplement readers with information not gleaned from sculptures and pictures: how fabric moved; how heavy and cumbersome (or light and airy) it was; what necessary undergarments created the ultimate silhouettes. Most valuable, perhaps, is that literature is able to synthesize the mise en scène of a particular country, era, class, time of day, and personal circumstance, explicitly emphasizing the relationship of fashion with these other variables. Though not impossible, conveying this complex set of relationships is more challenging in fine arts, where the visual language may be forced to reduce information to simplified symbols, to be absorbed and interpreted by a viewer in a moment.

Within a written narrative, an author has space to develop characters and settings: personality, gender roles (how constrictive / seductive women’s gowns were communicates volumes), class (fabrics vary according to a person’s wealth), aspirations (class deception is commonly exploited with the use of clothes), sexual preference (homosexuals are often marked as such by a flamboyance of appearance that’s slightly out of step with current fashion)…. Though fashion historians often concentrate on the nitty-gritty details of garment descriptions — which is absolutely valuable — this information should contribute to the overall character development and plot structure of a novel as well. In the hands of a competent writer, dress details will not distract a non-fashion reader, but only add depth to what is already taking place.

The course of events in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, for example — war, displacement, poverty, the helpless role of women — lead directly and naturally to the memorable scene where Scarlett converts her destroyed mansion’s drapes into a fashionable dress and hat with which to impress and seduce Rhett Butler (thereby securing new wealth). (The dress from the original film, by the way, is in dire need of restoring.)

Scarlett O’Hara in drape dress, Gone with the Wind

This dress has become so iconic that costume designer Bob Mackie specifically spoofed it, within Carol Burnett’s 1976 general farce “Went with the Wind” (which I strongly encourage you to watch in its entirety):

Carol Burnett Show, Went with the Wind

As I hope you can see, Mackie left the curtain rod in, used drape ties with tassels for a belt, and left the contrasting fringe exactly where it would’ve been on the curtain, drawing attention to Scarlett’s desperation and deception sooner rather than later — taking Margaret Mitchell’s initial use of fashion one step further.

Presenters will be dissecting the relationship between fashion and literature in an upcoming Drexel University conference (at which I will be presenting): Fashion in Fiction: The Dark Side of Fashion. If you will be in Philadelphia October 8-10, please drop me a line (see my Profile for email address)!

Feel free to add your own best-dressed characters in fiction in the Comments….

Further Reading: