Friday, June 17, 2011

Fashion in Literature

I am possessed by the beauty of the past. And while a vintage novel’s domestic details—like a cut crystal bowl brimming with oranges in a Christmas tableau—stirs my heart, the rousing happens moreso when I stumble upon descriptions of fashions. I crave classic literature’s sartorial luxuries and am always looking for ways to bring them to life in my decidedly 21st century closet and at my dressing table.
Anna Karenina's red handbag is often described as the container of all her desires. It is as red and plush as her lips and she carries it close as a talisman the night she first meets Vronsky. I have yet to find the perfect crimson handbag but when I do, I will know it is right for me if I can imagine it accompanying me on a train on a deep winter night, and it is large enough to carry all my comforts.
It was Willa Cather's Mrs. Forrester in "A Lost Lady" that inspired an earring purchase in 2004. Just going back to work after being ill, I went looking for a lucky charm and spotted a lovely pair of dangling garnet and pearl earrings. Inherently, I knew I was drawn to them because of Mrs. Forrester's earrings which sparkled in firelight being "long pendants of garnets and seed pearls in the shape of fleurs-de-lys...which hung naturally against her..." I've worn my earrings countless times and they remain ever, my favorites.
The tragic Madame Bovary teaches me that dressing at home does not have to be boring. Instead of sweatpants, I can opt for a pretty lace camisole with my jeans, feminine slippers, and a crocheted shawl across my shoulders. For home, Madame wears "an open dressing-gown, that showed between the... facings of her bodice a pleated chemisette with three gold buttons...her garnet-coloured slippers had a large knot of ribbon that fell over her instep".
Madame also charms her doctor-husband with "numerous attentions" to herself, "a flounce that she altered on her gown...charms on (her) watchchain...an odour of freshness on her chemise". I think of these things when I wear my Ann Taylor cotton and silk pleated skirt with the attached petticoat that shows only in micro-increments when I cross my legs. The past brought forward.
Brett Ashley in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, taught me to wear fall woolens with feminine panache. Her "slip over jerseys" with her tweed skirts allows for a lovely juxtaposition in just the right measure: soft cashmere sweaters that cling to the body with the scratchy male roughness of tweed. I think of these each fall when I reach for my wool pencil skirts and soft sweaters.
Jane Austen's novels are filled with ribbons, trims, bonnets, and dresses. Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate has Polly asking Fanny if she thinks of nothing but hats and dresses even in church. I often say that I was born in the wrong century but the fashion in literature inspires me to keep the toes of my lovely embroidered slingbacks back in my favorite literary fashion eras.

Photo Credits: British Vogue