Note: This article was originally published in Serbian back in 2016 by our editor Maja Žikić.
Literature often treats fashion as a symbol of impermanence. Yet, it’s not uncommon for fashion elements to have their own story. Just remember Cinderella’s glass shoe, Miss Havisham’s wedding dress, Jay Getsby’s pink suit, or the little black dress that was made fashionable by Audrey Hepburn starring as Holly Golightly.
This article presents five fashion icons of the literary world, aiming to help us understand how our own desires and personalities can relate to these inspiring literary heroines.
Lady Brett Ashley, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
The 1920s saw the proliferation of newfound fashion freedoms. In The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley moves even further, stretching the limits of not only fashion but social norms as well.
Her confidence is captivating, and she is described as “damned good-looking”. This precise phrase was the greatest compliment that Ernest Hemingway, otherwise stingy with praise, had ever given to a woman.
The secret to her style partly lies in the slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt combination that has remained in vogue ever since. The other part of her secret is certainly related to her limitless charm and confidence.
“Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.”
Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote
Is it even necessary to emphasize the significance of a little black dress in the modern world?
The introductory scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when Audrey Hepburn stops by the 5th Avenue shop window, is the very moment when the movie outshines the popular novel. The little black dress becomes the most wanted item among fashionistas, although the novel gives it only a side mention.
“She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.”
Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchel
Even if you don’t like Scarlett O’Hara, chances are you can’t stay immune to her resourcefulness. At the moment her entire world is about to collapse, she decides to make a green dress out of curtains to help her maintain an appearance of financial stability and get the highly necessary loan. Even though she fails in this effort, the show of her determination and the role of fashion in her plans are truly remarkable.
In addition to her sophisticated taste, this literary heroine is also innovative as all true fashion icons are.
“As she chattered and laughed and cast quick glances into the house and the yard, her eyes fell on a stranger, standing alone in the hall, staring at her in a cool impertinent way that brought her up sharply with a mingled feeling of feminine pleasure that she had attracted a man and an embarrassed sensation that her dress was too low in the bosom.”
Esther Greenwood, the lead character of The Bell Jar and the alter ego of the novel’s author is also a perfect fit for a fashion icon. Her little black dress may not be as famous as the one worn by Holly Golightly but is nothing less important. This simple fashion item helps our heroine balance between her internal world and the conflicting, external world where she constantly feels misplaced.
Why is then a little black dress a great choice on any occasion? Because it gives us a sense of liberty in a world that can often be suffocating.
“I wore a black shantung sheath that cost me 40 dollars. It was part of a buying spree I had with some of my scholarship money when I heard I was one of the lucky ones going to New York. This dress was cut so queerly I couldn’t wear any sort of bra under it, but that didn’t matter much as I was skinny as a boy and barely rippled, and I liked feeling almost naked on the hot summer nights.”
Miss Havisham, Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’s most tragic literary characters, could also be seen as a fashion icon. Her sad story inspired a 2011 show by Prabal Gurung and was one of the central narratives of Marchesa’s collection that radiated with pure elegance. Both of these designers found something incredible in the woman who always keeps one shoe on the table and hasn’t changed from her wedding dress since she had been left at the altar.
Victorian-style waisted coats, puff sleeves and leather, lots of leather, were key elements of Marchesa’s collection. Miss Havisham is certainly eccentric and quite bitter, but she might not be as sad. I would certainly wear some of her outfits, wouldn’t you?
“She was dressed in rich materials — satins, and lace, and silks — all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on, — the other was on the table near her hand, — her veil was half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass…”
Who are your fashion icons of the literary world? Does fashion play a role in your reading experience? Feel free to tell us more in the comments!
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