Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature
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Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature

Double Threads

Madeleine C. Seys

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Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature

Double Threads

Madeleine C. Seys

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About This Book

We know that way we dress says a lot about us. It's drilled into us by our parents as children, as adults throughout our working lives, and eternally from the culture surrounding us. Our dress tells the outside world of the culture and era we come from to our social status within that culture. Our dress can be telling of our political views, religious beliefs, sexuality and countless other identifying traits that we can keep hidden or show to the world by our choice of what to wear when heading venturing out. This was absolutely true, famously so, in the Victorian Era in which men and women alike wore their status on their often lavish, embellished sleeves. In her new book, Dr. Madeleine Seyes explores Victorian culture through the lens of fashion in her new book, Double Threads: Fashion and Victorian Popular Literature, which sits at the intersection of the fields of Victorian literary studies, dress and material cultural studies, feminist literary criticism, and gender and sexuality studies.

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1 White Muslin

The dress of the nineteenth century virgin … [had] to subtly convey family status as well as personal desirability; seductiveness, albeit virginal; along with apparent submissiveness … The ethereal qualities of the Angel in the House must … be combined with the suggestion of sufficient health and strength to bear a large family.
(Wilson 123)
White … necessarily implies a certain high standing in social position. It is only a lady of the grand monde who can reasonably indulge in the expensive elegance of white morning dresses … The morning dress now fashionable consists of a long skirt of white percale or cambric muslin.
(“Summary of the Modes … May” 46)1
How … can we be really noble and pure, while we are still decked out in innocence, virtue and belief as ephemeral as the muslins we wear?
(Moore, Drama 101)
White muslin captures a plethora of social, moral, and sartorial connotations in its fine weave and transparent folds. It is fashionable, ephemeral, and timelessly elegant. It evokes ethereality, innocence, youthfulness, purity and virginity, and blankness, death and ghostliness. During the nineteenth century, white muslin was fashioned into garments of elaborate frivolousness and liberating simplicity (Ashmore 69); it was the material of debutantes’ gowns, wedding gowns, tea gowns, evening gowns, rational dress, and shrouds; its symbolic connotations changed with its style and use.
White muslin was fashionable throughout the nineteenth century, and the woman in white muslin became a ubiquitous figure in Victorian popular culture and literature. She is an Angel in the House or “muslin martyr”: innocent, passive, and virginal, and “decked out” with a wardrobe of delicate muslin gowns (Moore, Drama 99). In her essay on dress in fiction, Dingle states that “Jane Austen has a way of throwing white muslin over her heroines”, which is at once nonchalant and highly significant (266). The woman in white muslin plays a variety of social and narrative roles in nineteenth-century literature: she is Austen’s “perfectly well-dressed” heroine, the naïve and seducible victim of Gothic literature, and the “perfectly religious” heroine of the domestic realist or High Church novel (Eliot, “Silly” 301–2). These virtues, however, are as ephemeral and fashioned as the cloth that contains them. As Moore’s Alice suggests in A Drama in Muslin, young women’s “innocence, virtue and belief” are “as ephemeral” as the muslins they wear (Drama 101). The heroines’ white gowns symbolise the construction of “the idealized [female] image … as a representation of the ideal woman—the sign of the ideal woman and not the woman herself” (Elam 50). White muslin represents the ephemerality and artifice of the Victorian feminine ideal. Consequently, muslin can be fashioned to subvert the ideal, and the woman in white becomes the duplicitous sensation heroine, or the New Woman novel’s “white soul[led]” proponent of “free love” and gender equality (Allen, Woman 49; 22). In these novels, the heroines’ white gowns become a site of tension between ideal and transgressive femininity and sexuality, represented by the textural and symbolic variations of muslin.
Fashion historians and literary critics have explored the historical, literary, and aesthetic significance of white muslin. The woman in white muslin is identified as a ghost, an apparition (N. Daly, Sensation 3; 32), a corpse, a mourner, an angel (C. Hughes, Dressed 78), and a bride (Harvey 205–6). White muslin signifies innocence, virtue, fidelity, self-effacement, “infantine beauty” (C. Hughes, Dressed 71), ethereality and the sublime (C. Hughes, Dressed 106), joy and virginity, vulnerability (C. Hughes, Dressed 87), victimhood (N. Daly, Sensation 1), and death (Harvey 205–6). In 1902, Mrs. Eric Pritchard stated that white is associated with “a significant touch of purity” (39). According to Clair Hughes and John Harvey, white muslin also symbolises festivity, formality (Dressed 70), and heavenly radiance (Harvey 205). At the same time, white muslin’s diaphanousness and transparency render it scandalous (Ashmore 69) as a form of non-dress akin to nudity, which erotically reveals the female figure (Michie 17). In cataloguing these symbolic connotations of white muslin, literary critics such as Hughes, Daly, Aindow, and Harvey gesture towards a variety of ways of representing the female body, femininity, and sexuality in Victorian popular literature; however, the histories and construction of these images and meanings are not analysed.2 For many scholars, the “Woman in White” is a static representation of femininity, victimhood, or death. Such readings reinforce the ideal of the Victorian woman as passive, lacking self-determination and narrative agency. Such readings also disregard the symbolic complexity of white muslin and its potential to signify several, apparently contradictory, notions of femininity. Instead of accepting the “Woman in White” as an embodiment of the feminine ideal, this chapter explores the way in which white muslin is fashioned and refashioned in telling the heroine’s story as she negotiates, and even transgresses, Victorian ideals of femininity.
Muslin’s fluidity and blankness as a cloth mean that a variety of connotations and meanings are ascribed to its use as a narrative symbol. Although blank by colour and transparent by texture, white muslin is a textual surface on which a variety of narratives of female subjectivity and sexuality are inscribed. In Victorian popular literature, ephemeral muslin is fashioned and re-fashioned as narratives progress, and the heroine alters her subjectivity. In this way, muslin functions as a palimpsest, bearing a multiplicity of stories, histories, and meanings. Muslin’s lightness of colour and texture also mean that its appearance and significance change according to its narrative context and physical environment. Lisa Cohen argues that cloth has a “dynamic transparency and opacity” (151); as a literary symbol, it “characterizes the open secret … [it] allows a particular fact to be at once acknowledged and disavowed, seen and unseen” (151). In Victorian popular literature, white muslin manifests this dynamic texture; it is both a sign of ideal virginal femininity, and of the artifice or fictitiousness of its representation. Muslin’s fluidity and dynamic transparency allow the heroines of popular literature to be ethereal feminine ideals, alluring femmes fatales, ephemeral women of fashion, “muslin martyrs”, theatrical mummers or “women who did” (Moore, Drama 99; Allen, Woman). This chapter explores the ethereality and ephemerality of white muslin and its symbolic use in to depictions of femininity and sexuality in Victorian popular literature, drawing connections between the characteristics of the material and its symbolic resonances.

White Muslin

The history of muslin weaves from the ancient Middle East, through the developments of the industrial revolution, to the fashions of Victorian Britain. This nineteenth-century muslin is a finely woven cloth in variations of white and unbleached cotton (Calasibetta and Tortora 332–33). It is soft to the touch and notable for its weightlessness, ethereality, and diaphanousness (Ashmore 8; Johnston, Kite, and Persson 48; 8). Muslin is either plain weave or embellished with subtle woven patterns or surface embroidery. In June 1886, The Lady’s World listed some of these textural variations: “muslin sprigged, muslin plain, muslin spotted, muslin embroidered …, or tamboured” (Dingle 266). These intricate monochromatic patterns evidence the stylistic, textural, and conceptual variations of muslin. They also function as material symbols for the different connotations of white muslin evoked in Victorian popular literature. White muslin’s intricate and subtle patterns represent the complex narratives contained within the fabric, rendering it texturally and conceptually opaque. The first of these intricate narratives is the history of the cloth.
As Sonia Ashmore states, muslin’s whiteness and “insubstantial delicacy has veiled a rather darker story … woven into the history and politics” of imperial trade for centuries (8).3 The muslin favoured by fashionable Britons in the nineteenth century has its antecedents in the distinctive cotton cloth woven in northern India and in the Middle East since the first century CE (Yafa 35). This cloth was traded between India, the Middle East, China, Thailand, Burma, Greece, and Egypt. In Persian, the cloth also had a variety of poetic names, each denoting different weights and uses; abrawan (running water) and shabnam (evening dew) were very fine, whilst jhuna was worn by dancing girls and mulmul khas was reserved for royalty (Ashmore 17). In the fourteenth century, the Persian poet Amir Khusrau wrote of a cloth so fine that “a hundred yards can pass through the eye of the needle … [and] so transparent and light that it looks as if one is in no dress at all but has only smeared the body with pure water” (qtd. in Yafa 35). The name “muslin” was coined by Marco Polo, Venetian merchant and traveller, in the thirteenth century in reference to a type of cloth woven in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (Ashmore 8). When muslin was introduced into European fashions during the mid-seventeenth century, it not only retained the connotations of purity, luxury, and sensuousness but also gained those of fashionableness, ephemerality, and ethereality (Ashmore 8). This history underpins the cloth’s significance as an item of fashion and a literary symbol during the nineteenth century.
The history of muslin as an item of fashion in Britain is intrinsically tied to the rise of the Empire and imperial trade.4 The cloth was introduced to British consumers by the East India Company in the mid seventeenth century, the Company ensuring that this luxurious cloth soon became a fashion commodity in high demand in Britain (Ashmore 8–9). During the 1690s, the East India Company established the city of Dacca (Dhaka) as the centre of muslin production for the British market, with the material woven on handlooms in newly built workshops (Ashmore 27–28). The trade was so lucrative that, in 1701, a ban was placed on the wearing of Indian calicos (Ashmore 34). In 1721, another act was passed to ban the importation of cotton cloth to protect the British textile industry; henceforth, raw cotton was imported from India and the West Indies, and woven in northern Britain (Ashmore 34; Yafa 31; Lemire, Cotton 60; 3).
Handloom weaving of muslin was attempted in Britain in Paisley, Glasgow, and Lancashire from 1700; however, the quality of the cloth was poor (Ashmore 35). It was not until the invention of the Spinning-Jenny in 1764, water-powered machinery in 1771, and the power-loom in 1784 that cotton could be woven to an acceptable quality in Britain (Yafa 45). Bolton, Norwich, and Canterbury became centres of muslin production (Ashmore 35). As production became faster, muslin also became cheaper (Lemire, Cotton 60). In Jane Austen’s 1818 novel, Northanger Abbey, Mr. Tilney accurately estimates the cost of the muslin of Mrs. Allen’s gown at nine shillings a yard although, he states, he recently got a “prodigious bargain” on a “true … muslin” for his sister at merely five shillings a yard (17). This discussion, possibly literature’s most notable discourse on muslin, emphasises the cloth’s connection to commerce, consumerism, fashion and, by extension, popular culture and literature, during the nineteenth century.
The history of cotton, particularly muslin, is uniquely enmeshed within the development of popular fashion in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Lemire, Cotton 33). The industrialisation of muslin production was contemporaneous with the rise of the serial press and fashion journalism; as a result, descriptions and sketches of the latest fashions were disseminated faster than ever, and the fashion for muslin as an alternative to silk grew quickly (Yafa 36; Lemire, Fashion’s 169; 13). Throughout the Georgian and Regency periods, white muslin was fashionable for women’s day and evening gowns. The fineness of the muslin and the transience of fashionable styles meant that these gowns were inherently ephemeral. In Northanger Abbey, Mr. Tilney states that heroine Catherine Morland’s white muslin gown:
Is very pretty ... but I do not think it will wash well: I am afraid it will fray ... But then ... muslin always turns to some account or other; Miss Morland will get enough out of it for a handkerchief, or a cap, or a cloak.
(Austen 28)
As Tilney suggests, muslin’s fineness means that it was often refashioned; its symbolic and social connotations changed with its use. Social and political changes also influenced the ways in which muslin was worn and what it signified. During the nineteenth century, the production of and fashion for muslin became embroiled in political unrest in the British Empire. These events contributed to the cloth’s significance as a sartorial, social, and literary symbol.
Austen’s Miss Tilney may wear a “real India muslin” gown (Northanger 17); however, the growth of the British textile industry throughout the nineteenth century led to the importation of raw cotton from America as well as India. By 1860, 80 percent of cotton woven in Britain was imported from America’s southern states (Yafa 165). After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the reliance of American cotton producers on slave labour became a contentious issue in Britain (Yafa 37). Direct political intervention was made redundant when, in 1860, the American Civil War led to the cessation of the cotton trade between America and Britain. The lack of the raw product resulted in the Lancashire cotton famine of 1861 to 1865 during which cotton weaving ceased (Yafa 165). However damaging the “cotton famine” proved to the local textile industry and its workers, it had little long-term effect on the fashion and demand for white muslin. During this period, India remerged as the main source of cotton for the British fashion market. In the summer of 1866, the British Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion triumphantly announced the revival of “a fashion which, during several years past, has been almost wholly laid aside”—the white muslin day-dress (“Summary of the Modes … May” 46). Such day-gowns were the epitome of class and style, and continued to be fashionable throughout the 1870s and 1880s (“Summary of the Modes … May” 46). Towards the end of the century, the reliance on India for raw cotton meant that muslin again became a “contentious political issue” in Britain (Yafa 37). Imperial unrest in Indian posed a new threat to the British cotton industry and fashion.
During the course of the nineteenth century, British imperial growth in India saw the increased cultivation of large areas for growing cotton (Yafa 36). The raw product was then woven in Britain for the local market; it was also sold back to India at highly inflated prices (Yafa 37). In his history of cotton, Yafa argues that “by depriving India of the fruits of its own labour, England had all but guaranteed that the crop would … come to symbolize colonial subjugation and provide a rallying point against it” (37). By the end of the nineteenth century, the failure of the cotton industry and the rise of Indian self-rule had become inextricably intertwined (Yafa 37). Nevertheless, muslin remained fashionable into the first decade of the twentieth century, as if in defiance of Indian demands for self-rule. White muslin, then, became a sign of luxury, conspicuous consumption, and the strength and pride of the British Empire in the face of opposition. The ultimate expression of this is the white-muslin-clad Angel in the House, the bastion of British social and moral order.
The “Angel in the House”, as named in Coventry Patmore’s famous mid-nineteenth-century poem, was the custodian of British morality and the symbol of familial and social order throughout the Victorian period (Walker 24). As wife and mother, this female figure was at the centre of the most important social, cultural, and political unit—the family. Social order relied on her virtue (Walker 24). The historical and political complexity of white muslin—which juxtaposed ethereality with the erotic, and fashion with slavery and colonial subjugation—defined the context within which white muslin was seen as the “mandatory dress” of the Angel in the House from the 1860s (C. Hughes, Dressed 115). These dichotomies also shaped the combination of erotic sensuality and carefully regulated sexuality, which, Elizabeth Wilson argues, defined the Victorian cult of female beauty and virtue (123).
When worn by the Angel in the House, white muslin symbolises both her “seductive, albeit virginal”, sexuality and the health and strength necessary to rear a large family (Wilson 123). The coalescence of potentially contradictory ideas is embodied by muslin’s simultaneous potential to appear opaque or transparent depending on its style and physical environment. Muslin’s chromatic nullity evokes the ideals of womanhood and sexuality. Fine, pale, and gently flowing, white muslin has Biblical connotations of virtue and purity, appearing as the “white wings of [an] angel” (Braddon, Aurora 158). Dressed in white, the woman embodies an ethereal and virginal ideal of femininity. Muslin’s transparency reveals that such an ideal is a fashioned and fashionable fiction rather than a representation of actual femininity. Inherently, though somewhat subversively, its conceptual opacity registers the possibility of aberrant sexuality and behaviours that transgress the angelic ideal. This possibility is played out in popular literature throughout the Victorian period.

The Woman in White

From her appearance on Hampstead Heath in the opening scenes of Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel, The Woman in White, the woman in white muslin became an icon of Victorian popular literature (Daly, Sensation 10). As ghosts, debutantes, fiends in disguise, and “muslin martyrs” (Moore, Drama 101), heroines in white muslin occupy ball-rooms and drawing-rooms, bed-chambers and lunatic asylums, open heaths and shadowy twilight scenes. These women are depicted attempting murder, committing bigamy and adultery, abandoning their children, agitating for women’s rights, and expressing sexual desire for other women. As Nicholas Daly suggests, the “Woman in White” is an ethereal, even vulnerable figure who, yet, has the power to spellbind, fascinate, and even to seduce (Sensation 2). She is both an ideal and a symbol for the inevitable failure of this ideal. Beneath an appearance of purity and innocence, the heroine’s white muslin gowns hold the possibility of seduction and corruption, connoting white linen, the boudoir, and the bed (Harvey 205).5 In Victorian popular literature, heroines negotiate these contemporary notions of femininity and sexuality, refashioning their ...

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