Fashioning femininities: sartorial literacy in english domestic fiction, 1740-1853

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Stephanie Robinson Womick (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Mary Ellis Gibson

Abstract: In this dissertation I argue that by using, adhering to, or subverting cultural conventions and tacit sumptuary laws, heroines of English domestic novels take advantage of society's scopic nature, exploiting the gaze in order to control and author their own identity, achieving agency and subjectivity through self-fashioning. The connection between dress and domesticity is most visible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Domesticity--the ideology that idealized and promoted the home as the center of happiness and society (yet also separated from society)--defined the middle-class woman of this era. Domesticity is often discussed in terms of a highly surveilled space, and the ideal woman exists within that space. However, domestic novels often focus on women who do not fit in that space. Marginalized figures who are excluded from the ideal domestic scene for a variety of reasons--class, occupation, or suspect family ties--must find alternative means of accessing a secure social position. This alternative is often dress--they wear the clothes to secure the identity. The novels that I examine in this dissertation--Richardson's Pamela, Austen's Mansfield Park, Brontë's Villette, and Thackeray's Vanity Fair--all describe heroines who are marginalized and use dress to manipulate their identity. I argue that dress is a crucial component of language and performance, and agency is achieved through what I call sartorial literacy. In this paradigm, the gaze is part of a mutually discursive act, in which the female performer authors a text in clothing that is read by her audience or viewer; the heroine must have an understanding of the identity that the costume will communicate and how it will be read. This often leads to a paradox in which a heroine may appear to make herself an object of the gaze, to conform to social convention, but in doing so, may be subverting those conventions by achieving personal desire.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2011
Women, English novels
Clothing and dress $z England $x History $y 18th century
Clothing and dress $z England $x History $y 19th century
Femininity in literature
Femininity $z England $x History $y 18th century
Femininity $z England $x History $y 19th century

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