Monday, August 9th, 2010
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The Truly Best-Dressed Characters in Literature

HEHRecently our neighbors at Flavorwire picked their ten best-dressed characters from literature. It's fascinating, if slightly heavy on film adaptions. ("Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol's Madame Bovary (1991)." No, that would be Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856)!) Isn't the best part of novels their ability to evoke striking images in the mind alone? Let's see if we can help!

The author of that list makes a useful confession in the comments section: "Sebastian Flyte totally would have made the list if the text of Brideshead were available online." Of course. Alas, it is difficult to work with an incomplete library. Especially when it concerns fashion-an obvious matter of personal taste and moral proclivities. (A professor of mine said: "Brett Ashley? Really? Or Scarlett O'Hara? She makes a virtue out of curtains, rather like the von Trapp children.")

Here are some more suggestions from texts that, for the most part, can be found online:

• Pyrocles in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (written around 1580) quite appropriately navigates toward the aesthetically pleasing and falls in love with a portrait of Philoclea. He cross-dresses as a gorgeous Amazon and everyone, both male and female, falls in love with him. Sidney devotes long passages to describing doublets of "sky colour satin, covered with plates of gold" and "crimson velvet buskins, in some places open (as the ancient manner was) to shew the fairness of the skin."

• Who can forget Chaucer's Wife of Bath from the Canterbury Tales (written around 1400):

Her kerchiefs were of finest weave and ground;
I dare swear that they weighed a full ten pound
Which, of a Sunday, she wore on her head.
Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red,
Close gartered, and her shoes were soft and new.

• Spenser's Duessa from The Faerie Queene (1590) is "adornd with gold and jewels shining cleare" and "in garmets gilt, / And gorgeous gold arrayd." The personification of Falsehood, Duessa quite appropriately finds herself covered with shimmering jewels.

• As long as we're looking at visual interpretations of words, what about Shakespeare (1564-1616)? His characters were written to be seen. Hamlet didn't just give melancholy a new emotional low, his customary suit of "solemne blacke" has been faithfully donned by sad young men ever since. Forget artistic redeployments of Ophelia, what about her monologue that depicts Hamlet in all his perfect misery:

Lord Hamlet with his double all unbrac'd
No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd
Ungartred, and downe giued to his Anckle
Pale as his shirt."

Malvolio fantasizes about lying on a daybed, wearing a "branched velvet gown" and his fetishistic desires culminate as he continually insists "my lady… did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered." Further, if clothes are a manifestation of a character, Petruchio's wedding outfit of "a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair / of boots that have been candle-cases" is a prime example.

• Less is more in Robert Herrick's short and seductive Upon Julia's Clothes: "Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes." Indeed, if simplicity is a virtue, then the prize goes to John Milton's Adam in Paradise Lost 1667), who is "Accompani'd then with his own compleat/ Perfections, in himself was all his state."

• May we jump several centuries? Even when in a rush, Maria Wyeth from Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) is stunningly on key (even if the rest of her life is out of whack):

She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o'clock.

• Alternately, some sartorial descriptions demand to be milked. Gabriel García Márquez's lush One Hundred Years of Solitude (1969) displays the beautiful Fernanda del Carpio, whose bridal trunk is "so well organized that the schoolgirl knew by heart which were the suits and cloth slippers she would wear crossing the Atlantic and the blue cloth coat with copper buttons and the cordovan shoes she would wear when she landed." During the scene of her husband's death, he vividly describes Fernanda "wearing a pink silk dress with a corsage of artificial pansies pinned to her left shoulder, her cordovan shoes, with buckles and low heels, and sateen stockings held up at the thighs with elastic garters." Please, let's never translate this into film.

• Of course, it makes sense that the era of naturalism would produce novels concerned with detailing clothing. Jean Des Esseintes from Joris Karl Huysans's À rebours (1884) is the archetypal aesthete and dandy. (Oscar Wilde modeled Dorian Gray from him.) Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850) expresses her erotic and aesthetic desires both through the clothes she makes and wears. Prynne's sewing of her red "A" acts as a symbolic resistance to the ruling social elite. Charles Drolet-Sister Carrie's first boyfriend from Theodore Dreiser's 1900 novel-might be considered the first metrosexual in literature. Absolutely mad about clothes, he introduces Carrie to the dizzying world of shopping.

• The athletically built Queequeg from Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851) is known and revered most as a character who externalizes himself through his full-body tattoos. His clothes are assembled from a mixture of global cultures and thus Queequeg epitomizes the dandy as a cosmopolitan worker of the world. Also, who can forget the image of Queequea smoking from his tomahawk?

edith-wharton-and-dogs• As much as I adore Edith Wharton and her novels that stage unspoken narratives through characters' clothing choices, perhaps Lily Bart, May Welland, and Ellen Olenska should not get all the attention. What about Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country (1913)? She is surrounded by people who are "all crazy to dress" her–and she welcomes them with open arms. Like most of Wharton's female characters, Undine cunningly conducts her social transactions through necklaces and dresses. For walks around the public park, she "put[s] on her most effective dress."

• One must also give a shout out to Henry James's Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer and Bram Stoker's Dracula, who are all, if anything, immaculate. Daisy Miller: A Study does take its sweet time to inspect Daisy–the word "pretty" is employed 43 times in this short novella. But that can't be helped in a world where "white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-colored ribbon" does not mean excess, but perfection. The 19th c. list goes on and on (Walter Elliot from Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818), Rosamond Vincy from George Eliot's Middlemarch (1869)) that it ultimately must come down to a matter of personal taste.

* * *

If one's simply looking for books concerned with how fashion articulates desire, Wharton would certainly be a good place to start. And let's face it, who really can authoritatively define "best dressed"? Perhaps we are more likely to remember the eye-catching over the stylish. Some novels of interest might be Colin MacInnes' Absolute Beginners (1958) with its overdressed mod fashions of late 1950s London or Peter Carey's Jack Maggs (1997), filled with outlandish and foppish costumes. A personal favorite is D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1950), with its cast of characters who wear "clothes in pure defiance." Ursula and Gudrun's bright, bohemian clothes, Oprah's "beautiful oriental clothes," and Gerard's "blue silk wrap" are all delightfully sensuous.

Unfortunately, the list does grow rather Eurocentric. Characters in Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956) do not possess the luxury to dress in "pure defiance." As immigrants rejected by London society, they try to impress–and so blend in– through their clothing choices. Eye-catching in the wrong way, they employ style as a means to fashion a new identity.

For another look at identity and clothing, Yinka Shonibare's Diary of a Victorian Dandyuses not literature, but visual art, to respond to Dorian Gray-esque figures. Shonibare's work exposes the relation between styles of dress, class and imperial domination. Using so-called "African fabrics" (bought and made in Europe), he reimagines famous 18th c. paintings to expose the artificiality behind one's concept of both Africa and British Victorianism. Maybe someone will make a movie out of it.

27 Comments / Post A Comment

HiredGoons (#603)

I would offer up Hester Prynne – you're telling me a giant red 'A'is not fashion-forward and dare one say Gaga-esque?

keisertroll (#1,117)

If The Scarlet Letter took place in the early 70's Hester Prynne's A would be yellow and Charles Finley would make her wear a handlebar mustache.

David (#192)

Then there is Dr. Frankenstein, there all wrapped up next a hot ventilation pipe: "His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in so wretched a condition. We attempted to carry him into the cabin; but as soon as he had quitted the fresh air, he fainted. We accordingly brought him back to the deck, and restored him to animation by rubbing him with brandy, and forcing him to swallow a small quantity. As soon as he showed signs of life we wrapped him up in blankets, and placed him near the chimney of the kitchen stove."

from Invisible Man:

"a group of janitors and messengers who spent most of their wages on clothing such as was fashionable among Wall Street brokers, with their Brooks Brothers suits and bowler hats, English umbrellas, black calfskin shows and yellow gloves, with their orthodox and passionate argument as to what was the correct tie to wear with what shirt, what shade of gray was correct for spats…"

speaking of spats, Bertie Wooster probably could make this excellent list…

*shoes. darn.

melis (#1,854)

"Not those socks, Jeeves," I said, gulping a bit but having a dash at the careless, off-hand sort of tone. "Give me the purple ones."

#56 (#56)

Daisy Buchanan comes to mind.

C_Webb (#855)

And how can we forget Gatsby's shirts? "Such beautiful shirts …"

I would've burned the site down if you hadn't mentioned des Esseintes.

How about Diomedes and his golden armor?

Kate Croy (#973)

!!! A Duessa reference! outside of Spenser class!

On topic, Beowulf and his men have some pretty sweet fashion going on. Faette scyldas and all that. Also, I seem to remember Gwen Harleth being very well-dressed, pre- and post-poverty.

C_Webb (#855)

LOVE Gwendolyn Harleth. She's like a wildly bipolar Isabel Archer.

Mar (#2,357)

Claire Ambler, pls. Although the whole concept of this list is inherently flawed.

Mar (#2,357)

Why doesn't The Awl care more about Booth Tarkington?

bennimaddi (#314)

let's not forget books for young people. Harriet M. Welsch defined Butch Tween Chic as early as 1968, Claudia Kishi pioneered the bohemian babysitter look long before Blossom ironed it out for television, and although Pippi Longstocking basically only had one outfit, a whole generation of pirates' daughters took their fashion cues from her understated shift dress, stylishly mismatched stockings and oversized boots. honorable mentions go to Weetzie Bat with her fairy-punk fusion, and Ozma of Oz for the daring giant-poppy-earmuff/tiara combo.

Pandemic Endemic (#3,825)

Let's not forget Anne Shirley of Green Gables and how she "felt that life was really not worth living without puffed sleeves."

jaysond (#6,734)

Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho"? He was rocking that 80s Ur-metrosexual thing.

Was it not somewhere linked from the Awl that recently I read Ellis saying he actually made Bateman dress like a total fool but very few people actually took the time to visualize these silly outfits?

Carnage Hall (#5,633)

I didn't buy that explanation–the sartorial detail was over the top but not beyond the trends of that time. Whether you think 1980s fashion was silly in and of itself is another thing.

Erik Maza (#4,544)

i always liked that line in wonder boys about terry crabtree. "i imagined him at home, blowing sophisticated plumes of smoke at his reflection in the mirror, tying and retying his red cashmere scarf"

hazmathilda (#839)

There's some serious clothing porn in the Tale of Genji. Not to mention stationery, scenery, poetry, and pun porn…

God, Sebastian Flyte! I don't think I knew what sexual arousal was until I saw the BBC adaptation of Brideshead Revisited!

HiredGoons (#603)

did you see the new version? God Ben Winshaw is sooooo boneriffic.

Belatedly, no. Although Ben Whishaw is incredibly dreamy, I'm not sure he could set my girlish heart aflutter in the same way that the omg, hawt! sexual tension between Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews did.

garge (#736)

So I contemplated this in bed, and while I don't think she would win any Best-Dressed selections, shout-outs to my girl Margarete Hale from North and South, as her understated yet on point minimalism makes her my own style icon. (Disclaimer: it was not well addressed in the BBC adaptation, but nearly everything else was.)

Also, while she was a bit meh in the book, I would wear every single thing they put on Romola Garai in the newest Emma. Especially that green and coral number!

Carnage Hall (#5,633)

As Lily Bart and Patrick Bateman have both been mentioned, I would have to tip a hat to Zola's Nana, and also to numerous society beauties in the works of Balzac. The ugly-ducking-to-swan transformation of the aristocratic Mme de Bargeton in "Lost Illusions" is perhaps one of the more notable descriptions of how dress influences social perception.

Redacted (#2,882)

What about almost everyone in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge? I've never been able to watch the film version of this, but I remember literal pages full of Elliot Templeton, Isabel, et al on their interwar Paris shopping sprees. To the point where I kind of wished I could go back in time and be killed in WW2 just for the romantic drama of it, and also because the fun was over.

PLozar (#6,808)

I always loved the description of Robin Vote's clothes in Djuna Barnes' *Nightwood*. Her future husband the quasi-Baron wonders why her clothes always appear fuller and richer than other women's. Finally he discovers her secret: She buys antique dresses and has the material made into modern garments.

(And, in the genre-fiction category, a tip of the hat to that paragon of sartorial splendor, Lord Peter Wimsey.)

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