This essay brings American social history, costume history, and fashion theory to bear on Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening. By matching Chopin's descriptions of dress against those in contemporaneous women's magazines, etiquette manuals, and discourse on dress reform, this essay analyzes Chopin's use of fashion and the bared body in her representation of the female subject.
During the years surrounding the turn into the twentieth century, discourse on dress proliferated, resulting in what fashion historian Joan Severa calls "a universal understanding of style" (454). Americans of the period purchased more clothing per capita than ever before, and manuals like Dorothy Quigley's What Dress Makes of Us or Mary Haweis's The Art of Dress appeared alongside books on dress reform like J.H. Kellogg's The Evils of Fashionable Dress. Early feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed the topic (see Illus. 1) as did highly respected American psychologists such as William James and G. Stanley Hall. While Hall's 1898 study on motivation in dress interpreted clothing as a means of social conformity (Ewen 79), James singled out garments as instrumental in establishing self; he writes that "we [...] identify ourselves with them" (280). The fervency with which dress became a serious subject within scientific and economic discourse is perhaps best illustrated by Thorstein Veblen's now cla ssic book entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, wherein he describes women's dress as the most "apt illustration" of the principles underlying the whole of his economic theory. Treating it as an emblem of conspicuous consumption, Veblen interprets female attire within the context of women's historical role as commodities of exchange. Because the wife functions as property, he argues, her costly attire is meant to pronounce her "uselessness" and lack of "productive labour" (170), thereby announcing "to all observers" (179) her husband's social and economic status.
The positions etched out by thinkers like Veblen, Gilman, Hall, and James establish cultural precedents for Kate Chopin's use of clothing in The Awakening, her controversial 1899 novel about marriage and female sexuality. Critics over the course of the past four decades have explicitly acknowledged Chopin's reliance on clothing and images of undressing to suggest her character Edna's sense of oppression and eventual liberation. Per Seyersted, for example, refers to acts of disrobing throughout the novel, arguing that this action at the novel's end "symbolizes a victory of self-knowledge" (194). Other critics have read Edna's disrobing conversely, attributing Edna's demise not to societal forces, as Seyersted suggests, but to the character's lack of an integrated self or to personal limitations that make change impossible. Suzanne Wolkenfeld, for example, calls the disrobing a "regression to the animality of infancy" (223). Robert Collins, tracing in its entirety the pattern of garment imagery, argues that di srobing "symbolizes Edna's dissatisfaction with fiction-making" but that the way in which the imagery is used "suggests that Chopin viewed Edna's suicide [...] as a failure of imagination" (177). The attention to dress in Chopin criticism verifies the importance of garment imagery in the novel, but to date no critic has placed this pattern within the context of nineteenth-century discourse on dress.
My examination of the novel's clothing imagery maps out the specific socially grounded meanings encoded in Chopin's extensive and specific inclusion of details of dress; it is an analysis revealing that the writer uses dress as a means of representing female subjectivity. I begin by establishing the discursive background for use of dress in the novel and then focus on its depiction of working-class and non-white women, particularly in terms of their clothing, to show how Chopin depended upon social class and racial stereotypes to revise nineteenth-century feminist discourse on self-ownership. …