EVA MARIA STADLER
Costume is a language.--Fernand Braudel
As a literary topos, dress spatializes the relations between a woman's body and the social order. An encroachment of social norms upon the body's surface, dress may identify status or conceal identity and embellish or disguise corporal traits. A woman's vestments can publicize her servitude as well as cloak her private space. These varied functions of clothing figure in the realist novel from its beginnings in the eighteenth century. Daniel Defoe, Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, and Samuel Richardson all use the language of dress to construct and define a woman's social, sexual, and psychological identity by manipulating a cultural system.
Clothing has always been a sign that defines the place of its wearer, whether man or woman, within the social hierarchy; accordingly, it has also served to record irreversible cultural and historical transformations. In every period, as Daniel Roche has noted, "clothing is a good indication of the material culture of a society, for it introduces us immediately to consumer patterns, and enables us to consider the social hierarchy of appearances."1 At any historical moment, women's specific class position as well as the restrictions on their physical mobility are revealed to a large degree through their clothing. "Differences in the rules governing the body (dress and sexual codes, freedom of movement and so forth) will demarcate social difference and positions of relative power."2 In the sixteenth century, for example, Elizabethan proclamations of sumptuary laws regulated