Victorian Dress in Contemporary Historical Fiction

By | October 20, 2023

This interdisciplinary study traces the imaginative and narrative projections of Victorian women’s dress from the nineteenth century to the present day. The first full-length study to examine the remediation of Victorian clothes in the neo-Victorian novel, it investigates and attends to the deeply suggestive and highly symbolic iterations of Victorian dress in the contemporary cultural imagination. In the neo-Victorian novels closely examined in the book, garments have complex and layered narratives; their histories, stories, and narrative arcs, like those of their human counterparts, are multiple, intricate, and ever evolving. More than simply adding to the ‘reality effect’ (Barthes [1968] 1986: 148; original emphasis) of contemporary historical novels, dress functions as an interpretative tool through which key textual, material, and affective information can be accessed and experienced. Dress is not merely a representational and chronometric marker in neo-Victorianism; its role is not simply to historicize, to add colour and texture to the reimagined material past, although it achieves all these things, but it also provides a dynamic, symbolic device with which to actively re-fashion that past. This book thus foregrounds the sartorial as a fundamental tool for accessing and rethinking the neo-Victorian genre’s relationship to the nineteenth century. I explore how neo-Victorian writers deal with the creative possibilities afforded by dress and fashion as gendered sites of agency and affect. Drawing on the resonances between texts and textiles, I argue that dress exemplifies the fabricated and fragmentary process of writing, reading, and re-imagining the nineteenth-century material past. In so doing, this book seeks to add fresh perspectives to (neo-)Victorian studies and historical dress and fashion theory, respectively. It also seeks to expand critical perspectives on the ‘material turn’ in neo-Victorian studies by considering the theoretical potentiality of the term ‘re-fashioning’ as a critical-conceptual framework within which to analyse the fabrication and re-patterning of the past in the present. Bringing dress history perspectives into dialogue with Material Culture Studies, thing theory, and more recent work on new materialism, it examines the narrative trajectories, affective entanglements, and lively vitalities of neo-Victorian clothes.

In particular, the book aims to cast a spotlight on the textual extensions of Victorian women’s dress in a number of ‘canonical’ and lesser-studied neo-Victorian novels. The rewriting of women’s lives, as well as a compulsive interest in gender, sexuality and the re-articulation of the female body, are among the genre’s main preoccupations. An exploration of women’s clothing thus complements, extends and enhances critical discussions around the recasting of female identity and agency in contemporary historical fiction. Just as it does in Victorian realist and sensation modes, the neo-Victorian novel displays a particular sensitivity to matters of female dress and fashion. Consequently, garments that were predominantly worn by Victorian women, or which proliferate in the contemporary cultural imaginary as being most often associated with female wearers – gowns, gloves, veils and jewellery – recur throughout the novels that form the core focus of this book, reflecting the profusion of female fashions during the nineteenth century.

Danielle Mariann Dove, author of Victorian Dress in Contemporary Historical Fiction, is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Surrey, UK. Her research and publications centre on Victorian and neo-Victorian literature with a specific focus on material culture, dress history, and literary celebrity.

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