Fashion as Communication. How Materials and Colours Forecast Certain Characteristics and Developments in Chandler's Hard-boiled Detective Novel "The Big Sleep"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Dress Code in the 1930s

3. Psychology of Fashion
3.1 Dress and Identity
3.2 Nonverbal Communication

4. Genre Contextualization of Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

5. Clothing and its Significance in The Big Sleep
5.1 Philip Marlowe
5.2 Arthur Gwynn Geiger
5.3 Eddie Mars
5.4 Carmen Sternwood

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The hard-boiled novel The Big Sleep was published in 1939. This was the time of the Great Depression and when the hard-boiled style leapt beyond the limits of the pulps. It is the first novel of the author Raymond Chandler (1888 to 1959), who introduced a new style of detective fiction through the play with order, the increase to more than one plot line, and a new complexity.

The novel is about the private detective Philip Marlowe, who has to solve the puzzle of different events happening in a blackmailing case. During his inquiry, Marlowe meets and has to deal with different characters. However, when the blackmailing plot seems to be closed, Marlowe is still curious about the residence of the character Rusty Regan, and so the second plot develops. After the first and second plots/cases are seemingly brought to a close, the client’s daughter, Carmen, turns her gun on Marlowe in an attempt to kill him. Finally, Marlowe figures out that Carmen killed Regan and that the other client’s daughter, Vivian, had tried to conceal it by paying someone to hide the body. Regan, it turns out, was dead throughout the entire novel, lying at the bottom of an oil sump in the client’s home.

It is striking that The Big Sleep tells its readers much about clothes, colours, fashioning, and furnishing of the different characters. Fashioning can be seen as communication without speaking because clothes are identifiers of age, gender, status, social class, occupation, ethnicity, and wealth. Thus, clothing in The Big Sleep plays an important role of communication with the reader.

I believe that in his novel, The Big Sleep, Chandler uses the non-verbal tool of a detailed description of materials and colours, such as fashion and furnishings, to give the reader certain hints of the moods, identities, and evaluation of the characters and the situations with the purpose of encoding events. This paper will prove that the description of clothes and furnishing foretell that Geiger has something to hide, Marlowe is an honest man willing to seek truth in a dark world, Eddie Mars is the villain of the story, and Carmen is insane.

After a short introduction into the fashion and dress code of the 1930s, I will expand on the meaning of clothes. Furthermore, I will describe and analyse the fashioning and furnishing of four important characters to prove my thesis. In the fourth chapter I will contextualize the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, going into its characteristics, history, and origin. The fifth chapter contains a conclusion, which sums up all the facts in reference to hard-boiled fiction in general.

2. Dress Code in the 1930s

The rapid change and transformation of American society has influenced fashion. The increase of speed, the hustle and bustle, and the large array of attractions in American life have led to a fast change of fashion throughout history. The beginning of the 1930s was especially affected by the stock market crash of 1929 and its worldwide dramatic economic consequences.

During this time women were excluded from the labour market or were looking for domestic security voluntarily. Around the 1930s the fashion changed from the ideal of the American girl to the mature and serious woman as a role model. The new fashion represented femininity and thus the skirts were longer and wider but the cuts were more body-contoured. Typically in women’s fashion was the figure-fitting princess-dress, which was at daytime high-necked and calf-length and in the evening floor-length and with a plunging neckline. A waisted costume with a tight-fitting skirt also dominated the fashion, as well as a slender cut jacket and fancy hat creations. 1933 showed a strong emphasis on the shoulders. Altogether, women’s fashion was more traditional, subtle, and feminine than before. In 1938 female shoulders were emphasized even more, skirts covered just the knee, and the waist was kept very thin. In addition, the knickerbockers-like sports pants, the stretch trousers, the anorak and the long-legged and wide-cut Marlene-Dietrich trousers came into vogue (Loschek 77-79). Women’s footwear was often bicoloured. In addition, women’s shoes were round at the front with a high cap and often with an extremely high heel. In the late 1930s the wedge- and plateau-heel was modern (Loschek 211).

Most men in the 1930s wore suits that were called jacket, which was the first suit with matching top and underpart of the same fabric. The jacket was often combined with shirt, tie, and handkerchief (Loschek 107). Altogether, men’s fashion in the 1930s was casual and loose and the jacket was often equipped with padded shoulder (Loschek 219). The 1930s’ man wore a soft felt hat, which could be a fedora or a trilby with a differently coloured application and gaiters. Additionally, the more-sporty moccasin was fashionable (Loschek 209-210).

Men’s fashion was dominated by the bowler hat, which had a wide brim. Women in the 1930s wore small, flat hats with a narrow or no brim of felt or velvet, which could be equipped with different accessories. There were also various sporty hat shapes, which were mostly found towards the end of the 1930s and were more fancy and variegated (Loschek 330-331). Colours like black and silver dominated the fashion in order to convey an impression of extravagance. Later on in the 1930s other strong colours influenced the fashion (Loschek 188).

3. Psychology of Fashion

Clothing is a striking expression means for humans to communicate; it is related to our body and personality. Clothes symbolize the individual identity and position within social structures and involve the economic, religious, and political activities. Thus, for example, wearing leather, wearing hats, or using certain colours says a lot about a person (Roach-Higgins and Joanne B. Eicher 7-18).

3.1 Dress and Identity

An individual’s dress, in comparison to clothing, is a collection of modifications of the body and also supplements the body, including alterations such as haircuts, coloured skin, garments, accessories, and so forth. Clothing, on the other hand, includes things covering the body but generally omits body modifications. Therefore, I will stick to the term dress. Dress, as a human invention, is a means of communication because it comprises a depth of meaning through non-verbal symbols and thus functions as a medium for communication. I will return to this aspect in greater detail in the next section. Dressing oneself is a process whereby individuals establish their identities and, thus, reflects where people are socially situated. Furthermore, dress allows us to explain ourselves to others; however, the meaning signalled by a dress can be different for the wearer than the receiver. The meaning depends on each person’s subjective interpretation (Stone 19-23). In my definition of dress, I would add the aspect of dressing the room. Interior design is another symptom that reflects an internal psychic process and reflects people’s identity. This is why I maybe should have named this chapter “textiles and identity”. Thus, interior textiles can be included in the term dress; dressing the room can be seen as the same as dressing the body (Edwards 68-72). Both function as a kind of syntax self-representational processes of one’s own identity.

The term dress is bound into a relationship with the personal identity of an individual and thus, dress make a statement about gender, age, social class, and religion. Furthermore, dress allows us to explain our identity to others. The different layers of a dress can be seen as different levels of personal identity. We can differ between the public and the private self/identity. With the outermost layer people are addressing a public audience, whereas the successive layer is directed to a more intimate group. These external and internal expressions of identity serve as a reflection of people’s self, their individuality, and personality (Roach-Higgins, Eicher, and Kim K. P. Johnson, eds. 4-80).

3.2 Nonverbal Communication

“Identities are communicated by dress as it announces social positions of wearer to both wearer and observers within a particular interaction” (Roach-Higgins and Joanne B. Eicher 12), which means that what is communicated depends on persons and actions. The nonverbal communication of dressing in a specific way can be seen as a performance and extension of the self (Edwards 67). Identities are communicated, for example, by choosing a single specific coloured property, which can be a more important indicator for something than the rest of the outfit. Furthermore, dress can have different symbols of femininity and masculinity and also indicates a society or a subgroup of a society through having specific rules regarding body modification (Roach-Higgins, Eicher, and Kim K. P. Johnson, eds. 11-102). An important fact is that non-verbal communication consists of two parts: how one sees oneself internally as an individual and how one wants to be seen by others (Edwards 67).

According to Freud, identification is a psychic interplay between desire and being desired, thus constituting an identity. The wish to be an object in the world is linked to the choice of dress. Therefore, dress non-verbally symbolizes a relation to a specific group and at the same time it functions to be an individual between all group members (Barncroft 23-26). Every item of a dress has a deeper meaning as we will see in chapter five, where I will analyse the meaning of the dress of four characters in The Big Sleep.

4. Genre Contextualization of Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

The first American detective short story was published in 1841 by Edgar Allan Poe. This modern, but with historic roots, literary genre of detective fiction has numerous subgenres, like the thriller, the spy novel, and the hard-boiled novel. The hard-boiled detective fiction, which first appeared in 1920s pulp magazines and was primarily an American phenomenon, developed out of the public awareness of police corruption and the increase of private detective agencies. This led to an increase of the private eye in the literature (Thompson, 3-18).

The publication of The Big Sleep, in 1939, came during the heart of the Great Depression, which was the worst economic crisis in American history. It was a time of joblessness and homelessness and also a time of rapid change, both of the economy and politics. The cultural disorder during the Great Depression led to fundamental transformations in American society. These changes helped widen the market for cheap publications, which also led to an increase of the literacy rate. During this time the genre of the hard-boiled novel was cheap entertainment for millions of readers and employment for hundreds of writers. The hard-boiled style leapt beyond the limits of the pulps because of a huge demand of popular fiction, which was more realistic and radical than other crime fiction at the time (Pepper 140-151).

Hard-boiled fiction depicted the modern urban setting and was a portrayal of the American life, with its social corruption and increasing crime. Thus, the term hard-boiled means tough or shrewd and refers to the hero, the detective of the story, whose characteristics are not cold-blooded but honest and tough but sentimental and sensitive, such as detective Marlowe is in The Big Sleep. Therefore, the plot and characters are more realistic in hard-boiled fiction than in other crime fiction. In The Big Sleep detective Marlowe can be seen as a hero in a corrupt world who battles the foreign risk of criminals between legal authority and the criminal underworld and is, thus, a response to particular conditions of the 1930s America (Scaggs 55-64).

5. Clothing and its Significance in The Big Sleep

5.1 Philip Marlowe

The novel’s protagonist, Philip Marlowe, who works as a private detective, is described very often and in a very visual way. When he first appears in the novel his clothes are described very precisely. It is 11 o’clock in the morning and Marlowe is wearing a “powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them” (Chandler, Stories and Early Novels 589). Furthermore, the detective described himself as a “well-dressed private detective” (Chandler, Stories and Early Novels 589). As I already described the contemporary dress code in the 1930s, Marlowe’s dress is very common for his time and not very conspicuous. Marlowe follows the 1930s’ dress code and tries to adapt to the style of the successful, American man by wearing a suit with socks and shirt in matching colour. Marlowe gives importance to accessories to promote the American casual elegance (Webber 94). One can say that he dresses as good as one can expect, as throughout the story it becomes clear that Marlowe lives under poor economic conditions and it is not possible for him to spend much money on clothes. His financial situations can also be recognized in his apartment and office. Marlowe lives in a very simple single apartment, only equipped with the most necessary. The same applies to his office, which only contains a reception and an office area; Marlowe does not have a secretary or fancy things. These details demonstrate that Marlowe lives rather poorly but in an honest way, acting on personal impulse and pursuing his cases not for money or professional determination but out of emotional motivations (Chandler, Die Simple Kunst des Mordes 288-293).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Fashion as Communication. How Materials and Colours Forecast Certain Characteristics and Developments in Chandler's Hard-boiled Detective Novel "The Big Sleep"
University of Osnabrück
American Detective Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
fashion, communication, materials, colours, forecast, certain, characteristics, developments, chandler, hard-boiled, detective, novel, sleep
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Lara Luisa Schöber (Author), 2016, Fashion as Communication. How Materials and Colours Forecast Certain Characteristics and Developments in Chandler's Hard-boiled Detective Novel "The Big Sleep", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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