The Meaning of Fashion in Jean Rhys. An Analysis of Gender and Identity

Bachelor Thesis, 2018

48 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Relationship between Fashion, Identity and Gender
2.1. Georg Simmel’s Sociological Theory of Fashion
2.2. Joanne Finkelstein’s The Fashioned Self
2.3. Central Concepts of Gender Theory
2.4. Notions of Creole Identity

3. Analysis of Fashion in Voyage in the Dark, Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea
3.1. Fashion in the City in Good Morning, Midnight and Voyage in the Dark
3.2. A Surface Life: Consumerism, Commodification and Transformation in Good Morning, Midnight and Voyage in the Dark
3.3. Aspects of Fashionable Performance in Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight
3.4. Fashioning the Creole: Race and Identity in Wide Sargasso Sea and Voyage in the Dark

4. Conclusion

List of Abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. Introduction

Jean Rhys and Fashion – these two topics are a good match at first sight. “Jean loved glamour” and it is no coincidence that clothing and adornment plays such an essential role in her works (Athill, Smile Please 406). Rhys has commented various times on the importance fashion has had in her personal life: One time she was wondering whether she does indeed have “black blood […] Where else would I get my love for pretty clothes?” (Pizzichini 298), and interviewed about the money that accompanies success, she said: “For one thing it would mean clothes. A really pretty suit or dress would mean a lot to me” (Cantwell 25). However, the use of fashion in Rhys writing is not unequivocal but illustrates contradictions and conflicts, especially with respect to the aspects of gender and identity. Reading Rhys through the lens of fashion offers a variety of new perspectives on some of her best-know novels, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and Voyage in the Dark (1934).

According to fashion historian James Laver, the sewing needle has been one of the greatest technological advancements of human history (10). The aim of this paper is to examine fashion from a literary perspective. Rhys’s writings offer a time-specific insight into social and cultural structures regarding fashion. I use fashion as an umbrella-term combining clothing, adornment, make-up and masking. When clarity is needed, I will refer more specifically to the element in question. Overall, I do not want to interpret specific dresses, but the context in which they are worn. Fashion is about ‘fashioning’ identities, it is a process of construction and deconstruction.

The modernist writer Jean Rhys was born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica as Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams (Owen vi). She lived there until she was sixteen, went to England (which disappointed and frightened her) until she was twenty-nine, moved to Paris, then to Vienna and back to England (Athill, Short Stories vii-viii). Her birth in the West Indies, her peripatetic life affected by alcoholism and money troubles and her late success – “too late” for Rhys (Athill, Smile Please xv) – rendered her a person and writer who did not seem to fit anywhere (Gregg 3). Consequently, there are a wide range of interpretative options for her writing: West Indian, British, European, feminist or postcolonial amongst others (Gregg 3). According to her friend and publisher Diana Athill, Rhys’s texts were not autobiographical in every detail, “but autobiographical they were” (Smile Please vii-viii). However, the notion of a ‘Rhys woman’ as the conflation of heroine and author has been a process sometimes astonishing in its cruelty (Gregg 3; Hite 20-21).

This paper’s objective is to explore the ways in which Rhys – in a quite revolutionary way – depicts fashion as a practice with various meanings. Fashion is entangled in a composite relationship with identity and the visual communication inherent in dress practices is much more complex than might first appear. In fact, Rhys raises questions about the political force of fashion enacted by women of different backgrounds. Albeit a fashion addict herself, she remains very critical of fashion’s positive possibilities, rather focusing on its counter-enforcement on female identity as well as making use of it as a means to examine social coherences.

Rhys has written five novels and various short stories. The novels I chose reflect different periods of her writing as well as different cultural, social and historical contexts. Additionally, the protagonists in each novel are of different ages, giving an insight into different situational concerns of women regarding fashion. Rhys’s characters are markedly similar, always outsiders, always close to the edge. Good Morning, Midnight and Voyage in the Dark depict Sasha Jansen and Anna Morgan’s movement in the modern urban space in which ‘good’ clothing is deemed a prerequisite (Joannou 463). Wide Sargasso Sea sets a different focus, placing the subject of clothing in a colonial context. Rhys’s wrote her masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea – published twenty-seven years after the publication of the last of her ‘continental’ novels (Emery, World’s End 7) – as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Unhappy about Brontë’s description of Rochester’s mad Creole wife Bertha, Rhys conceptualised the novel as a rereading of the tragic life story of Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Cosway (Gregg 82-83).

My project includes several strands of theoretical thought to illuminate the multifaceted use of fashion in Rhys’s novels. In chapter two, each theoretical concept is outlined and summarized. In chapter three, I link the theories to Rhys’s texts. I start my analysis with two sociological theories, Georg Simmel’s Fashion (1904) and Joanne Finkelstein’s The Fashioned Self (1991). Simmel’s concepts are particularly helpful in relation to the historical context of Rhys’s writing. Finkelstein critically examines aspects which are elemental features for Rhys’s writing on fashion: consumerism, the commodification of the female body, the illusory act of transformation and the resulting ‘surface life.’ Thereafter, I use Judith Butler’s philosophical theories on gender, sex and performativity (Gender Trouble (1990); Bodies that Matter (1993)) in order to elucidate notions of gender norms and performativity in Rhys’s novels. Fashion academic Gertrud Lehnert has elaborated Butler’s theories with regards to fashion and her concepts are included in this section. Subsequently, I will closely examine the notion of Caribbean white Creole identity and relate it to Rhys’s use of clothing in her novels. In order to clarify the novels’ social context, I will further give an insight into post-plantation society in the Caribbean. The heading of each paragraph indicates which novels are being discussed.

2. The Relationship between Fashion, Identity and Gender

The following section summarizes each of the stated theories sorted by respective theorist. The passage on gender tries to combine two theoretical strands. The section on Creole identity combines various theoretical and empirical findings. The diversity of the theories sheds light upon the complex relationship between fashion, identity and gender.

2.1. Georg Simmel’s Sociological Theory of Fashion

The German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel is considered one of the founders of a theory of fashion since he outlined central driving forces of the process of fashion (Lehnert, Kühl, and Weise 101). Simmel’s 1904 essay Fashion must be understood in its historical context. His considerations are still of great significance today and have not been fundamentally challenged, but rather updated and complemented (Lehnert, Kühl, and Weise 104). Interestingly, Simmel’s writing on fashion corresponds with Jean Rhys’s time of living, offering insights into the social context of that time. Since fashion is dynamic, incorporating its historical and social context is of vital importance. For Simmel, fashion is a characteristic of industrialized societies that he calls “highly civilized nations” (F 301). Fashion is thus part of the continuous (re)making of the modern state of mind – a strategy for identifying and fixing oneself in the rapid flows of commercialized and mechanized life (Karl 20). By noting that fashion even has acquired an increasing influence over the “moral foundations of life,” Simmel sees the modern individual as developing in compliance with the economic procedures of capitalist societies (F 304; Karl 21). Simmel focuses on the space of the city which greatly influences the processes of fashion. Fashion develops in the city because “it intensifies a multiplicity of social relations, increases the rate of social mobility and permits individuals from lower strata to become conscious of the styles and fashions of upper classes” (Ashley and Orenstein 314). In addition, an increasing anonymity in the city led to greater emphasis on appearance as the means by which to assess and read the other (Entwistle, Fashioned Body 116). Simmel understands fashion as an affirmation of the metropolitan condition of individual independence (Downes 84). In the nineteenth century, public life changed significantly in all western cities. Women conquered the public space, as strollers in the cities’ promenades and parks and affluent customers of the developing department stores (Lehnert, Modetheori e 41). In another well-known essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life (1904), Simmel poses that the modern metropolitan subject is defined through its relationship to the urban marketplace as the money system comes to condition all aspects of human life (MML 327-328). He critically stresses the tension between capital’s psychic and social organizing effects, and its alienating, quantifying logic (Karl 22).

As sociologist, Simmel points at the tension between social structure and individual agency. His basic premise is that the two radical drives of human nature are, on the one hand, “socialistic adaptation to society” and on the other, “individual departure from its demands” (F 294). There is no institution or structure of life which can uniformly satisfy the full demands of the two opposing principles (F 295). Fashion in modern society is a phenomenon which displays the contradictory desires for social imitation and individual differentiation. On the one hand, fashion is the imitation of a given example and thereby satisfies the demand for social adaptation. On the other hand, it satisfies the need for individuality by a constant change of contents and because it differs for different classes or social groups (F 296).

Simmel points at the essential social nature of fashion and dress. Fashion allows the individual to demonstrate its affiliation to a class or social group and enables the social group to distinguish itself from other groups. Simultaneously, it enables the individual to distinguish itself within the group (F 297). Nevertheless, Simmel’s concept of imitation does not contradict the assumption that fashion is mainly about self-fashioning which would require a certain degree of individuality and self-enjoyment. Fashion would not work without the illusion of individuality which is achievable in the respective social group (Lehnert, Mode 28).

According to Simmel, fashion is a product of class distinction; its constant change is explained by the individual and group’s quest for social advancement (F 296). The groups on the lower stratum of society appropriate the fashions of the respective higher social groups, forcing them to turn to new fashions in order to remain unique and distinguished. That is, it is only the upper stratum of society that is fashionable and determines the rhythm of fashion. With the rise of a middle class, fashion has become much broader and more animated (F 318). Consequently, social progress results in vast changes in fashion because the process of imitating the respective higher class (which then turns towards new fashions) happens faster. In addition, the middle class tends to be less conservative than the upper class and is constantly longing for change (F 317-318). One consequence of this development is that fashion becomes less extravagant and costly (F 318-319). However, the transitory character of fashion does not degrade it but makes it even more attractive (F 304). Leadership in fashion shows itself in exaggerating already available tendencies in fashion. That is, the fashionmonger is actually the one that is led (F 305). On the other hand, individuals who reject fashion are no less independent from social forces but exercise an inverse form of imitation (F 307).

For Simmel, fashion is a phenomenon which primarily involves women. He explains women’s need for fashion as a way of dealing with their dull lives, in contrast to the fulfilled lives of men, who, therefore, do not need the artificial entertainment of fashion (F 310). Thereby, fashion can be seen as a female valve for being refused success and recognition in other social spheres (F 309).

Simmel does not limit his definition of fashion to clothing and adornment but includes the general demeanour of individuals, such as their tastes in art, leisure activities, their way of gesticulating and moving. Relating to Simmel, Finkelstein argues that by proposing that the matters and habits of the individual’s ordinary life may be subject to the same impulses as fashion, is to claim, that fashionability and consumption are elemental parts of the individual’s inner life (F 141).

2.2. Joanne Finkelstein’s The Fashioned Self

Joanne Finkelstein proposes in The Fashioned Self (1991) that understanding human character from an individual’s appearance is an authoritative narrative of modern social life. This leads to a situation in which fashioned styles of beauty are accepted as expressions of human sensibility (3). Finkelstein’s theory is based on the premise that there is a commonsense belief in society that character can be thought of as immanent in appearance and that human physiognomy can reveal a great deal of the individual’s character (10). Physiognomy assumed that the nature and intentions of human actions and intentions were inscribed in the obvious signs of the face and the body; it was a means of calculating and understanding the invisible from the visible (28). Systematic accounts of a relationship between physical appearance and human character have appeared throughout Western history and in most societies bodily control, display and adornment have been translated into signs of social status and individual virtue (17, 51). Physiognomy may be considered a discarded intellectual relic and appear incongruous in our society of technological sophistication (10). Nevertheless, the physiognomic principle of judging character from appearance remains an axiom of sociality and a “hegemony of appearance” is still in effect in modern contemporary society (76, 68).

Finkelstein acknowledges that accepting that “character is summarized in our bodies, that personality and individuality are a function of appearance” is challenging but argues that the popularity of practices which alter one’s appearance such as clothing, cosmetics and exercise express the continuity of physiognomists’ thought (7-8). The fact that so much time and money is spent on the shaping of one’s physical appearance indicates that in the consumer culture of modern society, appearance is of paramount importance and is often conflated with the more abstract qualities of character (8, 2). Since the techniques for styling appearances are as popular in contemporary society as in previous times and the availability of goods and services has increased, the fashioning of appearances is probably even greater in the twentieth century (3). Finkelstein notes that a reading of human character through an interpretation of bodily signs is thoroughly confused and the knowledge of self and identity gained from these speculations full of anomalies (12). Yet, this narrative is accepted as if it were true; even though one may be aware that appearance can be fashioned, its purported correspondence with the character of the individual persists (50).

Finkelstein takes several approaches into consideration to substantiate her argument. The concept of being judged by one’s physical appearance is not only found in naturalistic theories of human behaviour such as physiognomy but also operates in the figurative domains of literature and mythology and applied areas of medicine (49). Various psychological studies support the proposition that appearance is important and repeatedly confirm a body halo effect: the more attractive the individual is considered to be, the more likely they will be attributed with other valued characteristics such as generosity and intelligence (Finkelstein 49).

Finkelstein examines the consequences and problems that arise from this condition which has a significant influence on habits of sociality. Attaching human character to physical appearance means that a constructed and fashioned image is used as a summary of personal identity; personal identity has been re-conceptualized as an image (192). This perspective determines that personal identity is visible and self-evident and as a consequence there is little need to reflect on or consider what identity is. That is, individuals who have physically groomed themselves in accordance with prevalent definitions of beauty can feel confident of having constructed an appropriate and successful social identity (192). However, ironically, the sense of self of the individual is created from the received meanings of the time (9). If self-identity is generated and fashioned from images and commodities, being tied to circumstances, it has “no allegiance to communally shared values, historical concerns or transcendental aspirations” (190). Finkelstein proposes that as long as physical appearances are given a high social value, a spurious narrative of human character is authenticated (12). By valuing physical appearance as a means of increasing success in social interactions, one risks that the social experience to an exchange is controlled by prevailing stereotypes (3).

Finkelstein looks closer at the role of fashion in this process. Fashion – as major part of an ‘appearance-management’ – has the capacity to mediate human relations through an abbreviated code of images and meanings (148). As a consequence, it constrains the everyday to a “surface life” in which appearances and styles of performances are accepted as expressions of complex sensibilities (148). This cost of fashionability is thought to be worthwhile and even useful. While fashionability may be a “disguised attack on human reflection,” it eases the fleeting encounters of everyday life and overrides an exhausting or prolonged study of the character of the other (148).

In a society based on status inequality and material competition, in which a sense of personal satisfaction must always be lacking, the emphasis placed on appearance and the consequential stigmatizing of some appearances brings about an insatiable appetite for alternatives and changes to one’s appearance. In fact, the sovereignty of consumption fuels the dissatisfactions that goods are supposed to still (76). The human body, as if no different from other purchased objects, can be used as a commodity to display power, prestige and status; like the manufactured good it can be made a sign of the individual’s accomplishments, capacities and character (4). The body is treated as malleable and by fashioning and adorning, it can be continuously altered in appearance. Thereby, transforming the body into a commodity becomes a social goal itself (5). An excessive self-consciousness and anxiety over physical appearance can be seen as the authenticating narrative of the modern time.

What Finkelstein designates with the term “the fashioned self” is that fashion has become a major source of personal identification; it means that we have learned to value the image of how we appear to be and how we are styled (146). In physiognomists’ tradition, emphasis is placed upon appearance although the appearance has been cultivated and shaped by a muddle of extraneous influences (146). Being fashionable appears to offer the individual a degree of control over his or her immediate circumstances; it assures both to reveal and promote aspects of a new persona in the individual. By adopting a particular fashion and accommodating new fashions, the individual can be everything at once. Fashionability thereby “promises to emancipate the individual from the customary and […] enrich the self” (147). According to Finkelstein, the origins of the fashioned self lie in financial ambition, the invention of the financial credit and the escalation of fashionability. These influences establish the legitimacy of the pursuit of the new, making it seem as if the self must be continuously fashioned and re-fashioned (119). Fashionability may be privately thought of as a distinctive form of individualistic expression but it is actually the opposite, namely the adoption of a propagated image and the ideals of the narrative of our time (146). The irony of regarding fashionability as a solution to the problem of identity is that fashions do not distinguish individuals, but, on the contrary, embed and integrate the individual into society (144).

2.3. Central Concepts of Gender Theory

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) was widely acclaimed as a revolutionary book due to its ground-breaking ideas regarding gender identity, the relationship between gender and sex and the notion of gender as performance or gender performativity. In Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), Butler seeks to clear up readings and supposed misreadings of Gender Trouble and clarifies her concept of performativity. Butler is particularly engaged with phenomena of power, gender, sexuality and identity (Bublitz 49). She has a deconstructivist position, abandoning the assumption of an oppositional, binary gender system and seeing gender as well as sex as social constructions (Bublitz 52). Butler begins Gender Trouble by criticising feminist theory which, by denoting and discursively constituting the category of ‘women’ as the subject of feminism, produces the very structures of power that are fought (GT 2). She refers to Michel Foucault who assumes that juridical systems of power inevitably produce the subjects they subsequently claim to represent (GT 2). Feminism assumes that the term ‘women’ denotes a stable subject and a common identity, ignoring the fact that the category of ‘women’ is not constituted coherently but complicated by factors, such as historical context, race, class and ethnicity (GT 2-3). Butler proposes that feminist theory must reformulate a representational politics based upon some other need than one for a stable, unified subject (GT 5). In addition, Butler demands to reconceptualize the categories of sex and gender which are still based on Cartesian dualisms (such as mind/body and nature/culture) (GT 129). The distinction between sex and gender used in feminist discourse serves the argument that although sex is pre-given, gender is culturally constructed and hence neither the casual result of sex nor as fixed as sex (GT 6). She criticizes that the body is understood as a passive recipient that is signified by a cultural source, “an inexorable cultural law,” that is external to that body (GT 8). Such a viewpoint suggests a certain determinism of gender meanings; “not biology, but culture becomes destiny” (GT 8).

Instead, Butler proposes a radically different and widely debated framework to understand the categories of sex and gender. “[G]ender is not to culture as sex is to nature” but gender is the discursive means by which “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive” and prior to culture (GT 7). In other words, the sexed body is not the firm, biologically determined, ‘natural’ foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory heterosexuality operate but that body itself is shaped by political forces with strategic interests; even biological sex is a social construction (GT 129). Sex does not provide the “raw material” of culture, but the very concept of “sex-as-matter” is itself a discursive formation that acts as naturalized foundation (GT 37). Sex is already the result of cultural classifications, sex is already “cooked” (GT 37-38). In that respect, sexual difference “is never simply a function of material differences” (BTM 1). It is the very cultural construction of gender that creates the impression of the existence of a prediscursive sex (GT 37-38). In Bodies that Matter, after being criticized for ignoring the materiality of the body and of sex (“What about the materiality of the body, Judy ?”, BTM ix), Butler notes that the irrefutability of the “facts” of bodies “in no way implies what it might mean to affirm them and through what discursive means” (BTM xi). To substantiate her point, Butler asks a question in return: “Is the discourse in and through which [the] concession [of the undeniability or materiality of sex] occurs […] not itself formative of the very phenomenon that it concedes?” (BTM 10). The body is entirely material but Butler rethinks materiality as the effect of power, “as power’s most productive effect” (BTM 2).

Butler asserts that questions of identity cannot proceed questions of gender identity (GT 16). She suggests that regulatory practices of gender formation and division, what she calls “compulsory heterosexuality”, constitute identity and that identity is a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience (GT 16, 18). In fact, identity is a socially instituted and maintained norm of intelligibility, assured through the stabilizing concepts of sex, gender and sexuality. The supposed unity of gender and sex is produced through regulatory practices that generate coherent identities through the matrix of coherent gender norms (GT 17). This “heterosexual matrix” (Butler also calls it “matrix of intelligibility”, “compulsory heterosexuality” or “oppositional heterosexuality”) requires and produces the production of an oppositional, binary gender system, the asymmetrical oppositions between feminine and masculine, where these are understood as attributes of male and female (GT 17). This matrix institutes a causal relation and “metaphysical unity” of gender, sex and desire. Following this logic, certain kinds of identities cannot exist, namely those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not follow from either sex or gender (GT 17). That is, the construction of coherence conceals the gender discontinuities that exist within heterosexual, bisexual, gay and lesbian contexts in which neither sex, nor desire or sexuality generally express or reflect one another (GT 135-136).

Gender is performative, performatively produced by the regulatory practices of gender coherence. Acts, gestures and enactments are performative in the sense that the essence or identity they claim to express are “fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (GT 136). In that respect, the regulatory ideal of compulsory heterosexuality is exposed as a norm and a fiction; it regulates the field that it pretends to describe (GT 136). In being performative, “gender is always a doing” (GT 25). It is the “repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts” within a rigid regulatory frame, an imitation or miming of the dominant conventions of gender (GT 33). That is, the effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and must be understood as the everyday way in which bodily gestures, movements and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of a stable gendered self (GT 140). If gender attributes are not expressive but performative, then they effectively “constitute the identity they are said to express or reveal” (GT 141). The fact that the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality (GT 136): “[W]ithout those acts, there would be no gender at all” (GT 140). This means that the very notions of an essential, material sex or a true and abiding masculinity and femininity are constituted as part of the strategy that conceal gender’s performative character (GT 141). In fact, “gender can be neither true or false” but is produced as “the truth effects of a discourse of […] stable identity (GT 136).

The action of gender requires a continuously repeated performance. Butler calls this process “sedimentation” (GT 140). This repetition is simultaneously re-enactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established and the ritualized form of their legitimation. Although it is individual bodies that enact and experience these signification, this action is a public action (GT 140). In that respect, gender is a strategy of survival within a compulsory system. Gender is not an artifice to be taken on or taken off at will and, thereby, not a matter of choice (BTM x). Instead, gender performativity is the repetition of often oppressive and painful gender norms (Kotz 84). Butler has often been misunderstood in that instance:

The bad reading goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet, and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender, stylize it, and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically other […] when my whole point was that the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way—that gender is not to be chosen and that ‘performativity’ is not radical choice and it’s not voluntarism (Kotz 83-84).

Just like sedimentation stabilizes the ideal of compulsory heterosexuality, it is equally by this virtue of reiteration that “gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which exceeds or escapes the norm” (BTM 10). Hence, the very process of repetition opens up the possibility of undoing and undermining heterosexual norms (Bublitz 75). Butler looks at the performance of drag to illustrate her claims. She points that drag fully subverts the division between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity. In imitating gender, drag reveals gender’s imitative structure itself as well as its contingency (GT 137). Depending on context and reception, parody has the capacity to be disruptive and enforce a rethinking of concepts of gender identity (GT 139).

Below, I will outline how Butler’s theoretical concepts are interlocked with fashion. Butler has acknowledged but not yet examined the role of fashion whereas other scholars have done so with reference to Butler’s concepts of gender and performativity. Viewing fashion and gender as intertwined is a viewpoint that developed in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and still determines academic discourses and practices on fashion (Lehnert, Modetheorie 24; Lehnert, Kühl, and Weise 24). Fashion’s principal messages are about the ways in which women and men perceive their gender roles or are expected to perceive them (Crane 16); or as fashion academic Elizabeth Wilson puts it, “fashion is obsessed with gender” (117).

In particular Gertrud Lehnert bridges the gap between Butler’s concepts and a theory of fashion. Her premise is that “[t]he way people dress is among the most significant ways of doing gender” and fashion thereby contributes to the creation of gender differences to a large extent (Gender 452; Mode, Weiblichkeit 9). ‘Doing gender’ means the conscious or unconscious staging of a gendered self in everyday life (Lehnert, Gender 452). In that respect, fashion and clothes are not the expression or interpretation of sex and/or gender but, rather, are involved in its creation and bring the gendered body into awareness, constructing ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ (Lehnert, Kühl, and Weise 26). Hence, fictions of a binary system of heterosexuality rooted in fashion come to shape self- and outside perception of material bodies (Lehnert, Kühl, and Weise 26). By dictating rigid rules both for femininity and masculinity, fashion reinforces the idea of gender difference and heterosexuality as ‘real’ and natural. Most fashions are the idea of a perfect dualist sexual difference, dress being the concrete manifestation of this difference. (McNeil, Karaminas, and Cole xv-xvi). Dress is the main object used “in [the] masquerading as sexually different individuals – and this masquerade is crucial for [people’s] passing, passing as bodies that matter” (McNeil, Karaminas, and Cole xv).

Butler’s assumption that not only gender but also sex is neither pre-given nor natural but subject to cultural norms has been taken up by Lehnert and elaborated for fashion. Clothes do not express a biological body but create an aesthetic body of their own that is always a materialized fantasy of an ideal or imaginary body regardless of whether it happens to be similar to biological attributes or not. Such a “fictitious” or “fashionable body” can have a variety of forms; male, female, asexual or whatever one believes or wants it to be (Lehnert, Gender 452). The fictitious body conceals biological sexual characteristics and substitutes them with new, fashionable sexual characteristics which then come to dominate the perception of gender (Lehnert, Mode, Weiblichkeit 9). Thereby, clothes and fashion are an important – visual and sensual – means of creating ideas of gender and sex, not only for those who look at the ‘acting person’ but also for that person herself or himself (Lehnert, Gender 452). A piece of clothing as such does not already signify gender difference although differences in the clothes worn by men and women respectively are apparent from the early history of clothing in Western Europe and much of the world. A woman is readable as a woman because she wears a specific item of clothing in a way defined by her culture as feminine and therefore appropriate to her gender and even her sex (Lehnert, Gender 452). That is, fashion as well as clothes always signify something, whether it is intended by the wearer or not (Lehnert, Gender 452). Nevertheless, fashion cannot be simplified to an unambiguous representation of a specific gender but rather creates what it represents. In creating visual appearances, it both represents and creates cultural ideas of gender, sex, beauty, class and race but never the “real thing” (Lehnert, Gender 452). Masculine fashions are often considered as more ‘natural’ than women’s because their clothed body parts have a certain resemblance to the natural body. But apart from that, men’s fashion was and is as fictional and unnatural as women’s (Lehnert, Gender 452).

As noted above, according to Butler, identity and gender identity do not exist prior to their performance. Clothing and dressing oneself, the adoption of certain styles of dress and types of accessories and make-up, is an integral element of one’s everyday performances, what Butler has described as a “stylized repetition of acts” (Lehnert, Gender 452; Butler, Performative Acts 520). There are no ‘real’ identities prior to their performance, and the continual process of performing identities is inescapable, although not necessarily done intentionally (Lehnert, Gender 452). In other words, efforts to build gender identity through clothing can be identified as masquerade, since there is nothing behind the mask (Samborska 272). Fashion’s performative potential lies in provoking meaning; it is a medium of presentation and self-staging (Lehnert, Mode 11). Fashion as such is not performative but what people do with it. It is one of the most diverse, changeable and yet persistent mediums of both construction and deconstruction of meanings. In fact, this very process of both construction and deconstruction is fashion’s performativity (Lehnert, Mode als Spiel 216-217; 224).


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The Meaning of Fashion in Jean Rhys. An Analysis of Gender and Identity
University of Cologne
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meaning, fashion, jean, rhys, gender, identity, Wide Sargasso Sea, Good Morning Midnight, Voyage in the Dark, Creole, Georg Simmel, Judith Butler, Performativity, Jean Rhys, clothing, Joanne Finkelstein, Gertrud Lehnert, fashion in literature, Postcolonialism
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Josianne Strube (Author), 2018, The Meaning of Fashion in Jean Rhys. An Analysis of Gender and Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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