Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning.
Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences.
The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.
In the new middle-class world of 19th-century Europe and America, whose development parallels that of the realist novel, dress was a clear sign of order and hierarchy—key subjects of the genre’s concerns. In the shift from a traditional aristocratic order to that of the bourgeoisie, dress was of anxious concern to those who lived through this change. It was a minefield, and failure to navigate its codes courted disaster: Dress could conceal and flatter, but also betray, deceive, and seduce—all of which provided the novelist with powerful material. The quest for social and economic success was central to the novelistic plot, though this took one trajectory for men and another for women—whose goal was matrimony. The French Revolution, Honoré de Balzac explained, banished hierarchies, and in dress left only nuances, which became increasingly important to the novel: details were foregrounded, while outfits as a whole were understood.
In mid-19th century England, Charles Dickens, considered the quintessential realist, in fact used dress sporadically for comic effect or quirks to identify a character; the role of dress in William Thackeray’s novels, on the other hand, were more structured, often symbolic. By late in the century, men were less interesting in dark suits. As women were now more visible in work and in public spaces, their clothes became of concern to the novelist. Male dress was about hierarchy and status, female dress about cost, taste, and, above all, morality. Husband–hunting heroines advisedly wore white, but novelists grew less judgmental of the pleasures of dress.
In allegedly classless America, women enjoyed greater social freedoms than in Europe, producing more nuanced approaches to fictional dress. For Henry James, dress was a “brick” in his House of Fiction; sparingly deployed but crucial. Stereotypes were questioned, as was “proper” dress. Throughout the 19th-century novel, clothes and money interacted in relation to family and inheritance. Fin de siècle America was both immensely wealthy and class-conscious, and Edith Wharton, though a member of New York’s elite, confronted her consumerist society with what its frivolity could destroy.
In the Western world, for centuries, clothes were generally seen as indexes of vanity and seduction, and thus stigmatized. Since the birth of fashion in the second half of the 19th century, however, they have finally come to be regarded as one of the manifestations of a society’s culture, and, as the actual “stuff” of any period’s life, they have gradually figured more prominently in literary works. From modernism to post-modernism, from Blaise Cendrars and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Bret Easton Ellis and William Gibson, fashion and clothes have indeed signified by revealing individualities, suggesting intentions, manifesting a propensity for play and irony, favoring interpersonal encounters, hinting at class and/or gender relations, and showing connections within the social “fabric.” Today, fashion’s prevailing “mix and match” technique—in which references to designers’ own previous creations and to the medium’s past are frequently made—may be inspired or echoed by writers’ ample employment of self-referentiality and intertextuality: in both media attendant discontinuities and aleatory combinations, on the one hand, invite viewers/readers to create their own style/interpretation, and, on the other, establish a diversified continuum, helping to revive the past in new forms.