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date: 11 December 2017

Fashion and Fiction in the 19th Century

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: fashion, dress, 19th-century literature, realism, Bildungsroman, Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, Edith Wharton

Historians of dress have frequently mined the written word for information about clothes: Mid-20th-century scholars such as Willett Cunnington and James Laver, for example, and more recently Elizabeth Wilson and Aileen Ribeiro, have drawn fruitfully on literature to illustrate their points. Literary critics, on the other hand, have been puzzlingly slow to return the compliment. As Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, says “there is something about fashion that can make people really nervous.”1 Accounts of dress help fill out the 19th-century realist novel’s imagined worlds, but too much attention to the topic is felt to be suspect, a not-quite-serious approach to a serious topic. In 1925, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love was in fact attacked for its overemphasis on dress.

Novelists do not, after all, send their characters naked into the world. though criticism has often acted as though they do. Virginia Woolf argued that the values of novels reflect the values of life: “Speaking crudely,” she says, “football and sport are ‘important’ . . . fashion and the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’”2 Little changed until the 1970s when some scholars noted that the role of dress in literature was by no means so trivial. It was not the often distracting accounts of entire outfits tacked onto the plots of the best-selling “Sensation” novels of Mary Braddon, for example, that first caught the attention of Barbara Hardy and Ellen Moers, in the 1970s and 1980s, but the quite sparing references to dress woven almost subliminally into the fabric of George Eliot’s high-minded fiction. Their comments were, however, rather diffident, aware perhaps of the prejudices noted by Woolf.

A turning point was the publication in 1978 of Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes, which explored the relationship between body and clothes through the media of art, literature, and photography. For young scholars of the time, dress historian Valerie Steele remembers, it was “like a lightbulb going off.” Fashion, Hollander insisted, was part of history, a subject of universal importance. Her startling thesis in Sex and Suits (1994) that men were the real leaders of fashion. gave the topic further impetus. Simultaneously, university and college courses on both sides of the Atlantic were introducing interdisciplinary studies that brought literary and history scholars together with art and fashion historians to their mutual benefit, and to the eventual foundation of ventures such as “The Luxury Project” at Warwick University in the United Kingdom.

One might have expected, then, that the novels of Charles Dickens, the social realist, would be an obvious topic for scholarly research into the use of dress in fiction, but only Richard Altick, in his magisterial work of 1990 on the Victorian novel, The Presence of the Present, gives Dickens’s fictional clothes any real attention. The demands of serialization meant that Dickens used dress principally to identify characters or raise laughter: A consistent pattern is hard to find, though there are memorable set pieces involving clothes—Peggotty’s explosive buttons, for example, or Miss Havisham’s decaying wedding dress.

The 19th-century realist novel is clearly a productive field for the exploration of dress in fiction: Writing more as a literary than as a costume historian, John Harvey, in Men in Black (1995), shows how black evolved across the centuries, from being modishly elegant to serving as a social marker in 19th-century fiction. The question of dress had generally been addressed within a chapter, such as in Barbara Hardy’s study of George Eliot in 1972, or in an article such as Adeline Tintner’s on Henry James for The Henry James Journal in 1986—Harvey’s was the first monograph on the topic.

Monographs on individual novelists have since appeared: Simon Gatrell on Thomas Hardy, Stephen Matterson on Herman Melville, and Clair Hughes on Henry James. What follows, however, is in some sense a return to John Harvey’s model: tracing the deployment of dress in an important 19th-century literary genre, the Bildungsroman, or education novel—a genre that focuses on a young protagonist’s search for social and economic success, in pursuit of which dress choice and change mark his or her moral growth.

The Education Novel

“All is true!”3 Honoré de Balzac declares at the start of his novel of 1835, Père Goriot. The statement sounds paradoxical, as novels are after all fictions, but the 19th-century-novelist’s concern with detail and surface, with dress, for example, was a quest for truths. Surfaces communicate with depths; the hat, as Alison Lurie remarked, has something to say about the head beneath.4 The new middle-class world of 19th-century Europe and America was obsessively concerned with dress as a marker of status, wealth, convention, and aesthetic taste. And these concerns were reflected in the realist novel, in particular, the Bildungsroman5 in which dress was a material index of a protagonist’s social and moral development. Perhaps surprisingly it is a male drama, and men’s concern with dress occupies many of the important novels of the period, though as we shall see, women’s dress opens up its own rich field for social analysis and interpretation of character.

Clothes in fiction are rarely described in full; details are picked out, but the general effect is assumed to be “understood” between author and reader. Balzac’s details—what Henry James called his “furniture and fittings”—contribute to a “reality effect” but are described, James said, “only in so far as they bear upon the action.”6 Commenting on the significance of dress in Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Franco Moretti writes that “if one wants to see in capitalism an immense and fascinating narrative system, there is no better way to observe it than from the viewpoint of fashion.”7

The gradations of dress distinctions, as Europe shifted from a traditional aristocratic order to a democratic bourgeois one, are of endless concern to those who lived through these changes, and in the novel we find perceptive accounts of these gradations. The achievement of social and economic success and its cost are central to the plots of the 19th-century novels, though its pursuit will take one trajectory for men, another for women (where matrimony is the goal): Single men in possession of good fortunes, must, after all, be in want of wives as well as smart outfits. For the protagonists of the novels under discussion, the abyss of failure haunts them—successful appearances must be maintained. “The question of costume . . . is one of enormous importance for those who wish to appear to have what they do not have,” reflects provincial Lucien, fretting over stocking thread and trouser straps in Balzac’s Lost Illusions of 1837“because that is often the best way of getting it later on.”8

Successful Coats

Success is something that for both the English and European demands to be shown in clothes, but success for the upwardly mobile often involves rebellion: The French Revolution, said Balzac, was as much a debate between silk and cloth as it was about politics. Werther, protagonist of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, is the original Bildungsroman hero: The novel’s title does not suggest a happy outcome, but Werther in a sense succeeds, albeit posthumously. After a passionate but chaste courtship of Charlotte, he learns of her marriage to another and puts a bullet through his head: “[H]e was found lying on his back . . . wearing boots and his blue coat and buff waistcoat.”9 He is to be buried in these clothes as Charlotte’s touch had made them sacred. Werther’s plain outfit in simple stuffs, mark of the noble “natural” man, was an anti-fashion, a style diffused across late 18th-century Europe, based on English country and sporting dress. These seemingly unshowy garments challenged the aristocracy in their embroidered silks and velvets. Influenced by the novel, young men all over Europe decided to dress à la Werther, usually without fatalities. The fashion inspired by this literary image marks the great change on which the successful modern male appearance is based: from court clothes to business suits and sport jackets.

The Bildungsroman is at the beginning of modernity, and to be of their time is the central aim of its protagonists. “I can pick the right uniform for my century,”10 says Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black—though rarely the one he wants at heart. Werther’s outfit defines him; plain and simple and sanctified by love, it is in harmony with his heart as well as his time. Julien, however, does not seek harmony with the bourgeois Bourbon Restoration society of 1830: Under a performance of conformity, he nurses Napoleonic dreams of revolution. His clothes are compliant masks beneath which seethe furious emotions.

The title of Stendhal’s novel contains an apparent dress-related contrast: military red and clerical black—but nothing is so simple. The French Revolutionary Guard wore red, but so did the princes of the church; curates and tradesmen wore black, but by 1830 black had also become the respectable uniform of the middle-and upper-class European male—a shift in meaning that is crucial to Julien’s career from peasant to curate to dandy to officer and gentleman. Black dress perhaps more than any other is overdetermined: It effaces and dramatizes; it is “sexy, serious and a little sinister,”11 as Anne Hollander says. This mix of drama and decorum serves Julien well: Black enhances his pale face, but its clerical associations should guarantee celibacy. It is, however, his instinct for white linen, a dandyesque concern very much of its time, that seduces Mme. de Rênal, mother of the children he tutors: “How extremely clean the young abbé’s simple attire was,” she thinks. “Poor boy, how does he manage?”12

Julien flees when their affair gets out of hand and joins a seminary. He is appointed secretary to the Marquis de Mole in Paris, and his superior says, “You will wear a black suit, but not like a man in holy orders.”13 The black suit is the new black, though in the minefields of etiquette low-born Julien, for all his intelligence, does not have the full command of Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”14 to draw upon. Otherwise dressed correctly for the evening, Julien’s boots shock the marquis; humiliatingly, the son of the house then enters booted and spurred, causing Julien to fume: “I’m supposed to wear shoes apparently like an inferior!”15

So far Julien has worn clothes at the behest of others. Learning fast, he begins to control his effects and, dressed by Staub, the best tailor in Paris16, translates clerical black into something chic and sexy. “The double life” Moretti says, is “the key to the modern personality . . . [W]ho would remember that Julien is practically a priest?”17 Catastrophe threatens when he gets his employer’s daughter pregnant, but surprisingly this only improves his situation. To protect family honor, the marquis makes Julien an army officer and “one of the most elegantly-dressed young men in Paris.”18 The distraught Mme. de Rênal, however, finds him and he tries to kill her. Julien is executed, and “in a large blue coat on the floor [we see] what remained of Julien.”19 Transcending red and black, he has died successfully in the blue coat of an officer and gentleman. Julien’s ambitions rest intact, for he has not compromised his dreams of revolution with the mundanities of mid-19th-century France.

Changing Coats

Is this the end of the Romantic hero: death in a blue coat? To judge from the opening of Balzac’s Lost Illusions of 1837, it seems so. Lucien de Rubampré, provincial chemist’s son with a small poetic gift, is invited to Mme. de Bargeton’s salon, center of the town’s cultural life. His sister uses her savings to dress him for the occasion: “You look like a gentleman in your blue coat and your plain nankeen trousers,” his brother-in-law, David, assures him (see Figure 1). But at Mme. de Bargeton’s, Lucien is uneasy “for he was wearing boots . . . [His rival] de Chatelet was wearing a dazzling white pair of trousers with straps under the feet, elegant shoes and stockings of Scotch thread . . . his black coat . . . commendable for its Parisian style and cut.”20

Fashion and Fiction in the 19th CenturyClick to view larger

Fig. 1. Man in Blue Coat (c. 1830). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, 1981.

We have moved into a different social and aesthetic world here. Images of Julien clothed were vivid but short on detail. Balzac, on the other hand, tells us about stocking thread, trouser cloth, and straps. It is not just social order that occupies him but costume detail in its amplitude and ambiguity. In his Treatise on the Elegant Life, Balzac explains that as the revolution banished hierarchies, “we have only nuances left . . . those effects of a good upbringing that separate the man of leisure from the labourer . . . signs of profession, of customs and habits.”21 Signs that reveal, need to be concealed, or can be imitated.

In Lost Illusions, clothes very nearly are the action. Julien and Lucien both have bad-shoe days: Julien’s choices were constrained by his status as employee, but the bourgeois Lucien, free to exercise choice, heads for Paris and a new wardrobe. Once achieved, however, he realizes that his appearance “was that of a man who had dressed for the first time in his life.” Balzac’s Treatise warns that real elegance “is to hide the means by which it is achieved.”22

Pursuing success, Lucien chases fashion, a chimera that by definition is always just ahead, spending his own, his family’s, and his mistress’s money. If clothes to Stendhal were markers of social status, here they are more directly related to money. Lucien returns home to Angloulême, broke. Undeterred, however, he tries again—“I simply must have some Sunday-best,” he wails, and sends to Paris. He funds a new wardrobe by selling family business secrets, and appears at a party in “black close-fitting trousers . . . grey silk open-work stockings . . . black satin waistcoat”23—the ne plus ultra of fashion and a last gamble on his belief that if you appear to have what you have not, you will finally get it. But dress as a socioeconomic sign here collapses: impeccably clad, but fooling only himself, Lucien faces an abyss of debt.

Balzac, Moretti concludes, has isolated in Lucien “the feverish and anarchic features of early capitalism . . . its enigmatic alternations of success and ruin.”24 Neither rebellion nor taste motivates his dress decisions; they are panic responses to fashion’s maelstrom of images. His discarded blue coat connects him to family and place; subsequent costumes replace one another in headlong, senseless waste, for surfaces never connect with depths. There is no logical end to his ambitions or his costumes, and so after he is plucked from the road by a sinister priest in black silk stockings, the novel ends in a coach to Paris—and Lucien’s story to be continued elsewhere.

To the aspirational heroes of the postrevolutionary European novel, class signs were paradoxically more important than ever before; for if, as Balzac said, revolution banished old hierarchies, new, unwritten ones obtained: A too-tight jacket could damage one’s prospects. But in mid-19th century America, having replaced monarchy and the class system with the “Log Cabin to White House” dream, class markers did not (at least theoretically) exist on the road to success. Early American fiction avoided traditional socialized settings; it lit out for the territories, favored the supernatural, and in the case of Herman Melville’s fiction, went to sea.

It might seem that concern with dress would be irrelevant, but that is not the case. It is simply different, and often essentially symbolic. Melville’s fictional world of sea and ships is wholly male. At sea, without the civil and social structures that govern behavior and appearance, without the rituals of courtship, identity becomes fluid, status uncertain, categories porous: Dress as a language is destabilized. It might be the case, for example, that the succession of oddly dressed individuals on a riverboat in Melville’s novel The Confidence Man is, in fact, just one person in different outfits. Ambiguity was Melville’s point: The quest for an authentic, stable identity is constantly frustrated in this evolving, modern, midcentury American world.

Stephen Matterson makes clear that the clothes on which Melville focuses are timeless, almost formless.25 There is little point in searching for dates or styles in his fiction: Melville creates vivid clothed images, but they operate symbolically rather than creating a recognizable world of “furniture and fittings.” We might ask, for example, if a given fictional jacket is a seaman’s jacket or an ordinary jacket of 1850; naval wear was evolving into uniform at this date, and in civilian life the short wool jacket was replacing the frock coat, but no clues are given. Melville’s opening to his novel White Jacket, that “it was not a very white jacket,” deliberately undercuts itself. The central character is indeed uneasy in his jacket: Aware of its outlandishness and called “White Jacket” by his fellow sailors, he dislikes the specious identity it gives him. When White Jacket falls into the sea, the jacket acts autonomously to buoy him up, but when it then starts to pull him down, he tears it off, upon which the sailors harpoon it—shades of Moby Dick. He is saved, but as the jacket sinks into the sea, so he sinks to the bottom of the boat. Melville’s text incorporates White Jacket’s desire for visible individuation, as Matterson says, but also his fear of excessive clarity.

Melville’s deployment of dress owes much to Thomas Carlyle’s polemic, Sartor Resartus (1834), and its insistence on the “unspeakable significance” of clothes, not for their beauty but because “they are the spiritual and imaginative made physical.”26 This actualization can be ambiguous, oscillating from revelation to deception to mistake: Melville’s characters are prone to “wardrobe malfunction,” but their clothes also reveal inner truths. Tommo in Typee finds himself on a South Sea island. In this Eden, he adopts skirtlike native dress, doubly undermining his “civilized” identity. He keeps his former clothing for his return to a civilization he actually detests. Which garment is then authentic, in the Carlylean sense?

Questions of actual datable dress are irrelevant here. What is “true” is the “unspeakable significance” of dress and its relation to or disjunction from an inner life. Few novelists have treated dress so seriously and in such depth: Expressive or repressive, puzzling but rarely pleasurable, Melville’s clothes are hostages to fortune in an uncertain world.

A Dandy’s Success

Melville’s protagonists worry about clothes, but they are not dandies. The new bourgeois world of the 19th-century novel in which the dandy figures is a European phenomenon whose concerns resonate from one country to another. In France, Balzac’s Lucien finally sports what John Harvey calls the “the black style of dandyism,” inspired by the “dashingly gloomy”27 hero of the British best-seller of 1828, Pelham by Bulwer Lytton, a style which, according to the novel, only the well-born can wear. England had invented the dandy, and the dandy with his dress and class anxieties came to inhabit the English novel, notably Arthur Pendennis, in William Thackeray’s novel of 1850, Pendennis.

Pen’s education is at first in the hands of his uncle, Major Pendennis, a military man, whose linen is so spotless “that Mr. Brummell himself asked the name of his laundress.”28 The English country style, adopted by the French, had recrossed the Channel to be refined by Beau Brummell into a dark cutaway coat, light pantaloons, and white linen. Linen indeed became the touchstone of a correct appearance: “[I]f you are economical with your tailor,” the Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen says, “you can be extravagant with your laundress.”29 By 1850, Regency taste had fallen into disrepute, although as Ellen Moers points out, Victorian attitudes to dandyism were ambivalent; there was still something attractive about the way dandies “made a success . . . of absolute selfishness,”30 and, as Thackeray admits at his novel’s close, “ours is a selfish story.”31

Thackeray’s Pen, at first attracted by army uniform, is soon distracted by Foker, a “swell” overdressed in “a green cutaway coat with basket buttons and a white upper coat with cheese-plate buttons.”32 The swell was socially inferior to the gentleman, and Foker a dubious role model. But Pen enjoys Foker’s account of life at that novelistic invention, Oxbridge, and decides to join him there. Once installed, he finds that “one or two very vulgar young men who did not even wear straps to their trousers . . . beat him completely in the lecture room.” Mismatches between sartorial and academic success do not worry him for long. When he returns home, his cousin Laura notes “wonderful shooting jackets . . . gorgeous velvet waistcoats,” not to mention “a quantity of lovely rings and jewellery.”33 We see a shift here from Brummell to a new concept of sartorial success, that of Count D’Orsay, arbiter of London society in the 1830s.

D’Orsay’s style suffused Brummell’s austerity with feminine softness and gleam, a style that Pen adopts along with D’Orsay’s role as fashion leader, for this is what Pen effortlessly becomes: “When the young men heard that Mr. Pendennis had just ordered a crimson satin cravat, you would see a couple of dozen crimson satin cravats in Main Street.”34 Thackeray does not downplay Pen’s extravagance, but we also hear of his pleasures and popularity; neither revenge nor rebellion motivates him. Nemesis nonetheless does arrive with unpaid bills and a failed degree. Pen has rejected the Victorian middle-class work ethic and opted instead for the life of a Regency buck.

Financed by his self-denying womenfolk, Pen is sent to London to study. Instead, he settles into a round of amusements, sharing lodgings with another and more worthy role model, George Warrington, who despite (or because of) his rough jacket is a gentleman. Warrington is Thackeray’s Man in a Jacket, a figure he had created in an article, “Men and Coats,” where the jacket became a moral symbol: “A man IN A JACKET is a man,”35 he wrote. By 1850, the wool or tweed jacket was indeed working its way up the social scale to become part of the now-familiar suit. A side of Thackeray approved of its homespun austerity, but in his fiction his nose for the absurd undermines worthies like Warrington. Warrington tells Pen that he is “spoilt by women,” a bracing remark that has no effect. Buoyed by literary success, Pen, “in his very best chains, shirt-studs and cambric fronts,”36 “arrives” socially.

The increasing focus on Pen’s jewelry is typical of a novelistic preoccupation with extraneous detail “to convey the notion of frivolity”37 that Anne Hollander notes in relation to dress in fiction. When Pen in rakish mode takes up briefly with the cockney Fanny Bolton, this focus intensifies. Her last sight of him is at Epsom races, ostensibly in mourning for his mother: “dandified, supercilious . . . jet buttons in his shirt front . . . trinkets at his watch-chain, the ring on his hand under the glove.”38 Though Fanny is far away, she scrutinizes Pen in detail; her focus may be unreal, but it has a bitter sexual intensity that is psychologically true.

In the course of the novel, Pen has run through his mother’s and his cousin Laura’s money in pursuit of personal adornment and a good time. His ventures into the English bourgeois world are every bit as hazardous as Lucien’s entry into Paris; and once again the expenditure on clothes is ruinous. Retribution must surely follow. Instead, Thackeray rewards Pen with a nice income and marriage to Laura. Dress is used, however, to point up the irony. The traditional Victorian novel usually ends with a blushing bride, and Pendennis ends with Pen on his wedding morning “attired in a new hat, a new blue frock coat . . . a new fancy waistcoat . . . and new shirt-studs.”39 As an image of successful modernity, it is, to say the least, ambivalent.

Thackeray’s Pen is neither a swell nor a Victorian worthy but a Regency dandy. Why? There is, Ellen Moers says, a strong personal element to Thackeray’s treatment of Pen: “He had wanted to be Pen. What his mature self chastises is the dream world of his younger self.”40 Warrington in his hairy jacket is the man Thackeray felt he ought to be, but as he said of himself, “I am walking about in 1828 in a blue dress coat and brass buttons . . . looking at beautiful beings in gigot sleeves.”41 Pen, like Stendhal’s Julien, is caught between accepting his contemporary world or remaining faithful to Romantic dreams. Pen’s solitary figure—in the unsexy frock coat (but it is blue)—is Thackeray’s ideal making a brave stand before the walls of Victorian domesticity close about him.

Girls in White

Men’s dress, then, plays a key role in amplifying and underlining the themes of 19th-century novels, though it is perhaps less important toward the end of the century, when middle- and upper-class men are increasingly drawn to the same dark suit. Women’s clothes become a major concern for the realist novelist as middle-class women become more visible, in expanded social relations, in work, and in public places. The dress purchases of Gustave Flaubert’s Gemma Bovary are famously ruinous, and her love of finery archetypically tragic, but female novelists are usually more understanding of the pleasures of dress and its role in establishing identity. Head-to-toe accounts are tedious, however: Jane Austen, for example, dispatches brides perfunctorily, perhaps sharing the sentiments of Maria Edgeworth’s cynical Lady Delacour—“something must be left to the imagination. Positively I will not describe wedding dresses or a procession to church.”42 Mrs. Elton in Austen’s novel Emma, thought Emma Woodhouse’s wedding “extremely shabby . . . ‘very little white satin, very few lace veils; a pitiful business.’”43 Dress descriptions in the “sensation” novels of Mary Braddon are detailed enough to date garments but are finally wearisome. Journals carried lengthy descriptions of society weddings, and novelists perhaps had no wish to reproduce this type of prose. As suggested elsewhere,44 when a novelist does go out of the way to describe wedding clothes, it often signals trouble.

Austen herself was interested in dress. Her letters are full of gossip about clothes even if in her novels, dress references are sparse: Overconcern with appearance, chatter about hats is judged inappropriate, the mark of featherbrains like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who, deciding she does not like her new bonnet, pulls it to pieces. All the same, a discussion about muslin dresses does start off Catherine Morland’s story in Northanger Abbey of 1798, when she is introduced to Henry Tilney at a ball. Mrs. Allen, Catherine’s dress-obsessed friend, interrupts the two, wailing over a tear in muslin that cost nine shillings a yard. “That is exactly what I should have guessed, madam,” Henry says, and remarks on the quality of muslins in general (see Figure 2). Mrs. Allen is “quite struck” and asks Henry his opinion of Catherine’s white muslin: “It is very pretty but I do not think it will wash well: I am afraid it will fray.” Catherine giggles: “‘How can you be so—’ she almost said ‘strange.’”45 The topic continues until the dancing starts, and as far as Catherine can tell, Henry is serious throughout.

Fashion and Fiction in the 19th CenturyClick to view larger

Fig. 2. White Muslin Dress (c. 1804–1805). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Gifts in memory of Elizabeth N. Lawrence, 1983.

In decoding this conversation, we should recall that muslin was to the late 18th century what synthetics were to the mid-20th century—new, washable, easy to work with, and quite cheap. Cotton fabric had been banned to protect the English silk industry, but Indian muslin, which the ban excluded, became popular, and by 1800 was widely used: Muslin was newsworthy. Henry’s remarks are made in deference to Mrs. Allen’s evident concern with dress; he talks of price and quality rather than fashion, but most importantly he shows his unconcern with differences in male and female spheres. He can discuss muslin and assumes that Catherine can discuss literature and art. Dress is neither more nor less serious than any other topic; it depends how you treat it.

Henry’s view seems counteracted by a little sermon that Austen reads us on the foolishness of taking clothes seriously. In bed, Catherine wonders what to wear next evening and lies awake ten minutes “debating between her spotted and tamboured muslin.” Dress, the narrator says, “is at all times a frivolous distinction and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.” But she promptly undercuts the moralizing: “Catherine knew this very well: her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject.” Catherine would like a new gown, “but this would have been an error,” given “the insensibility of man toward a new gown.”46 And after all, we hear that “not one of these grave reflections troubled the tranquility of Catherine”: She falls asleep, secure in the knowledge that Henry does indeed care how she looks.

Simple white muslin mirrors the candor and freshness of Catherine’s character; but misled by Mrs. Allen’s largesse (more muslin frocks), Henry’s father thinks that Catherine is an heiress. When he discovers she is a modest clergyman’s daughter, he forbids any further contact with her. Henry, however, has come to value her unpretentious, lovable personality above any financial gain; the “education” of both protagonists ends happily in a marriage that will probably not involve excessive amounts of white satin and veils.

Self-Fashioning

George Eliot has sometimes been considered an intellectual with little interest in clothes. A careful reading of her novels reveals that this is not the case: Dress is a fundamental part of the symbolic structure of the novels. In her picture of 1830s provincial England in Middlemarch of 1871, the dress choices of Dorothea and Rosamund Vincy mirror—in Carlylean fashion—the movement of their souls. Dress charts Dorothea’s idealistic but inconsistent quest for identity. She acquires in the process, as the feminist scholar Ellen Moers says, “the most stunning wardrobe in Victorian fiction.”47

During the honeymoon that follows her marriage to the unappealing Reverend Casaubon, Dorothea is seen alone in Rome through the eyes of her future second husband, the artist Ladislaw, in the clothes she has chosen for her new life. Posed in front of a sculpture of Ariadne in the Vatican, she is “in Quakerish grey drapery . . . [O]ne beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face.”48 Her dress may be Quakerish—no style is specified—but her bonnet of sumptuous beaver felt is high fashion. At the same time, its halo brim lends a timeless, spiritual note to her appearance, appropriate to the place and a contrast to pagan Ariadne: Dress thus places Dorothea within and outside of time. Her self-fashioning is essentially outward looking: She wishes to make everyone’s life beautiful and better.

In contrast, Rosamund Vincy’s solipsism, shaped by an indulgent, materialistic upbringing, assumes her entitlement to the latest fashions and society’s admiration. Always looking in mirrors, she is her own unchanging standard of the Perfect Lady. Acquisition—whether of quilled bonnets, embroidered collars, or sky-blue gowns—is what drives Rosamund and destroys her husband, whereas Dorothea sheds superfluities. We know that Dorothea’s life will start improving when her sister, irritated by her overblown mourning in the year following Casaubon’s death, removes her widow’s cap, thus freeing Dorothea from tragedy-queen gloom. After a sleepless night fighting her feelings for Ladislaw, she looks out of her window and sees an ordinary family walking in the fields and decides to rejoin “that involuntary, palpitating life.” She tells her maid “to bring my new dress; and most likely I shall want my new bonnet today,” shedding her “hijeous weepers”:49 we next see her in fine white wool. Dressed anew, she accepts Ladislaw’s proposal, declaring that she does not mind poverty, that seven hundred pounds a year will do: “I want so little—no new clothes.”50

The putting on of fresh garments to signal change has time-honored resonances, but it is also the gesture of a woman who senses the pleasures of dress and its significance in the eyes of the world. She fashions an identity that suits her looks and satisfies her ideals. If we find her a more admirable pattern of womanhood than Rosamund, Eliot is too honest not to record the disingenuousness of Dorothea’s renunciation of new clothes within hours of putting them on—and seven hundred pounds a year in 1830 was a good deal. But she finds love: finds what she wants even if it is not what we want for her. All the same, the harsh truth, as Eliot saw it, was that Dorothea’s potential had as yet no means of fulfillment in this society.

The Mistake

Henry James, who was nothing if not interested in dress and the significance of its codes for women, thought that Eliot’s Dorothea did not live up to readers’ expectations. Washington Square (1880), set in the New York of the 1840s, also concerns the “education” of a young woman with prospects, Catherine Sloper, and begins with one of the most startling color notes in James’s fiction—her awful red dress (see Figure 3). Like Austen’s Catherine, the dress sets the plot in motion on the traditional stage for gorgeous gowns and romantic encounters, a dance party.

Fashion and Fiction in the 19th CenturyClick to view larger

Fig. 3. Red Dress (c. 1842). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Designated Purchase Fund, 1984.

Changes in the production and marketing of clothes are important here. The Sloper’s New York is a different fashion world from that of the 1880s, where there would have been department stores and machine-produced clothing. Catherine’s dress would have to be sewn for her, after she had chosen its color and gold fringing—a most deliberate process. Catherine, as we are frequently reminded, is a big girl, and the fashions of 1840 would have increased her size. Skirts were expanding, and prior to the crinoline, fifty yards of material could go into gowns that, supported by horsehair petticoats, floated around the wearer like vast clouds. The dress would also have been expensive: Clothes and money interact again here, as so often happens in relation to family and inheritance.

From the 18th century onward, the dress code for the début of a young girl had been virginal white. Catherine’s dress, therefore, sends the wrong signals: More of a child than most at twenty-one, she seems to young men, her aunt says, “to be older than themselves. She is so large and she dresses so richly . . . she looks as if she has been married already.”51 The dress may be startling, but to her father, Dr. Sloper, her development has been unremarkable—aside from her interest in dress that, as her father’s heiress, she has the means to indulge. Sloper considers the dress vulgar. “A well-bred young woman,” he thinks, “should not carry half her fortune on her back.” But when he addresses Catherine, his sarcasm is more vulgar still: “Is it possible that this magnificent person is my child? . . . You are sumptuous, opulent, expensive . . . you look as if you had eighty thousand a year.”52 The dress means one thing to Catherine, another to her father—truth lies not in the dress but in the mind.

Worse than any breach of etiquette or hint of the demi-mondaine, as far as Sloper is concerned, is the dress’s public statement of Catherine’s expectations. America in the 1840s was moving from a cash economy to a period of paper money and banking. In this midcentury New World, as we saw in Melville’s fiction, hierarchies are unspoken, identities and origins uncertain. Fortunes can be made and opportunities exist for all—but there are still Old World shortcuts to success, notably marriage. Catherine herself wears her dress neither to advertise her wealth nor to charm potential suitors: Her concern “when she put [the clothes] on was as to whether they and not she would look well.”53 Her dress is chosen to please her father, to look like her own lost mother, whose example has always been before her as a contrast to her own inadequacies. She therefore chooses a fairy-tale dress of mature queenliness in red and gold, a child’s favorite colors; James indeed calls it her “royal raiment.”

Catherine realizes that to her father her dress has been a failure, and after his attack, Sloper might expect to see it no more. But Aunt Penniman reports that the dress has pleased Morris Townsend, the beautiful young man who was so very attentive at the dance party. Worn for Morris and despite her father, the red dress reappears when Morris is invited to dine. In an attempt to break her attachment to Morris, Sloper takes Catherine to Europe, which results in Catherine’s expanded wardrobe and improved appearance. The only improvement that counts for Morris, however, is to Catherine’s financial expectations, and these vanish when Sloper threatens to disinherit her. When the dress ceases to correlate with a bank account, Morris dumps her.

Mary MacCarthy sees Catherine as finally a placid, “unbudging entity,”54 but she underestimates her. Catherine’s concern with dress, James tells us, “was really the desire of a rather inarticulate nature to manifest itself.”55 In a replay of their first encounter, Morris returns after twenty years to try his luck again. This time “Catherine [is] in a low rocking chair, dressed in white.”56 A white dress, like a black, one is overdetermined, and here it accords not only with the summer season but also with the rules of etiquette for unmarried women (as well as for the last stages of mourning). At last correctly and chastely attired, Catherine has found her voice. She does not ask Morris to sit or put down his hat, but the wording of her dismissal of him is as clear and considered as the white dress that sums up her virginal state and her decision to remain in it. Eloquent in her garments, in the white she should have worn long ago, she is now in mourning for her life.

Failure

In her autobiography, Edith Wharton recalls how once, despite a new hat, she failed to attract the attention of Henry James, a moment that may lie behind the opening of her novel The House of Mirth, of 1905. Dress for Wharton is a thing of beauty with tragic implications. Its magnificent potential is often out of kilter with the realities of aging bodies, romantic aspirations, and financial needs. Lily Bart, at the critical age of twenty-nine, is seen through the eyes of Lawrence Selden. He observes how Lily’s “vivid head against the dull tints of the crowd made her more conspicuous than in the ballroom . . . [U]nder her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing.” As they walk together, he registers her beauty but concludes that “she must have cost a great deal . . . [M]any dull and ugly people must have been sacrificed to make her.”57

“My last page is always latent in my first,”58 Wharton warned, and we should note that hat. Immense platforms for flora and fauna, hats were difficult to miss in 1900. With the popularity of the motorcar, veils had become heavier and more protective, but also, as Selden sharply notes, usefully blurred imperfections. According to hat historian, Fiona Clark, hats “had never before been less securely located . . . and the actual shape of the hat never less apparent.”59 Lily’s hat suggests high fashion, as one would expect of a member of New York’s elite, but it is an unstable, veiled impression.

Lily is looking for a rich husband to maintain her place in society. In pursuit of this goal, she is on the move, a life that requires a constantly updated wardrobe. As she says wearily, “you think we live on the rich—it’s a privilege we pay for by having just the right dress for every occasion and always being fresh, exquisite and amusing.”60 A fashionable woman of 1900 might change her clothes six times a day. Selden has the means to support only a bachelor lifestyle; between them is an unspoken agreement that neither can afford to marry the other.

Part of Lily knows that in this society, seduction is work, marriage a business deal, and dress crucial to fiscal confidence; but part of her rejects it. At a country-house weekend, she suddenly aborts a rendezvous with a dull millionaire, replaces a gray costume with a light summery frock, and goes to meet Selden in the park. Her declaration at the close of their woodland tête-à-tête that she will look “hideous in dowdy clothes, but I can trim my own hats”61 is one of love, a marriage proposal, in effect, that he chooses to ignore.

Returning to the social round, Lily decides to renew her image and give a moral aspect to her beauty. A contemporary critic sneered at the “fine gowns” of Wharton’s characters, but in fact there is only one fully described dress in the novel, and it draws for its substance on an analogous dress in Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of a young woman on the eve of marriage.62 Wharton’s indirect representations of Lily are therefore nonjudgmental, impressionistic, and always open to interpretation. She reinvents herself as Reynolds’s jeune fille à marier in white, for a performance in a tableau vivant at an evening party. The neoclassical dress of the portrait on which Lily’s appearance is based clings to the body beneath, a contrast to the corseted modes of 1900. Selden, the connoisseur, notes how the “pale drapes” emphasize her “dryad-like curves.” However, the Wall Street “boys-will-be-boys” in her audience read her otherwise. “Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up,” leers one of the men. “Standing there as if she were up at auction,”63says another.

To Lily, the moment is a triumph, but from here her career spirals downward through New York’s social layers. Faced with poverty, she drops finally into the grim realities of work in a milliner’s workroom, the world of the “dull and ugly people” who had been sacrificed to make her. Lily imagines “hats, wreaths, aigrettes perched on their stands like birds”; reality is her “inability to sew spangles on a hat-frame.”64 We first saw Lily in a hat, marking her out from the crowd; the last fashion item we see is also a hat, not alluringly enigmatic on her head but in a workroom, close up and skeletal. As she has failed to create a viable self, so she fails to create this ephemeral object, ending her attempt at independent survival. Fired from her job, she returns to her lodgings and looks over her old dresses, shrouds to the past. Selden finds her next day, dead of an overdose of laudanum.

Wharton wanted to face her frivolous society “with what its frivolity can destroy.”65 She does not attack Lily’s consumerism with Swiftian disgust, but shows a modernity in which neither good taste nor morality has a place; the hat, now stripped of veiling, represents the truth of her failure. Dress in The House of Mirth reaches perhaps the apotheosis of its significant employment in the novel. Realism not only makes the point; it is the point.

Conclusion

Young men, as we have seen, seem to have dressed more successfully than young women in this 19th-century world of the novel. Revolution had banished hierarchies; consequently, dress detail became important as a marker of a man’s success—the fate of a Balzac hero could hang on a stocking thread. The cut and color of coats were a recurrent concern: A plain coat in blue cloth was the hero’s “Romantic,” democratic, and manly choice of the first half of the century, and a harbinger of the successful modern male appearance.

To be dressed for their time, to be “modern,” is the central aim of the Bildungsroman’s male protagonists. The key to modernity, according to Franco Moretti, is the double life, however, and “truth” can be deceptively dressed: Julien Sorel’s revolutionary and amatory ardors, for example, seethe under clerical black. Severe black was, all the same, the future: Dandies strut through the midcentury English novel in tightly cut black coats, pantaloons, and top hats, to become the sober-suited, bowler-hatted businessmen of the late century.

While a detail like stocking thread mattered in Europe as indicative of the wearer’s command of Pierre Bourdieu’s crucial “cultural capital,” in newly independent America where class distinctions supposedly did not obtain, dress had a more symbolic, more ambiguous, fictional role, rather than contributing to a tangible “real” world of social distinctions. Thomas Carlyle’s insistence on the “unspeakable significance” of clothes because they are the spiritual made physical, informs Herman Melville’s serious approach to dress; garments operate almost supernaturally in the careers of his fictional heroes, but are hardly described.

If blue and then black coats characterize the appropriate appearance of the Bildungsroman hero, virginal white muslin seems mandatory for the successful fictional heroine in the 19th-century marriage market. In literature, dress theorist Anne Hollander says, “devotedly modish women could never be shown as devotedly virtuous, and truly virtuous women usually dressed unfashionably”66. Jane Austen’s good girls, however, are by no means indifferent to fashion; it is a proper part of their discourse. On the other hand, a disproportionate concern with dress was the mark of a shallow mind. But the mixed messages of dress were also traps for the unwary: While white showed maiden modesty, muslin could also be an expensive fashion statement.

In the 19th-century novel, clothes, modesty, and money repeatedly interact in relation to class, sex, and inheritance, and George Eliot’s idealistic heroines, for example, struggle against such limiting, received ideas in an attempt to fashion authentic, autonomous identities—with qualified success, however: Dorothea’s may be the “most stunning wardrobe” in Victorian fiction, but it remains puritanically gray and white.

The interaction between dress and money can effectively destroy lives. Henry James called into question damaging stereotypes when, in all innocence, Catherine Sloper enters the marriage market in a sumptuous scarlet frock that is read by New York’s emerging consumer society in ways that belie and deny her true nature. That the novel concludes with Catherine in the white dress that custom required she should initially have worn lays bare the destructiveness of unexamined attitudes, as well as the essential instability of dress as language: for white is also mourning dress, a final expression here of the betrayals that have left her heartbroken and solitary.

James’s critique of his society anticipates Thorstein Veblen’s late-century attack on the economic and human waste of America’s consumer society in his Theory of a Leisure Class. In pursuit of a rich husband but aware of the ethical void to which this is leading, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart reaches for diaphanous white drapes to give—she believes—expression to her essential moral self: an image that is vulgarly and fatally misread. Driven by consumer imperatives, but unable to create a viable self, she self-destructs in a death that is neither glorious nor even exemplary. When Wharton was told that her novel had “stripped” New York, she answered wryly that it was, on the contrary, “still amply clad.”67

Dress’s triumphant, paradoxical secret is that while we dismiss it as ephemeral, condemning it as frivolous, it outlives us in museums, in art, and in literature, and documents our behavior for posterity. Clothes in fiction are clothes in action, clothes experienced and clothes observed. In museums, dress historian Elizabeth Wilson says, clothes “are congealed memories of everyday life . . . waiting for the music to begin.”68 Literature, as shown here, enters the everyday past, providing a way for that music to begin.

Further Reading

Balzac, Honoré de. Traité de la Vie Elégante. Paris: Arléa, 1998.Find this resource:

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913.Find this resource:

Clark, Fiona. Hats. London: Batsford, 1985.Find this resource:

Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy—Writing Dress. Peter Lang AG, 2011.Find this resource:

Harvey, John. Men in Black. London: Reaktion, 1995.Find this resource:

Hollander, Anne. Seeing through Clothes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits. New York: Knopf, 1994.Find this resource:

Hollander, Anne. The Fabric of Vision. London: National Gallery Publications, 2002.Find this resource:

Hughes, Clair. Dressed in Fiction. London: Berg, 2006.Find this resource:

Hughes, Clair. Henry James and the Art of Dress. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001.Find this resource:

James, Henry. Literary Criticism: American and English Writers. New York: The Library of America, 1984.Find this resource:

Matterson, Stephen. Melville: Fashioning in Modernity. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.Find this resource:

Milbank, Caroline. New York Fashion. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.Find this resource:

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. London: The Women’s Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Moers, Ellen. The Dandy. London: Viking, 1960.Find this resource:

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World. London: Verso, 1987.Find this resource:

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. London: Century Hutchinson, 1987.Find this resource:

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams. London: Tauris, 2003.Find this resource:

Notes:

(2.) Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Triad Grafton, 1987), 70. Originally published in 1929.

(3.) Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2009), 2. Originally published in 1835.

(4.) Personal Correspondence with Alison Lurie, 2012. (b. 1926) Novelist, journalist, author of The Language of Clothes, Random House, 1981.

(5.) The novel form that traces the education and development of a young protagonist.

(6.) Henry James, Literary Criticism: American and English Writers (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 608.

(7.) Franco Moretti, The Way of the World (London: Verso, 1987), 144.

(8.) Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions (London: Penguin, 1971), 165. Originally published in 1837.

(9.) Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (London: Penguin, 1989), 134. Originally published in 1774.

(10.) Stendhal, The Red and the Black (London: Penguin, 1991, trans., E.P. Robins), 336. Originally published in 1830.

(11.) Anne Hollander, The Fabric of Vision (London: National Gallery Publications, 2002), 128.

(12.) The Red and the Black, 39.

(13.) Ibid., 224.

(14.) French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Cultural Reproduction & Social Reproduction (1977), argues that the accumulated knowledge of those born and bred within a certain social class lends them power and status.

(15.) The Red and the Black, 255.

(16.) The German tailor Staub was a real historical figure, the most celebrated tailor in Paris, mentioned by Stendhal and Balzac, as well as by Victor Hugo.

(17.) Moretti, Way of the World, 87.

(18.) The Red and the Black, 445.

(19.) Ibid., 450, 528.

(20.) Balzac, Lost Illusions, 71, 77.

(21.) Balzac, Traité de la Vie Elégante (Paris: Arléa, 1998), 75, 76 (my translation). Originally published in 1830.

(22.) Ibid., 84.

(23.) Ibid., 615, 619.

(24.) Way of the World, 145, 146.

(25.) See Stephen Matterson’s Melville: Fashioning in Modernity (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

(26.) Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913), 47. Originally published in 1834.

(27.) John Harvey, Men in Black (London: Reaktion, 1995), 13.

(28.) William Thackeray, Pendennis (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1999), 1. Originally published in 1850.

(29.) Anonymous, The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen (London: James Hogg, c. 1850), 144.

(30.) Ellen Moers, The Dandy (London: Viking Press, 1960), 14.

(31.) Pendennis, p. 719.

(32.) Ibid., 37.

(33.) Ibid., 172, 212, 213.

(34.) Ibid., 219.

(35.) William Thackeray, “Men and Coats,” in The Complete Works, vol. 13 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.d.), 611. “Men and Coats” originally published in 1841.

(36.) Pendennis, 393, 435.

(37.) Anne Hollander, Seeing through Clothes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 424.

(38.) Pendennis, 626, 748.

(39.) Ibid., 972.

(40.) Ellen Moers, Literary Women (London: The Women’s Press, 1986), 207.

(41.) William Thackeray, Roundabout Papers, in The Complete Works, vol. 13. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.d), 440. Roundabout Papers originally published in 1860.

(42.) Maria Edgeworth, Belinda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 478. Originally published in 1801.

(43.) Jane Austen, Emma (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 440. Originally published in 1816.

(44.) Clair Hughes, Dressed in Fiction (London: Berg, 2006), 157–185.

(45.) Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (London: Penguin, 1995), 25, 26. Originally published in 1818.

(46.) Ibid., 67.

(47.) Moers, Literary Women, 194.

(48.) George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York: Norton, 2000), 121. Originally published in 1871.

(49.) Ibid., 487.

(50.) Ibid., 500.

(51.) Henry James, Washington Square (London: Penguin, 1986), 60. Originally published in 1880.

(52.) Ibid., 46.

(53.) Ibid., 38.

(54.) Mary MacCarthy, “‘The Heiress’: A Dramatisation,” in Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady, ed. Alan Shelston, 43 (London: Macmillan, 1984).

(55.) Washington Square, 37.

(56.) Ibid., 204.

(57.) Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. (London: Penguin, 1993), 3. Originally published in 1905.

(58.) Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (London: Century Hutchinson, 1987), 208. Originally published in 1934.

(59.) Fiona Clark, Hats (London: Batsford, 1985), 44.

(60.) House of Mirth, 266.

(61.) Ibid., 73.

(62.) Reynold’s portrait of 1775, Mrs. Lloyd Inscribing a Tree, shows a young woman in revealing neoclassical drapes, carving the name of her future husband on a tree.

(63.) Edith Wharton, House of Mirth, 135.

(64.) Ibid., 284–285.

(65.) Wharton, A Backward Glance, 207.

(66.) Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 361.

(67.) R. B. and N. Lewis, eds., Letters of Edith Wharton (London: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 97.

(68.) Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams (London: Tauris, 2003), 11.