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The Cultural Work of Competing Fashion Literatures in Nineteenth-Century America (2021-)

Samira Spatzek, Research Area 1: "Competing Communities"

Postdoctoral Research Project

This research project investigates the cultural work of “fashion literatures,” i.e. novels, fashion-oriented periodicals, women’s magazines, and historical newspapers in the United States at the turn of twentieth century. The overarching goal is to examine how various literary communities both negotiate and navigate diverging ideologies of fashion across genres while competing for their own ‘fashionability.’ Within this conceptual framework, my project carves out how notions of literature and fashion have mutually constituted each other and reveals the ways in which these notions relied on racialized gender norms.

In general, the period under investigation was shaped by socio-political developments such as industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of corporate capitalism. With nascent consumer culture and attendant increased accessibility to middle- and lower-class levels, the social significance of clothing and fashion would be transformed in this context as well, particularly in the steadily growing metropolitan centers. At the same time, the rise of periodicals and magazines accessible to a wider public changed established print culture practices influencing daily life and affecting political discourse on nation, race, and gender. In analyzing a corpus of both canonized novels and less readily available narrative texts and other documents, I intend to examine how these texts both navigate and mediate various notions of fashion, ranging from representations of dress to the ways these texts enter competition regarding their own ‘fashionability’ in the literary market.

My project thus analyzes the cultural work (Tompkins) of fashion in and as literature and it stresses praxeological aspects of aesthetic self-performance and aesthetic self-historicization. In this context, it takes special interest in the ways fashion(able) texts both create and consolidate specific versions of white femininity. The period under investigation not only witnessed white women’s struggle for participation in US civil society and recognition as subjects thereof. It was also shaped structurally by Jim Crow legislation after the official abolition of slavery. Scholars of slavery continue to remind us that “the changes wrought by [the] massive [...] revisioning of citizenship also instituted a collective crisis [in the wake of the Civil War] since black exclusion and subordination formerly had defined membership in the civic and political community and the scope of rights and entitlement” (Hartman 183). The project follows these arguments by suggesting that white femininity established itself vis-à-vis the entry of millions of formerly enslaved Black people into the body politic and that fashion literatures participated in this dynamic. By tracing this kind of gendered and racialized ‘competition’ through fashion(able) texts, the project further seeks to contribute to recent debates on fashion’s colonial, imperial underpinnings (Baxter) and adds a perspective cognizant of slavery’s longue durée.