Reading Fashions, Fashioning Readings: Genre, Style, and Sartorial Semiotics in Nineteenth-century American Literature Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Sledge, Rosa
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • We are nothing without clothes, and American novelists of the nineteenth century, with their careful attention to hats, trains, ruffles, corsets, and shoes, know it. This dissertation examines the ways in which, at the tumultuous end of the nineteenth century, two kinds of reading--the reading of dress and the reading of novels -- affect one another. As America becomes increasingly urbanized, and as advances in manufacturing (sewing machines, commercially-available sewing patterns) and marketing (the rise of the department store and the mail-order catalog) change the fashion industry, Americans read dress differently. This change in readership also changes the late-century novel: naturalism and realism, which emerge in response to midcentury domestic sentimentalism and revise both its stylistic and philosophical tenets, show an increasing reliance on their reader's active interpretation of texts. A close examination of the works of Theodore Dreiser and of Henry James, alongside contemporary theories of acting, of psychology, of philosophy, and of semiotics, offers a re-evaluation for the modern critic of the role that clothes (and other types of self-representations) play in the development of identity. For James, the problem of the self is to externalize itself (by dressing itself) in such a way as to invite proper readings of that self. This is a problem of readership: how can one ensure that his utterances--fashionable or literary--are properly read? For Dreiser the self does not exist until it creates itself--a problem of authorship. James and Dreiser both work through two different sets of related questions in these novels: the relation of dress to self, and the relation of performance to performativity, both variations on the central question of the nineteenth century: what is the relationship of representation to the real? These novels, like dress, invite the active, subjective, distanced, materially-aware, and contingent kind of reading that I will call pragmatic: just as there is no fashion that remains eternally in style, so there is no single reading or representation that fully captures reality --nor should there be.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Taylor, Matthew
  • Thrailkill, Jane
  • Richards, Eliza
  • McGowan, John
  • Danielewicz, Jane
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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