9 Fashionable Books That Make Clothes a Main Character
Stylish literature for bookworms who are also clotheshorses
If you love both fashion and literature, many books are outfitted with special delights. The vivid description of a dress, a shoe, or even a shade of lipstick can thrill. Yet there’s always a subtext to an emphasis on sartorial style in creative narratives. A T-strap heel in an author’s hands can be political or sexual, foreshadowing or world-building, a commentary on class or a synecdoche for the indulgences of an era.
Here are nine of my favorite fashionable fictions, listed in the order they were published, from earliest to most recent.
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
The originator of the novel is also the doyenne of stylish lit. If you’ve ever wondered how to coordinate twelve layers of robes in impeccable but original color combinations, then this doorstopper is for you. Written by a Japanese woman of the Heian court around a thousand years ago, The Tale of Genji is, in the minds of many scholars, both the world’s first novel and its first psychological novel. The story of an aristocratic playboy is lacquered with descriptions like these: “Six young page girls sat next to the stands, each wearing a ceremonial outer robe of white with red lining and layered robes of scarlet and wisteria underneath” and “This girl, who was tall and statuesque, wore a woven, patterned robe of pale violet lined with blue over a short, dark purple singlet and a diaphanous outer robe of pale russet.” But Genji’s influence goes beyond fashion: one of its biggest achievements was making the Japanese language itself fashionable, at a time when male writers were still clinging to classical Chinese.
Dream of the Red Chamber, Cáo Xuěqín
One of the four (or six, depending on the list) classic Chinese novels, Dream of the Red Chamber is another encyclopedia of vestiary delights from long ago. As its English title suggests, it’s drenched in reds of all hues, blushing crimson and flushing scarlet. When the reader first encounters the male protagonist, he is “wearing a narrow-sleeved, full-skirted robe of dark red material with a pattern of flowers and butterflies in two shades of gold . . .Over the upper part of his robe he wore a jacket of slate-blue Japanese silk damask with a raised pattern of eight large medallions on the front and with tasseled borders.” The jewelry, décor, and architecture are described just as meticulously. You can see why this book, an epic family saga written and set in the eighteenth-century, runs long—2500 pages in the English translation. It is a world unto itself, with even a name for its devotees: “redologists.” Yet its vivid colors in the early pages also remind the reader that the brightest lives and families eventually fade, hinting at the decline in fortunes to follow.
Nana, Émile Zola
Until the syphilitic corpse of the eponymous character putrefies the final scene, Zola’s novel is a feast of Second Empire chic. For instance, when Nana makes her entrance at the Grand Prix, she steps forth “in a remarkable outfit. This consisted of a little blue silk bodice and tunic, which fitted closely to her body and bulged out enormously over the small of her back, outlining her thighs in a very bold fashion for this period of ballooning skirts. Then there was a white satin dress with white satin sleeves, and a white satin sash worn crosswise, the whole decorated with silver point-lace which shone in the sun. In addition to this, in order to be still more like a jockey, she had jauntily stuck a blue toque with a white feather on her chignon.” Zola’s fashion details are part of his overall indictment; fripperies and frills symbolize the society’s decadence and excessive corruption.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
A satire of English literary history and biological determinism, as well as a love letter to her beloved Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s novel asks serious questions about gender and sexual orientation. Naturally, fashion plays a key role as the heroine metamorphoses from male to female and adventures through the centuries. We’re told several times at the start of the novel that the fashions of the time—the opening chapters take place in the Elizabethan era—tended to disguise one’s sex, which will prove thematically important. Once her transformation is achieved, Orlando cannily adopts the dress of a noblewoman, if not quite her mores. In one extraordinary scene, she lights the silver sconces around her mirror and regards her new self: “Then since pearls do not show to advantage against a morning gown of sprigged cotton, she changed to a dove grey taffeta; thence to one of peach bloom; thence to a wine coloured brocade . . .she was like a fire, a burning bush, and the candle flames about her head were silver leaves; or again, the glass was green water, and she a mermaid.” In Orlando, dress dissembles.
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
This 1936 novel—one of the first to openly celebrate lesbian love—is simultaneously modernist, gothic, and a nod to the Decadent movement. Fitting, then, that its female protagonist’s signature style is off-key, with one slipper in the mode of another time: “Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient.” That final oxymoron encapsulates the book, which is perfumed with the same thing as a great runway show: the feral scent of the past reinvented.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet
Written in prison, Genet’s first novel immortalizes the drag queens and other denizens of the Parisian underworld, consecrating their every costume and gesture in voluptuous prose. Introducing the pimp Darling Daintyfoot, Genet writes, “I shall say that he had lace fingers, that, each time he awoke, his outstretched arms, open to receive the World, made him look like the Christ Child in his manger—with the heel of one foot on the instep of the other—that his eager face offered itself, as it bent backward facing heaven, that, when standing, he would tend to make the basket movement we see Nijinsky making in the old photos where he is dressed in shredded roses. His wrist, fluid as a violinist’s, hangs down, graceful and loose-jointed.” By insisting that the body’s poses may constitute their own high style, this novel anticipates the voguing that would be immortalized forty-seven years later in Paris is Burning.
With her tartan skirt and slate-blue eyes, fifteen-year-old Gilberte (Gigi) is Lolita’s older sister. In Colette’s novella, as in all her writing, wit, wisdom, and warmth gambol with each other. For example, Gigi proudly models her grown-up dress in one scene: “The full sleeves and wide flounced skirt of blue and white striped silk rustled deliciously, and Gilberte delighted at picking at the sleeves, to puff them out just below the shoulders.” But her primping is swiftly undercut when future husband Gaston remarks, “You remind me of a performing monkey . . .I liked you much better in your old tartan dress.” Throughout the story, Colette reminds the reader that as much as a rite of passage and a tool of seduction, clothes are traps for women.
The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante
In My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four novels, irascible Lila Cerullo channels her prodigious creative gifts, which have been frustrated by her having to quit school at a young age, into designing men’s shoes in the back of her father’s store. Durable, original, and beautiful to look at, the shoes are what Lila grows up to be. They go on to function as the purloined letter of this long story, changing hands, breaking hearts, and signifying the power dynamics of an entire Neapolitan neighborhood, symbolizing both her boundless potential and the crushing limitations of her social milieu.
The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang
Fashion is all about a harmony of sense and surprise, and few things could have been more surprising than the colorful splashes of designer clothes amidst Wang’s stark, searing essay collection about living with schizophrenia. Her musings on Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and high fashion as camouflage for the mentally ill are striking but make sense. Weaponized glamour, as she calls it, is all about subverting expectations and seizing respect.
In novels that have a passion for fashion, too, the glamour is always weaponized, deployed to dress up characters, settings, and themes. Textual couture is, like its wearable counterpart, painstakingly assembled and dazzling to behold.