Clothes in Recent American Fiction

OUR literary tradition is not a long one ; the history of our fiction is shorter still. Brief as that history is, however, to the student who is willing to read not only novels but volumes of periodicals old and new, it reveals points of difference that mean change, if not growth. Prominent among the developments of the last few years is the marked importance given, not to study of mind nor to study of emotion, but to study of clothes.

In earlier days the clothing of the people in a book was not considered their chief characteristic. Charles Brockden Brown, Cooper, Mrs. Stowe, Hawthorne, each emphasized that phase of human life that appealed most strongly to the author’s heart. In no case did the emphasis fall on costume. The writers of fiction in the better magazines and reviews followed suit, and only the stories in fashion magazines presented dress as the chief end of man and of woman. Romantic and highly flavored much of this early fiction was, but at least it appealed to true feeling, and probed human life below the surface of the looking-glass. In the last few years a subtle change has come over the work of all our storywriters, with a few notable exceptions. The literary tradition of the fashion magazine has triumphed, and man, in a novel, is preëminently a “ clothes-wearing animal.” Our new hero must possess great knowingness in the matter of dress, and must bear the stamp of smart New York. He must be a judge of wine and of oysters ; he must flick the ashes of an expensive cigar gracefully away with his finger ; he must patronize European civilizations with an air of having outdone them all. Of course he is invincibly brave and very clever, but bravery and cleverness are trimmings for his dress suit, not vice versa. So with the heroine. Like the leading young lady in a clothing shop, she must have a good figure for the display of clothes. To her bootmaker, her tailor, her dressmaker, is given the sacred task of making her the fitting helpmate of the correctly dressed man. These young people are represented as being full of fresh and unspoiled feeling, but the emotion seems to he invariably the result of the fit of the glove and the cut of the boot.

Now fiction is sensitive, as is no other form of art, to the general currents of thought and of feeling in the world which produces it. If one stops to consider this most modern hero and heroine, with their background of English traps, expensively dressed elderly ladies, trunks with European labels, Dresden china, and boys in buttons, one is led to ponder on the wider significance of this new social ideal. The popularity of the type is shown not only by the extensive sales of books by masters in the art, but by the number of their imitators.

Nothing is more suggestive than the new college story, where the undergraduate boy, clad in imitation of the young man from New York, calls his father “ the governor,” and airs an accurate knowledge of actress life behind the scenes ; or where the undergraduate girl poses with her Latin dictionary clasped to her Parisian gown. All this is certainly amusing, but it does not represent material out of which the stuff and sinews of strong nations are made. To quarrel with fiction is only to quarrel with the social state out of which it grows. We cannot gather figs of thistles, nor profound works of art from surface life. America of forty, thirty, twenty years ago had made a fair beginning in the art of novel-writing, picturing a life of marked simplicity. A few of our earlier novels, the Scarlet Letter, for instance, cut down, as it is seldom the fortune of art to do, into the very depths of human motive and human passion. America of to-day says through her fiction that it has been hers to touch Parisian clothes to a higher state of prettiness, and to borrow all that is best in England’s tweeds and walking sticks. To object to this phase of our life and of art; to suggest that there is a certain vulgarity in following too closely the latest mode in anything, even clothes ; to make a plea for an ideal of deeper hold and stronger grasp on both past and future, is perhaps only to roll a stone into the path of our triumphal progress. If the fiction of to-day tells the truth, a slight, concealed swagger in the wearing of good clothes represents the height of our ideal as well as the height of our achievement. For this state of civilization there is perhaps no cure save that of Babylon and Nineveh.