The Genteel
February 27, 2021


Literary heroes have served as muse for a slew of current fashion collections. Source:
Jay Gatsby's famous pink suit
recreated in the Hackett London
S/S 2013 Collection.

"So young - and attractive, very attractive. He's tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and a black tie with unruly dark-copper colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly."

In Fifty Shades of Grey, author E. L. James places great emphasis on the clothing worn by the novel's object of desire at his first introduction. His suit is a symbol of power, its grey colour suggesting authority, ambiguity and an affinity for experimentation.

In the novel, Mr. Grey's suit is used to establish his initial sex appeal - the very sex appeal that is responsible for the novel's popularity and its readers' desire to meet their very own Christian Grey. Whether participating in an online discussion about the "best" real-life Christian Grey or downloading an app that lets you create your own, readers aren't ready to give up on their fantasies. English tailoring company Norton & Townsend is committed to fulfilling those desires through a 200-piece collection of grey suits and silk (black and grey) ties. Recently, the tailor received a spike in enquiries about grey suits from women "desperate" to have their partners dress like Christian Grey. If said women cannot manifest Christian Grey into body, they seem to be attempting to re-create his spirit through dress. Fiction is fantasy and fashion is the vehicle for its materialisation. 

Clothing is a language. Its linguistic properties allow us to bring to life characters from fictitious tales. James is not the first nor only author whose characters we have tried to resurrect. This June, Hackett London recreated the character of Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for its S/S 2013 collection. British Vogue reporter Anzej Dezan commented, "This was Jay Gatsby at his finest: dapper creamy three-piece suits, double-breasted waistcoats upgraded with flashes of silky pocket squares, horn-rimmed spectacles, heads covered in either a monochrome cap or a woven hat."

Sometimes, the story isn't blatantly illustrated in a collection - rather, the clothing's ambiguous references pull on our memory and knowledge, leading us to read between the fabrics in order to sew our own conclusion.

In the novel, Fitzgerald illustrates Gatsby's self-made financial and social prosperity through his exquisite suits. Whether his attire be white with a silver shirt and golden tie or a luminous pink suit, Gatsby wears his charm and newly earned success tailored to perfection. He even uses clothing to woo Daisy Buchanan, the woman he most desires: "He took out a pile of shirts [in front of Daisy] and began throwing them, one by one…shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel…shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue." The Hackett S/S 2013 collection drew inspiration right out of the book: young, suave men, wearing three-piece, perfectly tailored suits that are traditional in cut, but completely re-invented in colouring and attitude.

Sometimes, the story isn't blatantly illustrated in a collection - rather, the clothing's ambiguous references pull on our memory and knowledge, leading us to read between the fabrics in order to sew our own conclusion. Francesco Scognamiglio's S/S 2013 collection does exactly that with white, black and powder blue sheer fabrics, delicate detailing and 19th century silhouettes; an updated, romantic nod to Wendy from J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

As one example, Barrie pushes the reader's attention to Wendy's nightgown to demonstrate a child on the verge of womanhood: "…and she indicated [to Peter Pan] in the charming drawing-room manner, by a touch on her night-gown, that he could sit nearer her." The significance of Wendy's nightgown is underlined again when Peter Pan comes to visit her at the end of the story: "'Hullo, Wendy,' he said, not noticing any difference…and in the dim light her white dress might have been the nightgown in which he had seen her first."

Scognamiglio pulled inspiration from Barrie's characterisation of Wendy - the classic white nightgown, the romanticism of youth, the tug of war between innocence and adulthood - but, he also borrowed from Disney's version of Wendy - the blue nightgown never appears in the novel, rather it was popularised by the 1953 animated film. Wendy spends her entire (literary) existence in a nightgown going on adventures and learning valuable life lessons - even as she grows older, the dresses she wears can be mistaken for one. Perhaps Scognamiglio, through his S/S 2013 collection, hopes to provide a similarly magical experience to the women who wear his ethereal designs. 

Scognamiglio channels Wendy 
in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

Scognamiglio doesn't stop there; the pointy shoes with a curly-leaf opening allude to the shapes of Peter Pan's shoes and hat; the golden bird and vine detailing throughout the collection create an atmosphere of a world far, far away; and the loosely fitting pant suit and drawstring shorts channel Peter Pan's forever boyish appeal. Scognamiglio's collection sublimely draws on the characters in one of the most beloved stories of our culture - encouraging an escape from the mundane and into a fairytale. 

Belgian avant-garde fashion designer, Walter van Beirendonck, was thinking about mad tea parties for his S/S 2013 collection which features a mixture of short-suits, pant-suits and jumpers topped off with tall, work-of-art hats. The hats - which evoke those worn by the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland - are in classic black with bright drippings and splashes - hinting that the tea party got out of control. Polka dot and plaid patterns on jackets, shorts and pants, as well as the text-filled high-socks, white button-downs and bow ties illustrate the chaotic persona of Lewis Carroll's kooky Hatter character. 

Fiction is our first and primary introduction into the realm of culture, shaping our tastes, thoughts and desires. Measuring up in complexity, fashion is a manifestation and expression of these tastes, thoughts and desires. In the words of Virginia Woolf in Orlando, clothes "…wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking." 



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