Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing for the whole. [...] Clothes are always a useful index of character, class, life-style. (68)

So says David Lodge, a novelist and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, and he gives as an example the description of Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's  Goodbye to Berlin, in which Sally's

black silk get-up (worn for a casual afternoon visit) signals desire-to-impress, theatricality (the cape), and sexual provocativeness (the page-boy's hat acquires connotations from the many references to sexual ambivalence and deviation, including transvestism, that run through the book). (68)

A presupposition that a novel is of little or no literary value, however, may shape attitudes towards its depiction of clothing. Certainly some early critics of popular romance fiction adduced depictions of feminine apparel as evidence in support of their negative assessment of the novels' worth. Rachel Anderson, who defines romances as “the branch of fiction consisting of lightweight, but full-length, novels of no great literary qualities” (14) observes rather scathingly that

In some romantic fiction of the 1950s and 1960s the account of the heroine’s outward appearance is developed to such an extent that one is given a peepshow of her entire toilette, rather in the nature of a Louis XIV levée, including a description of her bath, the putting on of her underclothes as well as her outer ones, the application of her make-up, and the combing out of her hair. (85)

Writing about “trashy popular fiction by, for, and about women” (202), Lillian S. Robinson contrasts Georgette Heyer’s romances unfavourably with Jane Austen’s novels and warns that “the comparison can only prove disappointing, for Heyer’s novels concentrate on precisely those minutiae of dress and décor that Austen takes for granted” (208). Ann Barr Snitow states that “To analyze Harlequin romances is not to make any literary claims for them [...], they are not art” (246), notes that the heroine’s “clothes are always minutely observed” (248) and concludes that “clothes are the number one filler in Harlequins” (249). Curiously, Snitow’s conclusion is undermined by her own analysis of a passage from Anne Mather’s Born Out of Love in which the heroine selects an outfit. In this example the so-called “filler” apparently reveals a great deal about the heroine and her social context because “Several things are going on here: the effort to find the right clothes for the occasion, the problem of staying thin, the problem of piecing together outfits from things that are not new” (248).

Even when such critics concede that there is something “going on” which provides an explanation for “the genre’s careful attention to the style, color, and detail of women’s fashions” (Radway 193), they have not tended to perceive any literary merit in either the “filler” or the novels in which it appears. Although Daphne Watson admits that “Details of rooms, clothes and food [...] add to our knowledge of the tastes (and usually wealth) of the protagonists” (83), she thinks it “fair to say that no one reads a Mills & Boon novel for its literary style or its unique plot structure or its insight into unusual and interesting characters” (93). Robinson suggests that when “Heyer (and, with even less skill, her sister Regency buffs) tells us about colors, cut, fabric, and trimming” this serves “to invest the novels with that meretricious quality Henry James would have called ‘the tone of time’” (208). Janice A. Radway similarly concedes that “descriptions of apparel” (193) have a “mimetic effect” (193) but in her opinion the role of such descriptions, which “momentarily, often awkwardly” (193) delay the plot, is to establish “that, like ordinary readers, fictional heroines are ‘naturally’ preoccupied with fashion” (193).

It may well be the case that, in some romances, descriptions of food, clothing and décor serve only the very limited purposes suggested by Watson, Robinson and Radway but more recent scholars of romance fiction have argued that they can also fulfil a wider variety of functions. Jay Dixon, in stating that the silk shirts worn by many a 1970s Mills & Boon hero are “a symbol of his wealth” (77), seems to concur with Watson’s analysis of the function of clothing in romance novels, but she then adds that, “as the heroine’s skin is often described in these books as being like satin or silk, the wearing of silk by the hero can also be read as linking masculinity with femininity, in particular the femininity of the heroine herself” (77). Lisa Fletcher’s reading of Georgette Heyer is much richer than Robinson’s: focusing on These Old Shades she argues that

The apparent trivialities and flourishes of dress have enormous symbolic and narrative importance in this novel. That is to say the romantic plot [...] is propelled by the display and the performance of gender, by the dressing, undressing and redressing of characters as feminine, masculine, or foppish. This novel is a “costume drama”: it is about the performative force of gendered clothing and accoutrements. (202)

"Gendered clothing" can also be found in J. R. Ward's Dark Lover:

Wrath's sartorial choices result in what Butler has termed "stylization of the body," and his bodily gestures, movements, etc. accentuate his consciously cultivated performance of hyper-masculinity. He jealously guards these performative attributes: when he dons a suit to woo Beth, the novel's heroine, he immediately recognizes the contingent nature of his identity: "He was changing himself for a female. For no other reason than to try to please her." (Bly 65)

As Kyra Kramer and I have observed,

Clothing may thus assist both in distinguishing between male and female individual bodies and in increasing or decreasing the former’s masculinity and the latter’s femininity, for although “The ‘naturalness’ of gender is constantly invoked, […] masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the body that require work” (King 33). Women, for example, are expected to construct their social bodies through how they dress and adorn themselves. In turn, “Cultural constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19), and women’s fashion has been deemed problematic by many feminists because it can reinforce negative images of women.

Nonetheless, clothing can also serve feminist purposes and the depictions of lingerie in Jennifer Crusie's romances ascribe a range of meanings to these items:

In one situation, therefore, lingerie can function as an instrument of patriarchal oppression while in another it may serve as a weapon in the feminist struggle; it can be used to signal sexual interest and boost a woman’s confidence but may also reinforce her feelings of inadequacy about her body; it can cause her physical discomfort or give sensual pleasure; although it can indicate a lack of openness and truth, female intimacy is promoted as women discuss their lingerie and via such discussions give each other emotional support that complements the physical uplift of underwiring and padding. (Vivanco, "Jennifer").1

Crusie has argued that "the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning" and in "One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance" I have attempted to tease out a range of meanings which combine to make these items "heavy." Ring symbolism has varied, both in literature and throughout history: “the ring, as part of the betrothal ritual goes back to the Romans. A free man had to give a golden ring to his bride as part of the price he had to pay for her” (Hostettler 35) but the 1940s and 1950s saw the creation of the American double ring ceremony which included a ring for the groom. Although this new type of ceremony did seem to imply greater equality between the spouses, the groom's ring had a different symbolism from that of his bride:

Unlike the woman’s ring, the groom’s wedding band expressed his ability to support a wife, to enter the adult world. In keeping with new concepts of masculine domesticity, it also represented equal commitment to marriage and the containment of sexuality [...] The groom’s band came to represent a man’s acceptance of this form of domesticity, the shiny gold of his new ring a physical marker of his new role as husband and prospective father. (Howard 850).

In my article about rings I state that "Wedding rings [...] are seldom mentioned in romance novels, and rarely in any detail" (100). One of those rare exceptions is Michelle Styles's Sold and Seduced, a Harlequin Mills & Boon romance set in "Rome - 68 BC" (7). Styles has clearly researched Roman marriage customs but she also uses the rings in her novel to uphold an ideal of marriage which is more in keeping with the beliefs of contemporary readers. Rather unusually, Styles provides a short bibliography and a historical note in which she explains the difference between

Sine manu versus cum manu marriage - in other words, who had control of a woman's fortune and served as her guardian. It is somewhat surprising to learn that by the end of the Republic most marriages were sine manu. Control of a woman's property and right to divorce stayed with her father or legal guardian, it did not pass to her husband. [...] Marriages in the early republic were almost exclusively cum manu and there were cases of terrible abuses by husbands [...]. Thus, to give women and their families more rights over the disposal of the dowry, the marriage sine manu was enacted. The move towards marriage sine manu coincided with a decrease in a father's rights over his children. (296)

In her novel, the ring the heroine is given in the course of her (old-fashioned) cum manu marriage to the hero is "a gold-and-iron ring" (51) which is "the symbol of the money Aro had paid for her" (52) and "weighed heavy on her finger" (51). At this point in the novel the ring seems to express the heroine's belief that "Marriage for a patrician was not a meeting of hearts, but a meeting of purses" (48) and those purses belong to the bride's father and her bridegroom. Later in the novel, however, as Lydia grows to know Aro better, she finds that she has "almost grown used to its weight. Legend had it that it connected the hearts, twining them into one" (218). This more romantic ring symbolism, and her increased comfort in wearing the ring, clearly parallel the transition that is occuring in Lydia's view of her marriage: from its beginnings as a financial transaction it is turning into one which seems to have romantic possibilities. Later still, however, Aro demands Lydia's obedience, stating that "We married cum manu. I am your guardian as well as your husband" (275) and in response she angrily "took off her ring and threw it at his feet" (275) and returns to her father's house. There her father tells her that he knows "what is best for you" (286) and it appears that Lydia is trapped in an unenviable position, a possession caught between two men who both expect her obedience. Aro, however, follows her, tells her that he has "no desire to live without you" (293), kneels in front of her to return the ring to her finger, and promises "that I will never be autocratic again" (294). The ring's romantic symbolism has triumphed over its economic symbolism.

Aro too has a ring and it, like Lydia's, symbolises his relationship with his father. As Styles mentioned, a Roman father's authority over both his male and female offspring could be considerable. Aro's ring, which he wears on a chain around his neck, is:

'My father's.' Aro swallowed hard. He had worn it for such a long time it had become part of him. 'I never take it off.'

'Why not wear it on your finger?' Lydia's brows knit together.

'I wear it there because I am not yet fit to wear it on my finger. I made a vow to my father that remains unfulfilled.' (138)

When Lydia temporarily discards her wedding ring, however, Aro takes off his father's ring and instead puts Lydia's on the chain

around his neck. He held his father’s ring in his hand, looking at its blue stone. Then, deliberately, he walked over to the strong box and tossed the ring in. [...] The vow he had given his father was less important than the vow he had given his wife on their wedding. (280)

Much as, in the final scene, Lydia stands with her husband against her father, so Aro's rejection of the paternal ring in favour of the wedding ring seems to symbolise a belief that a husband and wife's primary loyalty is owed to each other and not to their respective parents. Through the use of these two rings, Styles seems to affirm that

he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh [...] Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matt 19: 4-6)

Romance authors such as Styles can overlay various ring symbolisms, some of which arise out of a particular novel's plot and characterisation, and therefore "a ring [...] may retain its 'denotiative, obvious, meaning' [...] and also reveal a great deal about the donor, the recipient, and their relationship" (Vivanco, "One" 106).


1 Michelle Thurlow’s ‘A Whisper of Satin’: The Infant Dress Leitmotif in Beverly Lewis’s ‘Heritage of Lancaster County’ Series” also discusses clothing but although the series as a whole includes a romantic relationship between the heroine and a man who becomes her husband, each individual novel in the series is not a romance. Thurlow states that “the pink garment functions as a key leitmotif and is, in at least a partially literal way, the thematic thread that ties Lewis’s Lancaster installments together.”


Works Cited

Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.

Bly, Mary. “On Popular Romance, J. R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. 60-72.

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93.

Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL P., 1999.

Fletcher, Lisa. “‘Mere Costumery’?: Georgette Heyer’s Cross-Dressing Novels.” Masquerades: Disguise in Literature in English from the Middle Ages to the Present. Ed. Jesús López-Peláez Casellas, David Malcolm, and Pilar Sánchez Calle. Gdansk: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego, 2004: 196-212.

Hostettler, Agnes. “Symbolic Tokens in a Ballad of the Returned Lover.” Western Folklore 32.1 (1973): 33-38.

Howard, Vicki. “A ‘Real Man’s Ring’: Gender and the Invention of Tradition.” Journal of Social History 36.4 (2003): 837-56.

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts. London: Penguin, 1992.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.

Robinson, Lillian S. “On Reading Trash.” Sex, Class, & Culture. 1978. New York: Methuen, 1986. 200-22.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 245-63.

Styles, Michelle. Sold and Seduced. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007.

Thurlow, Michelle. “‘A Whisper of Satin’: The Infant Dress Leitmotif in Beverly Lewis’s ‘Heritage of Lancaster County’ Series.” Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing 2.4 (2010). 31 Dec. 2010. <>.

Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. "There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010). <>.

Vivanco, Laura. "Jennifer Crusie's Literary Lingerie." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.2 (2012). <>.

Vivanco, Laura. “One Ring to Bind Them: Ring Symbolism in Popular Romance Fiction.” New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction. Ed. Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. 99-107.

Watson, Daphne. Their Own Worst Enemies: Women Writers of Women’s Fiction. London: Pluto P., 1995.