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Fashion and Fiction

Self-Transformation in Twentieth-Century American Literature
Lauren S. Cardon

BUY Paper · 232 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813938622 · $29.50 · Apr 2016
BUY Ebook · 232 pp. · ISBN 9780813938639 · $29.50 · Apr 2016

During the twentieth century, the rise of the concept of Americanization—shedding ethnic origins and signs of "otherness" to embrace a constructed American identity—was accompanied by a rhetoric of personal transformation that would ultimately characterize the American Dream. The theme of self-transformation has remained a central cultural narrative in American literary, political, and sociological texts ranging from Jamestown narratives to immigrant memoirs, from slave narratives to Gone with the Wind, and from the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger to the writings of Barack Obama. Such rhetoric feeds American myths of progress, upward mobility, and personal reinvention.

In Fashion and Fiction, Lauren S. Cardon draws a correlation between the American fashion industry and early twentieth-century literature. As American fashion diverged from a class-conscious industry governed by Parisian designers to become more commercial and democratic, she argues, fashion designers and journalists began appropriating the same themes of self-transformation to market new fashion trends. Cardon illustrates how canonical twentieth-century American writers, including Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Nella Larsen, symbolically used clothing to develop their characters and their narrative of upward mobility. As the industry evolved, Cardon shows, the characters in these texts increasingly enjoyed opportunities for individual expression and identity construction, allowing for temporary performances that offered not escapism but a testing of alternate identities in a quest for self-discovery.


Lauren Cardon gives us a broad-spectrum study of how we read, manipulate, blend, and perform fashion in American society and literature. She deftly moves from theory to practice, placing novelists and designers of the Gilded Age in the context of current conversations about the many meanings of fashion. Seeing new patterns in familiar novels, Cardon stitches together a book that is lush, smart, and a joy to read.

Katherine Joslin, Western Michigan University, author of Edith Wharton and the Making of Fashion

Fashion and Fiction is packed with details about clothing design and manu-facture in New York City. The prose is lively, and there is much for readers to learn. Cardon blends fashion history and literary interpretation to give us new ways of thinking about familiar novels and, at times, about novels we may not know well. It is a good book for Wharton scholars and aficionados, especially those looking for links between her novels and those of other writers in the period. Cardon’s framing of fashion and her selection of fiction would work well in undergraduate and graduate classes on novels in a cultural context.

Edith Wharton Review

Cardon reads fashion and selffashioning in fiction alongside the history of the US fashion industry. In doing so, she charts a progressive narrative of the democratization of fashion over the course of the early twentieth century and provides fresh readings of canonical texts along the way.

American Literature

Using literary analysis of influential twentieth–century American writers such as Edith Wharton, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and more, Cardon shows how these writers used clothing in their character and narrative development and maps the changes in the American fashion industry through its depictions in these novels.... [F]or those looking for a comprehensive illustration of the early American fashion industry and the various ways dress works as a form of personal expression and identity construction, this book is an excellent option.

Journal of Dress History

Cardon makes important contributions to literary fashion studies and material culture, areas often overlooked or erroneously dismissed as depthless. She distinctly pinpoints their relevancy to the neo-historical sense of independence Americans felt as they entered the innovative twentieth century. Finally, she convincingly demonstrates how clothing represented the struggles of careeradvancement, matrimonial security and societal acceptance during the early twentiethcentury while simultaneously symbolising the timeless allure of selftransformation.

Literature & History

About the Author(s): 

Lauren S. Cardon, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama, is the author of The "White Other" in American Intermarriage Stories, 1945–2008.

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