Chopin, Kate: Title Commentary
KATE CHOPIN: TITLE COMMENTARYThe Awakening
CAROLYN L. MATHEWS (ESSAY DATE 3 SEPTEMBER 2002)
SOURCE: Mathews, Carolyn L. "Fashioning the Hybrid Women in Kate Chopin's The Awakening." Mosaic 35, no. 3 (3 September 2002): 127-49.
In the following excerpt, Mathews examines the meaning of the clothing imagery in The Awakening and contends that Chopin "uses dress as a means of representing female subjectivity."
During the years surrounding the turn into the twentieth century, discourse on dress proliferated, resulting in what fashion historian Joan Severa calls "a universal understanding of style" (454). Americans of the period purchased more clothing per capita than ever before, and manuals like Dorothy Quigley's What Dress Makes of Us or Mary Haweis's The Art of Dress appeared alongside books on dress reform like J. H. Kellogg's The Evils of Fashionable Dress. Early feminists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed the topic … as did highly respected American psychologists such as William James and G. Stanley Hall. While Hall's 1898 study on motivation in dress interpreted clothing as a means of social conformity (Ewen 79), James singled out garments as instrumental in establishing self; he writes that "we […] identify ourselves with them" (280). The fervency with which dress became a serious subject within scientific and economic discourse is perhaps best illustrated by Thorstein Veblen's now classic book entitled The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, wherein he describes women's dress as the most "apt illustration" of the principles underlying the whole of his economic theory. Treating it as an emblem of conspicuous consumption, Veblen interprets female attire within the context of women's historical role as commodities of exchange. Because the wife functions as property, he argues, her costly attire is meant to pronounce her "uselessness" and lack of "productive labour" (170), thereby announcing "to all observers" (179) her husband's social and economic status.
The positions etched out by thinkers like Veblen, Gilman, Hall, and James establish cultural precedents for Kate Chopin's use of clothing in The Awakening, her controversial 1899 novel about marriage and female sexuality. Critics over the course of the past four decades have explicitly acknowledged Chopin's reliance on clothing and images of undressing to suggest her character Edna's sense of oppression and eventual liberation. Per Seyersted, for example, refers to acts of disrobing throughout the novel, arguing that this action at the novel's end "symbolizes a victory of self-knowledge" (194). Other critics have read Edna's disrobing conversely, attributing Edna's demise not to societal forces, as Seyersted suggests, but to the character's lack of an integrated self or to personal limitations that make change impossible. Suzanne Wolkenfeld, for example, calls the disrobing a "regression to the animality of infancy" (223). Robert Collins, tracing in its entirety the pattern of garment imagery, argues that disrobing "symbolizes Edna's dissatisfaction with fiction-making" but that the way in which the imagery is used "suggests that Chopin viewed Edna's suicide […] as a failure of imagination" (177). The attention to dress in Chopin criticism verifies the importance of garment imagery in the novel, but to date no critic has placed this pattern within the context of nineteenth-century discourse on dress.
My examination of the novel's clothing imagery maps out the specific socially grounded meanings encoded in Chopin's extensive and specific inclusion of details of dress; it is an analysis revealing that the writer uses dress as a means of representing female subjectivity. I begin by establishing the discursive background for use of dress in the novel and then focus on its depiction of working-class and non-white women, particularly in terms of their clothing, to show how Chopin depended upon social class and racial stereotypes to revise nineteenth-century feminist discourse on self-ownership. By exploring the novel's use of clothing as signals for particular constructions of nineteenth-century womanhood, I argue that the novel insinuates upon readers a model for female subjectivity that substantially amends the era's dominant form, which assumed middle-class propriety, moral superiority, and motherhood. Chopin's version of the female self in effect merges elements from presumably opposed social contexts—from lower-class as well as upper-class settings, for example—thus positing a hybrid formation that works culturally to unsettle categories of nineteenth-century thought.
Although writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often disagreed in their judgements regarding societal emphasis on dress, they consistently posited dress as a semiotic system of signs wherein sartorial details work together to articulate the wearer's social identity. In 1892, for example, Helen Ecob wrote, "Character of dress is the external sign of the social, intellectual, and moral status of the wearer" (230, emph. mine). Because women's social identities were inexorably tied to marriage, many writers were quick to point out how women's clothing signalled immobility and their lack of self-ownership. Material evidence of the period supports these rulings, for the lady's gown, sewn from over twenty yards of fabric and worn over multiple "skirts," hand-embroidered drawers, a corset, and undervests, weighed nearly twenty pounds. When she added outdoor wraps, she carried twenty-five to thirty pounds of fabric (Ewen and Ewen 106). The appearance of inactivity was no mere illusion. Heavily boned bodices and tightly fitted sleeves prevented wearers from reaching tiny hook-and-eye fasteners sewn down the back (Bradfield 28), and a maid often assisted. Dress reformers of the late nineteenth century were especially quick to note the connection between women's dress and their lack of productivity. Like Veblen, they viewed women's clothing in relation to issues of ownership. "A Symposium on Women's Dress," published in October 1892 by The Arena, for example, chronicles opinions of artists, physicians, and women "crippled" by fashion as arguments for making "improved" dress the sign of "good breeding" (621).…Divine providence, Darwin, art, health, and motherhood were all recruited to carry forth the symposium's call for a more rational dress, and throughout, the plea for women's rights surfaces. Observing the link between dress and middle-class women's roles, E. M. King pessimistically predicts the defeat of dress reform: "Dress reformers may well despair, for I perceive that their hopes can never be fulfilled until they go, both in theory and practice, to the very root of the matter. Women must take their rightful place in the sphere of humanity. They must respect and reverence their own bodies and have their rightful sovereignty over them" (King 629). King's writing clearly demonstrates the cultural weight of thought linking female clothing and lack of self-ownership. Kate Chopin mined this vein of thought when she used dress to signal meanings related to female sovereignty, but she used social-class coding to insure that Edna's position not just as wife but as middle-class wife comes under scrutiny.
Propriety and the whole cult of respectability that directed the lives of middle-class Americans of this era lie at the heart of Edna Pontellier's quest for self-ownership. As John Kasson's study of manners in America shows, upper-middle- and leisure-class women recognized correct form in dress as integral to setting themselves apart from the lower classes. "Correct form" specified particular styles, fabrics, and colours for different hours of the day and different activities. As historical work by both Philippe Perrot and Penelope Byrde illustrate, women like Edna Pontellier purchased expansive wardrobes so that they might appropriately attire themselves for morning, afternoon, or evening as they religiously observed differences between country and city dress and between street wear and calling attire. Like other middle-class women of the period, Edna performs time-consuming rituals of dress, preparing her toilette several times a day. She begins her day, for example, in a "white morning gown" (73), a laced and flounced garment worn by middle-class women as they directed their household staffs. Later she changes into a tailor-made street gown to make informal morning calls (73). If she were to make the more formal afternoon calls, she would don a visiting dress or formal day gown, or if she were to receive callers, she would wear a reception gown, intricately constructed with layers of flouncing, scalloped frills, piping, tucks, and insets of brocade. Edna's failure to be thus attired first brings into the open the Pontellier's marital conflicts. Angered that his wife has not kept her formal reception day, Mr. Pontellier says, "It's just such seeming trifles that we've got to take seriously; such things count" (71). Standing as fictional counterpart to Veblen's insistence that women's dress functioned as an expression of the husband's social position, the conflict serves as one of many reminders of Edna's initial lack of autonomy and self-ownership.
Margit Stange has noted that The Awakening builds toward a "turning point […] at which Edna, deciding to leave Léonce's house, resolves 'never again to belong to another than herself'" (203). Arguing that the novel dramatizes nineteenth-century rhetoric of self-ownership, Stange explains Edna's rejection of her role as middle-class wife within the context of domestic feminists' campaigns for voluntary motherhood. This reform movement, which began in 1840 with Lucinda Chandler's plea that each woman take "control over her own person independent of the desires of her husband" (qtd. in Stange 107), used the term self-ownership to denote a woman's right to refuse marital sex and thus to limit family size. Stange argues that when Edna turns Mr. Pontellier out of her bed with talk of the "eternal rights of women" (Chopin 85), she uses discourse typical of domestic feminists of the period. Stange maintains, though, that the character profoundly alters these feminists' version of self-ownership, which held that women's sexuality was integrally tied to motherhood. They vehemently opposed birth-control devices, fearing that contraception would create a threatening sexual freedom that would ultimately dissolve the family. While Stange notes that Edna declares herself "free to have sex with whomever she chooses," she does not discuss Chopin's method for revising domestic feminism and asserting female sexuality. It is this gap in Stange's discussion that attention to clothing addresses. Because The Awakening associates proper dress with middle-class identity and its opposite—impropriety and states of undress—with working-class and non-white women, it strips self-ownership of its straight-laced passionlessness. Female sexuality emerges as an integral aspect of self-ownership, but at the expense of working-class and non-white women.
My analysis of Chopin's representation of social class borrows from the methodology of Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, who, in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, theorize a system for mapping out interconnected meanings within given cultures. Arguing that European cultures "think themselves" by way of the oppositions "high"/"low" or "top"/"bottom," they show how hierarchical classifications can be cross-referenced to reveal meaning (2). Within a given culture's system of symbolization, social classes, the human body, psychic forms, and geographic space are all laid out through the high/low opposition that correlates each domain to the other three. A disruption of the hierarchy within one domain affects all other domains (3). The validity of such a cultural matrix is evidenced in everyday speech when undesirable locations are called the "armpit" of the world or when verbal insults function by way of a synecdoche that sums up the whole person with some choice, lower-anatomy substitute like "ass-hole." While Stallybrass and White do not address fashion as a domain that can be cross-referenced with other significant domains, their use of Bakhtin's conceptions of the classical body and the grotesque certainly apply to women's fashion of the period. Arguing that the body and meaning are related discursively, they show that the classical body consistently denotes the "form of the high official culture" (21, emph. Stallybrass and White's). This body, closed, perfect, and pure, is without orifice. Pedestalled and symmetrical, monumental and distant, the classical body expresses the same values articulated in "tasteful," "refined" female dress of the late nineteenth century. The cross-referencing between the human body and social class that Stallybrass and White observe occurs with remarkable frequency in fashion commentary of this period. One etiquette-manual writer insisted, for example, that "nothing so quickly points out the low-bred as loudness of conduct or flashiness of dress" (qtd. in Kasson 98). Another advisor articulated the link between conspicuous display and women's sexual bodies when he suggested that loudness in dress invited sexual advances (Kasson 163).
Discussions of tasteful dress that engaged Chopin's contemporaries enable readers today to interpret with closer historical accuracy the implied cultural "high" or "low" of certain details of dress in The Awakening. For instance, Edna Pontellier looks "handsome and distinguished" in her street gown, a description that Carol Mac-Curdy reads as commentary on Edna's lack of femininity (55). Yet even a cursory glance at fashion magazines of the period reveals the frequency with which "handsome" was applied to women's public attire ("Two"; "Long"). Chopin's Edna, never appearing in public in costumes overly rich in fabric or too eye-catching in colour, epitomizes the tasteful dresser.… Linked in prescriptive fashion commentary with those of "high-breeding," understated, tasteful attire like Edna's identified wearers as respectably middle class, an assumption that explains why a writer for The Jewish Daily News so emphatically urged her mostly immigrant readers to "seek refinement" ("Just") in their dress. Working-class women, and especially non-white or newly Americanized ones, occupied by virtue of class and ethnicity a culturally "low" social and economic position. By dressing tastefully (like those "high"bred), they might unsettle cultural categories that enabled unequal power relations among the social classes and among races. Fed by fears of miscegenation, a general stereotyping of non-white and working-class women as sexually promiscuous occurred with blatant candour at the turn of the century (McNall 25-26), and it is no surprise that Chopin depended upon such assumptions in her depiction of Mariequita, the Spanish servant girl who serves within the novel as cultural "low" to the demure and tasteful "high" of Edna Pontellier.
In The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, Barbara Babcock examines how given cultures use language, art, and religion to symbolically invert commonly held cultural codes, values, and norms. While a belief turned on its head can work culturally toward different ends, sometimes reinforcing the dominant view and sometimes challenging it, an inversion nonetheless presents an alternative. Such symbolic inversion occurs in Chopin's use of Mariequita not simply as a foil for Edna but as a character whose race and class enable Edna to break with the conventions of middle-class marriage. And, as theories regarding cultural matrixes would predict, the "high"/"low" opposition between Edna and the servant girl works across different domains. "Low" in terms of social class, Mariequita is also associated with the lower body—most often genitalia and feet. Glaringly underdeveloped as a character, she appears in only two scenes of The Awakening, an inclusion underscoring her symbolic function since these particular scenes occur at structurally pivotal points in the narrative. First appearing in the Chênière Camanada episode, which is most often identified as the scene of Edna's sexual awakening, Mariequita appears once more at the novel's end just before Edna's suicide. The incomplete portrayal works to focus readers' attention on two aspects of characterization that the novel presents clearly: her social class and her body. Not simply lower class, but of the lowest, the servant class, Mariequita in each scene flaunts a lack of propriety with her body—the slimy feet she bares, the "eyes" she "makes" at Robert, the "mouths" she "makes" sassing old Beaudelet (52). An example of what Bakhtin calls the "grotesque," which stands in opposition to "the bourgeois individualist conception of the body" (Stallybrass and White 22), Mariequita's body becomes integral in Edna's conception of subjectivity. Like another of the novel's dark women—the "generous" Verta Cruz girl who gives Robert an embroidered pouch (122) or the "stunning girls" who kept Arobin occupied in Mexico (123)—Mariequita calls forth sexual associations inseparable from her race and class, and these cultural assumptions enable what Michele Birnbaum has called "Edna's racial surrogacy" (314), her identification with "the marginalized[,] which both affirms her class position and allows her to critique the sexual constraints associated with it" (304). Kasson's study of nineteenth-century manners validates Birnbaum's conclusions, for he shows that, to middle-class Americans of Chopin's period, cleanliness, manners, and taboos regarding body functions and sexuality were paramount in etching out an identity counter to that of the supposedly "low bred." Functioning as "low-others" against whom middle-class Americans measured their own superiority, people low on the socioeconomic ladder—workers and nonwhites—were essential to middle-class constructions of self, Kasson maintains. As he demonstrates, these low-others served as a sort of symbolic repository for all that the middle class excluded when setting themselves apart—impropriety, poor taste, filth, and unacceptable sexual desires. It was these cultural codes that allowed Chopin to use Mariequita to revise domestic feminists' concept of self-ownership, and the move entailed a highlighting of the contrast between the tastefully clad and properly middle-class wife, Edna Pontellier, and the barefoot and sexually promiscuous Mariequita.
When Mariequita appears on the boat in the Chênière Camanada segment with bare, dirty feet, she inverts the middle-class toilette through undress—a term I use to denote matters of dress set in opposition to bourgeois propriety, decorum, and cleanliness. Rejoinders to Edna's prim, stocking-protected and shoe-enclosed lower extremities (55), such feet marked the person as racially and intellectually inferior, according to physiognomic treatises like Alexander Walker's Intermarriage; or How and Why Beauty, Health and Intellect Result from Certain Marriages and Deformity, Disease and Insanity from Others. Further, their very sliminess, along with the basket of shrimps, implies work and appropriateness determined by function rather than fashion. Bakhtin's notion of the carnival as a cultural ritual of inversion clarifies the significance of Chopin's focus on feet in the Chênière Camanada segment. The carnival, in privileging the grotesque body with its teeming lower parts (feet, buttocks, genitals), allowed members of the upper class voyeuristic gazes at all that they excluded from their own definitions of self (Stallybrass and White 48, 128). With just this sort of voyeurism, Edna looks at Mariequita's bare feet, "noticing the sand and slime between her brown toes." She observes the girl's sexually alluring eye-play, and she "like[s] it all" (52). Later, when Edna removes "the greater part of [her clothes]" (55) in Madame Antoine's cottage to experience her body for the first time, the shoes and stockings are the only articles of clothing specified. The removal of her clothing and her bathing precede the removal of her shoes and stockings, the illogical sequence thus highlighting the feet. This baring of feet recalls the earlier image of the sexually free and barefooted Mariequita, and it works on a symbolic level to invert middle-class gender codes of propriety, sexual taboos, immobility, and lack of self-ownership. The feet and undress function as symbols of the culturally "low" and become for Edna Pontellier symbols of the sexual freedom she desires.
By mid-novel, Edna has taken control of her body and bed as domestic feminists since 1840 had been advocating, but she has not accepted as warrant for her action their insistence on female passionlessness. By merging what in the nineteenth century was a male prerogative—possessive individualism—with elements of lower-class or non-white female subjectivity, Chopin posits a "hybrid" construction of womanhood that pulls from both the conventions of the middle class and the repository of "low," rejected qualities that the middle class associated with those beneath them in the social hierarchy. The symbolic relation between dress and female selfhood is underscored in the analogy used as Mr. Pontellier muses over Edna's behaviour: "He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world" (77, emph. mine). While this oft-quoted passage has been used to celebrate Edna's emerging selfhood, readers should not overlook Chopin's method, which works at the expense of the low-others of nineteenth-century culture—those of low economic status, particularly non-white women.
While Chopin's use of hybridization could seem little more than a stitching together of dress associations from different social classes, her reliance on these associations underscores just how profoundly particular symbolic representations align with actual social forms. Barefootedness is not simply an arbitrary choice within Chopin's novel; rather, it has a very concrete correlative in the material and social world of turn-of-the-century America. Only servant girls like Mariquita, who could not afford to ruin shoes by shrimping in them, would appear barefooted; middle-class women did not even bare their feet to swim. And, as Stallybrass and White argue, when opposite poles of categories like propriety/impropriety mix in actual social practice, a hybrid cultural formation results. Fusing contradictory elements, these hybrid formations interrogate "the rules of inclusion, exclusion and domination" that structure a society (43). Hybridization, Stallybrass and White write, "produces new combinations and strange instabilities in a given semiotic system[;] it therefore generates the possibility of shifting the very terms of the system itself" (58, emph. Stallybrass and White's). In social practice, hybridization might, for example, produce constructions of womanhood that could ultimately shift definitions of male and female. Chopin includes two characters who function as such cultural hybrids. Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz each successfully blends elements of the "high" and "low," and, as hybrid constructions of womanhood, each pulls from a closet of possibilities the seemingly incompatible to assemble a costume that signifies the disruption of established hierarchies.
Most often read as the embodiment of traditional womanhood, Adele Ratignolle is the mother-woman bedecked in fluttering garments that suit "her rich, luxuriant beauty" (33). Appearing at the novel's onset in stark contrast to Edna, who wears the "symmetrical" lines associated in the 1890s with the New Woman, Adele dresses in "pure white, with a fluffiness of ruffles" and "draperies" (33). Fashion commentary of 1898 noted that such a dress should give the illusion that the wearers, or "aery habitations," are composed "of stuff less solid than flesh and blood" (Cunnington 402). The language here echoes discourse on motherhood prevalent during the nineteenth century—writings in which mothers appear as angels or soft spirits "hovering in soothing caresses" (Melendy 45). Imaging Adele and the other mother-women first as domestic chickens, caged by their maternal instinct, which in turn transforms them into ministering angels, Chopin blends motherhood, spirituality, and femininity, portraying Adele as the epitome of ideal womanhood. Adele, however, cannot be pigeon-holed, for her maternal qualities are often overshadowed by an erotic appeal associated elsewhere in the novel with low-others. Receiving Edna in a "negligé which left her arms almost wholly bare and exposed the rich, melting curves of her white throat" (75), Adele displays an improper level of undress, thoroughly at odds with middle-class "correct form." The emphasis on her whiteness, however, permeates the image, whitewashing the eroticism borrowed from the lower classes and non-white models of womanhood with an assertion of what Birnbaum calls "colonizing whiteness" (316). Readers inclined to read the novel's unmistakable emphasis on whiteness as a purely aesthetic choice must reckon with the racial implications present in Chopin's representation of white female subjects. Whether we read this emphasis as another example of colonization or as Chopin's effort—albeit compromised—to unsettle cultural hierarchies, the fact remains that Adele resists easy categorization and thus cannot be dismissed as an uncomplicated emblem of nineteenth-century womanhood. Both physical and spiritual, sensual and chaste, she merges the "high" and "low" of the culture, and as hybrid "sensual Madonna" (30), she serves as model for Edna's growing comfort with her own body (see: Shaw 66; Wershover 29; Stone 25).
While Adele demonstrates the possibility of women's constructing hybrid selves, her choice to pursue motherhood as vocation limits her capacity for challenging dominant gender roles. A more fully alternative self emerges in Mademoiselle Reisz, the reclusive artist whose music evokes in Edna intense passions. Undoubtedly playing a significant role in Edna's decision to pursue her art and move out of her husband's house, Made-moiselle Reisz puts forth an appearance befitting her eccentric temperament. Summed up as having "absolutely no taste in dress," she wears one ornament, "a batch of rusty black lace with a bunch of artificial violets," which sits to the side of her false hair (44). With these adornments, however, she makes a uniquely anti-fashion statement. Anti-fashion, a mode of dress that often functions as a sign of protest, included during the nineteenth century the bohemian garb worn by French artists, the bloomer costume propounded by dress reformers, and the outmoded styles worn by eccentric individualists like Mademoiselle (see: Davis 5-27; Barwick 48-70; Hollander 363-65). False hair—clumps of curls with comb—had fallen out of fashion by 1879, and, while millinery like Mademoiselle's violets and black lace embellished ladies' evening wear in stop-and-go cycles throughout the nineteenth century, only in the 1870s did such pieces enjoy general daytime use (Cunnington 302-05). Mademoiselle Reisz's clinging to these outmoded styles of her youth makes a potentially political statement, for, in America's burgeoning consumer society, women who resisted the sway of fashion fulfilled an oppositional role, contesting consumerism by rejecting what Veblen observed to be women's primary function under capitalism: consumption. The prunella gaiter that Mademoiselle mends during one of Edna's visits further underscores her opposition to normative female roles. Utilitarian and practical rather than ornamental, gaiters, which were button shoes with a cloth upper section, are pictured in the 1894 The Woman's Book as a part of a reform business ensemble (213). Clearly in contrast with the ruffled tea gowns and velvet-trimmed walking dresses shown elsewhere in The Woman's Book, the suit and gaiters adopt the idiom of men's dress, insistently expressing seriousness, activity, and purposeful work.… Fashion historians and theorists like Joanne Finkelstein (107-29) or Fred Davis (33-54) have discussed the importance of more "masculine" dress for nineteenth-century unmarried women who entered the professions (see also Ewen and Ewen 88-97). Mademoiselle's gaiter suggests in its very functionality her mobility, her leaving her home to teach music and perform. Of course, Mademoiselle Reisz's "old prunella gaiter," shabby and in need of mending, is no careful addendum to a three-piece suit. Indeed, like the other of the material details of her life—the three-room apartment in a racially mixed neighbourhood or the "dingy and battered" buffet (81)—the gaiter implies not only women's changing life options but also the economic hardship that often accompanied a choice to shun marriage in favour of independence.
Chopin includes only three specific details about Mademoiselle's attire, one of them the outdated but ultra-feminine false hair and violets, the second the masculine-coded gaiters, and a third the red flannel rag that she wears around her neck when she is sick. This final detail works to punctuate a point of friction where body, gender identity, and subjectivity interconnect, for elsewhere in the novel red functions as a symbol for female sexuality, a point that Christina Giorcelli makes in her essay on The Awakening (112). While Giorcelli makes no mention of Mademoiselle's red rag, her argument about the symbolic use of red lends support for Kathryn Seidel's reading of Mademoiselle, which examines the character within the context of late-nineteenth-century representations of lesbians. Showing that Made-moiselle, like the lesbian characters in works of George Sand, Zola, de Maupassant, and O. Henry, displays physical deformity, flaunts her hostility of domestic occupation, and pursues art as a vocation, Seidel argues that Chopin's treatment here draws on nineteenth-century stereotypes of lesbians, a position that becomes all the more pointed within Chopin's colour-coding of female sexuality. Notwithstanding the implication of a "twistedness," Mademoiselle's sexuality significantly resists classification within the binary categories male/female. In an odd mix that makes Mademoiselle the antithesis of ideal female beauty and the antithesis of ideal male beauty, Chopin blurs categories of male and female. Dependent on men neither economically nor romantically, Mademoiselle nonetheless lacks the economic power she might enjoy were she an independent male, a social reality of unmarried professional women's lives that further works to blur traditional gender codes. Although Mademoiselle appears to involve herself only vicariously in romance, her lesbianism nevertheless opens a powerfully transgressive space. In its refusal to fit into strictly binary gender configurations, it acknowledges a female subjectivity that defines itself not simply by opposing normative categories but by tossing the markers of those categories willy-nilly into a hybrid mix. Hybrid from the top of her head (where ultra-feminine, evening millinery sits askew at all hours of the day) to the tips of her toes (where gaiters accented with the idiom of masculine dress leak), Mademoiselle Reisz lives out the artistic life amid the common and racially mixed. The artist who "dares and defies," Chopin suggests, chooses anti-as her mode of life, art, and dress, and she mixes categories, particularly gender categories, at will.
The sort of hybrid anti-fashion favoured by Mademoiselle Reisz marks Edna's dress at only one point in The Awakening. As she prepares to declare her economic independence and take up her life as an artist in her pigeon house, she works in an "old blue gown, with a red silk handkerchief knotted at random around her head" (105). In putting on a dress discarded because it has gone out of fashion, Edna foregoes special work clothing, the morning gowns and wrappers that were "a luxury" enjoyed only by the upper and middle classes (Hall 52-53). Instead, she employs a mode of dress customary for members of the lower classes, who adapted their worn dress-up clothing to meet the daily needs of work. Edna's anti-fashion outfit fabricates an identity that takes its inception from the working class, but it clearly alters the materials. Edna's gown, though old, was never working-class dress-up wear. And her red handkerchief, though knotted peasant style, is—unlike Mariequita's red servant's kerchief—made of silk. Turning the peasant's rag into an odd mix that simultaneously signifies wealth and its lack, Edna dons for the first time a sort of hybrid anti-fashion, and she has "never looked handsomer" (105). Once again, Chopin builds Edna's subjectivity by calling upon imagery of low-others; in effect, Edna plays at transgressing class boundaries, a game that Birnbaum rightly sees as reinforcement of class and race difference. Yet, by choosing clothing not typically favoured by middle-class women, Edna comes the closest at this point to truly outfitting herself to venture forth with self-possession. Outfitted for work, foregoing attire bought through bourgeois marriage, she puts on her own version of Mademoiselle's outmoded, anti-fashion ensemble, planning to take up the independent life. Edna's plans, of course, never materialize. Sartorially speaking, she cannot make a habit of anti-fashion. Abandoning the pieced-together costume that most becomes her, Edna celebrates her exit as wife wearing an opulent gown of gold satin.
The description of Edna in her gold gown at her gala birthday dinner puts into place the opposition most significant to her subjectivity—solitary artist/mother-woman. Amid the "soft fall of lace encircling her shoulders," Chopin writes, there is something in Edna's appearance that suggests "the regal woman, the one who rules, who looks on, who stands alone" (109). Regal imagery appears in only one other scene—when Adele walks toward her children with the majesty "which queens are sometimes supposed to possess" (31). This repetition suggests that power for women emanates from two possible positions: motherhood and solitude. While historians have thoroughly documented the discourse on motherhood, showing that it clearly enhanced women's power during this period (see: Gordon 111-15; Leach 85-90), the implications of solitariness are much harder to sort through but critically vital in discussing a novel originally entitled A Solitary Soul. Because solitariness exists as both a category of Edna's thought and as a concept scrutinized by Chopin, only by teasing apart character zone and authorial voice can readers unravel its implications. Chopin's position emerges in her description of Edna's shimmering gown, for, when read against the background created by other uses of dress in the novel, the rich folds and excess of the gown's folds perfectly exemplifies the sort of opulence that Veblen linked with the show of the husband's power—not the wife's. Because the novel has brought into question both consumerism and a husband's ownership of his wife, there is little reason to read Chopin's description of Edna's appearance at the dinner as a statement of female power. Edna in effect fabricates the solitary artist with materials taken directly from the garb she aims to put aside, and she crowns herself with a diamond tiara, a gift from the husband she desires to escape.
Edna's inability to sustain the sort of boundary crossing needed to construct a new sort of female selfhood that can pull her present role—motherhood—into an innovative one that would merge motherhood and artistic pursuit surfaces in the character's visit to Iberville. Immediately following her move into the pigeon house, this visit pulls her toward merger with her children; arms "clasp" and cheeks "press" as Edna gives her children "all of herself." Yet, Chopin defines motherhood as a reciprocal relationship, for, although Edna gives all of herself, she also "gather[s] and fill[s] herself with [her children's] young existence" (115). Edna continues to span this threshold while in transit between Iberville and New Orleans when the presence of the children lingers "like the memory of a delicious song" (116). The synaesthesia merging sound and taste suggests other fusions as well—thresholds where autonomy meets love, where middle-class convention meets non-conventional social practice, where self-possession need not negate ties to others. Unable to remain within this liminal space where motherhood meets solitude, though, Edna reaches the city "alone" (116), and she is left to imagine a utopian world where ties to the social world disappear.
Just as Edna's clothing throughout the novel has marked her social class and gender identity, so her rejection of clothing symbolically closes off these sites of subjectivity. Chopin prepares the reader for her character's final rejection of the social world during the island awakening scene when she divests herself of her constraining garments to nap in Madame Antoine's cottage. Conventions of nineteenth-century utopian fiction undergird this episode (Rose 1-5), as when Edna wakes to pretend with Robert to have slept "precisely one hundred years" (57). She perceives the island as "changed" and imagines that a "new race of beings […] have sprung up," leaving only herself and Robert as "past relics" (57). With this imaginary leap into an Edenic future rich with sensual pleasures and devoid of former social ties, Chopin suggests the sort of premature utopianism that Terry Eagleton has attributed to many nineteenth-century Marxists. Such utopias then and now, he argues, simply risk "making us ill" (229) with desire, for they suggest no starting point from which "a feasible future might germinate" (230). Edna's need to rupture all ties with the existing world in order to construct a new self surfaces in the quick question she asks: "And when did our people from Grand Isle disappear from the earth?" (57). With her own people gone, she might enter a utopian paradise where no demands from the past impinge. The utopian vision ends abruptly and significantly with the word really: "But really, what has become of Monsieur Farival and the others?" (57, emph. mine). In reality, Chopin suggests, a future severed from our present selves simply cannot be. The future must incorporate the present if it is to be feasible. Only a dialectical relationship between present and future can ultimately fuse into one hybrid self the oppositions that, if kept isolated, threaten destruction.
Not knowing how to incorporate her own past—motherhood—into her construction of a new sort of female self, Edna fabricates through her death the solitary woman. Having told Adele "I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn't give myself," she goes to Grande Isle at the novel's end to undress and stand "naked under the sky" (136). The utopian dress-reform movement provides a context for reading Edna's final divesting. While some utopian reformers advocated wearing flesh-coloured tights and Greek-style draperies …, others simply advocated a free and non-conventional nudity (see: Banner 147-53; Rigel 397). These latter dress reformers, espousing an abrupt shift from constricting corsets to liberating nudity, brandished a violent break between present and future. Edna Pontellier embodies with her death this same sort of divide. All she can do is throw off the worn, pricking garments of the world, for she can find no vestments to clothe solitariness in a world indisputably social. Her new woman, clothed only in the undress of simple cultural negation, gives up the struggle for liberation. No clothes become her.
Edna's rejection, at the novel's end, of all dress and thus all possible female social identities illustrates her inability to reconcile the contradictions elemental to a hybrid construction of womanhood. Edna's limitations, however, are secondary to my point. Kate Chopin clearly recognized the necessity of women's looking beyond dominant, middle-class figurations of womanhood for models of liberated practice. By creating characters that merged the dress and supposed behaviour from a variety of sites, she was able to forward alternative female identities. Her use of stereotyped social class, racial, and lesbian models of female sexuality most certainly encumbers readers' unconditional praise of Chopin's use of hybridization as a means of representing an alternative female subject, and any interpretation must come to grips with the way nineteenth-century "low-others" are integral to the options that Chopin offers in The Awakening. Yet the writer's awareness that social change for women must entail innovative forms that pull from a variety of social contexts is noteworthy. Rather than simply restating commonly accepted forms, Chopin combined in new ways social forms already present within the culture.
In 1896, a writer for Godey's Magazine predicted a revolution in dress, prophesizing a future when women would "wear the garments once considered as the prerogative of our husbands and brothers." She asked with disdain if the woman of the future would be "a hybrid sort of creature" who with her raiment would suggest "both sexes" (Montaigu 435). For Montaigu and for the public at large, dress at the turn into the twentieth century revealed more than mere fashion statements. These contemporaries of Kate Chopin could read with ease subtle cues intoned with gender connotations, and they were adept at scrutinizing each others' dress for signs of taste, character, and respectability. Not surprisingly, modern readers lack specific knowledge about sartorial choices of the period and are thus left to read clothing imagery as simple detail or as satisfying bits of local colour. Yet, when seemingly transparent details of dress are placed solidly within the discursive field of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, the socially significant meanings that contemporaneous readers took for granted emerge. As this reading of Chopin's novel demonstrates, an interdisciplinary approach that melds literary study, fashion history and theory, and social history can open late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century texts by recovering meanings lost as fashions faded. Without a doubt, Kate Chopin represented the changing silhouette of American womanhood.
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