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‘Ceux sont à vous, peut-être?’: Losing Clothes in Elizabeth Bowen

Farah Nada, University of Exeter

In Elizabeth Bowen’s short story ‘Sunday Evening’ (1923) the following exchange takes place:

[…] ‘They didn’t wear fig leaves till after the Fall.’
‘That must have been nice […] – I mean the no fig-leaves. But inexpressive—’
‘—Yes, inexpressive. I was going to say, rather impersonal.’
‘Oh, come, Gilda, if one’s own skin isn’t personal, what is!’
[…] ‘I don’t think it’s very personal. After all, it’s only the husk of one – unavoidably there. But one’s clothes are part of what one has got to say. Eve was much more herself when she […] had got the fig-leaves on […].’
‘Then do you think covering oneself up is being real?’ […].
‘I don’t know,’ said Gilda Roche. ‘The less of me that’s visible, the more I’m there.’[1]

I begin with this conversation only to show how, in a few casual lines (as is her nature), Bowen privileges the sartorial, associating identity, presence, and subjectivity with the donning of a garment. Indeed, what Gilda Roche seems to be suggesting is that the Fall itself, the gaining of subjectivity, existence, presence (terms Bowen’s story uses interchangeably) necessitates the sartorial. R. S. Koppen, in Virginia Woolf, Fashion and Literary Modernity (2009), argues that

‘[g]arments […] do not exist as separate entities; they are seen on a body, brought into movement and animation by a living corporeality. […] Empty clothes enter into yet another phenomenology, another imaginary register, which is no less an evocation of the interface even though the body is absent.’[2]

In this piece I examine lost or displaced items of clothing in two of Bowen’s short stories, ‘Making Arrangements’ (1926) and ‘Shoes: An International Episode’ (1929), to demonstrate how such garments behave as carriers of their owners’ subjectivities.

In ‘Making Arrangements’ Hewson, whose wife Margery has abandoned him, is angered when she asks him to send over her clothes; in a climactic final scene, however, he ends up destroying them instead. Upon first entering Margery’s evacuated room, Hewson finds it no longer possesses a life-source: the room is ‘very cold,’ its furniture draped in sheets, with ‘bowls and bottles […] project[ing], glacial, through the folds.’[3] Instead, Hewson locates his wife’s ‘essence’ inside her wardrobe – inside the dresses themselves – for they are ‘the expression of the innermost of her.’[4] Initially docile, ‘languishing and passive […] like a corpse,’ one of the dresses comes out ‘into the light of the room, hanging, jagged.’[5] It moves like a marionette, but the hand pulling the strings resides elsewhere, unseen, for as Celia Marshik argues in At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture (2016), ‘the garment […] bears witness’ to Margery’s ‘existence in a remote location.’[6] Marshik calls this the ‘distributed self,’ positing that ‘castoffs acquire something of the original owners’ personality and distribute that personhood, a function that limits subsequent wearers’ ability to own them fully.’[7] Although Marshik is speaking here of second-hand clothing, ‘Making Arrangements’ does offer a sartorial transfer of ownership: Hewson paid for Margery’s garments, and so they are ‘all his, his like the room, and the house.’[8] Margery’s ‘personhood’ thus passes from her corporeal body into numerous sartorial bodies, and Hewson perversely imagines her ‘disembodied ghost […] ‘crying thinly to him for her body, her innumerable lovely bodies.’[9]

Quoting Bill Brown’s A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (2003), Marshik emphasises that ‘when garments become things—when, in Brown’s words, consciousness is “reconceived as something dispersed throughout the material world”—modern literature depicts human subjectivity as diminished.[10] The ‘shuddering’ dresses, now Margery’s sartorial surrogates, come to life as the real Margery, who speaks only in the epistolary form, dies; ‘She has committed suicide,’ Hewson announces out loud.[11] Leaving her garments behind, Margery thus leaves traceable imprints through which her disembodied existence becomes threatened.

            As in ‘Making Arrangements,’ missing brogues in ‘Shoes: An International Episode’ seem also to possess sartorial sentience. Vanishing while Dillie and her husband Edward are on holiday, they are incorrectly replaced by a pair of heels ‘capable solely of an ineffectual, somehow alluring totter’ as though they themselves walked, not their wearer.[12] Unlike dresses, shoes are enablers of movement and, being sentient, could, indeed, take to wandering. Bowen’s language entertains this, and readers may wonder if Dillie’s brogues simply walked away.

            Bowen emphasises the conjugal symbolism attached to ‘two pairs of shoes, waiting outside their hotel room’—‘a formal advertisement to the world of their married state.’[13] Already spatially displaced, the shoes become capable of communicating.[14] The crux of Bowen’s story relies on this displacement, which Ulrich Lehmann refers to in Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (2000) as ‘alienation’ from the ‘acting subject.’[15] For the surrealists whom Lehmann studies, ‘[g]arments, estranged from the bodies on which they were worn, disconnected from their ordinary, “simple” purpose, were foregrounded as strange and surreal signifiers, keepers of secret myths and fantasies.’[16] Perhaps Bowen is already toying with the surrealist practices Keri Walsh traces in her later writings.[17] Foregrounding the ‘estranged’ object, Bowen moves away from the extreme interiority of early modernists towards an interiority mediated through the exterior.[18]

However, mystery remains literal: Edward wonders if the heels ‘belonged to the girl in pleated green organdie,’ if the ‘scarlet straps would compete with the scarlet hat’ from under which she might look at him ‘mysteriously.’[19] He decodes the fragments of ‘personhood’ that have latched themselves onto the heels, reconstructing the ‘distributed self’ of their owner.[20] If second-hand clothing distributes ‘biological facts about the donor’s body,’ so too can lost garments reveal clues about their owners.[21]

Believing for a moment that her shoes have been found, Dillie experiences a ‘feeling of extension, as though she were everywhere, in the wine-bottles, in the waiter […].’[22] This is a uniquely spatial response: regaining her ‘good brogues,’ she can now locate and gather her various distributed selves.[23] Koppen tells us that in conflicts between subject and sartorial object ‘the inorganic encroaches on the organic.’[24] Here, I believe, we witness the reverse: in a moment of reconciliation, it is the organic which asserts itself over the inorganic.

In Modernism, Fashion and Interwar Women Writers (2017), Vike Martina Plock argues that ‘[c]lothes, not literary characters, are responsible for directing the course of Bowen’s plot.’[25] Nowhere is this more literal. Through this ‘animation of the world of everyday objects,’ Bowen suggests that the exterior world of the sartorial can illuminate the interior world of characters not only as a tangible gateway into said characters, but also as a material vessel of their subjectivity.[26]


Sources

[1] Elizabeth Bowen, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. by Hermione Lee (London: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 88.

[2] R. S. Koppen, Virginia Woolf, Fashion and Literary Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 2–3.

[3] Bowen, p. 186.

[4] Bowen, p. 188.

[5] Bowen, pp. 188, 189.

[6] Celia Marshik, At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 169.

[7] Marshik, p. 157, original emphasis.

[8] Bowen, p. 190.

[9] Marshik 157; Bowen, p.190.

[10] Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 188; Marshik 14, original emphasis.

[11] Bowen, pp. 191, 190.

[12] Bowen, p. 265.

[13] Bowen, p. 265.

[14] Koppen, p. 3.

[15] Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 283.

[16] Koppen, p. 3.

[17] Keri Walsh, ‘Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist’, Éire-Ireland, 42. 3&4 (Fall/Winter 2007), 126–147.

[18] Koppen, p. 3.

[19] Bowen, p. 272.

[20] Marshik, p. 165.

[21] Marshik, p. 161.

[22] Bowen, p. 271.

[23] Bowen, p. 273.

[24] Koppen, p. 3.

[25] Vike Martina Plock, Modernism, Fashion and Interwar Women Writers (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), p. 161.

[26] Plock, p. 146.

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