The Fashionable Lack of Nourishment in Jean Rhys’ The Left Bank Short Stories.

2nd October 2020

Jennifer Cameron, University of Hertfordshire

Jean Rhys is not an author who immediately springs to mind when discussing food – alcohol maybe, but not food. However, her protagonists are often portrayed as lacking in food and this is a key factor in Rhys’ depiction of the fashionable, ‘chic’ modern woman. The 1920s were a period of significant technological and social change and in such a fast-paced, visual culture the concept of being fashionable and ‘of the moment’ was highly desirable. Fashion evolved as rapidly as society itself with a new sporty, modern silhouette which was slim-hipped, flat-chested and androgynous, and to achieve this fashionable shape without a corset, a culture of dieting arose. The 1920s saw the birth of many new diet and exercise regimes; the American Tobacco Company ran a campaign for its cigarettes, Lucky Strikes, suggesting ‘Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet’; and Dr Lulu Hunt Peters’ diet book, Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories (1918)was a bestselling success with over two million copies sold by 1939 in more than fifty-five editions.[1] [2]

Rhys documents this fashionable lack of food in several of her The Left Bank (1927) short stories. In ‘Mannequin,’ Anna, a new mannequin at a fashion house while walking to lunch has to ‘brace herself for the ordeal’ and can ‘smell the food – almost visible, it was so cloud-like and heavy’, but is never depicted actually eating it.[3] She sits ‘at the mannequins’ table, gazing at a thick and hideous white china plate, a twisted tin fork, a wooden-handled stained knife, a tumbler so thick it seemed unbreakable’.[4] Her disgust at these implements and the eating experience in general is shown through the unattractive, soiled and damaged cutlery and crockery, in addition to the oppressive smell of the food. This eating experience is contrasted with the ‘atmosphere of slimness and beauty’ of the fashion mannequins and made to appear crude and unpleasant.[5] The mannequins not currently eating are described as ‘goddess-like’ suggesting that they are above the others who are currently performing the human necessity of eating.[6] This idea is echoed in ‘Hunger’ when the protagonist explains that on the fifth day without food ‘you are calm and god-like’.[7] In ‘Hunger’ the lack of food is described as having its compensations and the assumption is that this compensation is to be ‘god-like’ and thin. Furthermore, in ‘Mannequin’, Eliane, the mannequin whose hips ‘were extraordinarily slim’, is the highest paid mannequin and the ‘star of the collection’.[8] Rhys’ protagonists are rewarded for their thinness which is a direct result of not eating and links this state with being fashionable. In fact, the most we see the mannequins consuming is coffee and cigarettes at the lunch table. 

            To be slender is not simply depicted by Rhys as a fashionable ideal, she further demonstrates the connection between fashionable thinness and social status. Veblen, an American economist and sociologist, in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1889) was the first to consider the links between socio-economic status and a woman’s body shape. He describes how the ‘high-class wife’ and her perceived life of leisure result in an ideal of beauty which ‘takes cognizance chiefly of the face, and dwells on its delicacy, and on the delicacy of the hands and feet, the slender figure, and especially the slender waist’.[9] Rhys affirms this ideal of feminine beauty and related social class in ‘Discourse of a Lady Standing a Dinner to a Down-and-Out Friend’. Here the lady’s friend is well-dressed, attractive and apparently unable to afford to eat. Once again, although the friend is described as starving, there is a lack of food at the meal and the only plate Rhys puts before her is a bowl of soup. The friend’s appearance is extremely important and everything about it indicates she is of a higher social standing than her current financial status indicates, or at least that she wishes to appear so. She ‘has not forgotten to rouge her lips’ and is wearing ‘silk stockings and quite expensive shoes’.[10] Additionally, not only are her clothes fashionable but her body is too; the lady notes that ‘she does look a bit thin’.[11] Rhys encourages the reader to see the friend as a high-class woman down on her luck not simply because she is described as a ‘Lady’sfriend but because her clothes and body shape are appropriate for a high-class woman. Furthermore, Rhys questions whether her lack of food is inevitable or a choice given her attractive appearance and interest from men. In contrast, the family dining in ‘Trio’ are ‘in the little restaurant, eating with gusto and noise after the manner of simple-hearted people’.[12] The woman of this working-class party is described as ‘fat’, she makes ‘no pretension to fashion’ and ‘[h]er bodice and skirt gaped apart’.[13] The social status of this woman is not simply emphasised though her unfashionable dress but is exemplified by the way she eats and the shape of her body. In accordance with Joanne Entwistle’s assertion that the body is intrinsically linked to the clothes which adorn it,[14] Rhys illustrates that to be fashionable is not only a style of dress but also a shape of body and both are closely tied to social status. 


Sources

[1] Louise Foxcroft, Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2000 years (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2013), p.114 and p. 129. 

[2] Dr Peters book is available to read on Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15069/15069-h/15069-h.htm . There is surprisingly little change in diet advice today and it is also a highly amusing read.

[3] Jean Rhys, The Collected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2017), p. 22.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 21.

[6] Ibid., p. 22.

[7] Ibid., p. 41.

[8] Ibid., pp. 22-23.

[9] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2009), p. 98.

[10] Rhys, p. 43.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 32.

[13] Ibid., p. 32.

[14] Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body. Fashion, Dress & Modern Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), pp. 6-7.

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