Clothes/transformations

I must go out and buy a hat this afternoon, I think, and tomorrow a dress. I must get on with the transformation act.

Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight

I am walking through central London thinking about clothes. The territory of the flâneuse, stopping to look at the window displays and the passers-by; catching a glimpse of reflections, the light and the shadow. Clothes in Rhys are connected to her use of literary devices such as reflections, mirrors and doubles (more on this later), to her interest in subjectivity and existential uncertainty, and to status and political positioning. Encoded within Rhys’s city novels are the subtle linkages of economy and sexual encounters, as well as contemporary anxiety around women in public spaces. London’s streets reflect a history of the growth of shops and department stores, and other public spaces designed with women in mind. These were built on a large scale with enticing window displays, and an array of clothing aimed at female shoppers. It is possible to walk around and trace this history through the architecture of the city, and looking upwards reveals that many of these buildings are still present, while certain streets and areas are synonymous with shopping and fashion.

Fashion stands in opposition to the organic. It couples the living body to the inorganic world.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

When I thought about my clothes I was too sad to cry. […] As if it isn’t enough that you want to be beautiful, that you want to have pretty clothes, that you want it like hell. As if that isn’t enough. But no, it’s jaw, jaw and sneer, sneer all the time. And the shop-windows sneering and smiling in your face. And then you look back at the skirt of your costume, all crumpled at the back. And your hideous underclothes. You look at your hideous underclothes and you think, ‘All right, I’ll do anything for good clothes. Anything – anything for clothes.’

Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Rhys heroines are often thinking about clothes, and about buying new clothes. In her autobiography, Rhys recalls this longing for clothes during her time in London; and how the clothes she had were often badly fitting and unfashionable. The significance of economic and social status recurs throughout Voyage in the Dark and is measured through clothes; with one character wryly remarking that often the clothes are worth more than the girl wearing them. At the start of the novel, Anna is ‘anxiously’ choosing some stockings, and when she receives some money the first thing she does is go out and spend it on clothes – a dress, shoes, underclothes. Clothes also connect to the fatalism of Anna and other Rhys heroines.

This is a beginning. Out of this warm room that smells of fur I’ll go to all the lovely places I’ve ever dreamt of. This is the beginning.

Anna goes to Cohen’s in Shaftesbury Avenue, a place she remembers going to with her friend from the chorus, where she tries on the dress in the window. While I haven’t yet found reference to Cohen’s in my research, I walk along Shaftesbury Avenue which borders Soho, running between Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly, and is known for its historic theatres and restaurants such as the Café Monico and the Trocadero.

I said, ‘Yes, I like this. I’ll keep it on.’ But my face in the glass looked small and frightened.The streets looked different that day, just as a reflection in the looking-glass is different from the real thing.

I’ve always thought there was something radical and resistant running through Voyage and Rhys’s portrayal of Anna. Her passivity and seeming acquiescence to her fate can appear frustrating but can also be seen as part of her alterity. She resists, but not on the surface; her narrative of refusal is never spoken out loud. Some of this positioning, which I see as part of Rhys’s politics and her identification with the margins, is expressed in Anna’s thoughts about clothes and money. For behind every expensive dress and shop window is the exploited labour of a shop assistant or dressmaker, and I think this awareness is present throughout Jean Rhys’s fiction.

I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.

[…]

And then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s all right. I’m poor and my clothes are cheap and perhaps it will always be like this. And that’s all right too.’ It was the first time in my life I’d thought that.

I walked along Oxford Street, thinking about my room in Camden Town and that I didn’t want to go back to it. There was a black velvet dress in a shop-window, with the skirt slit up so that you could see the light stocking. A girl could look lovely in that, like a doll or a flower.

[…]

The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop windows, but when they stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed on the future. ‘If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different.’ Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too.

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