Monday, December 3, 2012

New Directions Proposal: Dressed for Success: The Power of Social Protocols and Appropriate Attire in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

Kera B. Storrs will present "Dressed for Success: The Power of Social Protocols and Appropriate Attire  in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters"

Abstract: Utilizing feminist, new historicist, and cultural studies perspectives, this paper will examine how Victorian women (by adhering to particular mandates of etiquette and dress) could assert feminine agency and establish or maintain a respectable place in society. The mastery of specific social protocols was critical for gaining and maintaining middle class respectability in Victorian England. While Elizabeth Gaskell seamlessly interwove social etiquette and dress culture into all of her work, Wives and Daughters perhaps best illustrates the extent to which these cultural dictates dominated Victorian lives. Gaskell’s work effectively illuminates some of the ways in which Victorian women could regain power within a highly patriarchal society. Participation in particular community activities and the exhibition of proper attire were crucial for social advancement as they constructed and helped maintain both group and individual identities. Gaskell’s novel reinforces what was already poignantly articulated in contemporary ladies’ magazines and etiquette manuals; for, like Cynthia and Mrs. Gibson, many Victorians already firmly believed that adherence to fashion and etiquette dictates could not only increase one’s social status but had the potential to heal or destroy lives. Beyond her commentary on gender ideals in Victorian society, Gaskell uses Wives and Daughters to reveal the deeper implications of dress culture. As this paper will explore, much of the novel subtly revolves around appropriate attire, or lack thereof, and outlines the extent to which fashion and manners could impact romance, create financial difficulties, and preclude social advancement.

Ms. Storrs is a second year graduate student from the History Department at Illinois State. Her area of study is 19th and early 20th century women’s and cultural history, with an emphasis on visual and material culture. Drawing heavily from American and British Victorian publications, her thesis focuses on socio-cultural ideals and feminine agency represented in mid to late 19th century women’s clothing. However, as a cultural historian, Ms. Storrs believes that a wide variety of artifacts may be “read” as text, because they too provide crucial insight into the social, political, racial, economic, class/caste, and gendered aspects of a particular culture’s past (as well as its present condition).

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