Great Dresses In Literature (an occasional series)

Although her dress, her coiffure, and all the preparations for the ball had cost Kitty great trouble and consideration, at this moment she walked into the ballroom in her elaborate tulle dress over a pink slip as easily and simply as though all the rosettes and lace, all the minute details of her attire, had not cost her or her family a moment's attention, as though she had been born in that tulle and lace, with her hair done up high on her head, and a rose and two leaves on the top of it.

(from Anna Karenina)

This is one of my favorite passages in the book so far. (I'm not reading the ; I'm reading it in discrete chunks from , which is a tremendous boon to mankind: get books through your email and look like you're working!)

as though she had been born in that tulle and lace: this, to me, is the ideal of clothes. Your clothes, no matter what trouble you took with them beforehand, should in the moment of wearing appear as natural to you as your birthday suit. They should be part of you, not something slapped on as an afterthought. In fact, what you wear should look so much like YOU that if someone else put it on, it would look like a YOU costume.

Of course, I'm a little farther ahead in the book at this point and I realize that being perfectly dressed didn't really help Kitty at that ball. So I'm not saying that if you manage to perfectly integrate your inside and your outside that you will lead a charmed life; I'm just saying you won't be tugging at and uncomfortable in and much too conscious of your clothes. And every little bit helps.

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0 thoughts on “Great Dresses In Literature (an occasional series)

  1. Wow! Wonderful post. Absolutely. (Not, of course, that I didn’t love Shinta’s delectable dress, which I have been dreaming about since and which moved me about as much as this passage, but I didn’t feel as compelled to state the obvious as I do this time.) I had forgotten the swoon that Literature (capital “L” intended) gives me. I’ve been reading so much nonfiction for the past two or three years, but I now feel the desire to pick up a good novel. I guess I’d better subscribe to Daily Lit. As always, thank you ever so much for blogging and existing and providing the hot tips.

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  2. I couldn’t do it. I read half of Anna Karenina and got overwhelmed by the depressing Anna – full well knowing the ending (some people are movie spoilers, I know a few lit spoilers). I didn’t want to *waste* my time, as I had read half of that big book, but I couldn’t go on. At least I haven’t spent the last ten years wondering how it ended.

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  3. Deja vu moment there … I just listened to that exact section on my Anna Karinina audio book during the commute this morning! While it played I kept thinking, “I need to find a book of illustrations of late 19th century Russian fashions to help visualize.”

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  4. Laura – I’ve met those lit spoilers myself, although it doesn’t bother me as much in books as it does in movies. Somehow the journey is more significant to me in a book, so that last tidbit doesn’t bother me as much. But it still bothers me. :/

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  5. I loved Anna Karenina, which I read summer before last. It was depressing, knowing how it would end, though. Poor Kitty at the ball. But it was all for the best.

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  6. I really love when books include details of clothing and food! I did like Anna Karenina when I read it in high school. I even memorized a quote which shows my romantic frame of mind at the time:”He came down, trying not to look long at her as though she were the sun, but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking.”That was Anna’s lover the first time he saw her at an ice skating event (um, I think my memory serves me with the event).

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  7. oh!! I just finished Anna Karenina a week and a half ago, after it’s been on my list to-read for a few years, and someone had spoiled the ending for me, too. Someone in my TEXTBOOK trying to illustrate fore-shadowing. I was so mad. But the journey is so worth it. And I remembered that particular paragraph as soon as I read the first couple words. Yay!!-katana

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  8. I love this scene at the ball–it has always seemed wonderful to me that something as remote and foreign as the Russian marriage market, with the rules of decorum and behavior, can be as familiar as the Senior Prom. The chapter opens with Kitty’s dress, but upon first meeting Anna at the dance, this is Kitty’s impression: Anna was not in lilac, as Kitty had so urgently wished, but in a black, low-cut, velvet gown, showing her full throat and shoulders, that looked as though carved in old ivory, and her rounded arms, with tiny, slender wrists. The whole gown was trimmed with Venetial guipure. On her head, among her black hair–her own, with no false additions–was a little wreath of pansies, and a bouquet of the same in the black ribbon of her sash among white lace. Her coiffure was not striking. All that was noticeable was the little willful tendrils of her curly hair that would always break free about her neck and temples. Round her well-cut, strong neck was a thread of pearls . . . now seeing her in black, she [Kitty] felt that she had not fully seen her charm. She saw her now as someone quite new and surprising to her. Now she understood that Anna could not have been in lilac, and that her charm was just that she always stood out against her attire, that her dress could never be noticeable on her. And her black dress, with its sumptuous lace, was not noticeable on her; it was only the frame, and all that was seen was she–simple natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and eager. The contrast is lovely–young, 18 year old Kitty in her pink tulle, set off by older Anna in the black velvet. Kitty feels the dress is simply part of her, only to see Anna as separate from her dress, and yet in both cases, the choice of attire helps to define and foreshadow the characters and the choices they will make later in the novel.

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  9. Oh, please don’t knock this wonderful new translation of AK so hard simply because Oprah selected it for her book club! I think Pevear and Volokhonsky did a beautiful service to Tolstoy with their efforts.Great blog, by the way! I don’t (yet) sew a stitch, but I am always entertained when I drop by to visit!

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  10. In fact, what you wear should look so much like YOU that if someone else put it on, it would look like a YOU costume. Yes, exactly. That’s one of my core philosophies when it comes to clothing.

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  11. I remember reading somebody’s turn-of-the-century praise of Grover Cleveland’s wife, a legendary beauty — she never once glanced in a mirror, touched her hair, or adjusted her clothing all evening; she seemed supremely unaware of her appearance.I always took that story as an example of why I’ll never be a Great Lady.

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  12. I LURVE daily lit. So far I have read Vanity Fair and am about to finish Moby Dick. For some reason I could never make it through Moby Dick in paper, but bit by daily bit I’ll have finally read the darn thing.

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  13. Hmm, I need to read that. And I really, really hope that one day I will figure out how to dress in a way that really looks like ME!

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  14. “what you wear should look so much like YOU that if someone else put it on, it would look like a YOU costume. “Yep. Who here hasn’t felt like a clone clown wearing a bridesmaid dress. LOL

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  15. Oh Jonquil, I’m in your camp, right down to the clumsy hiking boots with the too-long laces! Like theanchorbend, I so appreciate a writer’s use of clothing, or a character’s attitude toward her clothes, as a way to delineate character and drive plot; the latter in a subtle way. Laurie King, in her Russell-Holmes series, does this in “A Monstrous Regiment of Women” when her protagonist attains her majority, her inheritance, and a bespoke wardrobe made by prestigiuos, in-demand, dressmakers/tailors, who happen to be distant relatives and Jewish. I think I could have written a paper on it when all my Intro. to Costuming class required was a short oral report describing and explaining the rationale for the garment we designed for a character in a novel. I have to restrain myself now, because I find it so layered and fascinating. Love this whole post(thank you, thank you, thank you Erin!) and all the wonderful comments. Can we all meet for tea tomorrow?

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  16. Your blog is the coolest! I appreciate your nod to Daily Lit and want to catch up on classics. But I promise to keep reading you at work during each afternoon break.

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  17. a YOU costume! I LOVE that! I totally agree and I’ve been walking around in an imposter clothes for far too long. I’ve neglected my own sewing skills in favor of cheaper quicker, etc. Your phrase has inspired me to get back to my sewing area!

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  18. anna karenina is my most favorite book ever. please read it even if you already know what happens- anna is actually my least favorite part of the story. there is so much more to this book!

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  19. There was a dear old lady who attended the same church I did. She and her husband dressed very carefully and colorfully in matching or complementary clothes; if her dress was mostly purple, he wore a purple jacket, and sometimes a matching, homemade tie. They looked as if they shared a hair dye bottle as well. One Sunday morning, she complimented me on my dress, then said as she patted my hand, “I know looks aren’t everything, but they do help, don’t they?” I treasure her compliment, and the truth she confided.

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  20. I just “read” Anna Karenina. I put read in quotes because I actually listened to it on CD’s.Audio books really fit my lifestyle because I never seem to have time to sit down with a book. But I can listen to a audio book while I’m driving, doing housework, walking the dog etc.My library has a great collection and even has some that can be downloaded from a website and burned to CD’s.Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was another recent good listen. I enjoyed some awesome apparel descrption passages in that one too.

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  21. Had to laugh at this one— when my daughter was in high school I had her read “Jane Eyre”. (We homeschool.) A couple of days into it I asked if she was enjoying it. I got no response. I asked “Is it that bad?” and she said, “Noooo—I kind of like the story but right now… FIFTY ZILLION PAGES about a dress she is wearing! I swear, Mom, page after page after page about one dress! It’s kicking me in the head!” Frankly, I didn’t see the problem.

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  22. Some of the fabrics they mention in those old literary works leave me puzzled.Invariably someone wears a “stuff gown” or one made from bombazine.I wonder: is there is a modern equivalent fabric for stuff and bombazine?

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  23. Too true! Slaves to fashion tend to look it, and you can’t go anywhere without running into wannabes. This post is a great reminder… I want to look like ME! Well, more specifically, a really good-looking version of myself. :c)

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  24. In my disjointed method of thinking, this reminds me of a M*A*S*H episode.The entire camp is sharing a book that has been broken down into pages and passed around. Everyone is looking forward to the next few pages. The book becomes more important because of the “installment plan.” It also unifies the unit.What an amazing way to read a book. Thank you, Miss Erin.-Janet

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  25. When my husband was in college he once borrowed a distinctive T-shirt with a large target on it from his roommate. Walking down the street, whenever he saw his own reflection out of the corner of his eye, he’d turn around because he thought his roommate was there. There’s an example of someone else wearing a YOU costume.

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  26. Invariably someone wears a “stuff gown” or one made from bombazine.I wonder: is there is a modern equivalent fabric for stuff and bombazine?IIRC, “stuff” gowns are usually day dresses (Georgian England is coming to mind for some reason). So stuff is probably a light to medium weight plain weave fabric, not sheer. Cotton, linen or a light wool would be reasonable fibers. If I’m right on Georgian, it’s probably wool unless the character is fairly wealthy or it’s the middle of summer. I’d tend to guess “stuff” is a bit like Emily Post’s “cloth”. If you asked the person “well what’s stuff?” they’d be a bit bewildered, because it’s just plain old stuff. It’s the ordinary fabric that everyone has and uses for every day clothes. Bombazine is a dull faced black fabric. I’d tend to guess “wool” for fiber. Probably light to medium weight, I have no notion on likely weave structure. Since it’s for Victorian mourning clothes, and you don’t see it mentioned much aside from then, I’d expect it to be fairly sturdy. Such clothes would see heavy wear for 6 months to 3 years, and then be put aside.

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  27. I would have loved to have worn the wedding gown that Jane Eyre worn before she found out about Rochester’s wife.But anyway … Do you think I am too young to be modeling?Thanks!maddiwww.maddison-model.com

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  28. Thank you for pointing me to Daily Lit. Tackling the classics doesn’t seem so daunting if it is done in bite-sized chunks :-).

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  29. Emily gets “A” for effort. “Stuff” is actually a shortened form of speech for “woolen stuff;” so, somebody wearing a stuff gown is wearing a (good quality) sturdy (not light!) woolen gown (more likely to be a worsted than a woolen, although, in theory, even wool brocades could fall under this definition). This makes one flinch at a couple of recent biographies of Dolley Madison, who has been described in letters as wearing stuff gowns in the morning; the authors, in an effort to add life and colour to their writing, put Mrs. Madison in a stuff gown the day the British attacked the White House – that is, a wool gown in August – just before a formal dinner. Bombazine is also a fabric which is older than the 19th century; it can be traced back to Elizabeth I, certainly, and it was originally a silk-and-wool blend, with a silk warp and a worsted weft, with a corded surface. By the 19thC, a number of fibers were being blended to produce “Bombazine” – wool and silk, wool and cotton, cotton and silk. Florence Montgomery has a very useful dictionary of fabric which is being reprinted this year. It’s worth buying, as the older editions are selling for over $300. And “cloth,” unless otherwise defined, is “woolen cloth;” it is shortspeak for broadcloth, which was, of course, made of wool.

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  30. I had been wondering when you would post this passage… I’m madly in love with this book, and very much love the ball scene, particularly the depiction of Anna. Kitty’s dress is pure joy, but the contrast, and the simple wonder of Anna’s dress… that’s marvellous.While we’re on Tolstoy (I’m a Russian lit major… apologies for the geekiness), there’re some rather glorious dresses in War and Peace as well… one of the best parts of Tolstoy are the wonderful little gossipy details that he puts in to every social event. Love him!

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