Good Clothing In Cultural Texts Essay Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Literature, Body, Education, Monster, Culture, Sociology, Frankenstein, Clothes

Pages: 8

Words: 2200

Published: 2020/12/19


The New York Times once states that Gothic ornaments and costumes reflect “a glamorous cover for the genre’s somber themes. In the world the Goth, naturelurks as a malign protagonist, causing flesh to rot,monuments to crumble and women turn into slatterns, their hair streaming and lipstick askew” (La Ferla, 2005).The word “Gothic” connotes a particular visual image and style that evokes darkness and evil rather than whiteness and purity. This aesthetic is indeed often associated with the literary and cinematic figures of the vampire and the monster, which is ubiquitous in gothic novels such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One of the most important elements of the literary Gothic tradition is its preoccupation with the body and corporeality, whether clothed or naked, living, dead or undead. The Gothic male body, from its literary origins and its tendency towards Romantic fashions to its visual representation in contemporary costume, has become imbued with social and cultural currency. Interestingly, the male body itself in horror narratives is more subject to change than Gothic fashion cycles themselves. In Gothic literature, the body and costume hide a character’s monstrosity so that a character is able to function and be accepted in quotidian social activities. Gothic costume and fashions indeed are dark, exotic and complex, reflecting the somber tropes that thread the genre together.
In cinema, clothing designers often appropriate certain styles of clothing in order to conceal, reveal, or reshape the contour of the cinematic narrative in a litany of ways. Cinema functions as a critical locus that maps out and traces cultural constructs and signifies idiosyncratic practices that undergird and constitute the formation of a vast array of social and cultural identities. Cinema narratives present a semiotic system infused by images and aesthetics in which space reflects notions regarding the imaginary versus the real. These ideas are ultimately subsumed into a much larger and broader political category of representation. Competing conceptions of the self in relation to gender and the sexed body has become a central philosophical issue within the study of gender and sexuality. Gothic films often underscore how fixed identities become inscribed on subjectivities and bodies vis-à-vis a litany of normative regulations that reflect the aim of the hegemonic ideology to fortify and firmly establish a singular, homogenous definition of culture. Applying terms and ideas from literary criticism and the study of fashion elucidates the nature of the Gothic male body as rendered in both literature and film. From a fashion theoretical approach, it is unequivocal that costumes and sartorial patterns used in gothic films influence burgeoning sub-cultures as well as styles donned in the so-called real world. Clothing styles and corporeality in both Gothic literature and films profoundly contribute to the understanding of how gender and sexuality are represented both in public and private spaces within certain cultural contexts.


Warwick and Cavallaro (1998) posit that clothing can be perceived as a “deep surface” cultural phenomenon, or more specifically, “a manifestation of the unconscious” as part and parcel of existence that cannot be suppressed to the inner most depths of an individual’s psyche. Rather, this so-called facet of existence expresses itself vis-à-vis glib activities (Warwick & Cavallaro, 1998: xxii). As such, through an analysis of the superficial discourses and language of dress and sartorial behavior, one can glean provisional observations and thus conclusions about group and individual identities. Indeed, clothing makes up a “sign system” that retains both psychological and cultural importance (Warwick, 1998: xxiii). Thus, material garbs, hairstyles, accessories, and footwear visually articulate meanings that are culturally prescribed and determined regarding the very body they clothe. Moreover, such cultural meanings emitted by outward costume are neither static nor singular. Rather, sartorial choices, as Entwistle and Bourdieu cogently argue, that denote the class an individual belongs to also convey certain ideas regarding his or her sexuality and gender, which can be interpreted on an idiosyncratic fashion depending on the audience that views and assesses them. It is thus unequivocal that the plurality of meanings produced by clothing regarding the body it adorns occupied a critical position in Gothic literature that has not be sufficiently acknowledged and explored. Nonetheless, Warwick and Cavallaro’s theory about costume as a “sign system” in the West can be applied across geographical and temporal contexts.


Gothic literature often focuses on narratives about monstrosity and men and prompt readers to figure out for themselves which category certain characters fit into. Indeed, its nexus with modernism and cultural modernity has emerged as an important topic in recent literary scholarship. Such works analyze the process of categorization through a consideration of central tropes that permeate modern Gothic texts. The process of creation figures prominently in Gothic literature, as monsters are usually the product of a creator who possesses a litany of faults from a societal and cultural perspective. Shelley, Wilde, and Stevenson proffer narratives of duality and representations of horror fomented as a result of epochal anxieties so prevalent during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Dryden, 2003: 118 ). The perceived degeneracy of European manhood during this time period bolsters this perception. Ultimately, Gothic fashion is intrinsically linked with the Gothic novel because of its historical connection to modern consumerism, which burgeoned during the eighteenth century (Spooner, 2004: 1). Fashion discourses that proliferated during the 1860s can be deployed as discursive frameworks that provide new meaning to modern Gothic novels.
The monster within the trajectory of Western literature has indeed emerged as a timeless literary trope that illuminates and critiques latent problems in hegemonic culture and society through the monster's corporeal reality. Mary Shelley's seminal novel Frankenstein has garnered critical praise for its nuanced approach to the contemporary monster narrative and the role of performativity within this paradigm. The human body itself functions as a critical mechanism authors use to construct culture, which a monster narrative facilitates. On a more simplistic level, Frankenstein explores questions regarding the human condition in relation to modern science, the limits and responsibilities of science in the modern world, at nightmares produced by theories proffered by Charles Darwin during this epoch. In this horror tale, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster who later serves as a foil against which the protagonist can be understood as well as the larger social messages Shelley sought to articulate. Victor Frankenstein’s monster conveys an image of humanity as devolving into a beast-like and grotesque form. Shelley's portrayal of the creation and his creator thus represent a trope for larger social and political processes and concerns so prevalent during the nineteenth century. Shelley deploys a variety of literary devices in order to expound on social and political issues that further contribute to the genius of the work as a whole. The ubiquity of racism and sexism unequivocally impacted her narrative and treatment of the grotesque through a vast array of her themes related to education, power, and social acceptance. By comparing and contrasting the protagonist and reclusive scientist Victor Frankenstein with his monster creation, it is clear that Mary Shelley sought to critique the political and social realities of the time period by deploying a master/slave paradigm using Gothic literary traditions associated with monstrosity. Because authors often deploy the figure of the monster in their narratives to construct culture, it is unequivocal through these two corollary characters that Shelly sought to thwart the homogeneity of society by exposing its inconsistencies, gaps, and tensions through corporeal multiplicity as a signifier of social and political disunity.
Both Victor and his creation articulate an fervent desire to procure empirical and rational knowledge as a key mechanism for self-empowerment and mastery. Victor laments about the "days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue" he endured in order to create his creature (Shelley, 1996: 31). Victor time again sought to animate an object without volition by imbuing it with human-like qualities. This desire fomented a thirst for power, as Victor admits: "One secret which I alone possessed was the hope to which I had dedicated myself, and the moon gazed on my midnight labors, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places" (pp. 34-35). The moon appears time and again throughout the novel as a ominous sign that the creature was about to make an appearance and that suffering and despair would ensue. Similarly, the monster also conveys an unwavering desire to procure knowledge through an education and learn French so that he can better approach and interact with humans. The creature's thirst for knowledge can be understood as a manifestation of his desire to free himself from the condition of "a vagabond or a slave" (Shelley, 1996: 145). He does glean some information from his conversations with others such as the De Laceys in which he learned that a "house-nigger" picks up after those he or she is subservient to. Individuals such as Victor's creation that lacked "unsullied descent united with riches" and/or an untarnished reputation were "doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few" (p. 145). Indeed, such sentiments seem to reflect contingent social and political issues in the nineteenth century regarding the education of the subaltern. Knowledge unequivocally buttressed an individual’s power, and within the slave/master relationship the power of the master to withhold the diffusion of knowledge to his slave counterpart retained symbolic currency and is reflected in Frankenstein. Despite the creation's lack of access to an adequate education, he exhibits keen intellect and articulate speech as he absorbs empirical knowledge as a result of what he overhears second-hand in the conversations of others. Thus, observation emerges the only way the creature can educate himself, thereby rendering him an outsider peripheral to his creator. Both Victor and his creation thus depict knowledge as a critical factor for them to become successful in their respective endeavors while also escaping the stark realities of their material and quotidian existences.
Moreover, both characters are insulated themselves from society at-large both voluntarily and involuntarily, which results in their searing loneliness that underscores certain political and social realities. Although Victor Frankenstein has a family and a network of college professors with whom he interacts with, it does not appear that he has forged any close or intimate friendships with anyone. Rather than socialize with those who live on the college's campus, Victor opts to preoccupy himself with making sure that his wonderful creation materializes. Similarly, Victor's creation experiences far more acute sadness and loneliness because he has nobody with whom he has been able to forge a personal relationship with. This disaffection emerges when he finally articulates an acknowledgement of his inferiority when he laments: "I become fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I amI, abhorred myselfI was the slave, not the materI, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked and trampled on" (Shelley, 1996: 243). Abandoned by Victor, his creator, the create transforms from innocently to overtly evil and emerges as a hideous and grotesque monster ostracized by humanity for his vile and unscrupulous appearance. His proclamations at first are tinged rebelliousness, yet it ultimately manifests itself as deep-seated despair that leads to his own demise. The self-education that the creation immerses himself in ultimately foments personal contempt for himself and reinforced his own cognizance of his inferiority. Deep-seated depression associated with the creation's enslaved experience drives him to chafe against the status quo, although he intends to immolate himself by the end The deployment of the theme of slavery in relation to education underscores how education and knowledge empowered both Victor and his creation.
Both Victor and the monster articulate their desire to destroy others, which not only expounds on the themes of nature versus science but also reflects larger political and social issues that marred the nineteenth century. After Victor disposes of the second creature's body, he states: "I felt as if I was about the commission of dreadful crime, and avoided with shuddering anxiety any encounter with my fellow-creatures. At one time the moon, which had before been clear, was suddenly overspread by a thick cloud, and I took advantage of the moment of darkness and cast my basket into the sea; I listened to the gurgling sound as it sunk, and then sailed away from the spot” (Shelley, 1996: 125). Thus, the disposal of the corporeal existence of the second creature mirrors the trope of abortion which the monster had earlier alluded to. This motif touches on the continuous struggle women both within the novel and in nineteenth century western societies encountered during that epoch not only regarding the autonomy over their own bodies but also their status within a society in which the heteronormative paradigm--which casts women in a vital yet inferior position--is firmly embedded. Again, the body functions as a way of constructing culture and society in a way that is contingent on social expectations as well as technology.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, published in 1885, recounts the story about a philosopher and conflicted doctor who risk creating and unleashing the physical embodiment of horror and evil upon both the world and themselves. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde further deploys Gothic imagery, which would have been decried by respectable Western society and would not have been rendered proper. Nonetheless, Stevenson describes Mr. Hyde’s appearance as disgusting, which incited “loathing and fear” in many people including Mr. Utterson, a lawyer, (Stevenson, 2004: 25). As such, Mr. Hyde is viewed as a physical embodiment of latent fears of immorality. The novel further proffers an intriguing window and insight into the highly circumscribed and censored world of the British middle-class by exposing the homosexual subculture that threatened the hegemonic heteronormative paradigm that characterized nineteenth century Victorian gender mores and culture during the nineteenth century. The homosexual threat—perceived as an outward manifestation of male degeneracy that contributed to epochal anxieties about national decline in Britain as well as in other European countries—permeates the novel and manifests itself subtly in Henry Jekyll’s discussion of duality of man. This duality represents the chasm between how Victorians portrayed themselves externally versus what they attempted to subsume, repress, and ignore (Stevenson, 2004: 57). Homosexual behavior could only exist in an inferior world dominated by the degenerate and effeminate working-class, so British society at-large eschewed those "gentlemen" who engaged in such elicit behavior as unworthy and unwanted by their class (Dryden, 2003: 117). Such fears articulate a disdain for working-class masculinities as distinct and inferior to elite constructs while illuminating epochal anxieties that manifested themselves in the corporeality of the monstrous characters themselves.
Moreover, Stevenson describes Mr. Hyde as “troglodytic” and “ape-like,” which insinuates that humanity, like the monster in Frankenstein, will corporeally devolve into an uncivilized and savage form (Stevenson, 2004: 37). Hyde thus embodies a more primitive form of human and a foreboding omen that Dr. Jekyll, a respectable a civilized man according to Western moral cannons, shares the same genetic makeup as this ghastly monster. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde unequivocally convey latent fears that evolution indeed is a mechanistic process that cannot be controlled or governed by humans or science. Fantasy played a significant role in inscribing on the male body certain cultural notions that articulated both disdain and fear of epochal contingencies.


The gothic subculture gradually developed within the context of modernity, which resulted in a nexus forming between Goth cinema with horror and gothic fiction. Scholars and theorists have viewed the “Gothic body” as a “patchwork entity, stitched together from fragments and scraps of discourse” (Spooner, 2004:11). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein evokes this notion of an artificially created being that was given a “piecemeal” identity in order to undermine the hegemonic notion in society at-large that the body was an organic and balanced totality. Indeed, such tropes and characters have pervaded Gothic literature and discourses. Shelley, Spooner points out, never expounds on how Frankenstein’s monster was assembled. Rather, she merely suggests that she inscribed “beautiful” characteristics and features (Shelley, as cited by Spooner, 2004: 11). In cinematic representations of Frankenstein, observers point out that the monster had visual surgical stitches on the body that the audience could clearly see. As such, the monster functions as a symbol for the “body as garment” (p. 11). However, within Shelley’s visual narrative, Frankenstein occupies the role of tailor, while in subsequent spin-offs or versions of “the body-as-patchwork” the monsters rather than their creators are empowered to fashion themselves (p. 11).
In the Academy award-winning film Silence of the Lambs released in 1991, Buffalo Bill, the famous serial killer, adorns himself from the pieces of skin taken from each of his female victims. The coexistence of the idyllic and the Gothic living so close in proximity is underscored in this disturbing film. Indeed, this film explores the dyads of normal and abnormal, evil and good, external and internal, and the personal and the social, with characters suspended into liminality in a way that complicates the Gothic figure as a hybrid of these corollaries (Demme, 1991). In the 1993 animated horror film Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sally Rag Doll proffers a more optimistic and positive version of self-fashioning in her individual transformation, “endlessly unpicking, dismantling, and re-stitching her patchwork body to facilitate her intervention in the narrative” (Spooner, 2004: 11). Such an easily manipulated body that is wholly provisional, ephemeral, and liminal, constituted of pieces of clothes, renders Sally Rag Doll the prototypical Gothic body fashioned by the self by metonymic by nature.


It is unequivocal that modern Gothic literature written towards the end of the nineteenth century deftly and creatively explores the theme of the human body and mind constantly developing, changing, decaying, and corruption as a result of burgeoning theories articulated in various social and scientific discourses that were taking shape during that epoch. Gothic tales thus focused on the human body itself as a locus for cultural meanings and ambiguities. Moreover, Gothic cinema deploys fashions in order to visually articulate and develop central tropes that thread the genre together across various media. Contemporary horror films invoke central tropes within the Gothic genre that explore the manners in which technology stages anxieties so pervasive in modern society have towards a post-human world. Indeed, analyzing technological mechanisms side by side with traditional gothic motifs that permeate Victorian novels articulate certain notions about shifting attitudes towards corporeality, gender, and sexuality.


Primary sources
Demme, J. (1991). The Silence of the Lambs. Orion Pictures. DVD.
La Ferla, R. (30 October 2005). “Embrace the Darkness.” New York Times. Retrieved 2015-03-13.
Sellick, H. (1993). Tim Burton’s The Night Before Christmas. Buena Vista Pictures. DVD.
Shelley, M.W. (1996). Frankenstein. Charlottesville, Va.: U of Virginia Library.
Stevenson, R.L. (2004). Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.
Wilde, O. (1908). The picture of Dorian Gray. Paris: Charles Carrington
Secondary sources
Dryden, L. (2003). The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde, and Wells. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Spooner, C. (2004) ‘Curtain’d in mysteries: an introduction to Gothic fashion’ in
Fashioning Gothic Bodies. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Ugolini, L. (2007). Men and menswear: Sartorial consumption in Britain, 1880-1930. England: Ashgate.
Warwick, A and Cavallero, D. (1998) Fashioning the Frame: Boundaries, Dress and the Body. Oxford: Berg.

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