Fashion and Literature

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This blog was originally posted on February 1, 2013.

I’ve written before about linking the material world with literature, because it’s something I’m interested in as a scholar.  But it’s also something that, I think, often helps students delineate time periods of literature.

I’ve used this idea when introducing students to different eras of British literature, especially when one of my course goals is to help students identify differences between those eras.  When I taught a survey of British literature after 1800, I spent time on the first day of each era showing students images of popular women’s fashions.  I simply pull up pictures (thank goodness for Google’s image search!), and together we examine the lines of the dresses and the accessories.

This becomes most effective when we’re  moving from one time period to the next.  For example, when we began the Victorian era, I pulled up a couple of pictures we’d look at for the earlier part of the 19th century (here are some Regency fashions) and then a large number of Victorian-style dresses and men’s fashions.  We were able to make some broad generalizations about some of the changes on mores, as suggested by the changes in styles of dress.  In addition to offering some general fun, the activity engaged the students visually and reminded them that as literature scholars, we can read all sorts of things—hats, vests, corsets, and bustles—as texts.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.