Saturday, March 27, 2010

Textual Analysis: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and Judie Newman (Editor). Dred. Edinburgh Univ Pr, 1992. Print.  Google Books

At the beginning of Dred, we're introduced to a young female protagonist named Nina.  She has inherited her family's southern plantation, but both of her parents died when she was young, so her guardian is her Aunt Nesbit.  Early in the novel, Aunt Nesbit tells Nina that her tendency to wear flowers "only feeds vanity and a love of display."  Nina responds:
"I don't think it's vanity, or a love of display.  I should want to dress prettily, if I were the only person in the world.  I love pretty things because they are pretty.  I like to wear them because they make me look pretty." (77)

As I read this passage, I couldn't help but think about the project we're undertaking here at Scholar Style Guide.  Aunt Nesbit voices what I believe is the main criticism made against women interested in fashion and style-- our critics are likely to suggest that we're vain or self-indulgent.  Nina's response interested me because she begins with an idea I can get behind, suggesting she would dress the way she does if she were all alone in the world.  In the final sentence of her response, though, she makes a shift toward vanity in suggesting that she wants to wear pretty things so that she'll look pretty.  This made me question whether Nina is really dressing "pretty" for herself or if she just thinks she is.  (She's otherwise represented as young, inexperienced, and always learning about the 'realities' of life in the South.)

As I make the daily choice about how I want to style myself, I feel like I'm always balancing dual motivations: I want to wear what makes me feel good and confident, and I also want to communicate myself to others as someone who is professional and competent.  Some days, I dress entirely for myself without worrying about what image I'm projecting at all.  In some circumstances, like job interviews or conference presentations, there is pressure to choose a look that caters more explicitly to the expectations of others.  I'd like to believe that dressing for myself is not vanity.  And while I'm conscious of the judgments people will make about my attire, and I consider those judgments when styling myself, I feel like this is different from simply dressing to "please" or "impress" others.  I'm curious about how those of you who are also scholars interested in style feel about juggling these two motivations.

  • What was your reaction to Nina's answer to her aunt's criticism?
  • In what ways is dressing to please ourselves different from vanity?  Is it possible to take pride in the way you've styled yourself without projecting vanity?
  • In what ways is dressing with an awareness of the judgments people make about us different from dressing to please others?
  • How do you juggle the dual motivations of dressing to please yourself and dressing to project an appropriate image of yourself?



Scholar Style Guide said...

I've been thinking about these questions I raised to myself (ha!) and I think the model we've chosen, of sartorial look-as-composition, actually helps me to answer these questions.

When I'm writing a written text, I am always conscious of presenting my message to my intended audience, but catering to a specific audience never feels like "writing to impress others." It feels like writing in a way that will maximize my ability to express my meaning to that particular audience. So maybe "dressing with intention" is a lot like that.

And if I had no audience at all, I would still write, but I would write differently. So maybe on days when I'm only dressing for myself, it is akin to writing a journal entry or something for which I am my own audience.

I'm still not sure about Nina, though. Her use of the term "pretty" is problematic. I'm not sure anyone wants to be "pretty" solely for themselves.