Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Textual Analysis: Henry James


aviators (mall kiosk)
turquoise beaded necklace (Kohl's)
brown cotton jersey dress (Old Navy)
white cami (Old Navy)
brown wedge sandals (Old Navy)
dachshund as accessory (as advocated by Katie)

When Katie and Anne-Marie and I were talking about elements we wanted to incorporate in our blog, I couldn't quite remember when I had begun thinking of dressing and composing as similar acts, but I did remember that we had been talking about the two of these as related since we had become friends.  In the "about" page for our blog, we explain accordingly, "Since we see 'composing an outfit' as an act similar to composing a written text, we've developed the 'style guide' theme to pay homage to the countless style guides, handbooks, and manuals we consult when we write."

Last week I revisited Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, which AM and I read together in our first semester of graduate school, and I came across the passage that I believe first tied these ideas together for me.  It begins with the words of Madame Merle, who is engaged in conversation with Isabel Archer.  (So I'll let James take it from here, rather than trying to paraphrase him.)

'When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account.  By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances.  There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances.  What shall we call our "self"?  Where does it begin? where does it end?  It overflows into everything that belongs to us-- and then it flows back again.  I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear.  I've got a great respect for things!  One's self-- for other people-- is one's expression of one's self; and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps-- these things are all expressive.'
That was very metaphysical; not more so, however, than several observations Madame Merle had already made.  Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of human personality.  'I don't agree with you.  I think just the other way.  I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know nothing else expresses me.  Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one.  Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me; and heaven forbid they should!'
'You dress very well,' Madame Merle lightly interposed.
'Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that.  My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don't express me.  To begin with it's not my own choice that I wear them; they're imposed upon me by society.'
'Should you prefer to go without them?' Madame Merle enquired in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.

Our professor invited us to think of this passage as one in which the clothing metaphorically stands in for writing.  In his reading, Isabel's point of view suggests that what should matter in one's writing is one's ideas, and that those ideas should somehow be genuinely expressible.  Madame Merle's point of view, on the other hand, indicates that others cannot know what one is expressing except by interpreting one's modes of expression-- that, according to our professor, word choice, grammar, structure, etc. are things which carry one's expression to one's audience.  I think this analysis "works" in conjunction with my understanding of James, who I generally think of as a writer deeply invested in the expression of details because he believes the details are fundamentally important to his narratives.

I also think the passage functions very interestingly as simply an analysis of dressing choices, too.  I'm so thankful to have rediscovered this passage, which I believe has had a greater impact on the way I think about dressing myself than I had previously realized.  I tend to agree with Isabel that "expressing myself" would be nice to accomplish without having to employ the use of "things," and I wish it was possible to express myself outside society's impositions.  But I also agree with Mme. Merle that the "self" is not something that is so easy to define, and that "one's self-- for other people-- is one's expression of one's self."  I generally believe that whether we like it or not, we are judged by the way we present ourselves, and so we have a responsibility to make sure that our presentation of self (what she calls the "shell") aligns with what we think of ourselves.  And this does correspond to the act of writing, because I often tell my students that whether they like it or not, they will be judged on their use of language, because it is only through that use of language that their readers will be able to access their ideas.

So what does this outfit express about me?  I hope it indicates that I'm easy-going and approachable but also that I behave with intention and that I pay attention to details.  I think this looks is appropriate for a post on James because it is the detail of the turquoise necklace that brings the whole look together for me.  This detail, in my opinion, turns the outfit from something standard you'd see on an Old Navy mannequin into something that I styled for myself.  (And why the aviators?  Because I just got new contacts after several weeks of wearing glasses only, so I was excited to put on some sunglasses!)

And finally, this is my first look for Sal at Already Pretty's black-out week.  I wear more black than brown, but I like how brown looks better up against my bare skin than black, which creates a stark contrast.  For more info on black-out week, see here, and for a list of other participants, see here!  More on this in my next post!

Work Cited:
James, Henry.  The Portrait of a Lady.  Penguin Classics, 2003.  253.  Google Books.

  • I'd love to hear your responses to the James passage!
  • Do you think the necklace detail is enough to lay claim that this is an expressive outfit?


A-Dubs said...

'Still thinking about the James passage, but love your outfit. And I agree that the necklace brings it all together. Also, your little brown dog is a gorgeous addition to this monochromatic ensemble!

La Historiadora de Moda said...

I'll have to ponder the James passage for a bit. I think that the sandals and sunnies along with the necklace do make this outfit expressive. The cute pooch definitely does!

Brooke said...

I really like this outfit - and I especially love the Oscar-coordination!

Breanne at Bella Vita said...

This is a great outfit! I love exploring the world of neutrals outside of black. Those wedges are wonderful.

And I love the format of your blog. I'm a follower now!

Sal said...

Pets definitely make the best accessories. ;)

Wardrobe Warrioress said...

Great basic dress for summer. Can go with so much, even a cute puppy!

Check out my blog!

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

Sadly, I'm not literary enough to give a thoughtful response on James (especially without understanding the larger context of the piece). Love the dress, doggie, and necklace though. I agree that yo look lovely in brown.