Like Katherine Joslin did with Edith Wharton, Daneen Wardrop ties fashion and academia together in Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing. The Dickinson that is often studied – the one portrayed within her poetry – shows her intellect and her exceptional handle on language. By analyzing often-dismissed aspects of the famous poet like her approach to clothing, Wardrop presents a more down to earth perspective on Dickinson, one that sees her not just as a talented writer but also in many ways a conventional woman living in an antebellum era.
There exist very few images of Dickinson, the best-known being a daguerreotype of her wearing a plain collared dress. Wardrop uses this representation as a starting-off point in answering the very pressing question: was Emily Dickinson fashionable? She then goes on to interpret other roles played by clothing in Dickinson’s life by studying her poetry, letters, general historical context and one famous white dress. Here her research often mirrors itself: Wardrop uses fashion as a tool to further interpret Dickinson’s life and work, then studies Dickinson’s life and work to understand the significance of fashion in this era. An impressive archive of mid-nineteenth century North Eastern fashion, including the labour practices behind textile production, is thus interwoven with biographical facts about Dickinson.
When examining the relationship between dress and class, Wardrop makes no attempt to downplay Dickinson’s own privilege, though she is also able to shed light on some of the views Dickinson did and did not share with others of her time. Wardrop pulls together some of the conclusions with minimal evidence, so that they feel a bit reaching, and I was left wondering whether Wardrop would have come to such consistently positive interpretations were she not already a fan of Dickinson’s poetry. At the very least, she is meticulous in reporting her sources, so readers are able to draw their own conclusions about what is presented, which may or may not coincide with Wardrop’s perspectives.
The fact that this is from a university press should be heeded as a warning: this is a dense, academically-packed read. Although it clocks in at just 200 pages (plus end notes and bibliography), it took me quite some time to finish. At the very least, this kind of text serves as an “in your face” to those who don’t believe fashion can be an intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, it can be a bit taxing at times. Those looking for a lighter read are warned.
Hardcore fans of Emily Dickinson will appreciate this book, as will those who want to better understand the relationship between clothing and American history. Outside of scholarly pursuits, casual fans of Dickinson’s work might want to stick with the poetry itself.
Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing by Daneen Wardrop, University of New Hampshire Press, 2009
Review by Anna Fitzpatrick
Photography by Casie Brown
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