In Modern Terms: Du Maurier’s Rebecca, a Style Icon

Rebecca had it all. She was tall, thin and beautiful, had more money than she could spend, a dream stately home and the respect and admiration of her peers. In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier created a woman who wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Vogue.

The novel’s title character is only present via her clothes and the memories of her contemporaries. The nameless narrator, Mrs de Winter, spends most of the story scared of her husband’s deceased first wife, imagining what she must have been via the clothes she finds in her wardrobe. Rebecca’s ghost is never more present than in her room, which Maximilian de Winter consciously abandons but which his second wife can’t help creeping into. Everything, down to “a satin gown on a chair, and a pair of bedroom slippers beneath” is as Rebecca left it, the house ready to welcome back its mistress. Where Mrs de Winter wears “an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of [her] own creation,” Rebecca’s wardrobe is full of evening gowns in silver, gold brocade and soft, wine-coloured velvet.

When she first arrives at Manderley, fresh, naïve and totally unprepared for its grandeurs, Mrs de Winter is reduced to using Rebecca’s mackintosh for her first walk with Maximilian, a walk that, unbeknown to her, takes her to the place where Rebecca was murdered. It is “too big and too long,” just like the shoes she has to fill.

When Mrs De Winter decides to throw a ball at Manderley, she, on Rebecca’s housekeeper Mrs Danver’s suggestion, chooses to wear a white dress inspired by a family portrait hung in one of the house galleries. When she walks down the staircase, dressed in the same gown Rebecca wore to her last ball, Manderley and its ghost close down on her. It’s the wedding dress Du Maurier never described, the shroud we can only imagine. The dress is a materialised ghost, the ghost of Rebecca, elected queen of Manderley.

For Maximilian, keeping the memory of Rebecca away means keeping his bride in a child-like state, forbidding her to grow up because “it would not suit her.” From their first meetings, Maximilian lets her know that if she were “a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls,” someone resembling Rebecca, he would have no interest in her. The opposition between the over-sexualised Rebecca, who had a husband and lovers and was quite likely bisexual and the very shy narrator is clear in the latter’s choice of undergarment. Mrs de Winter, a young woman in her early twenties, has child-like lingerie, in “plain material with a small edge of lace.” Her demeanour is as reassuring and wallpaper-like as Rebecca’s was threatening, her youth and inexperience constantly reaffirmed by her behaviour, her clothes and her choices. Maximilian’s first wife was a woman who went to the altar with her own fault, tastes and ideas, his second wife is a child for Maximilian to mould to the life he offers.

- Lucie Goulet

One thought on “In Modern Terms: Du Maurier’s Rebecca, a Style Icon

  1. This is one of my favorite classics from that selection you are given in high school. Have you watched the movie? Is it disappointing compared to the book?

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