Lauren Cardon’s Fashioning Character: Reading Between the Seams 

By Pete Beatty

Tuscaloosa briefly became a global fashion center in the summer of 2021 – at least on TikTok. Viral videos of aspiring sorority members grabbed millions of views as they explained the rush process, their house visits, and perhaps most importantly, their Outfits of The Day. While #BamaRush was not strictly an academic undertaking, it functioned as a real-time sociology experiment, capturing young people starting a new life stage, and fashioning new and different iterations of themselves – complete with tips on how to shop their looks.

But if you ask Lauren Cardon, Associate Professor of English, all those OOTDs were ample evidence for the ideas in her recently published book Fashioning Character: Style, Performance, and Identity (published by University of Virginia Press)—a rich, riveting exploration of how clothes help construct and remake self-image in late 20th-century and contemporary literature.

Fashioning Character is Cardon’s third book, and her second monograph exploring the intersection of fashion and literature. In five chapters, she charts how American writers (including Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac and many others) use fashion to weave identity – creating, tailoring and disguising selves, crossing borders, and asserting belonging in a host of ways. Cardon argues that identity is an elusive, evolving concept, and shows how clothing facilitates that malleability. I had a chance to talk with Cardon about her newest book, the line between appreciation and appropriation, fashion in the classroom and around campus, and her next project.

In your previous book Fashion and Fiction, you argue that fashion transcends consumer-good status and becomes a means for social mobility – characters use clothing to join in-groups, to assume a new identity (or attempt to pass), and generally to create or revise selfhoods. Fashioning Character continues in that vein, but also grapples with fashion as a performance, or part of a larger, fluid self-understanding. Was this second book on fashion an outgrowth of the first, or did they have different origins?

Initially Fashion and Fiction and Fashioning Character were one book. But early in the research process, I realized that it needed to be two books. First, there was just too much material (no pun intended) for a twentieth-century book on fashion in literature. But secondly, the fashion industry went through an enormous shift just after World War II, due to a range of factors I outline early in the second book. I think authors use fashion in very different ways in these later texts. More broadly, when I look at those earlier novels, I see characters attempting to fit in; in these later novels, I see characters attempting to find themselves.

Your subject matter in Fashioning Character ranges from The Bell Jar to the Hunger Games books, with chapters on transgender memoir, the Black Arts Movement, Native American novels, and plenty of other detours. Is fashion especially central in the work you critique, or are these just representative examples of its symbolic power? How did you find your way to this set of texts?

I believe fashion is central to these works. That’s what drew me to the project in the first place. Why does Sylvia Plath describe Esther’s clothes in so many scenes of The Bell Jar? She describes clothes in her journal entries as well. Why does she always describe what she’s wearing? The reunion scene at the beginning of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” focuses on what Dee is wearing and how she has styled her hair. Why focus so much on clothes and hair?

Initially, when I was drafting Fashion and Fiction, I already had a selection of texts in mind––books in which fashion was clearly central to the plot (like The House of Mirth, The Great Gatsby, and Sister Carrie). Once the argument for the Fashioning Character crystallized, I saw the need to find additional texts. For example, I had already read The Extra Man, one of the novels discussed in the transgender literatures chapter. This is a novel (one I happen to really love) written by a cisgender man about a man uncertain of both his sexual and his gender identity, and he never really settles on either. I wanted a range of representation in this chapter; however, and given how much discourse has been devoted to distinguishing transgender identity from cross-dressing (which have been conflated in problematic ways in the past), I wanted to be very cautious about the role of clothing and fashion in transgender literatures. I probably read 15–20 transgender memoirs and novels to arrive at the ones I ultimately selected as key texts for the chapter.

In the conclusion to Fashioning Character, you discuss the steep climate costs of “fast fashion,” reconnecting with fashion in its most material sense as a labor- and resource-hungry consumer good. But you also write eloquently about how choice in fashion conveys the potential to choose “personhood, exposure, self-acceptance, openness, the future—and the ability to create that future.” Do you see contemporary writers reckoning with how to balance the environmental impact of mass-market fashion with the vital cultural power of style?\

Most writers tend to separate the two, which is understandable, but I think both earlier and contemporary writers occasionally address both. It can be overwhelming to think about the holistic impacts of the fashion industry. I tend to have positive associations with words like “personal style” and with “fashion design,” which tend to involve individual expression. On the other hand, terms like “fashion industry” and “beauty industry” have more pejorative connotations––from establishing unrealistic and damaging beauty standards to perpetuating exploitative labor conditions to causing devastating ecological impacts. Despite the range of connotations for these different elements of the industry, some writers attempt to address their manifold impacts, even if they can’t do so fully. Theodore Dreiser, for example, in Sister Carrie, conveys how Carrie’s sense of taste and style allows her to better her own circumstances, but early in the novel she is a victim of the garment industry’s exploitative labor practices. Margaret Atwood conveys the expressive potential of fashion in The Handmaid’s Tale (where women are now denied access to fashion), but also the wastefulness and economic impact of such waste in Oryx and Crake. I don’t think there’s an obligation for contemporary writers to address both. Sometimes clothing merely helps with character development; sometimes it conveys a bigger-picture message.

You examine how “outsider” styles or antifashion often catches on in surprising places (working-class tees and jeans adopted by the Beats, leather jackets and hypermasculine styles adopted by queer and transgender characters), but also how the adoption of another group’s fashion can turn into appropriation or misappropriation (in the case of the infamous Coachella headdress). Where does homage or borrowing turn into appropriation, in your opinion?

The short answer is that American fashion is appropriation. It’s hard to get away from appropriating (or to use the industry’s term, “drawing inspiration from”) other cultures. But there are definitely more egregious instances, so I’ll try to delineate those here by example.

One common critique is when large corporations profit from an appropriated motif or item from a historically marginalized group and in doing so, essentially take money away from designers from the margins who need profits and visibility. As an example, if I travel to a Taos Pueblo and purchase a pair of turquoise and silver earrings from a member of that pueblo, other people may look at me and criticize me for wearing earrings that I have no cultural “claim” to, but in reality, such purchases help to support the livelihood of an indigenous designer. However, if Urban Outfitters designs some mass-produced, cheap earrings that look vaguely like the kind you might see at a Taos Pueblo (which often happens), that becomes more of a problem. And if a non-indigenous designer on Etsy copies those same indigenous-made earrings and claims they are “Indian,” they are in violation of the 1990s Indian Arts & Crafts Act (essentially a “truth in advertising” act).

Misappropriation is another issue. In the book I give the examples of Jeremy Scott for Adidas making a line of totem pole-inspired outfits (which were the subject of Jessica Metcalfe’s blog post), as well as the Coachella headdresses. Mainstream popular culture has a dark history of misrepresenting historically marginalized groups to repackage such cultures in a way that meets the entertainment standards of a white audience. This happened with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s (when Black performers and artists were encouraged to exoticize their work by their white patrons) and in representations of American Indians in Hollywood. So when we take something that has a particular meaning (especially a sacred meaning) from one of these historically marginalized groups, appropriate it for some commercial purpose, and do the additional injustice of misrepresenting the culture associated with it, that’s an especially egregious example of culture misappropriation.

What were some of the crucial/revelatory works of scholarship that informed the writing of Fashioning Character?

Diana Crane’s Fashion and Its Social Agendas, Jennifer Craik’s The Face of Fashion, and Fred Davis’s Fashion, Culture, and Identity were some of the most influential. Tanisha Ford’s work on African American women’s fashion was essential to my chapter on Afrocentric style. Sue Thomas’s Fashion Ethics was critical for developing my conclusion on informed consumerism. In my revisions of the book, I looked at Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic and several articles by Minh-ha T. Pham, which helped me flesh out my discussions of consumerism and cultural appropriation.

I want to stress that a lot of the most influential works weren’t scholarship in the traditional sense, but primary sources like the indigenous blogs I reference in Chapter 4 (particularly Jessica Metcalfe’s) or popular sources like Vogue features, designer interviews, or a “coffee table” book like Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible. Some of the most insightful critical analyses of fashion come not from scholarly journal articles but from these popular sources… sometimes even just Twitter feeds. So while there’s a lot of scholarly research referenced in both of my books on fashion, it’s balanced with a range of other source material, from blog posts to physical fashion pieces.

What’s your all-time favorite literary fashion item? [Full Disclosure: mine is probably a tie between the gorilla suit in F.O’Conner’s Wise Blood and the titular raspberry beret in Prince’s song.]

I have to say the bowler hat in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for nostalgia purposes. I read that book as a senior in high school, and it’s the first time I remember really seeing a piece of clothing carry so many different meanings at once.The bowler hat was even on the cover of the book. And Kundera’s character Sabina, who wore the hat, typically did so in very intimate settings (in the film Lena Olin wears it with lingerie), so I always enjoyed that bizarre juxtaposition of this proper British hat with the feminine, sexualized clothing. It’s also a vintage piece that belonged to her grandfather and has sentimental value for Sabina. So much meaning packed into a hat!

You have a significant interest in pedagogy in addition to your scholarly research. How do you bring literary fashions into the classroom for your students?

I bring it into my EN 422 class, which has a consumerist theme and focuses on literature of the early 20thcentury (Dreiser, Wharton, Yezierska, Larsen, Schuyler). As you might notice from the list, this class parallels the books in Fashion and Fiction quite a bit! When I introduce a new text in the class, I use flipped lectures via Panopto. These online lectures are an opportunity to provide some historical context for the novels as well as situate them within literary movements. In these presentations, I tend to talk about the fashions and clothing because they are important to many of the novels discussed. Many students enjoy this content too––some end up writing their final papers on this aspect of the novels. At some point, I would love to do a class that engages more of the themes from Fashioning Character.

When I used to teach 100-level courses, I would often have students do semiotic analyses of fashion on campus, too.

Where do you see fashion contributing to self-invention/identity formation on campus?

I think it’s very visible within the Greek system. When I first started working here in 2013, I noticed that many students in sororities wore exactly the same thing––oversized t-shirts (either their sorority or one of the fraternities) with Nike shorts and Chacos sandals (or in the winter, UGG boots). While students claim it’s because these clothes are “comfortable,” to me it’s a way of signaling their affiliation in these groups. Some faculty, I notice, dress in suits and ties for class, while others dress very informally. Sometimes that relates to the discipline (e.g. studio art faculty have logistical reasons for wearing casual clothes), but often it signals the role they see themselves as playing in the classroom vis a vis the students. I dress in what I believe are fashionable clothes when I teach, but also in accordance with my personal style, I’m trying to share something of myself with my students. I want to get to know them, and I want them to know a part of me, too. I’m a scholar, I’m professional, but I’m creative too––and I happen to love fashion.

How do you balance teaching and writing?

Having a busy schedule works in my favor. I’m not one of those people who can write or research for hours on end. My inspiration comes in fits and starts. Each morning, I draft a to-do list, which will often include an item like “work on ___ chapter of book.” To me, that often means devoting an hour or two to that chapter. Other items might be grading, or errands to run, or exercise. But I know that when I focus on my research, I have a narrow window to accomplish a lot. Doing that a bit each day (or maybe 4-5 days out of a week) allows me to make faster progress than tackling it all at once.

As someone who lived through the 1990s, I am both confused and amused by the current fashion reinterpretation of that decade. What’s going to be the next fashion trend that confuses old people?

Ha! What else? Mask fashions! I have been watching masks on runways and have seen some design houses like Chanel and Louis Vuitton face backlash for not having models wear masks on the runways. I am currently in a black, KN-95 mask phase, but over the course of the pandemic I’ve purchased many fashion masks via Etsy or other sites. Wearing a mask is in itself a statement––“I take COVID seriously, I’m aware of the risks, and I’m protecting myself and others with this mask.” Not wearing a mask is a less clear symbol: many vaccinated people now feel comfortable not wearing a mask, while others are making an “anti-mask” kind of statement. I’m confused just writing about masks now, so I imagine that if someday, there’s a retro-chic interpretation of this odd development in fashion history, I will be even more confused.

Speaking of the next big thing – what’s the next book project for you?

The conclusion of Fashioning Character, with its focus on environmental impacts of fashion, got me really interested in ecocriticism. I also touched on this topic a bit in my chapter on indigenous literature, since many indigenous designers oppose mass production for reasons relating to sustainability. My next project is going to focus on American environmental literature, but it’s in its very early phases.