Date of Award

12-21-2009

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Lingyan Yang, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

David Downing, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Ronald Emerick, Ph.D.

Abstract

This study examines sartorial statements and descriptions in texts by postmodern women writers Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and Maxine Hong Kingston. The texts are Atwood’s novels Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride, Walker’s novel The Color Purple and short story collection In Love and Trouble, Kingston’s prose narratives The Woman Warrior and China Men, and her novel Tripmaster Monkey. The work defines the terms “fashion,” “dress,” “non-fashion,” “antifashion,” “traditional garments,” and “costume.” It situates its discussion at the intersection of mid-to-late twentieth-century American women’s prose narratives, postmodernism, feminism, and fashion theory and history in order to determine the significance of and attitudes toward sartorial habits and the culture of clothing, including specific garments and hairstyles. By engaging in the close reading of sartorial passages and by historically contextualizing garments and outfits chosen by characters and described and commented upon by narrators, the study shows that while clothing and its significance are highly contested issues, such issues have recently enjoyed a surge in academic attention. Clothing’s significance in construction of identities cannot be overstated. The texts strongly demonstrate the implications of sartorial habits as they relate to age, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality, and the study addresses the gap in feminist literary research whereby matters of dress in my subject texts have not been remarked adequately and in some cases, not remarked at all. The research shows that Atwood’s work is fascinated with the culture of clothing and yet conflicted about the consequences of that culture for individuals. Walker’s work is keenly aware of sartorial significance as a sometimes positive and sometimes negative force, but one always to be reckoned with. Kingston, who is also keenly aware of sartorial significance, writes clothing as integral to constructed histories, nationalities, and gendered identities. The study concludes by considering the ways in which sartorial judgment is almost always directed at women and the garment industry’s woeful treatment of women in factories. It introduces the anti-sweatshop activist movement and urges consumption practice that is informed and conscientious about labor issues.

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