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In The Cut of His Coat, Brent Shannon has written a compelling and delightful book on how much Victorian men liked to shop for clothes. Commodity consumption constituted men as much as women then as now, he demonstrates, and nowhere more saliently than through the fashions they chose to wear. Our assumption that only women, gay men, or aristocrats were caught up in dress and buying takes at face value the “ideological wishful thinking” (16) that the Victorians needed to propagate about themselves—such unthinking acceptance on our part “replicates rather than analyzes,” as Shannon puts it (9).
Indeed, when we consider the ordinary Victorian man “‘as consumer,’ [we find] a man dependent on the purchase of a combination of goods out of which he assembles and displays his social status and masculinity” (198). “[M]en’s direct relationship with shopping was not as socially stigmatized” as we thought, “nor were men’s sartorial codes nearly as static, uniform, and unchanging as fashion historians have claimed” (9). Commodity culture was intrinsic to ideas of normative masculinity and was helping to shift them dramatically at this time, Shannon argues, especially when it came to heterosexual, middle-class manhood. Understanding the various and conflicting Victorian notions regarding men’s relation to shopping and dress helps us, therefore, to understand those changes.
Buying clothes actually educated men in the norms of masculinity, Shannon tells us. It taught them how to be heterosexual and middle-class. Middle-class men used their attire paradoxically: on the one hand, department store ready-to-wear made supposedly effete dandyism or upper-class foppery available to any bourgeois. Mass-produced fashion’s easy mimicry of upper-class dress blurred class distinctions by revealing their artificiality. At the same time, however, middle-class men also asserted different class values by adopting their own “sartorial and consumer aesthetic” (171). In patronizing department stores rather than tailors, they abandoned custom-fitted frock- and tail-coats in favor of the more unconstructed and easily mass-producible three-piece “lounge suit” we still recognize as the business suit of today. This all-purpose, more comfortable attire was at odds with fussy, ornamented, occasion-specific, and impractical upper-class dress and the leisure and excess for which that costume stood (10). Shannon asks scholars to attend carefully to the specific and contrary practices that a genealogy of the lounge suit, for instance, provides in order to modify our current reductive understanding of the nineteenth century. By apprehending Victorian men’s fashion consumption in its complexity, we can also understand it more fully as the origin of goods, practices, and gender assumptions enduring to our own time and still constituting us.
Shannon applies the methods of historians of women such as Erika Rappaport to complicate, if not overturn, modern preconceptions about past material practices of gender. In Come Buy, Come Buy, so does Krista Lysack. Her persuasive and thoughtful study considers how those late-nineteenth-century women we so comfortably suppose to be the first dupes of shopping were actually constituted through it in much more creative and resistant ways than we credit. Lysack takes the title of Rappaport’s Shopping for Pleasure seriously: she asserts that, for Victorian women shoppers, “pleasure is constituted as a value in itself” that helped women radically exceed “the cultural script” curtailing them (10). Women’s shopping is for Lysack predicated “not only on the dangers but also the delights” of desiring (19). Because “the commodity, like a fetish, is a contradiction that allows for alternative modes of desire” (19), shopping has the potential to disrupt usual economies of the self and of gender. Lysack argues that desire “does not proceed from lack, or the need to fill some void at the heart of being, but is wholly productive” (173)—of new and transgressive identities, practices, and opportunities for women.
As shoppers within late-nineteenth-century consumer culture, women became actors rather than simply objects, Lysack claims, and she is especially interested in what she sees as their disorderly acts of shopping—browsing without intention of buying (which frustrated capitalist expectations); buying on credit (which manipulated the double standard underlying women’s limited liability for debt in the nineteenth century); shoplifting and the compulsive acquisition it enabled enabled (which point to but also play with the inescapability of commodity exchange); stealing identitites (which similarly reveals the constructedness of identity and gender); boycotting and vandalizing stores along with other politically informed shopping practices (famously exemplified by the suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union’s smashing of shop windows in London’s West End in 1912), bringing one’s own wares to market (as the WSPU also did in its own stores). Lysack argues that it is important that we understand such shopping practices as tactics that are “by definition resistant to the forces of institutionalization; they are flexible, mobile, temporary practices that are responsive to the moment” (169). What they resist in part is our reductive understanding of consumption as unwitting. “Just looking” (22), for instance, becomes for Lysack a metonym for “seeing through” (42—a kind of ideological critique: for Lysack, women’s shopping explicitly reflects upon its own significance, producing a version of “femininity that calls attention to its constructedness” (64) and pushes the logic of such representation “to its limit” (98).
Shannon’s book seems inspired by material histories of fashion focusing on gender or class—in addition to Rappaport, he is indebted to Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, for instance, or Christopher Breward—as well as cultural histories of commodification, including those about the development of the department store, such as Michael Miller’s work. His study is engaging and enjoyable because it provides a fresh take on intriguing material. In addition to providing a revisionary understanding of late nineteenth-century manhood, Shannon keeps giving us interesting facts along the way: that Aristotle was a noted dandy (130), and that khaki came in as a style for menswear when, during the Boer War, the British military shifted their uniform to it and away from their traditional bright reds and blues (63-64). Cultural histories centrally inform Lysack’s approach too, but in her elaboration of shopping as pleasure she is indebted to poststructural theory as well. She cites Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari as central; Joan Rivière and Luce Irigaray, though cited less often, still seem as influential to her way of reading. Thing theorists such as Bill Brown are nowhere cited in Lysack’s amply documented text, but the approach of thing theory is nevertheless implicit in her study’s important claims about what it sees as “a new relation to objects” within consumer culture (59), a radically constitutive relation. Thus, according to Lysack, “the Victorian woman shopper contested a traditional understanding of the self as distinct from objects” (11) because “there is no self prior to objects” (71). Indeed, “the Victorians were finding that they were never more themselves than when they were surrounded by their things” (79); “things now spoke for themselves” (22).
What stands out about both studies is the care with which they contextualize their arguments within Victorian social history, and the emphasis they place upon that method. They consider a range of sources: contemporary periodicals, including stories and advertisements; cartoons, illustrations, photographs, and fashion plates; trade journals; department store archives; shopping guides; conduct books; material objects such as parlor games; and literary depictions of shopping and fashion (though these last are often the least central). Both studies provide admirable models of how to undertake current literary scholarship, with its “multidisciplinary historical-cultural” emphasis (Shannon 14) on the “porous boundary between so-called high and low culture” (Lysack 13). Each aligns his or her practice with that of “social historians and cultural critics” (Shannon 16) although Lysack, more literary in aim, also positions hers within “literary studies of recent decades that address Victorian consumer culture” (4). Such emphases raise—though neither study addresses—questions about the current aims of literary criticism.
This is not to criticize these rich and rewarding studies. Neither presents itself as a metadiscourse about literary criticism, so to consider what their silence on this topic might suggest in no way diminishes their considerable contributions. Such questions are simply not within their purview. Indeed, I am grateful to both of these studies for how straightforwardly they declare their own method: “retrieve and reevaluate,” Shannon writes of the rationale behind the range of material he collects (12); “uncover and explore … complicate, problematize, and thereby enhance” (17). Lysack too uses her archive to “open up and complicate” (8) and more “fully account for women’s historical condition” (4). For both, a careful sifting of the record will reveal the “unevenness” (Lysack 5) and “multiple, even contradictory trends” (Shannon 11) within the past which tend to get left out of modern retrospection and resulting critical pronouncements. New data about the past allows them to correct earlier critics’ misreadings—commendable and necessary work, always ongoing.
In fact, that these studies do not reflect upon their method seems to me to tell us little at all about them in particular. Instead, it is entirely in keeping with the current critical practice they understandably seek (following its general dictates) to replicate not analyze. For a variety of reasons, as we all know, social history has seemed to take the place of what we used to call theory. A generation ago, poststructuralist criticism, at least in America, often simply queried the truth claims of the historical record rather than also plumbing it. The new generation of young critics has good work to do establishing its place by “redraw[ing] the markers” of past assertions more carefully, as Shannon modestly terms it (16), by evaluating them through a more and more capacious historical record. Trying to offer something original by attending to arenas neglected before you is standard practice in criticism; having more and more of that overlooked record accessible online (as through the Gale or ProQuest digital collections of nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals) has made attention to contemporary accounts come to seem almost naturally the benchmark of value in criticism.
The absence of URLs in their “Works Cited,” along with their prefatory acknowledgment of librarians and archivists, suggest that Shannon and Lysack did much of their document retrieval the old-fashioned way, through print, depending on travel funds and interlibrary loan. Such painstaking practice remains a marker of these scholars’ seriousness and skill. More generally, it suggests that the need for originality in archival criticism to some degree depends upon sifting records undiscovered by others, not available generally through a commercially disseminated databank like Gale’s. The simple fact of the record often carries most of its rhetorical force, variant readings of that fact’s significance being much less in question or persuasive—and, indeed, these two studies seem less pioneering when the authors re-examine material originally brought to light by Rappaport or Breward than when they suggest new sources themselves, or when, as in Lysack’s reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, they use our renewed attention to the past not just to produce new facts about it but to read in new ways a text long familiar to readers.
Though I don’t at all fault them for it, I still miss the self-reflection these studies avoid, in part because, in the course of their readings, they seem to value others’ self-reflections. I regret that such interesting new voices in the critical discussion (these are first books for each, though Lysack has published some of this work previously in journal form) don’t meditate in particular about how we use an archive, since that question seems to me often more contestable and consequential than what archives themselves offer—as valuable as those offerings may be. But I also think that, in neglecting this question, they leave their important inquiry about consumer culture unfinished. Jane Gallop, skeptical of the privileging of social history in literary criticism these days, suggests that the centrality of archival criticism has meant a return to amateur historicism on the part of literary critics—regrettable, she argues, because we lack the training ever to do it as rigorously as historians, but even more so because we stop training others in the technique of close reading that distinguishes our own discipline in the first place. Through close reading’s literary analysis, she contends, we share with others a practice of how to interpret the world around them that they can then take up on their own—preferable, she finds, to the less democratic and more conservative pedagogical model that regards our work as hoarded commodity, a collection of facts that we amass, bank up, and dole out, but keep the secret of its getting. Questions about what the archive means and how we use it are tied up for Gallop with the very issues of consumption on which Shannon’s and Lysack’s studies focus.
David Greetham also argues that the archive is fundamentally informed by the logic of commodification. This raison d'être is implicit in the British Library’s decision to archive only those texts that have sold more than fifty copies (8). The pull of commodification is so pervasive that it trumps sense, Greetham argues, since scholars know that what they desire most from the past are not documents that were popular to any degree but precisely the ones that didn’t sell, that seemed dispensable at the time. Throughout his study, in fact, Shannon notes just such gaps in his archive—he regrets that Victorian department stores when logging their sales failed to record or retain demographic information regarding class or gender (the kind of information search engines track now with every click).
The irony of our times for literary scholars may be that we insist upon the archive as collection of material facts precisely when the virtual status of much of our information proclaims the attenuation of the material. In musing on this paradox of the archive as he helps to set up non-commercial digital databanks of nineteenth-century material (315), Dino Felluga quotes Katherine Hayles’ description of our age of “virtuality and knowledge work” as one of “‘systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment’” (306)—indeed, to characterize the affect of this moment, Hayles imagines us morphing further into “‘a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being’” (307). We fantasize our archives as decisive and solid in the face of a fundamental loss of corporeal groundedness we think those before us could take for granted.
More interesting to me, however, is that these musings on theories of archival knowledge adopt the idiom of commodity, and even fashion, central to Shannon’s and Lysack’s studies. Such shared figurative imagining suggests the productive and—it seems to me vital—dialogue possible between literary scholars steeped in social history and meta-critics who ask us to think about what archival knowledge might mean. The theorists have identified hypotheses about the post-material, “post-human” information age as the most dynamic and absorbing realm of speculation for literary criticism right now, precisely because they point to the ways that in the information age every networked user “think[s] in a textual condition,” as Jerome McGann phrases it (609). The social historian and the theorist are not so far apart as they have been painted; they imagine through the same historically bound grammar.
Working to communicate the pertinence of this theory to our students might mean that, when they do pause to ask tough questions, promising archival critics would know where else to turn besides the poststructural notions of pleasure appropriate to a moment thirty years before. We might help young critics see past their assumption that the last few decades have lacked any speculation relevant to their prospects by helping them perceive that, rather than dying, theory has instead addressed new issues: the exciting conjectures offered by thing theory and by information theory as well. By 1998, McGann was already arguing that, to reflect fully on current literary methodologies in order to reimagine criticism’s goals and contributions, literary critics might need to re-emphasize the centrality of form with a rigor beyond even the close reading Gallop commends. He urged us to become not just exegetes, but linguists, engaged in a new philology—learning to understand and negotiate the codes of electronic textuality, especially the protocols of hypertext mark-up languages (611). Such codes underlie the possibility and constitution of future archives. Our anatomies of the archive may not take us that far into the shifting binaries particular to this new age of theory, but reflecting on the process of meaning-making when it comes to making the archive—if not the codes then perhaps the cultural and critical fantasies that shape it—still seems practical and worthwhile. Continuing to ask questions about how we know that which we value seems to me crucial to understanding criticism’s interconnection to processes of consumption and commodification in the manifold and nuanced way these two studies seek to specify.
Laurie Langbauer is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her books have treated romance and series fiction in the nineteenth century. She is at work on two projects: on ethics and children's literature and on nineteenth-century child authors.
- Felluga, Dino Franco. “Addressed to the Nines: the Victorian Archive and the Disappearance of the Book.” Victorian Studies 48.2 (Winter 2006): 305-19.
- Gallop, Jane. “The Historicization of Literary Studies and the Fate of Close Reading.” Profession (2007): 181-86.
- Greetham, David. “’Who’s In, Who’s Out’: the Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32.1 (Spring 1999): 1-28.
- McGann. Jerome. “Textual Scholarship, Textual Theory, and the Uses of Electronic Tools: A Brief Report on Current Undertakings.” Victorian Studies 41.4 (Summer 1998): 609-19.