05/10/2013 10:44 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

The Garb in Gatsby and Other Novels

The Great Gatsby movie has opened and the comments sections of blog posts often contain threads, so it's a good time and place to discuss ... clothing in literature.

After all, the "threads" characters wear can signify wealth or poverty, and the rich people in the Gatsby film and novel certainly "sport" some rather fancy outfits.

Still, (almost) all fictional characters wear something, so is clothing really a big part of literature? Often not. But apparel can be unusually prominent in certain books -- and says a lot about protagonists and how they're viewed by others.

Besides signifying wealth or poverty, clothing can also scream good or bad taste, different ethnicities, major life changes, flirtatiousness, machismo and much more. So let's get in "gear," and cite some examples in addition to F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic novel-turned-movie.

There's of course the scene in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind in which Scarlett O'Hara wears a dress made from a lush green curtain. That costumery illustrates the determined Scarlett's attempt to persevere during bad times, though it doesn't help her get a much-needed $300 from Rhett to pay the taxes on Tara.

Take away a "t" (but not a T-shirt) from Scarlett, and you have The Scarlet Letter. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, Hester Prynne wears an outfit with a sewed-on "A" for adultery that obviously spotlights her outcast status, though Hester's likable stoicism is such that we eventually feel the "A" stands for "admirable."

Also admirable is the down-to-earth title character in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, who refuses to dress like a wealthy woman after getting engaged to the rich Rochester -- a big contrast to the finery worn by Blanche Ingram, the shallow snob Rochester was supposedly interested in. Jane even wears modest attire to her fateful wedding ceremony.

And the Jane Eyre scene featuring a certain main character dressed as a fortune-teller exemplifies how clothing can be used as a disguise in literature.

It wasn't the case with Jane, but one's income usually affects the way a character dresses. There are few better examples of that than in the Mark Twain role-reversal novels The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd'nhead Wilson. If a rich person looks poor and a poor person looks rich, clothes are a big cue for buying into that mistaken identity.

When Delia Grinstead suddenly leaves her husband and almost-grown children in Baltimore to live in a small Maryland town, she buys a distinguished-looking gray dress that helps change her psychological identity from unappreciated homemaker to assured professional. That's in Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years, a fine novel recommended by commenter "evecaren."

Former Irani military man Massoud Behrani leaves his American abode each day wearing an immaculate suit before changing into a work outfit for his menial job picking up litter in Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog. Obviously, clothing can say a lot about ego, pride and keeping up appearances.

In sports novels, the way characters look in uniform vs. everyday togs can be telling. Baseball phenom Joe Castle is the picture of youth and success in his Chicago Cubs uniform, but becomes a poignant figure in small-town groundskeeper garb after tragedy strikes in John Grisham's Calico Joe.

Speaking of genre novels, it would take a whole other post to describe how important a person's or a society's wardrobe is in many time-travel, science-fiction and fantasy books.

Novels can even have clothing references in their titles, which certainly give garments a prominent place in such books. One example is Herman Melville's White-Jacket, named after a 19th-century naval uniform (military attire is often found in fictional works). There's also Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, about matters such as conformity and materialism; Ann Brashares' The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the Young Adult novel that had several sequels; and Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which follows an imaginary Vermeer painting through its various owners over the centuries.

And clothing can be a major book theme in addition to something characters wear. For instance, Emile Zola's The Ladies' Delight is set in a 19th-century department store that sells all kinds of women's apparel, even as that big-box behemoth devastates small shops and the surrounding Parisian neighborhood. Not a result that leaves readers in "stitches," though the novel also has a romantic motif -- as does The Great Gatsby.

What are you favorite fictional works in which clothing plays an important "role"?


Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at