Fashion within the Novels

We are told, toward the end of Swann's Way, that the young narrator is glad of his Charvet tie and patent boots as he waits for the former courtesan Odette de Crécy in the Bois de Boulogne. She is now married to the rich and respectable Charles Swann. Earlier in the volume she has been described as one of the most stylish women in Paris, with "rich garb such as no other woman wore." Her toilettes are always depicted in great detail, and the narrator is fascinated by the Japanese-style gowns that she wears at home. She has an inordinate number in different fabrics—silk, crepe de chine, chiffon—and the colors vary from old rose and mauve to Tiepolo pink and gold, all described carefully and frequently in Within a Budding Grove. An intense focus on sensuous detail is one way in which dress operates within the novel's sequence.

Fashion is also vital as the way in which an individual constructs his or her personal identity while remaining mindful of the rules of social caste. Odette's outdoor clothes show small details in their trimmings or patterns, which hark back to her heyday as Second Empire courtesan. The craftsmanship and the overall design of her garments are stressed. The narrator follows Odette, enchanted, through the Bois de Boulogne, and Proust records the details of the linings of her jackets and the collars of her blouses, likening them to Gothic carvings. Such details may never be noticed by a casual observer but they are nevertheless vital.

The woman to whom Proust awards the accolade of the very best-dressed woman in Paris is also one of the most socially elevated—Oriane, Duchesse de Guer-mantes, who is always spectacular and distinctive in her toilette. In The Guermantes Way, the narrator tells us of her appearance at the opera with a single egret feather in her hair and a white spangled dress, designed to make her companion and cousin, the Princess, seem overdressed. It is she, as well as Odette, to whom the narrator turns in The Captive when he wants help with the selection of clothes for his mistress, Albertine. Indeed, it is Oriane's Fortuny gowns that Albertine is seen to covet.

Male elegance, too, is described—particularly that of Swann, whose leather-lined hat, in Within a Budding Grove, the Duchess of Guermantes notes, just as Swann comments on the tiny coral balls frosted with diamonds that she wears in her hair at the soirée described toward the end of Swann's Way, likening them to rose hips dusted with ice. Dress, fabric, texture, and detail are seen as vital factors in the evocation of memory so germane to the novel. In the very last pages the narrator speaks of discerning the different threads woven together in a fabric of which he can now perceive the overall design.

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