Arts & Culture

8th April 2020

Literature, Women and Fashion: An Interview with Dr Sophie Oliver

The New Generation Thinkers scheme has named Liverpool English Department’s very own Dr Sophie Oliver as one of ten members of the project for 2020. She joins Professor Alexandra Harris, Professor Nandini Das, Professor Sarah Peverley and Professor Sandeep Parmar in the University of Liverpool’s illustrious history with the scheme.

Developed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in partnership with the BBC, the scheme now celebrates its 10-year anniversary. Aiming to showcase the best in academic research and scholarly ideas to a broader public audience, the project brings together talent from across the UK through TV, radio and online media.

Alan Davey, Controller at BBC Radio 3, said

“At Radio 3 we want as many people as possible to have life enhancing cultural experiences, especially in these extraordinary times. […] Now, more than ever, the pubic need new dynamic ideas from dynamic great minds.”

Speaking to Dr Oliver, I was keen to find out more about her research plans, in particular looking at her interest in the relationship between women, fashion and literature. 

What initially sparked your interest in fashion and how, for you, does this cross over into literature?

I’ve always been really interested in visual media – my undergraduate degree was in Art History – and when I started studying literature I was looking for ways to combine the two. In the modernist period, which is my main area of research, fashion is everywhere, especially in writing by women. I’ve found that it’s a way for women writers to articulate countless other things that characterise modernity: the changing position of women in society; the spectacle and flux of city life; celebrating individualism and, equally, worrying about being just part of the crowd or, worse, obsolete. More philosophically, I think because fashion is all about time, it lets writers think about the past and the future, as well as the moment they’re living in.    

A more personal, but also very serious, answer to the question is that I love clothes! They are beautiful, fascinating, related to the body and to people’s desires, and they are full of contradictions. After all, fashion is also a very problematic industry in terms of labour and gender politics, and environmental responsibility. But contradictions are very productive territory for writers – and researchers.  

What does fashion tell us about the past? Does this affect the ways in which we can read certain narratives?

Fashion historians will tell you that fashion can say so much about how people lived in the past. The social and economic history of a period, from gender politics to empire-building, can be read in the material and cut of a garment worn in a portrait.

But actually, I’ve become less interested in using fashion to place literary texts in particular moments in the past – although that is one great way of using fashion, which can help to give rich contextual detail to the texts we read. Instead, I’ve been thinking about how to use fashion to reflect on history more generally, so not moments in history but how history gets written – who gets in and who is left out. Because fashion is about time, as I said, and about relative value (this is in, this is out), I’ve found that many writers seem to be drawing on fashion to say something about history and their relationship to it. This is especially relevant to women writers, who didn’t always (arguably still don’t?) enjoy the same kind of validation as their male counterparts – they don’t make it into the history books in the same way.

How does style help us construct a particular literary history? How does this differ in terms of individual vs cultural trends?

Literary histories are just as much a matter of trends as fashion. Culture works in the same way fashion does – the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about that. He called it the ‘logic of distinction’ and it applies to authors as much as sartorial trends. You can tell this by looking at any historical magazine, for example one of the Modernist ‘little magazines’ I might look at for my research. They are full of writers who published a lot at the time, enjoyed some renown, and are now completely forgotten.

One of the women I’m interested in is a writer and journalist called Bessie Breuer, who published several award-winning short stories and popular novels from the 1930s – including a book about Ingrid Bergman based on a biography she was commissioned to write but which didn’t come off. How did she disappear so entirely? The answer doesn’t only lie in fashions for particular literary styles and genres, but it does tell part of the story.

Do you think the way in which we write about clothes has changed? I’m thinking particularly along the lines of fast fashion, consumerism and the evolution of feminism, etc.

Contemporary writers who write about clothes are interested in similar things to the authors of the early twentieth century that I research. Sheila Heti, for example, writes about the threat to individuality of fashion, and the need to buy that seems to be a need to confirm your identity. Jean Rhys wrote about both issues in the 1920s and 30s.

Fashion teaches us there’s nothing new under the sun. The fashion system (as opposed to clothes) was born with mercantile capitalism (scholars usually say the mid-14th century). Although fast fashion is a new iteration, it’s really another version of an old saw – capitalism in its latest guise.

Fast fashion and the increasing inequities of late capitalism make us think politically about clothes, but that was always the case. That goes for feminism, too. Fashion has a vexed relationship to feminism. The first wave rejected restrictive garments such as corsets, the second wave resisted objectification of fashion. The so-called choice feminism we have now (post-feminism?) would suggest that celebrating fashion is a woman’s prerogative. Actually, recognising our continuities with the past helps us think more critically about that assumption.

In her book Good Morning, Midnight (1939), Jean Rhys aligned the false choice of fashion with the threat to individualism posed by fascism. It’s a big leap, but writers on clothes help us think in new directions about these kinds of issues.

What are you hoping to discover either about yourself or your research whilst working in collaboration with the BBC and the AHRC?

I’m hoping to find new ways to explain and communicate my research to a wide audience. Answering questions like yours helps me think again about what the issues are and why they’re important. That’s invaluable.

I’m also really excited to learn how radio programmes are made: the arts programming on Radio 3 is really innovative, using sound and editing techniques to tell stories in new ways. Because women’s history is often full of gaps and omissions, or long stretches of time women spent working, raising children or making homes or whatever wasn’t officially ‘important’, telling stories in alternative ways is really crucial and I’d like to start experimenting with that myself. I recently listened to a documentary on Radio 3 made solely of sounds associated with pregnancy and childbirth…

What hopes do you have for your involvement within the scheme? I’m keen to look at female-led research projects and whether initiatives like this have a positive effect on research and engagement levels in the arts, (or indeed, if not, why that might be.)

Representation is so important, but from my point of view (I’m white and middle class, not an under-represented group in the arts!), I’d say it’s more important to engage underrepresented audiences. That could be done with subjects like fashion, which speaks broadly but in different ways across class, race, gender, sexuality and age.

I hope, too, that my work on the scheme can shed some light on untold women’s stories. But on this I’d really like to point to other scholars on the scheme who are directly concerned with underrepresented histories and voices – Dr Christienna Fryar, who looks at Britain’s imperial and postcolonial entanglements in the Caribbean region (and used to be a lecturer in History at Liverpool); Dr Alex Reza, who studies mid-century anti-colonial figures in the arts; and Dr Xine Yao, who researches literature by Black, Indigenous and Asian peoples.

Listen out for all the excellent radio they – and the others on the scheme – are going to make!

You can find out more about the New Generation Thinkers scheme here.