Fame, Fashion, and Fiction: Dress and the Bright Young People in Interwar Literature
by Charlotte Nicklas, University of Brighton
In London between the wars, the escapades of the ‘bright young people’ amused, titillated, and shocked contemporary society. Authors of gossip columns and magazine articles delighted in describing these men and women as they dined, drank, and danced. Notorious for their outrageous fancy dress parties and elaborate practical jokes, this gilded youth was constantly in the public eye.
Social historians, particularly D. J. Taylor, have discussed the bright young people in recent publications, paying special attention to their newsworthy antics and their challenging of contemporary societal norms. The dress of these men and women has received less scholarly attention and this paper will begin to address that absence.
Newspaper reports and magazine features often included detailed descriptions, as well as images, of the dress of the bright young people. These sources will be discussed, but the primary resource used in this paper will be a set of novels about, and in many cases by, these individuals. For both literary and financial reasons, some of their number increased the publicity already enjoyed by publishing works of fiction that were often not far from the truth.
In their representation of dress in the social and cultural context of the world of the bright young people, these novels provide a valuable source to explore the uses and meanings of dress for a particularly visible group. This paper will focus primarily on three novels: Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924), Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), and Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931). It will examine fashion leadership, social and private life, social class, and generational conflict through discussions of dress. This research adds to a growing body of scholarly work investigating dress and fashion in fiction (Aindow 2010, Hughes 2006, Koppen 2009, Kortsch 2009, McNeil et. al. 2009).
As in newspaper and magazine reports, individuals characterized as bright young people were often praised for their fashionable clothes and their leadership in fashion. All three authors present ‘chic’ as a desirable goal for female characters. Although rarely defined with precision, chic sets these women apart from their contemporaries and, for the authors, helps to define their characters.
The daily details of dressing and undressing, as discussed in these novels, provide insight into the work that clothing did in the social lives of the bright young people. From private shooting parties to public restaurants, dress allows these men and women to conform or rebel. By choosing appropriate or inappropriate clothing, the characters expose and sometimes challenge social convention.
Many of the bright young people were members of distinguished, even aristocratic, families and others were from middle-class backgrounds. Their social positions, however, did not necessarily guarantee that they were financially able to clothe themselves in the way they wished. In their references to dress, Arlen, Mitford, and Waugh explore the tensions within and between social classes, as well as the mismatch between position and income.
These authors also explore generational conflict through dress. The significant changes in fashion after the First World War, especially the youthfulness and loosened silhouette, firmly demarcated this era from pre-war Edwardian formality. For the young characters in these novels, dress is a visible way in which they define themselves against the tradition and stuffiness of their parents’ generation. This self-definition comprises part of a larger effort of identity formation in the wake of the social and political cataclysm of the war.
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