The Performance of Luxury In The Awakening

The 19th century is recognized as the epitome of Victorian style. Big skirts and bustiers adorned women’s bodies accompanied by flamboyant hats and gloves. Women were expected to be motherly, delicate, sociable and likable, especially upper-middle class women whose sole existence revolved around motherhood and parading their beauty as a reflection of their husbands’ wealth. In The Awakening, clothes represent a major symbol of class and status that if often ignored. The performativity of luxury in the women of this novel is central to understanding the complex constructions of the female characters.

It might seem like this thesis only applies to Adèle Ratignolle, as she is the model of womanhood in Grand Isle and Edna’s influence towards assuming her role as mother and wife. But, it’s relevant to think about the part that clothes and fashion play in the construction of identity and the performance of gender. Equally, we need to ask ourselves how this ideal of womanhood was built and how it might have affected Edna’s awakening. If there is no standard, there is no reason to rebel.

The most important fashion and lifestyle magazine of the 19th century was Godey’s Magazine, published by Louis A. Godey. One of its most distinguished elements was the publication of fashion plates and garment and beauty ads that celebrated white skin and a tiny waist. “Add grace to any figure. Add style to any gown.” reads an advertisement of Braided Wire Bustles and Forms in May of 1899. Godey’s not only revolved around fashion and beauty but also published texts that exemplified the ideal of motherhood and womanhood in the 19th century. “The lessons of Godey’s visual texts were conformists. They embodied an ideology of domesticity, maternal instruction and the power of sentiment”, wrote Isabelle Lehuu in “Sentimental Figures: Reading Godey’s Ladies’ Book in Antebellum America”.

If such images were bombarded to women — much like they are in the 21st century — it’s easier to understand the desperation in Edna as she realizes that her beliefs and desires don’t fall in line with society’s expectations. Therefore, she looks for role models that might help her escape her misery and awake her true calling.

Adèle Ratignolle is one of them. She is described by Kate Chopin as a “luxuriant beauty” who wore “dogskin gloves with gauntlets that protected her wrists” and dressed in “pure white with a fluffiness of ruffles” (26). According to Elizabeth LeBlanc in her essay “The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening”, Adèle is the “myth of woman, the angel of the house”. What LeBlanc refers to is the construction of the female ideal that in represented in texts like Godey’s Magazine.

Considering that clothes are a device of performance, it’s worth analyzing the psychological value of fashion in the construction of gender. “We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman”, argues Judith Butler. Furthermore, clothes are a symbolism, not only of gender, but of class.

In her essay, LeBlanc talks about the restrictions of wealth and womanhood that keep Edna locked: “The other side of Edna’s terror of solitude, however, is the bondage of class as well as gender that keeps her in a prison of the self” (217). The cage Edna was confined in came in the form of exuberant rings, gloves, ruffled skirts and tight bustiers. At the same time, her appearance was significant not only for the construction of her performance as a woman, but as Mr. Pontellier’s property. “The women are valued according to their level of self-effacement, according to how well they reflect, respond and submit to masculine ideals”, writes LeBlanc.

But Edna was not one of these women. She did not submit to masculine ideals. Feeling trapped, she succumbed to the sea as a way to free herself from these expectations, naked. He bare skin represents her letting go of society’s standards for the first time and recognizing her body as a device for liberty to represent herself however she wanted. The performance was over and she had rebelled in the nude.

Written for Writing and Theory course at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus (2015).