The Performance of Luxury and Clothes in The Awakening
By Frances Solá Santiago
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 is
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 is
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. Her
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.
LeBlanc, Elizabeth. "The Metaphorical Lesbian: Edna Pontellier in The Awakening."
Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: The Awakening. 2nd ed. Boston: n.p., 2 0 0 0 .
Originally written for Writing and Theory course (INGL 3291) at the University of Puerto Rico,
Rio Piedras Campus.