Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes

Lisa Cohen writes:

‘About clothes, it’s awful,’ the protagonist thinks in Jean Rhys’s novel Voyage in the Dark (1934).

Everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell. People laugh at girls who are badly dressed … And the shop-windows sneering and smiling in your face. And then you look at the skirt of your costume, all crumpled at the back. And your hideous underclothes. You look at your hideous underclothes and you think, ‘All right, I’ll do anything for good clothes. Anything – anything for clothes.’

Anna Morgan is struggling to exist in an England that disgusts her and is disgusted by her. Part of the white detritus of colonialism (she has just arrived from the Caribbean), she can’t stand the smell of the dark, dank place she’s ended up in, is haunted by the light and sounds of her childhood. Clothes in Voyage in the Dark are caught up in these wild swings of feeling, from sensory overload to numbness. They make her ‘too sad to cry’. They also figure in baffling exchanges between women and transactional sex with men, and indicate her failure to understand herself, and her vulnerability and opacity to others. They contain almost everything, in other words.

(LRB 7 November 2019)