Dresses in Literature: Imprudent Purchases Edition

by Erin on January 11, 2011

Braver

When did the "imprudent vain purchases" trope stop being so prevalent in stories intended for girls? I seem to recall quite a lot of it in Alcott (Eight Cousins, Little Women) but I don't think I've seen it in modern YA books. Is it the credit culture? Too many vampires? People having actual sex? Or have I only been reading apocalyptic-YA? Not too many descriptions like this in those books:

Now Grandmama is a very prim old lady, sweet and neat, and dainty as can be, but still rather precise and severely plain in everything; and this frivolous, fussy little costume, with its low-cut neck, trimmed with many rows of dainty lace, and little more than a few flounces of lace to serve as sleeves — no, nothing about the little dress seemed at all like the Grandmama we know.

Anyway, this image comes from a story called "The Pink Gown" in an issue of St. Nicholas. 

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Nineveh_uk January 11, 2011 at 5:47 am

Good question. There’s an awful lot of it in Alcott. On the other hand, in Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s desire for a dress with puffed sleeves is seen as perfectly undertandable and eventually gratified.

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puncturedbicycle January 11, 2011 at 8:05 am

Not a purchase as such, but I remember in Gone with the Wind where sixteen-year-old Scarlett is going to a barbeque at Twelve Oaks and chooses a very inappropriate low-cut evening dress because she wants to outshine Melanie in front of Ashley. She knows it will be a little scandalous, but reasons with herself that once everyone sees it, it will be too late for anyone to do anything about it. Plus ca change.

Gosh, I really must read that book again.

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BunGirl January 11, 2011 at 8:16 am

Have you ever seen the short-lived TV Series “Firefly”? There was a whole episode centered on this concept, called “New Dress”.

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Amy B. January 11, 2011 at 9:18 am

Well there is the Shopaholic series where every purchase is inappropriate. ;)

I love the part in Rilla of Ingleside when she gets all stubborn about her inappropriately purchased adorable, frivolous green hat. She’ll wear it until the war is over! and then by the time the war is over she hates the hat. I love Rilla. She’s adorable herself.

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Marie January 11, 2011 at 9:52 am

I just re-watched “Mrs. Miniver” (1942), which opens with the wonderful cross-cutting scene of Mrs. and Mr. Miniver (Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon) imprudently buying a frivolous hat and a frivolous car, respectively. It’s the last frivolous moment in England before WW II begins. So perfect.

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Cookie January 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Judith Kranz (is she even a “contemporary” author anymore??) (I’m showing my age) writes about clothing purchases a lot…but I don’t know if any of them are ever regretted!

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Magickalrealism January 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I think it might be a case where what’s considered frivolous hasn’t changed so much as it’s changed in shape. For example, now girly-girls are often outlined as villains: girl-typical behavior in the Twilight novels is a subvert enemy to Bella, and Cordelia on Buffy (yes, I know, two vampire examples) bordered on villain until moved to the other show.

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Becky January 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I love the part in Rose in Bloom (Alcott) where she gets the fashionable dress and there’s the whole “more in sorrow than in anger” bit with her uncle? guardian? (insufferably overbearing, I now think) as he points out how foolish and even (oh gosh) unhealthy it is!

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Sara January 11, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I have to agree with Magickalrealism; girly-girls who make the “imprudent, vain purchases” have become the villians. The catch to it though is that they’re also the role models. Look at Mean Girls; the queen-bee is about as evil as high school girls get, but everyone wants to be her because she’s just drop dead gorgeous and has everything. In Girl World there are no imprudent, vain purchases.

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Isabelle January 12, 2011 at 6:27 am

I think it has more to do with the relative price of things; back then, a new dress or hat was a significant purchace that you’d have to live with for a long time. To think it though and get something practical was important. Nowadays, if you buy something on a whim, big deal. You have lots of other things and it hardly put a strain on your economy to buy it in the first place.

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janlorraine January 12, 2011 at 7:38 am

Henry James has a long description of one of Catherine Sloper’s dresses in Washington Square though it is her father who disapproves, but then he disapproves of everything she does.

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Minya, Warrior Seamstress January 13, 2011 at 10:36 am

I was so afraid the pink gown was made for one of the Curtis girls, who would then make fun of Herron for wearing their castoffs.

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slythwolf January 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

@BunGirl, the Firefly episode was called Shindig and the dress was only a minor aspect of the plot.

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Joni January 18, 2011 at 5:00 am

Speaking of LMM. My all time favorite Imprudent Dress Purchase in literature is Valancy’s green crepe in ‘The Blue Castle.’ I only wish I had a dress that made me feel half as scandalous (plus she gets to wear it to SPOILER ALERT get married in).

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Karin January 22, 2011 at 1:45 am

Astonement, not sure of title,Keira Knitley wears a green bias low back fab dress and reading the book you can visualise the dress

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