The “Highly Important Matter of Clothes”: Apparel and Identity in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand
Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand (1928) is saturated with clothing. This essay examines the ways in which Larsen uses fashionable apparel to map connections between racial identity and aesthetic style. The narrator tells us that protagonist Helga Crane has “loved and longed for nice things” all her life (6), and this desire for “things” is a constant throughout the novel. Larsen tracks Helga’s quest for self-discovery not only across multiple geographic settings – from the American South to New York, Denmark, and back again – but also through multiple changes in costume. As the novel opens, Helga is a teacher at an elite African-American boarding school called Naxos. After becoming frustrated with the school’s repressive and assimilative hierarchies, Helga quits her job and returns to her hometown, Chicago, where she experiences a period of deprivation. The job she eventually finds takes her to Harlem, where Helga immerses herself in bourgeois black culture but soon tires of closeting her white ancestry. Helga next travels to Denmark to reconnect with her mother’s family. Far from being accepted as Danish, however, Helga is seen as an exotic outsider. She returns to America, hastily marries, moves to rural Alabama, and has five children in rapid succession. At the novel’s conclusion, Helga longs for the affluence and beauty of her premarital life, but there are no indications that she will renew her pattern of abrupt departures and new beginnings. Throughout Helga’s journey, fashion provides a useful symbolic register for racial identity. Like many mixed-race Americans, Helga is consistently identified – that is to say, defined – by her appearance. Through Helga’s clothing, Larsen links modern culture’s deep investment in appearances to what W.E.B. DuBois famously identified as slavery’s twentieth-century heritage: “the problem of the color-line” (1), of how “to be both a Negro and an American” (5). The color line is particularly problematic for mixed-race Americans who may be displaced, and thus obscured, by the color line’s divisions. This is not to say that Helga’s character can be entirely explained by her biracial heritage; rather, I read the connection between Helga’s clothing and her search for integrative mixed-race identity as one aspect of Larsen’s complex novel. By unpacking the ways in which Helga’s fashion choices signify the effects of being located between the color line’s demarcations, I hope to explicate Larsen’s keen understanding of commodified aesthetics’ relationship to modern identity formation.
Throughout Quicksand, Helga uses fashion in seemingly contradictory ways: she alternates between dressing according to the standards set by her peers and using clothing to set herself apart. The apparent conflict between her two modes of dress, between conformity and iconoclasm, accords with fashionable apparel’s capacity to signal either group identification or individuation. In his 1904 essay “Fashion,” Georg Simmel connects fashion to a dualism that he says operates at both individual and societal levels. There is an ongoing and irresolvable conflict, Simmel argues, between a “tendency towards imitation” that facilitates social cohesion and “individual departure from [society’s] demands” (542). Social life is thus the battleground between the impulse to imitate and the urge to individuate, and fashion satisfies both desires. To Simmel’s analysis I would add that fashionable apparel is a particularly apt medium for the simultaneous satisfaction of these seemingly conflicting desires, because clothing functions as a liminal space between an individual and his/her cultural context (Wilson 2). Apparel is, as Thorstein Veblen notes, “always in evidence” and thus provides observers with information about an individual and how he/she fits into his/her culture “at first glance” (167). Clothing’s public signification and dual modes of individual satisfaction are two key reasons why fashion fascinates Helga and, in turn, why apparel provides such a useful signifying system for Larsen’s portrayal of modern mixed-race identity. Helga desperately craves the group identity offered by fashion. More specifically, Helga seeks inclusion within cohesive racial groups. Yet even as she pursues group unification by imitating the fashion choices of those around her, Helga also longs to be accepted and valued as an individual. Simmel says fashion is ideal for individuals who depend on others’ approval while also craving “a certain amount of prominence, attention, and singularity” (548), and this certainly describes Helga. Although Simmel connects fashion primarily to socio-economic class, his clarification of fashion’s seemingly contradictory conformity and individuation is a useful framework for understanding Helga’s racialized preoccupation with fashion.