Dressing to Pass during the Harlem Renaissance: Fashion in the Novels of Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen

by Elizabeth Way


The 1928 novels, Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset and Quicksand by Nella Larsen each center on an educated, middle-class black woman navigating her fluctuating identity within American society. Both authors illuminate their heroines’ desires and frustrations within evolving, liminal urban spaces where traditional discriminatory restrictions could be tested and subverted through passing—not just through race, but also through class and gender norms. Fauset and Larsen continually highlight fashion as an essential tool for passing, as well as being the embodiment of their characters’ elusive new identities. Fauset’s Angela is a fair-complexioned Philadelphia woman whose elegant style is steeped in nineteenth-century ideals of ladylike bourgeois whiteness. It is also key in allowing her to pass as white and gain access to higher education and society. Larsen’s Helga is a biracial teacher whose interest in fashion and rejection of respectability politics alienates her from her college’s southern black bourgeoisie. She flees north in search of freer expression, yet eventually runs into the opposite extreme, manipulated and stereotyped through fashionable clothing. Fauset’s and Larsen’s narratives complicate the idea of passing as taboo and demonstrate black women’s understanding of fashion as agency to unlock new, and often uneasy, opportunities and identities.

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