Fashion and romance

by Kitty Drake in January 2021
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Fashion & style Literature

Novella is a magazine that places fashion in unusual contexts. In this first issue, which is small and deliciously pink, contributors reflect on the material world as it relates to romance. “Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked,” editor Abigail Buzbee writes in her opening letter — which doubles as Novella’s front cover — “and fashion, as we know, employs both with a fervour… rooted in its perpetual rebranding of nostalgia and commercialisation of emotion”.

The commercialisation of emotion — the way owning a particular dress, or suit, is sold to you as an emotional experience (wear this dress and you will have this feeling) — is an interesting starting point. One of the first pieces in the issue points out that, reading the commentary on runway shows from the latest seasons, it can be hard to tell if you’re reading Vogue or the saucy bits of a romance novel:

“There they were, parading through the lavender — great loose, tailored suits that could work on anyone… hyper-sexy modern peasant dresses with ribbon straps to tie and untie…” (A review of Jacquemus S/S 2020 in Vogue)

This essay, by Buzbee, unpicks the ways that the romance novel’s concern with fashion has informed ideas of what a woman should be. One great spread features racy eighties book covers, where the women are all pictured lying down, and the men are all gripping massive, unsheathed swords. Buzbee is concerned with the doubleness of the genre — the way that romance novels can be seen as patriarchal and constricting, but at the same time, the very act of reading one is a kind of assertion of independence; a dedication on the part of the reader to an unrestricted fantasy life; to read what she likes. Buzbee quotes the American scholar Janice Radway:

“Does the romance’s endless rediscovery of the virtues of passive female sexuality merely stitch the reader ever more resolutely into the fabric of patriarchal culture? Or, alternatively, does the satisfaction the reader derives from the act of reading itself, an act she chooses, often in explicit defiance of others’ opposition, lead to a new sense of strength and independence?”

The writing in Novella is thoughtful and rich, but it is the design of this magazine that is the real delight. Interspersed throughout are pages from ‘Pearl Moon’, a romance novel by Katherine Stone. The pages are loose, and certain words have been cut out by hand, and printed on the page behind. The story becomes a kind of jigsaw puzzle: you have to move the page around to fit the gap to the correct word. In this way, the act of reading is transformed into something satisfyingly secret and intimate — which, I suppose, is what a well-plotted romance novel is all about.

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