I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts.
Fitzgerald’s characters are either snobs or social climbers, and they all use clothing to define——or defy——their standing. Examples range from subtle details to characteristics that are inherent to one’s personality. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the unrepentant Tom Buchanan is last spotted going into a “jewelry store to buy a pearl necklace, or perhaps only a pair of cuff buttons,” an action that proved to “rid me of my (Nick’s) provincial squeamishness forever” (158). Heiress Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night wears her pearls on the beach. The grandson of a wealthy industrialist, Anthony Patch in The Beautiful and Damned comes to truly embody the life of leisure associated with his station: “Then with a last soothing brush that left an iridescent surface of sheer gloss he left his bathroom and his apartment and walked down Fifth Avenue to the Ritz-Carlton” (19).
Fitzgerald’s snobs and social climbers understand the power of clothing. Samuel Meredith in 1920’s “The Four Fists” had been the type of college student who “believed passionately in good form—his choosing of gloves, his tying of ties were imitated by impressionable freshman.” Samuel “played football in the autumn, drank high-balls in the winter, and rowed in the spring. Samuel despised all those who were merely sportsmen without being gentlemen, or merely gentlemen without being sportsmen.” In one sentence, Fitzgerald can delineate the haves and have-nots. In “The Adjuster,” an acquaintance tries to comfort a crying Luella: “Eda wished she (Luella) had taken her gloves off. She would have reached out consolingly and touched her bare hand. But the gloves were a symbol of sympathizing with a woman to whom life had given too much.”1
The more “fleshed out” a character is, the more Fitzgerald employs fashion as a means of development. Hence, it is fitting that main characters Amory Blaine, the tragic hero of This Side of Paradise, and Jay Gatsby are both respectively the best examples of a snob and a social climber. The two are of Fitzgerald’s most developed characters. To Amory, clothing is constitutive of one’s identity. He says to his intellectual mentor, Monsignor Darcy, “I think of…all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.” When Amory first meets his good friend Thomas D’Invilliers, Amory could “tell from his general appearance [that Tom was] without much conception of social competition.” Amory believed that Tom “needed merely watered hair, a smaller range of conversation, and a darker brown hat to become quite regular.” For all of the subtle observations made by Amory Blaine as to the fashions of those around him, he was far more preoccupied with his own appearance. Once in prep school, his goal is to become a “Slicker.” Fitzgerald describes the Slicker as:
good-looking or clean-looking; he has brains, social brains, that is and he used all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble. He dressed well, was particularly neat in appearance, and derived his name from the fact that his hair was inevitably worn short, soaked in water or tonic, parted in the middle, and slicked back as the current fashion dictated. The slickers of that year had adopted tortoise-shell spectacles as badges of their slickerhood, and this made them so easy to recognize that Amory and Rahill never missed one.(40)
In a chart comparing “Slickers” to “The Big Man” on campus, Amory writes that a slicker “dresses well. Pretends that dress is superficial—but knows that it isn’t” while a big man “thinks dress is superficial and is inclined to be careless about it.”
While Amory Blaine uses clothing to further align himself with the social class into which he was born, Jay Gatsby uses clothes as a means of “buying” social standing. Inside “two hulking patent cabinets” are “his massed suits and dressing gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high” (88). In a scene in which he means to impress his ex-girlfriend with his newfound wealth and possessions, clothing becomes a symbol of lost opportunities and the irretrievability of the past. Gatsby:
took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher-shirts with stripes and scrolls and plains in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms in Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. ‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick fold. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such-such beautiful shirts before’ (84).
1. These stories are found in a collection of his early work edited by Matthew Bruccoli entitled Before Gatsby.