Cancelled Past event

English Research Seminar -- Professor Catherine Spooner White Dress: A Gothic Cultural History

What do Melania Trump and Marie Antoinette have in common? This paper takes this question as a starting point to explore the cultural history of the white dress. It argues that this history is a Gothic one, because the white dress is an unstable garment: it is constantly collapsing into its opposite. What is variously invested with cultural values like purity, innocence, simplicity, modernity and even the sacred is constantly and inevitably converted into something more complex and sinister when put to work in any given cultural context. The paper also argues that contrary to popular expectation, women in white, rather than women in black, dominate Gothic texts from the eighteenth century to the present. From Miss Havisham's wedding dress, to Rebecca's ball gown, to the Bride of Frankenstein's shroud, to the nightgowns of Hammer's female vampires, the white dress has become an iconic garment in Gothic fiction and film. Drawing on a broad range of examples from Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) to contemporary fashion photography, this paper unpacks some of the cultural associations of the white dress, resisting its construction as universal symbol and restoring nuances of cut, style, shade and texture. In doing so, it demonstrates the white dress's ongoing political significance to the media narrative of Trump Gothic. The paper concludes that the white dress in Gothic is not a static or universal image but a vehicle for narrative; it is a blank page on which the story of the heroine's body is told.