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Looks from Books: Fashion Inspired by The Bell Jar

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Welcome to the latest edition of Looks from Books, which aims to prove that you can look smart, while still being book-smart, too. Fashion inspiration can be found between the pages of your favorite stories, on well-designed book covers, and in your favorite characters… if you read closely enough.

This week, we’re focusing on the novel The Bell Jar, a classic work by Sylvia Plath, detailing the sharp downward spiral of a brilliant young woman. This is an iconic piece of feminist literature, from an artist who departed far before her time.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar book cover via Amazon

Inside Cover: a Little Bit of Background

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, was originally published in England in 1963, under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” This was done to hide the fact that such a cutting and oftentimes sarcastic portrayal of mental illness and repressed sexuality was, in fact, widely autobiographical, and to prevent entanglement with Plath’s tumultuous family life.

The novel, which details a young, accomplished nineteen-year-old’s descent into mental illness, has been lauded as a significant feminist work and vital representation of the inner workings of a troubled teen mind. As mentioned above, the work included many ties to events from Sylvia’s own life, sometimes referenced ironically in text.

At the time of the book’s publication, Sylvia was married to illustrious British poet and author Ted Hughes. Her eventual suicide – which occurred about a month after the British publication of the book – was largely chalked up to their separation, by fans and historians alike. Her many unpublished journals and poems, as well as the future of the novel, fell to him. The book was finally published with her name on it in 1967, but not at all in the United States until 1971.

Throughout its publication, The Bell Jar attracted many mixed reviews, and has often been likened to a female equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye.

A Fashionable Literacy

bell-jar-sylvia-plath-wall
Sylvia Plath | Photo via Elle

The novel was adapted into a film once, in 1979; however, it proved widely unpopular with critics and audiences alike. While there is a new film adaptation in the making – starring Julia Stiles and Rose McGowan – it is still classified as “in development”. Many hope its long gestation period will result in a better formed, and truer representation of such a classic work.

In real life, Sylvia Plath was highly involved with fashion, and The Bell Jar reflected some of this, as well. The beginnings of the book take place as Esther Greenwood – the main character, and stand-in for Plath herself – takes a fashion internship at a major magazine in Manhattan, like Plath herself did during her time in college.

Plenty of fashion inspiration may be drawn from her vivid descriptions within the novel, as well as the abundance of personal photographs available of her style, the depiction of her by Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2003 movie Sylvia, and even here on College Fashion. (We did a post on fashion inspired by Sylvia Plath last year.)

How to Add Esther to Your Wardrobe

By integrating key aspects of the imagery within The Bell Jar into your everyday outfits, you can draw reference to the iconic novel’s engaging visuals and strength of voice – often sarcastic and witty – without getting too entrapped in the darker legacy of Plath’s writing.

Exaggerated Sizing

Outfit inspired by Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar - exaggerated plays on sizing
Product Information: Over-sized Cardigan – Mango, Lace Crop Top – Topshop, Skater Skirt – Topshop, Over-sized Sunglasses – River Island, Statement Earrings – Asos, Mini Bag – Target, Platform Sandals – Ruche.

Throughout the novel, one of the most important recurring elements in Esther Greenwood’s narrative is the inclusion of exaggerated and inappropriate sizing, such as a never-ending sidewalk, or the giant hands or multiple eyes of the nurses within her psychiatric ward. This is one of the hallmarks of Plath’s expert description of a mental breakdown, classified by psychoanalysts years later as schizophrenic perception. These descriptions are invaluable in conveying the confused mentality of Esther to a widely unaffected audience.

Reference this in your own look, by deliberately choosing pieces that utilize the same exaggeration of size.  An oversized cardigan, oversized sunglasses, statement earrings, and high platform heels all reflect an emphasis on extreme height and length, while a crop top, mini skirt, and a mini bag all do the opposite, by way of the shrunken and small.

Cutouts

bell-jar-cutouts-lattice-cut-dress
Product Information: Lattice Cut Dress – Charlotte Russe, Shoulder Cutout Shirt – Forever 21, Perforated Sweater – River Island, Cutout Sandals – Forever 21, Cutout Wedges – DSW, Floral Cutout Sunglasses – Kohls, Triangle Cutout Cuff – Forever 21.

The Bell Jar is also full of lapses in the narrative. Whether it is in consciousness or judgement, on the part of Esther, or simply in the flow of the work (to build suspense), these gaps are deliberately utilized to draw the reader deeper into Esther’s harrowing tale. This technique helped Sylvia create a heightened sense of confusion, mystery, and scandal… even Plath herself called the novel a  “pot-boiler,” and that was no doubt influenced by these unique gaps in narrative.

Reference this plot device and character trait within your own look, by way of the cutout trend. Accessories, like the floral cutout sunglasses, the ankle cutout wedges, line cutout sandals, and triangle cuff, are all minor ways to incorporate the idea into your daily outfits; however, larger-scale cutouts, like those in the lattice-cut dress, shoulder cutout shirt, and perforated sweater, pay homage to the novel’s sense of scandal and suspense in a more emphasized way.

Mirrors

bell-jar-mirror-image-trends
Product Information: Holographic Clutch – Zappos, Holographic Nail Polish – Julep, Mirror Image Tee – Topshop, Mirror Image Skirt – Nasty Gal, Mirror Image Skull Sweater – Charlotte Russe, Glitter Top Coat – Ulta, Mirror Chandelier Earrings – Miss Selfridge, Reflective Clutch  – DSW.

In The Bell Jar, Esther is frequently confronted by her own visage, whether reflected in a compact or mirror, the shining surface of an elevator door, or even within the glossy pages of the magazine. Despite the fact that she is described as a beautiful girl – and Plath herself was also very attractive – Esther never describes herself in flattering terms, and has a very low self esteem. These brief expressions of plummeting self worth, and even violent action, like breaking a mirror, integrate reflection and self-reflection as closely tied elements within the novel.

Integrate this aspect of the book’s imagery into your own look by incorporating various elements of mirrors into your wardrobe pieces and accessories. Reference the holograph trend with this holographic clutch and nail polish. Or try on symmetrical mirror prints, like this leopard crop top, skull print sweater, or symmetrical geometric skirt. You can even reference mirrors more directly, with the complete integration of reflective surfaces, like a high-shine clutch, some mirror-pieced statement earrings, or a glitter flake nail polish.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever read The Bell Jar? Have you ever had it assigned for an English, Women’s Studies, or Psychology class? What did you think of the novel, and the elements at play? What is your opinion of the novel’s legacy as a feminist critique, or depiction of a descent into madness? What did you think about the outfits and styling tips? Are there any books you would like to see me do next? Let me know, in the comments below! 

Posted on on March 13, 2013 / Filed Under: Inspiration / Tags: , , , , , , ,

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21 Responses to “Looks from Books: Fashion Inspired by The Bell Jar”

  1. 1
    March 13th, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    “The Bell Jar” is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and this post did an excellent job in using the devices into outfits. Amazing job!!

  2. 2
    March 13th, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    This book has had a greater impact on me than any other book I have read. Plath’s portrayal of insanity is disturbingly real, and as twisted as the book itself is, it does lend itself to creating great fashion choices. I like how you used the structure and motifs in the book to put together the outfits.

  3. 3
    March 13th, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    Please, for the love of God, do The Outsiders. It’s totally a classic from middle school. My favorite book EVER.

  4. 4
    March 13th, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    This was a nice idea, but it really feels like you are trivializing mental illness.

  5. 5
    March 13th, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Bee – Thanks for your feedback! I was a little nervous, going into writing about this novel, that it would come off as disrespect, but that was clearly not the intention. Obviously it deals heavily with significant mental health issues; however, anyone who has read the book closely would also agree it deals with these with sarcasm, humor, wit, and irony. It was actually written during a high point in Plath’s life, and because of this – as well as the book dealing with the topic of fashion itself – I chose to pursue writing the article anyways. Besides, maybe someone will read this book, based off of this article, and develop an understanding of mental illness that they would not have had before! There are plenty of good things that come from communication, and I’m positive that reading The Bell Jar would help stimulate more discussion of mental illness and their treatment in society. :) Would you have any recommendations for having handled the topic differently?

  6. 6
    March 13th, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Encouraging people to read a book dealing with mental illness is great, but trying to drag fashion out of it is a little odd.

  7. 7
    March 13th, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Bailey – I pick the books around which the articles are based, solely because of their pertinence to the lives of the women who read College Fashion. As “The Bell Jar” is a highly popular novel with this set of people, I decided that it would make for a great article, and in my opinion, it did.

    Writing it did not require me to “drag” anything out of the novel, it came rather easily, through specific stylistic elements present within the imagery. Seeing as though the book itself does deal with fashion, as well, I continue to think it is a great pick for “Looks from Books.” :)

    Do you disagree with its appropriateness, because of what happened in the book – which ends on a note of hopefulness,with Esther assimilating into society again – or is it because of Plath’s legacy of tragedy? I deal with the books, not the people. (For more of that style, CF has other columns, like “Fashion Philosophy.”)

    That is why I chose to profile this book for this column.

  8. 8
    March 13th, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    The Bell Jar is one of my all-time favorite books and Plath is my favorite poet. I don’t believe that this post is offensive to those with mental disorders…in fact its kind of nice that you chose a more challenging novel to cover instead of a more obvious choice. Also you were very creative in how you drew inspiration from the text…you can tell its a book you really love. I think anyone who hasn’t read the novel should want to check it out after viewing this post.

  9. 9
    March 13th, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    I admit I haven’t read the book, so I’m just responding to the article. It’s just things like reading ‘plummeting self-worth’ shortly followed by ‘and here’s an outfit!’ is just a little jarring to me.

    Oh well, I generally like the series, we can’t all agree.

  10. 10
    March 14th, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Now I got curious to read this novel. Not because of the outfits, but because of the issue the novel presents. This can add to my knowledge as a Psych. major.

  11. 11
    March 14th, 2013 at 6:26 am

    This is a really interesting post!! I love the way you’ve based the outfit ideas on the book’s themes, rather than its characters.

    And we can’t ignore books just because they’re not about typically ‘happy’ topics! The people complaining should be encouraging the fact that you can take inspiration from all kinds of literature.

  12. 12
    March 14th, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Esther assimilating into society is not necessarily a “good” thing, nor do I think that she really ever does. Her past still troubles her. She is telling this story from later on. We know that in her true present she has a baby. What does that mean considering her attitudes about childbirth? Since the baby is barely mentioned and she is retelling all these troubling events, most people assume that she continues to suffer from mental illness and does not successfully assimilate into society.

    That being said, I think it would have been cooler to do this post about the different career paths Esther faces as symbolized by the fig tree. You could have done a traditional 50’s housewife inspired outfit, an outfit based on her desire to travel the world, and a working artist inspired outfit. Woman still often have to make Esther’s choice; the oppression of woman can exasperate mental illness. This would have allowed you to tackle the topic of mental illness in a more relatable, reader-friendly way that also was also more applicable to the book.

  13. 13
    March 14th, 2013 at 11:39 am

    C – I think people would have had a lot to say about this novel, regardless of how it was presented, simply because it allows for the application of varying forces of ideology and personal experience, for which people feel very strongly. I’m glad to see it fostering some interesting discussion. Your approach is very unique, and I think it definitely utilizes the novel’s content in a distinct way; however, my articles have a specific format, and that would not necessarily have fit. Thank you for your insight!

  14. 14
    March 14th, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    But you could have done these same ideas for multiple stories. Cutouts are more Hemingway than Plath, and mirrors would have been better with Jane Eyre. In fact, most of these literary conventions can apply to lots of books. It seems like these specific conventions were chosen just to incorporate the latest trends. While I do like the outfits, I don’t think that they are unique to the book. I know, I know, you can’t please everybody, but I really love Plath’s work because it is unique, and I feel like that was kind of lost here.

  15. 15
    March 14th, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    I LOVED this post! I really liked the way you emphasized the themes throughout the book rather than structuring everything around the characters, and I loved how you wove current trends into everything. I especially love the reflective clutch in the last look.

  16. 16
    March 14th, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Great outfit choices – especially the use of cutouts in denim
    .
    A wonderfully morbid and awful book – personally, I thought it was on the same page as the work of William Faulkner.

  17. 17
    March 14th, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Love, love, love. The use of the imagery in this novel to create these totally wearable looks is awesome. A work I’m curious to see used in this column is my favorite “The White Hotel” :)

  18. 18
    March 15th, 2013 at 12:04 am

    I thought it was interesting. Great article & insight.

  19. 19
    March 16th, 2013 at 8:50 am

    cute outfits…. I like the book as well.

  20. 20
    March 18th, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Could you please do the girls of the Hush Hush Saga??? (Nora, Vee, Marcie, and Dabria) I picture Marcie with my style:)

  21. 21
    March 20th, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Savannah- I really enjoyed what you have written here and the way you have portrayed the Bell Jar, specifically to someone (me) who has never read it. You push me to want to read it now! Also love the outfits you have chosen and the themes for each outfit. Fantastic Job, S!

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