Theses Doctoral

Queer Things: Victorian Objects and the Fashioning of Homosexuality

Joseph, Abigail Katherine

"Queer Things" takes the connections between homosexuality and materiality, and those between literary texts and cultural objects, as major repositories of queer history. It scrutinizes the objects that circulate within the works of Oscar Wilde as well as in the output of high fashion designers and the critics and consumers who engaged with them, in order to ask how gay identities and affiliations are formed and expressed through things. Bringing recent critical interest in the subtleties of nineteenth-century "thing culture" into contact with queer theory, I argue that the crowded Victorian object-world was a crucial location not only for the formation of social attitudes about homosexuality, but also for the cultivation of homosexuality's distinctive aesthetics and affective styles. In attending to the queer pleasures activated by material attachments that have otherwise been deployed or disavowed as stereotypes, my project reconsiders some of the most celebrated works of the gay canon, and inserts into it some compelling new ones. Furthermore, in illuminating the Victorian origins of modern gay style and the incipiently modern gayness of Victorian style, it adds nuance and new substance to our understanding of the elaborate material landscapes inhabited by Victorian bodies and represented in Victorian texts. The first part of the dissertation uses extensive archival research to excavate a history of queer men's involvement in women's fashion in the mid-nineteenth century. In the first chapter, juxtaposing accounts of the famous Boulton and Park drag scandal with a simultaneously emerging genre of overwrought fashion criticism, I argue that an (over)investment in fashionable objects and a detailed knowledge of fashionability became important sites for the develop of gay-effeminate social styles. The second chapter positions Charles Worth, founder of the modern system of haute couture, as the progenitor of a queer species of cross-gendered, non-heterosexual relations between male high-fashion designers and female clients. Though they are not based on same-sex eroticism, I argue that these relations deserve consideration as queer. The second part of the dissertation considers the representational functions of objects in several works across the career of Oscar Wilde. The third chapter presents a reading of De Profundis, Wilde's infamously hard-to-read prison letter, which focuses on how the text interweaves anxieties about the transmission of material objects into its complex affective structure. The fourth chapter considers the effects of the risky but irresistible attractions of that letter's addressee, the widely-loathed Bosie Douglas, on Wilde's aesthetic practice. Juxtaposing Bosie's charms with those of Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest, and then moving to the little-read letters which document the final post-prison years of Wilde's life, I suggest that the frustrating states of intemperance and indolence become sites, for Wilde, of erotic excitement, artistic innovation, and political resistance.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 4, 2012