The pieces we have read in my World Literature class thus far have failed to sing to my fashion journalism tune, until I crossed paths with The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. In fact, with it came several surprises: one of which was the text's density; it is not the fairy tale that its enchanting title may deceive you to believe it is. However, what it lacks in spells, potions and princesses, it makes up for in its rich detail, much of which describes the characters' fashions.
I found myself in this constant deluge of details as I came across "gold-tipped cigarettes…jovial, rugged greeting[s], and scenes of "newspapers across red silk quilts" (Mann 109, 425, 566). It was only fitting that fashion became a major player in this celebration of vivid details, as the characters are set in a "frivolous and fashionable society" (109).
Mann warns the reader of the rather cumbersome text ahead in the short, informal foreword, proclaiming "[w]e shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail -- for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it took up?" (3). He justifies his novel's length by professing he is not in fear of being meticulous, for it is this exhaustive approach that allows his text to be "truly interesting" (4). I, like Mann, found that it was this heavy use of details, which enriched the novel's prose as well as planted the seeds for the greater philosophical ideas permeating the novel.
The spotlight on clothing, in particular, reinforces Mann's devotion to detail in addition to shedding light on Hans's perceptiveness through observation and a polarity between the exterior and interior of human beings.
Symbols drive Mann's text with each character representing either a political outlook, a perspective on life or death matters, a specific culture, or something of that nature. These symbolic undertones present themselves in several ways including dialogue, action, and appearances, the latter of which is our greatest concern. Hans Castorp, with his booming curiosity and role in the novel, operates as the primary observer of these representations, therefore he is the primary observer of the character's appearances and clothing.
Hans's grandfather, Senator Castorp, is the first character who indirectly reveals the prominent role one's wardrobe plays in the text. As Hans describes this man he much admired, he specifically notes the unique yet fundamental elements in his collection of clothing such as his necktie, which was "tied so that it filled the wide opening created by his grandfather's peculiarly shaped collar, whose pointed tips brushed [his] cheeks" (19). Hans boasts that only his grandfather and his server adorned such neckties and collars, singling him out as a man who is unafraid to diverge from the mainstream, which is one of the traits Hans idolizes most about him. He expounds on his admiration of that specific detail of his dress, claiming that it "pleased him to no end--there was something about it that found approval in the very depth of his soul" (20).
This case demonstrates one of the first ties Hans makes between one's character and their clothing; more generally speaking, it reveals his attention to detail, a quality that allows him to consider all the conflicting ideas his mind in inundated with from the likes of Settembrini, Naphta, Peeperkorn and all those surrounding him at Berghof.
Hans's mind naturally functions as a collection of physical memories, as indicated by the recollections he has of his grandfather, most of which pertain to his physicality. He remarks that the image of his grandfather was "imprinted much more deeply, clearly, and significantly in his memory than that of his parents" and attributes this to two reasons, one of which being a "physical affinity" (22). The overwhelming discussion of his grandfather's physical being and the details of his wardrobe is the first signal of the degree to which dress, appearance, and the physical nature of humans will become a substantial force to recognize throughout the novel.
Hans poses the questions: "What is the flesh? What is the physical being of man?" This stress of outward appearance and the physical being of humans naturally lends itself to a polarity between the internal and external condition of humans and the relationship between the two. The sanatorium setting especially kindles this idea, for the novel revolves around disease and its harm on one's physical condition. The physical organism is explored inside and out, with this outward aspect incorporating the dress of each character. In the most basic sense, this idea is explored through Hans's habit of deducing character's personalities from his observations of their personal style.
In the case of his grandfather, he notes the disparity between his outward appearance and his true character, thus exemplifying a tension between the external and internal. He explains that his "everyday appearance" may cause one to inaccurately presume a quality of "carelessness" within his grandfather when, rather, a more authentic portrayal of him can be found in a portrait (24). Senator Castorp's dress in this portrait is described in great detail as Hans reveals his enchantment with his "thoughtful eyes, robe like black jacket edged in fur along the hem and lapels, braid-trimmed, puffy sleeves ending in lacy cuffs, black silk stockings, and shoes with silver buckles" (24). It is after this description that Hans's previously mentioned "physical affinity" manifests itself and truly comes to life. This mental physical image transfixed in his mind is the purest way he can provide evidence of his fondness of this figure; this is also achieved through his analysis of his death as something "very material, physical" (26). The analysis of this disparity between his ordinary dress and his true, essential reality is the first of many testaments to the implications each character's clothing begs of his or her personality.
Even Hans’s appearance is described as a reflection of his personality: his "nicely trimmed hair, neatly monogrammed underwear and shirts, and clothes made by a tailor" suggest there is "no doubt that this Hans Castorp was an honest, unadulterated product of the local soil" (29). Moreover, Mann mentions his fanatical caretaking of his clothing as a "badly creased cuff on one of his pretty pastel shirts fill[s] him with a terrible unease", supporting his penchant for precision and nature as a careful observer (30). Hans's sharp eyes allow him to make these keen physical observations, which in turn allow him to make judgments of others--his most crucial task throughout his stay as he is the rope in a perpetual game of tug-of-war as each character acts as a mentor to Hans, preaching their contrasting beliefs. Herr Settembrini reiterates this idea to Hans as he tells him to "form opinions! That's why nature gave you eyes and reason…One should not deny the humanist the position as an educator--indeed it cannot be denied to him, for he alone preserves the tradition of man's dignity and beauty'" (62). Settembrini reminds Hans that his eyes are his outlets for observations, which grants him access for an opportunity to make sense of these complex characters and what they represent.
On that note, Settembrini is one of the major characters whose wardrobe is especially surveyed; his imposing figure and style mirrors his in-your-face personality and absurd arrogance. He wears this attitude with equally sloppy dress in sporting rough edges on his "rounded high collar from frequent laundering" his "threadbare black tie" and his apathy toward cuffs evident by the "limp way the coat sleeves draped about his wrists." Hans notes that his style was "far from laying any claim of elegance" (54). Similarly, Settembrini's boundless idealism demonstrated through his reliance on what is rational is far from elegant. His clothes lose shape and form in the same way his mind loses sight of reality as he stresses the ideals of Western civilizations. Hans remarks that Settembrini is donning the same outfit of "checked trousers and long petersham coat with wide lapels" each time he encounters him (91). As Hans comes to realize the monotony of his clothing choices, he begins to presume that this is the "full extent of his wardrobe", which again is a valid reflection of his static character and stubborn bias toward his own beliefs (91).
The other equally important character impacting Hans throughout his stay is his love--Clavdia Chauchat. When he first sets sight on her, he notes that the young woman was in a "white sweater and brightly colored skirt, with reddish-blond hair…with a peculiar slinking gait [and] kept one hand in the pocket of her close-fitting wool jacket" (74-75). Chauchat's apparel plays a large role in amplifying his allurement with her, which is especially evident from his thorough discussion of how fascinating it is the way "women dress so enticingly" (127). He addresses this in much detail:
"It was second nature to them, and such a universally accepted practice that you hardly even thought about it, just accepted it unconsciously, without further ado. But if you wanted truly to enjoy life, Hans Castorp told himself, you really should keep the custom in mind and never forget how exhilarating and, ultimately, almost magical it was. Granted, there was a very definite reason why women were allowed to dress in that exhilarating, magical way, without at the same time offending propriety. It all had to do with the next generation, the propagation of the human species, yes indeed. But what happened when the woman was sick deep inside, so that she was not at all suited for motherhood--what then? Was there any point in her wearing gossamer sleeves so that men would be curious about her body--about her diseased body?"
This passage resonates with the idea of the tension that exists between the interior and exterior of the human, and if these two complement one another. And, of course, it furthers the idea that Hans's love is partially rooted in his deep physical attraction to Madame Chauchat and the way she dresses. He notes even subtle changes in her wardrobe, such as in the instance when he notices her new sweater, "or new at least to Hans Castorp" (172).
As his thoughts become consumed with her, her image is replays in his mind, not unlike the way his grandfather's image did. Throughout the day, he thought of "the neck bones above the collar line of her blouse, her arms a radiant illusion under flimsiest gossamer", revealing his association of her with the vivid details of her clothing (203). He pictures her in this draping gossamer, angel-like image often, indicating that he has a likeness for repetition in clothing; put simply, he associates her with a certain "style" that parallels the entire image he has created for her.
While Hans's mind may be in constant operation of analyzing physical appearance, this infatuation with each character's fashion is indeed something he revels in, especially for its aesthetic appeal. The Magic Mountain is anything but shy in its appreciation of the arts as it incorporates portraiture, music, and fashion into its text. Hans comments how "very pretty" the women at breakfast looked chatting with their "close-fitting jackets of wool or silk in white or bright colors…both hands in their sweater pockets" (91). The sheer volume of commentary on the details of each character's clothing alone testifies to his appreciation and awareness for fine apparel. He makes note of Behren's "revealing striped trousers and colossal feet in a pair of yellow, rather worn, laced boots" as well as Joachim's "sporty clothes and study, tooled boots" (44, 39). Practically no character is left without some mention of the apparel they are donning.
There are many layers within Mann's Magic Mountain to get through, including the layers of clothing which conceals the character's flesh yet simultaneously reveals their true being. For instance, Mann directly states that with Dr. Krokowski's "glowing eyes, his woven pallor, and those monastic sandals over gray woolen socks, he seemed to symbolize in his person the battle between chastity and passion about which he had been speaking" (125). Just as their layers of clothing reveal symbols of what the characters outwardly represent, they also reveal "the spots and shadows inside you", as characters attitudes, beliefs and personality resemble their vestments. Some use their clothing to disguise themselves, while others cloak themselves in what persona they hope to portray. Mann, however, utilizes clothing as a way to "align his inner world" as the tumult of the worlds above and below can only be decoded through thorough observations (211). The pages of The Magic Mountain (or for any novel, for that matter) make up layers of text within which deeper meanings lie and beneath that lies an analysis to be done. In a similar fashion, we as humans exist in layers with our outermost layer represented by our clothing, which covers our flesh, which covers our internal being which holds our mind, thoughts, and essential being.
*the illustrations used were from a 1962 copy of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter and illustrated with wood engravings by Felix Hoffman