Working-class women and women ‘working’ class: Literary masquerade in the inter-war years | Intellect Skip to content
Volume 3, Issue 1-2
  • ISSN: 2040-4417
  • E-ISSN: 2040-4425


In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), Pierre Bourdieu argues that the individual who employs fashionable attire to create an impression of being higher in society than he or she is ‘constantly overshoots the mark for fear of falling short, betraying his uncertainty and anxiety about belonging in his anxiety to show or give the impression that he belongs’. An opposite reading is presented in Footnotes on Shoes (Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferris, 2001) and in Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Nan Enstad, 1999). Both provide examples and analyses of women who consciously overshoot the mark ‘because it feels good’ and because it functions as a means of controlling one’s own image. This tension is at the heart of critical explorations into the practice of ‘class-passing’, a form of masquerade achieved through the visual technologies of beauty and fashion. Embedded within this practice is the question: Who manages the impression being created and for what purpose? This article looks closely at two examples of literary class-passing in American literature of the inter-war years, 1919–1939. Both novels feature a female protagonist who attempts to transform her class position by donning garments ‘above’ her class station. Both novels were written by popular women writers, Imitation of Life (1933) by Fannie Hurst and Stella Dallas (1923) by Olive Higgins Prouty, whose status as popular writers barred them from the restricted definition of serious, modernist literature that guided writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The plots these and other women writers of the time created presented a lower-class protagonist who successfully class-passed through her assumption of high-brow fashions, in effect, fashioning herself into a different social position. For women writers of the time, this ability to break seemingly unbreakable class barriers held special resonance; as popular, female writers, they held a similarly lower-class position within the literary canon, and the barriers against their critical acclaim were as seemingly unbreakable as the barriers against their class mobility. By authoring texts of fashioned class-passing, these women writers acted out what they hoped to achieve in their own lives: an equally successful attempt at canonical passing.


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