Strange beauty

Costume, performance and power in 1953

in Mid-century gothic
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This chapter shows how the garments of ritual and conquest created gothic disruptions in place and time, and instantiated power and status even while they occluded the humanity of the person wearing them. Questions about power and resistance informed key cultural artefacts of the period, from Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 fairy tale The Red Shoes to Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954); and from the 1951 Ealing Comedy The Man in the White Suit to Benjamin Britten’s Coronation opera Gloriana (1953).

In Under the Net, Murdoch teases open fault-lines in the constructed persona of a woman who runs an avant-garde mime theatre, and finds herself literally buried under a deluge of theatrical props and costumes. In The Red Shoes, meanwhile, a dancer’s costume becomes impossible to take off, stitching her into a fatal encounter with the inhumanity of art and spectacle. These stories raise related questions about the materialization of power and presence at the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

This intimate imbrication of subject and object sheds light on Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana (1953), which depicts a queen who comes untethered from the material glamour of royalty. The chapter then traces how synthetic fabrics challenged class distinctions in The Man in the White Suit, and the British Everest expedition in 1953.

Mid-century gothic

The uncanny objects of modernity in British literature and culture after World War II

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