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Fashioning Madness: Clothing in American Women's Asylum Narratives, 1925-1965

Aimee M Allard, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Aimee M. Allard's dissertation, "Fashioning Madness: Clothing in American Women's Asylum Narratives, 1925-1965," is an analysis of institutional, personal, and handmade apparel in women's asylum memoirs, journals, and autobiographical novels. It traces this distinctly material motif through five narratives published in the United States between 1925 and 1965: Jane Hillyer's Reluctantly Told, Marian King's The Recovery of Myself: A Patient's Experience in a Hospital for Mental Illness, Mary Jane Ward's The Snake Pit, Lara Jefferson's These Are My Sisters: A Journal from the Inside of Insanity, and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Allard argues that despite pervasive references to institutionally-assigned clothing (straitjackets, day dresses, and numbered nightgowns), patients' personal wardrobes (dresses, pajamas, and accessories they brought with them from home), and self-made garments (clothing repurposed from institutional materials such as bedsheets), few studies address institutionalized women's clothing nor consider its broader implications. Thus, Fashioning Madness seeks to bring scholarly attention to this important thread within American women's asylum narratives of the twentieth century. Drawing from Stacy Alaimo's work in women's material memoirs, Leigh Gilmore's theory of feminist autobiographics, and Joanne Entwistle's reading of fashion as a form of embodied communication, Allard suggests that the clothing worn in the institutional setting became a canvas upon which modern-day "madwomen" fashioned their identities when other means were denied to them. She traces this self-fashioning back to nineteenth-century writer and asylum reformer Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, a woman who literally inscribed messages onto clothing, secreting away her words inside of the double underwaists she sewed for her children. A century later, institutionalized women metaphorically inscribed the clothing in their narratives with messages of their own. At a moment when we have yet to destigmatize mental illness, it is especially important to look to the words of women labeled hysterical, disturbed, or hopelessly insane. Transcribing trauma, redressing the body, and refashioning the self, Hillyer, King, Ward, Jefferson, and Plath turned to clothing in order to navigate the unique experience of being institutionalized in America, these women's narratives bringing a critical lens to the everyday practice of dress in the decidedly not-so-everyday setting of the asylum.

Subject Area

Mental health|Womens studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Allard, Aimee M, "Fashioning Madness: Clothing in American Women's Asylum Narratives, 1925-1965" (2018). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10793118.