“A Bloody Shirt; or, The Lurid Details” (Ch. 2 of *It*, “Clothes”)

In this chapter, Roach takes a fresh look at three topics that have been of significant interest to me these past years—the dressing room, clothes, and satire—and offers promising forays into current ones—interpretation, methodology, and “lurid details”(101). So I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to talk about this chapter with everyone and extend thanks to Laura Rosenthal and Dave Mazella for organizing this forum.

Roach opens the “Clothes” chapter with a rich description and analysis of the clothing adorning Charles II’s effigy in Westminster Abbey—down to the royal underpants that once held the royal seat, as it were, but are now wrapped around a stuffed canvas that supports the king’s costume in perpetuity. Clothes in this chapter are exclusively “fabulous” or “smart,” and in this way Roach’s discussion differs from recent considerations of how women’s clothing, in particular, was a nexus for sensibility and consumption, sexuality and commerce (see Jennie Batchelor for an example of this argument). For Roach, clothing is a vehicle through which It is confirmed or anointed; thus the story about the amount of money that Buckingham spent on his coronation outfit (an impossible £30,000) is notable not for its plausibility, but for the excess and awe that the story reflects.

Starkly, then, Roach turns our attention to the specific valences of clothing in the production and circulation of It, arguing that clothing in particular “reveals the double-edged nature of the It-effect” (88). I think it’s worthwhile to quote from his long iteration: “Clothing in this usage functions as both noun and verb, as prop and performance, engaging in a double action, each part of which recalls the other as object and subject, which oscillate, adoringly or punitively, between glamour and abjection, charismata and stigmata” (88). Associated always with the dressing room—one of two key ‘it-zones’ that Roach identifies (the other is Covent Garden)—clothing promises allure and threatens denigration. The topic of clothing enables Roach to describe the process of what he calls nominating a role-icon, a move that implicitly points to the fact that It is always being constituted or challenged, that It is anything but static (I think that this can be a little easy to forget through the course of the book). To read clothing as an object, but even more important, as a verb encapsulated by the public intimacy of the levee and the dishabilee, brings our attention to the instability and productive dynamism of It. Clothing read in this way also—at the very least implicitly—points to the simultaneous promise and confounding of boundaries between things such as public and private, a phenomenon I see as associated with the dressing room in particular.

Picking up Laura Engel’s very helpful questions about the ideologies of gender and sexuality, it is important to recall that clothes, for the most part in this chapter, mean men’s clothes, and as such the majority of the material is drawn from the Restoration—a full century before the “great male renunciation” of sartorial splendor and the gender’s fade to black. (By way of a side note, much of our sartorial attention is focused on Burney’s Evelina, with her new hair and new clothes, to the extent that we can forget that Lord Orville is powdered, wigged, and colorful as well.) Though there is a brief foray into the Glyn sisters’ voyeuristic witnessing of Jersey Lily adjusting her clothing before her public introduction, the focus of the chapter—and of clothing’s relation to It—is figured through Buckingham.

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628-1687) is a particularly provocative and telling example for Roach because the narrative necessarily follows the mandates of tragedy—Villers’ star falls in its after-image, rendered hubristic and pathetic by the succeeding cultural imagination, available always (or almost always) as a symbol of a rake suffering his due reward, a golden boy becoming tarnished. Amidst the crowd of fallen Stuarts, those romantic, monarchical ‘losers of history’ that Laura Rosenthal describes, Buckingham shines brightly.

But it is the way that the shaming of Buckingham is achieved—at least in the cultural imagination, as Roach reports it—that is stunning: satire. While there are other discussions of the costs of the It-effect (Diana comes to mind), one of Roach’s most extensive considerations of the stigmata of It is funneled through satire. He reads satire as a curse and Dryden’s portrayal of Buckingham in Absalom and Achitophel as a tour-de-force of afterimage manufacture, with Dryden at long last winning by cloaking Buckingham forever in the satiric equation with Zimri. But I actually think that Roach could have drawn out the relation of satire to It more fully, for satire is a mode energized and frustrated by the superficial, by surfaces, by charismata and stigmata. It is a performative and a speech-act, and I think offers one of the most telling ways that ‘celebrity’ in the eighteenth century was negotiated.

Which brings me to the interrelated questions of interpretation, methodology, and what Roach calls “the lurid details” (101). He explicates for us the drive “to establish freedom of conscience in matters of religion” (100) that shaped Buckingham’s career, but does so with an awareness that these nuances and specificities are for the few self-identified specialists. Roach writes, “If little of this seems especially apropos to Buckingham’s character as a ‘rake,’ that is not at all surprising. The genesis of a role-icon requires not the exposition of nuanced positions, in which the shades of gray are duly rendered, but rather the vivid flash of lurid details” (101).

By way of contrast, Roach offers the “lurid detail” of a shirt stained with the blood of the Earl of Shrewsbury, his mistress’s husband whom Buckingham killed in a duel; the story is flexible enough to admit the possibility that either the duchess or Buckingham actually wore the shirt, but pointed enough to assert that the lovers had sex immediately thereafter. The bloody shirt is the key afterimage of Buckingham the rake, and in this way I am reminded of Roach’s statement elsewhere that history, like the sea, always returns its dead. Thanks to a distinction drawn by Laura Rosenthal between ‘history’ and ‘memory’—which I read in part as claiming ‘history’ as organized into the narrative forms of progress or decline, and ‘memory’ as a mode of lingering and recirculation that girds the ‘deep eighteenth century’—I see that the ‘lurid detail’ of the bloody shirt (or whatever the lurid happens to be) is the evidentiary unit of memory. Lurid details hang on, linger, and circulate through time, barely changing under the pressure of their recirculation and mightily resisting analysis (in the end, disagreements be what they are, the lurid detail remains intact). Lurid details evoke, for me, what Naomi Schor calls the “lure” of details. While the bloody shirt could be analogous to the material details that are the bread-and-butter of new historicism and cultural studies, as a lurid detail, the bloody shirt instead functions analytically like an It-icon itself. I think that one of the things that the Buckingham material exemplifies then is the methodology of ‘memory’: whatever the ‘truth’ of that bloody shirt story, its stained fabric sticks to Buckingham’s reputation, and that is why It matters.

 Tita Chico 

6 responses to ““A Bloody Shirt; or, The Lurid Details” (Ch. 2 of *It*, “Clothes”)

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    One quick note about lurid details: I get the impression that they had a particularly vigorous circulation in the 19th century, an intersting aspect of /It/ that we haven’t much talked about.

  2. Hi Laura,

    The case of Buckingham certainly suggests so, with the replaying and fascination with his story in the 19th century. I think that this interesting question also points to the structure of memory, with the Stuart ‘charisma’ as the case study; that is, how we can trace (historically?) the fascination with and recirculation of the afterimage?

    Today’s evidence of the deep 18th century: the NY Times Week in Review article, “The Charisma Mandate.”


  3. And here’s the link to Kate Zernike, “The Charisma Mandate,” in today’s Week in Review in the NYT:


    Since it is the Times, there’s no mention of Weber, or the tension in his thought between the charismatic and the bureaucratic.

    But I would think that any reasonable discussion would assume that political movements, however formed, require organization and direction in order to translate those inchoate feelings into political action.


  4. Tita,

    I’ve been thinking about your great point about lurid details serving as “evidentiary units of memory” functioning analytically as “it-icons” themselves. This is particularly true in contemporary representations of celebrities (sad as in the unnecessary details of how Heath Ledger’s body was found and satiric as in the media frenzy over Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “fat” bikini photos..). I’m also wondering how clothing itself works as an “afterimage” for a kind of collective cultural imagination of what the fashion/culture/ethos of an era might have been. I’m thinking specifically of the current Jane Austen craze (the films, the masterpiece theater series, costume exhibits, accessories — there is in fact a Jane Austen action figure, a million websites etc.). Jane Austen has become the “it” girl of the moment and I’m not sure that any of it has anything to do with the eighteenth century. There is something, however, about regency (aka Jane Austen style) that has an afterlife of its own, despite the fact that it is not particularly revealing or sexualized in the way that earlier eighteenth-century fashions were.

  5. The distinction between history as memory and history as narrative seems to break down pretty easily into the hierarchies of image over text. One is much more intelligible and reproducible than the other, so that history as memory/image spreads with much less conscious effort, like a viral video that circulates all over the world in a few days. I think the key here is that the afterimage spreads as easily as it does because it does not require the conscious effort of retelling/narration.

    We have in fact plenty of forms of popular historicizations, which we call “costume” dramas for a reason: Heath Ledger (to give an obvious (and sad) example, may not sound like anyone’s idea of Casanova, but he looked nice in those 18c outfits. But plots and dialogue are always the hardest part of these kinds of cinematic reconstitutions of another period, because they hint at subjectivities that are distinct from our own yet not too distant. Oddly enough, these seem to work best when they offer some degree of literary pastiche, like “Plunkitt and Maclean” or “Shakespeare in Love.”

    But to address Laura E’s other point, I think the “regency” craze you discuss really cannot be separated from the “Janeite” phenomenon that literary critics always feel so ambivalent about.

    [take a look at the Wordwenches site, incidentally, and you’ll see how freely these different versions of romance intermingle]

    How else can we explain public balls where members are invited to come dressed as their favorite Austen character?

    [not that there’s anything wrong with this, mind you]


  6. Hi Laura E. & Dave,

    Thanks for these interesting & helpful thoughts.

    To the question of clothing. I’ve read a lot of satires about women that use images of clothing and one, in particular, by Robert Gould makes specific reference to clothing being out of date. There are also a number of figures in other forms of 18th-c lit that are decidedly old-fashioned because of their clothing, but I suspect that this sensibility–that fabulous clothes are fabulous in part because they are of the mode–is another one of the new things we see in the 18th century.

    In Roach, I think that clothes are part of the lurid detail that comes to stand for Buckingham, but the bloody shirt is inseparable from the narratives about it–the duel, the death, the sex. I agree that it might be reduced an image v. text situation, but as much as Buckingham is represented in the visual arts (acc. to Roach), we only have a textual account of the lurid detail of the bloody shirt. This gets us, I think, to a pictorial nature of this lurid detail–just hearing about it, one imagines it, as it were–that I would say still has a very specific relation to narrative and its production. Pope’s Belinda at her toilet is an intensely pictorial affair, but ‘begins’ after all as ekphrastic text.