Fringe: A Brief Genealogy of Edginess

Elaine Freedgood. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 7, Issue 2. Spring 2006.

In the 19th century, edginess was experienced as a literal problem. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives us the first definition, in 1822, as “the condition of having the outlines too clearly marked; angularity, hardness of outline.” Naked edges were not only unsightly, I argue that they were also anxiety provoking. And fringe, I suggest, worked to assuage this anxiety. A feminine and apparently frivolous trimming, fringe can be imagined as performing significant symbolic work in helping to construct limits as variable, permeable, and attenuated structures.

But before I do this, I want to mention that in the 144 years since its first definition, edginess has moved from the outside to the inside, where it has, thus far, remained. By 1963 the OED definition of edginess had become simply and only “irritability.” It seems that the edges that make us most anxious now are those that we hope secure our inmost selves. My brief and highly selective genealogy of edginess traces the vicissitudes of the edge from Victorian fringe to 21st-century psychoanalysis: the language used to define the borderline patient, I eventually suggest, is the language of fringe interiorized. The psychoanalytic theory of the borderline patient and the use of fringe perform perhaps similar cultural labors: boundaries and their potential mutability are marked and maintained. The invocation and evocation of boundaries work as ongoing treatment for edginess-literally in the Victorian period, figuratively in our own.

The content of my argument about fringe is, obviously, superficial. And the superficial has, for a long time, been largely consigned to the realm of the uninterpretable. Foucault (1972) and Bourdieu (1993) both argued that a sense of depth had, for a few hundred years, coincided seamlessly and apparently “naturally” with ideas of what counts as legitimate knowledge. Possessors of legitimate knowledge are those who can display an essential form of cultural capital: that is, knowingness, consisting of a blend of sophistication, intellectual credibility, and the ability to be devastatingly ironic. These cultural skills center on knowing what is interpretable at a given moment, that is, what can get taken seriously and at what level one reaches the appropriately “deep.” The important thing about the category of the interpretable is that it is under almost constant pressure to change and shift: the television show “Beverly Hills 90210” can now be the subject of an academic talk-it is allowed a certain depth; but a Masterpiece Theater version of “Pride and Prejudice” probably cannot: middle-brow culture remains, thus far, hopelessly lacking in such depth-or in the ability to provoke deep thoughts from critics.

Claims about what counts as knowledge and the knowingness such knowledge putatively begets are widely diffused in postmodernity. Thus we are prevented from analyzing the obvious, the superficial, and the symbolically clunky stuff that litters the no man’s land (indeed, it has long been designated women’s land) of middle-brow culture. But if we think about fringe and the emblematically middle-brow compulsion to trim, we can see that the symbolic work performed by this apparently trivial stuff may well have been large and various. Too much knowingness-a sense of irony, a sense of what is culturally important-obscures this point or makes it illegitimate and embarrassing to pursue.

But a moment of reflection suggests the rich metaphoric material made available by fringe: a few inches of trimming can blur the beginnings and endings of fabric; a border can protect edges from wearing down; the indefinite boundary produced by fringe suggests the possible value of being able to imagine and construct limits as usefully variable structures, rather than as hard edges at which one must stop short. The befringed edge offers a margin for error, for exploration, for coming to an end slowly and gradually.

Hence Victorian fringe-an exemplary object of middle-brow, middle-class, and feminine desire. In Mrs. J. E. Panton’s (1889) work, From Kitchen to Garrett: Hints for Young Householders, almost everything is trimmed. “Nothing,” she wrote, “looks worse than the hard line of a curtain that is neither frilled nor lace-trimmed” (p. 92). Reading on in this manual, we find that lamp shades need two inches of silk fringe; top sheets need Cash’s patent frilling two and a half inches wide, and a toilet table cover ought to have ball-fringe to match the tapestry of which it is made (p. 115). A cigar box covered with velveteen can be useful for storing gloves and shoe laces, Panton advises, but be sure to put fringe around it “in such a way that the opening is hidden” (p. 119). Limits, borders, and even openings need to be covered; and their coverings became so beguiling that extra edges were actually added to clothing and upholstery to provide more areas for trim: dresses, for example, began to be designed in tiers and each tier required its own trimming or trimmings. A description of a dress in the Ladies Newspaper of 1848 notes that the skirt, made of Pekin silk with satin stripes, has three flounces, “each edged with green silk fringe, headed by two rows of green velvet” (quoted in Davenport, 1948, p. 871).

Trimmings became both cheaper and more plentiful in the first half of the 19th century because of the increasing virtuosity of textile-manufacturing equipment. The popularity and availability of what was regarded by high-brow Victorians and by most of us now as excessive trimming raises a question: is its object to obscure edges or call attention to them? Fashion historian Phillis Cunnington (1964) notes that by the 1870s, “the construction of women’s dresses was so complicated that it baffled description even by contemporary experts and except for the ‘house dress’ … all dresses were overloaded with trimming” (p. 149). Trimming simultaneously hides and augments the beginnings and ends of dresses; it confuses the issue of construction and confounds the inquiring eye. A weird conflation of camouflage and decoration, trim becomes a form of sartorial aggression, protection, and self-construction in which a dress is impossible to deconstruct into its component parts, allowing its wearer to be in control, invulnerable, and alluring all at once.

Charles Eastlake, a Victorian furniture designer and author of the influential 1868 work Hints on Household Taste, fretted considerably about fringe. He complained that his contemporaries had “lost sight of the original motive of fringe,” which was to prevent the edges of fabric from unraveling, and he bewailed its use on valences “scarcely deeper than the fringe itself” and on footstools and fire screens where it is “utterly inappropriate” (pp. 96-97). Eastlake’s judgments are part of a larger movement (complete with a parliamentary committee at one point) to reform middle-class, middle-brow taste, which was suspected, early on, of having been corrupted by the mass production of what was regarded in certain aesthetic quarters as useless and tasteless.

Trimming in general and fringe in particular seem to be particularly embarrassing ornaments from which various cultural pundits-Victorian, modern, and postmodern-have taken pains to distance themselves. A contemporary historian of curtains (who might be imagined as having an occupational sympathy for fringe) approves only of early 19th-century fringe. She describes, with apparent admiration, fringes topped with braided geometric or floral patterns, fringes of graduated balls, and fringes of decorated wooden dowels. But she then notes that “drapery was taken to extremes in the latter half of the nineteenth century” [the Victorian part of it] creating a surge of tucks, flounces, frills, ruching, piping and binding (Gibbs, 1994, p. 146). Not to mention artificial fruits, and at one point, dead animals: whole grouse and pheasants for example were, for a while, routinely worn on or as hats (Gloag, 1972, p. 153). There is something about trimming that seems to lead to unspeakable excess-or to an excess that is so speakable that those of us who write about it risk consigning ourselves to the fringe in our own luxurious cataloging of the fascinating things that can happen at the edge: of good taste, as of curtains and of hats.

Anne Hollander (1974) takes Victorian clothing to task with particular energy and eloquence. She contends, with tongue more or less in cheek, that in the 19th century, “puckered taffeta and draped satin” became

spiritually burdensome … at odds with earnest pursuits and dispositions. Manifold flounces and braid, feathers and veiling, trains and crinolines took on the ambiguous and limiting flavor of feminine narcissism. An exquisitely clad woman became an unaccountable apparition, fascinating to the eye but obscurely threatening to the soul, disconnected from the reasonable arrangements of life [p. 144].

It is interesting to note how much power is conferred, however sarcastically, on the absurdly overdecorated Victorian woman in that passage: she can deter us from nothing less than “the reasonable arrangements of life.” But the central element of this description is the way Hollander, like so many other writers on Victorian design (including me) seems to despise and relish excess at the same time. Her prose becomes as ornate as that which it describes: lists proliferate, details pile up in heady profusion, luring us away from more reasonable rhetorical arrangements. The decoration she catalogues is in awful taste, we can all agree, but unlike, say, the symptoms of cancer or the details of urban blight, it is delightful to contemplate. Hollander criticizes, but her language takes the form of that which she seems to reject: we can follow this lead and enjoy, from the safe position of knowingness, the excesses that at some level seduce us. And this is something I think we need to know more about: how the knowing pursuit-that is to say, the ironic, distanced, rejecting pursuit-of what we carefully designate as tastelessness often conceals and thereby allows us to indulge a desire for the things we are not allowed to like or play with or enjoy.

That attitude may have to do, in the case of fringe, with the bad company it keeps. Fringe is seldom found on men’s clothing (military clothing comes to mind as a notable exception and suggests what a man has to do to be safely entitled to wear it). Fringe is and was associated with the feminine: Grier (1987), a historian of furniture, points out that it was used to soften the world of sensation in affluent Victorian homes-the sphere that was identified with middle-class women. Fringe provides softness, gayness, and luxury-qualities that were at one and the same time demonized and coveted in Victorian middle-class culture, and perhaps in our own as well. Women thus gained (in a way typical of the way women gain) significant symbolic clout but retained aesthetic liability from their place on the fringe. But this potential power is simultaneously and paradoxically undermined by the fact that fringe can always be blamed on a fringe group, and thereby any desire for its softening, glamorizing, and attenuating effects can be disavowed.

The unsightly outlines of literal edges had analogues in the many figurative edges that, in the 19th century, also seemed to need softening and attenuating. The self, for example, was constructed in many discursive locations-perhaps most importantly in the novel-as complex and spatial. A number of critics see the 19th-century fictional character as the beginning of the spatial self, as it was to be elaborated by Freud (1923) in his topographical, and therefore geographical and boundaried, model of the subject. This kind of self comes to be in need of interior design. Jane Eyre, for example, learns how to look inside and arrange herself as if her subjectivity were made up of various rooms of furniture (Bronte, 1847). Many first person narrators perform this action of looking around inside themselves: David Copperfield of David Copperfield (Dickens, 1848), Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch (Eliot, 1871-72), and Jude Fawley of Jude the Obscure (Hardy, 1895), for example, teach us how to regulate ourselves through their observations and arrangements-successful or otherwise-of their internal spaces. By the mid-19th century, narrators who refuse to fashion deep characters are rare and quirky. Thackeray (1848) was being scandalous as early as 1848 when, referring to the characters in his Vanity Fair as puppets, he put them back in a box at the novel’s end: he was satirizing the deep characters who had already become the “normal people” of fiction.

Nations are unbounded and rebound at the beginning of the 19th century. Expanding dramatically in 1800 with the act of union, “Britain” becomes the name of four historically disparate nations-England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland-that have never gotten along very well. The edges or borders of these nations continue to exist geographically and culturally but not politically, or not quite. The British Empire, made up of far-flung and often (Merchant Ivory movies notwithstanding) unstable colonies, is often imagined in the later 19th century as a kind of fringe on the fabric of the center. The very titles of two major Victorian histories of the British Empire, Charles Dilke’s (1868) Greater Britain and J. R. Seeley’s (1883) The Expansion of England, suggest that a scattered overseas empire can be reconfigured as something like suburban sprawl. Nova Scotia, Jamaica, New South Wales, Capetown: they are all just at the outer edge of the nation rather than thousands of different miles away. Imagining them as colonial trim on the national skirt creates a sense of attachment that is reassuring, if completely fictive.

Metaphors of variable, reinforced, or decorated edges resonated all the more efficaciously in a culture in which literal fringe was plentiful, providing in its threads vestment, vocabulary, and visual aid. Fringe, in all its excess and frivolity, makes all kinds of literal and figurative edges approachable, available, interesting, and tactilely inviting. In this way, fringe may have helped Victorians work out their considerable and well-founded anxieties about actual and symbolic limits, borders, and boundaries, both within their newly subdivided selves and between themselves and other people and places. Fringe brings its observers counterphobically close to the edge, all within the safety and privacy of home, or of homely surroundings.

The obviousness of Victorian symbolic work becomes impossible toward the end of the 19th century in the radical aesthetic shift that we understand to have taken place between Victorianism and Modernism. Symbols have to shape up: compare the thickets of apparently random detail in a Dickens or Eliot novel with the more careful symbolic orchestrations of Joyce or Woolf; compare the gargoyles of neo-Gothic architecture with the clean lines of Bauhaus; compare curtains with blinds. You can no longer, starting around 1922, wear your symbols on your sleeve. This is the beginning of irony of a certain kind; it may well be the beginning of a certain rejection and devaluation of the obvious.1 At the same moment, the work of interpretation begins to be placed in the newly capable hands of various experts: medical, aesthetic, psychoanalytic, legal, and literary ones, a list that might go on for pages.

In what I imagine to be a related development, Masud Khan (1959), describes “a new kind of patient who has come into prominence in the last two decades [i.e., since the 1930s]: the borderline” (p. 13). Michael Shore (1986) points out that although the phrase has existed since as early as the 1880s, it was not until the end of the 1930s that “the concept begins to take shape” (p. 46); thus he concurs with Khan’s chronology. In Khan’s description (and that of many others, of course) the borderline patient is an extreme case of a personality whose edges are at once too porous and too dense, too elastic and too rigid. Such patients are horribly stuck inside poorly constructed boundaries that do not protect them from the world or the world from them. Inhabiting the “territory between neurosis and psychosis,” as Shore puts it, borderline patients not only are too close to the edge, they keep going dangerously beyond it (p. 46).

A little searching in the Psych lnfo database revealed the following interesting numbers: between 1872 and 1966, the term borderline turns up in the literature 443 times. In the 10 years between 1967 and 1977 it turns up 456 times. Then, in the six years between 1978 and 1984, 1124 hits. High numbers persist through the present. Clearly, there is some kind of long-term trend-either a new kind of patient or a new way of understanding an old kind of patient. But, for my purposes, what is significant about these numbers is that the metaphor of borders surrounding either the self or various kinds of psychic territory remains intensely meaningful and suggestive.

The persistence of these kinds of patients and clinical interest in them, and more consequentially for the likes of me, of the language used to describe them, suggests the extent to which metaphors of borders and boundaries have become key to our imagining much of the modern self. And this apparently developmentally progressive movement from the literal to the figurative leaves us with no obvious source of trimming with which to secure, cover, emphasize, or decorate our too-hard or too-soft edges. We manage to view the edges of our clothing, drapes, and furniture with far more aplomb than did our Victorian forebears: many of us like what we think of as clean lines; mostly, we do not over fringe.

But, to return to the etymological itinerary of edginess with which I began, our edginess is all on the inside; we are afflicted with an irritability that is often resistant to resolution-from the outside or the inside. And in this, our knowingness is no help. Our knowledge, our irony, our sense of the appropriate depth at which something becomes interpretable-all give superficial solutions, or goofy symbolics, a bad name. We have come reflexively to resist rough-and-ready representations as too facile or too trite for our myriad complications. We abjure such potential symbolic solutions as “Band-Aids(TM), as if the external application of tidy adhesive patches is always useless. Perhaps we think so only because, in our valuation of the deep, we think we know too much to pay attention to the surface. Thus there is a sense in which the aesthetic and symbolic shifts from the 19th to the 20th centuries involved a little-mourned but possibly catastrophic loss: the loss of the functionality of crude, trite, or nearly literal representations as simple semiotic models for the relief of problems from the psychological to the geopolitical. That many of these models are ideologically problematic does not undercut the fact of their effectiveness: rather, it suggests just how effective such nonironic, nearly literal representational strategies really were.

We cannot turn in our sense of irony at some historical door and then walk through it in a return to some more soothing symbolic scheme. Rather, my reflections on edginess, Victorian and modern, are offered to suggest that to stop and take things more or less literally does not have to be epistemologically embarrassing-it has been made so, as Foucault argued, by an emphasis on “depth.” Nowhere is it actually given that knowledge resides only a certain distance away from the surface of the world. Literalism gives us a chance to know how little we know about the obvious and the superficial-about all the parts of the world we think we know all too well. It is a treatment for an epistemological rigidity that corresponds nicely to one of the Victorian definitions of edginess: “hardness of outline.” Fringe can for work for that.