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  • 'Fashion in undress':Clothing and Commodity Culture in Household Words
  • Catherine Waters (bio)

In Little Dorrit, Dickens describes the motley group of 'nondescript messengers, go-betweens, and errand bearers' who congregate outside the Marshalsea prison each morning before the gates open in these terms:

Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people's individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper.1

The miscellaneous clothing of the Marshalsea poor is marked by dispossession in a way that thwarts the establishment of identity. The haphazard combination of patched and misshapen garments produces a scene of undifferentiated poverty. While Mrs Clennam's worsted gloves and widow's dress serve to express her cold and embittered selfhood – 'There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow's dress for fifteen months' (27) – the marginality of the Marshalsea go-betweensis ironically emphasized by the fact that their clothing is so worn-outas to be beyond resale in the cast-off market. Not only do they lack a coherent ensemble, their garments are imbued with the traces of other lives, and their lack of 'sartorial existence' is a measure of their social occlusion. Dickens's description assumes a continuity between clothing and identity as normative only to call that assumption into question as part of the narrative's social critique.

The idea of 'sartorial existence', or the lack thereof, in Little Dorrit, points to the more general function of clothing as a symbolic expression of identity in Victorian culture, as well as to its particular use in the nineteenth-century novel to define fictional character. Dress is a sign [End Page 26] replete with social meaning and value. As the most famous Victorian clothes-philosopher argues in Sartor Resartus, '"Society is founded upon Cloth"' and Carlyle uses clothing and its fetishism to expose the fabrications of authority in modern social and political institutions.2 The function of clothing as an expression of selfhood is a relatively recent and distinctively urban development, as theorists such as Richard Sennett have shown. The nineteenth-century expansion and fragmentation of city life produced new anxieties about the definition and interpretation of metropolitan identities. As public behaviour became 'a matter of observation, of passive participation, of a certain kind of voyeurism',3 the need to decode the more nuanced languages of an increasingly homogeneous urban dress found literary expression in the figure of the flâneur, that passionate observer of city life. In the crowded metropolitan milieu of strangers, clothing became invested with character, containing subtle markers of social differentiation. Fashion, as Elizabeth Wilson notes, originates 'in the early capitalist city',4 and as Peter Stallybrass reminds us, the example with which Marx begins his analysis of commodity fetishism in Capital is a coat.5 Marx tracks the coat and the linen of which it is made back through the transformations of the capitalist marketplace to identify the human labour that was appropriated in its making. Distinguishing between the use-value and the exchange-value of the coat, Marx demonstrates that the latter is created by the 'congelation' of human labour – consideredin the abstract – that was expended in its making and is therefore embodied in it. 'In this aspect,' he argues, 'the coat is a depositoryof value, but though worn to a thread, it does not let this fact show through.'6

Clothing has long been recognized as a key element used by nineteenth-century novelists to achieve that 'solidity of specification' associated by Henry James with narrative realism.7 More recently, cultural critics have linked the depiction of dress and other consumer goods in Dickens's novels to the emergence of commodity culturein the nineteenth century. The link is made by Murray Roston, for example, in Victorian Contexts (1996), where he argues more generally that the personification of the inanimate in Dickens's fiction can...


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pp. 26-41
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Archived 2009
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