BLACK SILK MOURNING DRESS, c. 1839, SILK TAFFETA, COLLARLESS, FRONT OPENING,
In ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’, George Eliot’s narrator asserts:
‘I wish to stir your sympathy with commonplace troubles – to win your tears for real sorrow: sorrow such as may live next door to you – such as walks neither in rags nor in velvet, but in very ordinary decent apparel.’
It’s appropriate that Eliot chooses clothing to illustrate her manifesto for the ordinary, the commonplace, the everyday; clothes are often used in her novels as a way of representing her characters’ personalities, as well as their social status. Amos Barton’s wife, Milly, wears an ‘old frayed black silk’ which, despite its worn fabric and sober colour, seems ‘to repose on her bust and limbs with a placid elegance and sense of distinction’. In a single sentence, Eliot gives us information about Milly’s economic situation (she’s too poor, as a curate’s wife, to buy or wear more expensive or less durable fabrics), about her personal qualities (she’s calm, serene – note the words ‘repose’ and ‘placid’ – and has a natural elegance which communicates itself despite the slightly tatty dress), and about her social status (Milly conveys that sense of distinction, or gentility, belonging to a curate’s wife in the way she wears her modest apparel). Many of Eliot’s more well-known female characters are similarly signified by dress: Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, and Mirah Lapidoth in Daniel Deronda all wear plain clothes that communicate their modesty, moral integrity and intellectual seriousness. Conversely, many of Eliot’s flighty, amoral female characters display these character traits in the clothes they wear: consider the green ‘Lamia’ ensemble worn by Gwendolen Harleth, Hetty Sorrel’s red cloak [for more on red cloaks in literature, see Sue Elsley’s post, below] and the pastel finery of Rosamond Vincy.
Milly’s old frayed black silk makes several appearances in ‘Amos Barton’. Despite her fondness of dress, a ‘pretty woman’s weakness’, as Eliot describes it, Milly is compelled to ‘economical millinery’ by her financial situation. When the soup tureen empties itself on her ‘newly-turned black silk’, we are offered a glimpse of the measures taken by impoverished gentility to preserve a respectable surface. The worn silk that has become dulled with age and wear is ‘turned’ outside-in, so that the less worn reverse of the fabric is on display. For the rural middle classes of the 1830s, buying clothes ready-made was rare, and the names of fabrics were interchangeable with the articles of clothing made from them. When Milly’s host makes her a reparatory gift of ‘a handsome black silk’, also referred to as ‘the present of a gown’, it’s likely that what she receives is a length of black silk from which to make – or have made – a new dress.
Like Eliot, many authors use descriptions of clothes to provide insight into characters’ lives. As Daniel Miller argues in Stuff, clothing is not superficial; rather, it makes us what we think we are. Similarly, our responses to characters are often mediated by the clothes they’re wearing. Which literary character’s clothes most interest or excite you, and what information is given by their author’s description of them?
Jen Davis, University of Chester