Second-hand clothes shops are as much a feature of our era as of the Victorian age. Now, primarily labelled as charity shops, they regularly pop into existence to fill the retail voids in all our towns and cities, many of them settling into those voids as comfortably and tenaciously as any hermit crab. In Charles Dickens’s time of course ‘charity’ was funded by direct philanthropic donations, or by the circuitously indirect route whereby worthy ladies sewed or tatted items of dubious utility which they then sold to each other in order to raise funds for their less fortunate neighbours.
In contrast, Victorian second-hand clothes shops had nothing to do with any charity other than that which began at home. Their owners survived by selling such items as ‘a deceased coat … a dead pair of trousers … the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat’ to the poor who gave the clothing a second lease of life. In his early collection of essays, Sketches by Boz (1836) Dickens uses graveyard imagery in ‘Mediations in Monmouth Street’, not only to indicate the usual source of such clothing but to highlight the fact that Monmouth Street had for generations been the home of second-hand clothes dealers who, having eventually grown singularly unimpressed by changing tastes, preferred to ‘immure themselves’ in ‘the burial place of the fashions’; a place for which Dickens declared a ‘particular attachment’.
It was the ideal place for his hyperbolic imagination to take flight: ‘We love to walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise … and endeavouring, from the shape and fashion of the garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind’s eye’. Such speculation leads him to see, in a collection of suits displayed outside a shop window, one individual’s ‘whole life written as legibly on those clothes as if we had his autobiography engrossed on parchment before us’. The chapters of this autobiography are composed around the following outfits:
- Firstly, the ‘much soiled skeleton suit’ of a small boy, with knees rubbed white through playing on the floor, and the sticky smears of sweets around the pockets and under the chin providing evidence of the kindly nature of the child’s ‘indulgent mother’. Then the schoolboy’s ‘corduroys with the round jacket’ splashed with ink as he learnt to write.
- The ‘diminutive coat’ he wore as an office ‘message-lad’ is mentioned next; this position had been secured for him by his selfless widowed mother who, in Dickens’s imagination, cheerfully sacrificed her own food to nourish her growing boy. But Dickens implies that base nature cannot be improved by loving nurture.
- The next outfit allocated to his subject is a ‘smart but slovenly’ suit, ‘redolent of the idle lounger’ and his ‘blackguard companions’. The companion image of the anxious mother is evoked, feverishly waiting for the wastrel in her ‘solitary and wretched apartment’, then stoically bearing the ‘brutish threat’ or ‘drunken blow’ on his return.
- Next, a ‘broad-skirted green coat with large metal buttons’ conjures the form of a repulsive ruffian with ‘a dog at his heels’ (the ghostly herald of Bill Sykes perhaps) whose wife and child starve while he staggers, once again, to the tap-room. For Dickens the ‘vices of the boy had grown with the man’, or with the clothes. Pathos (or bathos) cloaks the narrative as the mother dies, abandoned in the workhouse, still ‘imploring pardon for her son’.
- A ‘coarse round frock, with a worn cotton neckerchief’ completes the history, as the sins of its wearer carry him inexorably to transportation, or to the gallows.
Dickens restores what he claims is his ‘naturally cheerful’ disposition by fitting imaginary feet into a ‘corps de ballet’ of boots and shoes, and setting them off on a riotous dance which closes the piece, and which I strongly recommend as an antidote to the dire tale of the suits.
However, I blame Dickens for the fact that I now have to fight the temptation to ‘see’ the past wearers of clothes displayed in the windows of second-hand clothes shops – even if few of those outfits will have clothed such a grim or grisly individual as the one whose ‘ghastly form … lay rotting in the pauper’s grave’ while his garments haunted ‘the burial place of the fashions’!
Sue Elsey, University of Chester.