Clothing as Distinctions of Social Class: Victorian Secrets

In Hammad Raza’s essay “Role of Fashion and Clothing in Construction of Gender Identities,” the author states, “Fashion generates and alters identities based on the gender-based relations in a society.” While we agree that fashion can be used to formulate male-female identities, we postulate that in Great Expectations Dickens utilized fashion to distinguish between social classes and the social expectations within said social classes.

The first few chapters of the novel make a point of emphasizing Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, who wears aprons: “She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself…that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all; or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life.” This is meant to demonstrate the womanly gender roles within Victorian society, especially considering that Mrs. Joe is the archetypal female Dickensian villain who goes around cleaning the house and generally complaining about Pip’s existence.

Moreover, we see that Mrs. Joe carries around a cane and an umbrella on separate occasions: “We walked to town, my sister leading the way in a very large beaver bonnet, and carrying a basket like the Great Seal of England in plaited Straw, a pair of pattens, a spare shawl, and an umbrella, though it was a fine bright day. I am not quite clear whether these articles were carried penitentially or ostentatiously; but I rather think they were displayed as articles of property.” In Victorian times, canes were considered to be fashionable accessories, but umbrellas were a sign of low social status because it indicated that you did not own a carriage and had to shield yourself from the rain. Pip expresses a great deal of confusion about his sister’s fashion choices, indicating that her choices are beyond the realm of social acceptance.

Miss Havisham is perpetually depicted in an over-the-top wedding gown with excessive amounts of lace and frills. Especially when one takes the availability of factory-made clothing into account at the time of her would-be marriage (that is to say, the near-nonexistence of factory-made clothing), we can see that Miss Havisham comes from an incredibly wealthy background because she can afford such a luxuriously made gown.

Pip shows extreme discomfort when having to discuss his own Sunday best clothing: “Even when I was taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs.” Moreover, he describes Joe’s Sunday best in a similarly disparaging manner:  “In his working-clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else. Nothing that he wore then fitted him or seemed to belong to him; and everything that he wore then grazed him.” These combined instances are a fairly obvious attempt at demonstrating the social gap between Pip and the upper class in that he, and his social peers, look and feel out of place in well-made clothing. It is interesting to note that, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, clothes were still being hand-made, as factory textiles were not yet popular; as such, the lower classes had to make their own clothing, and their outfits were often shabby imitations of the styles worn by the upper class, further demonstrating the extreme gap between the two classes. Pip’s discomfort with his Sunday best–how ill-fitting and poorly made they are–are a representation of this situation.


Sources: (Great Expectations: Gutenberg online edition) (Hammad Raza’s essay, “Fashion and Gender Roles”)


Discussion Question: What can we infer about Dickens’ views on gender or social class based on Pip’s observations about clothing?

7 thoughts on “Clothing as Distinctions of Social Class: Victorian Secrets

  1. Erin Duffy

    Group 4: Erin Duffy, Jake Trost, Heather McFarlane, Cassandra Ballini, Angie Carson

    While we stand by our analysis of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress in that it represents her status as a member of a wealthy family, we would like to add that the dress is representative of a traditionally feminine role – her entire character is wrapped up in her lack of a husband, and this is reflective of the Victorian perception that a woman must be married in order to be a productive and/or socially acceptable member of society (and, failing that, she must adhere to the strict social conventions that come with being a spinster).

    This negative depiction of Miss Havisham indicates to us that Dickens is supportive of traditional Victorian gender roles, as well as the social conventions connected to a woman’s marital status. Being that Miss Havisham is notorious for her erratic behavior, as well as the fact that her dress in all likelihood both outdated and contradictory of her status as a spinster, it is possible to infer that Dickens would disapprove of this kind of behavior in polite society, and would likely support the more conventional (and sexist) roles affiliated with Victorian women and marriage.

    In the case of Mrs. Joe, we see that the stereotypical connotations of an apron are completely subverted. Aprons are typically meant to represent nurturing, feminine behavior, which is completely at odds with the abusive, strong-willed figure we see in Mrs. Joe. Despite the fact that she is effectively Pip’s mother figure, she fails to adhere to the social conventions of that role: she treats both Pip and her husband with equal measures of destain, and the pins in her apron are indicative of her harsh and unforgiving nature. Being that Mrs. Joe is a villainous figure in Pip’s life, we can infer that Dickens would not support a woman embodying such headstrong tendencies.

    This idea is reinforced by Pip’s explicit confusion about why his sister chooses to wear such a feminine article of clothing in the first place: “She made it a powerful merit in herself…that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all; or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life.” We can argue that Dickens not only disapproves of such nontraditional behavior in women, but that he is also confused about why such a subversion of gender roles would occur in the first place.

  2. John Panus

    On Pip’s second venture into Satis house, he listens to a conversation between Sarah Pocket and the other “toadies and humbugs” that hope to increase their property by (unsuccessfully) appealing to Miss Havisham. Sarah Pocket explains that Matthew Pocket “actually could not be induced to see the importance of the children’s having the deepest of trimmings to their mourning” at a funeral for a relative, to which Camilla incredulously responds “Good Lord!” (P 67 Norton). In this conversation, Dickens ridicules the women – who, by traditional Victorian standards are the people who provide clothing for their children – for making such a scene over the necessity of having black ribbons for mourning. To put it another way, Dickens mocks the women for their obsession over property, an obsession so ridiculous that the women claim that Matthew Pocket is “Nobody’s enemy but his own,” solely because he refuses to waste money on black trimmings for mourning. At the heart of this exchange, Dickens questions traditional Victorian gender roles by deriding women for the way they clothe their children, and suggests that men are more sensible about how to clothe one’s family.

    Furthermore, Dickens uses this conversation to point out the absurdity of the belief in accumulating property to increase one’s social standing. Throughout the novel, readers do not see the exact social standing of characters such as Camilla and Sarah Pocket – their social standing seems to be more fluid than concrete. What I mean by this is that Sarah Pocket is certainly a member of a wealthy class, and certainly not as wealthy as the Dedlock’s in Bleak House, but we still cannot fit her into a concrete social class. Although it is well known to readers – and surely to other characters in Great Expectations – that Sarah Pocket has wealth, she pointlessly tries to fit in with the wealthiest class of Victorian England by insisting that they must wear as much mourning apparel as anyone else. In fact, a lack of mourning apparel “WILL NOT DO for the credit of the family,” and more directly “without deep trimmings, the family [will be] disgraced.”

  3. Alyssa Knott

    Group 3

    Group 4 postulates that the attire worn by various characters in Great Expectations is indicative of the social class that they are from. Therefore, by getting descriptions of characters clothing it makes it easier to infer what their social background is and likewise what kind of person they are.

    We agree with this standpoint and believe that Dickens uses clothing in the novel as a commentary on peoples social class but also their morality. For example, Uncle Pumblechook is constantly lording over Pip and using any chance he can to criticize him. At Christmas dinner he makes a note of telling Pip “be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand” (Norton 26). He carries on with this air of authority and admonishment towards Pip for the rest of the time he is there.

    However, not only through his actions is it possible to get a sense of his haughtiness but also through his attire. In chapter eight it says that “Mr. Pumblechoock wore corduroys, and so did his shopman, and somehow there was a general air and flavour about the corduroys, so much in the nature of seeds, and a general air and flavour about the seeds, so much in the nature of corduroys, that I hardly knew which was which” (Norton 47). Here we believe Dickens is mocking Uncle Pumblechook for carrying some sort of airs about him because of the style of pants that he wears. We believe that Dickens is trying to say that anyone who thinks themselves above anyone else because of the way they dress is actually a jerk and a person with a low sense of morals. It relates back to what Hammad Raza says in his article. He writes, “In criticizing the fashion, most of the critics miss the point that with the emergence of mass society and consumer culture, the aggressive nature of men is in the phase of transition owing to their obsession for consumption of goods and search for luxuries to ease their lives.” (Razza 4) This further explains Uncle Pumblechook’s character since he is obviously the kind of man who enjoys the “consumption of goods” and uses them as a way to assert his own power and status in society.

  4. Klarisa Loft

    Group 5
    Matt Spitzer, Courtney Cavallo, Joe Fennie, Kristen Druse, and Klarisa Loft

    We believe that Dickens’ view on social class is different from the majority of Victorian society. Though it may make a person feel categorized into a certain box, it does not depict someone’s character. A prime example of this is Abel Magwitch, the prisoner that Pip meets in the very first chapter of Great Expectations. His garb is described through the eyes of Pip: “A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head” (Dickens 10). The iron on Magwitch’s leg immediately portrays the fact that he is an escaped prisoner, likely the lowest a person can be. In addition, Pip deliberately makes note that he does not wear a hat, as gentleman of higher classes wore top hats during that time period. His shoes are broken as well, for he doesn’t have the money (or reputation for that matter) to get them fixed.

    Though Magwitch’s attire places him on the lowest level of the nineteenth-century English hierarchy, Dickens uses him to portray the idea that it does not express his nature or character. This is put into motion when what is arguably the largest plot twist of the novel is revealed: ““Yes, Pip, dear boy, I’ve made a gentleman on you! It’s me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I spec’lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth; I worked hard, that you should be above work. What odds, dear boy?” (Dickens 241) In this sequence, Magwitch reveals himself as Pip’s benefactor. Who was probably the least likely character to be able to provide for himself, let alone someone else, is the one who made a poor boy into a gentleman in society. Magwitch even recognizes how unexpected this is with his words, “What odds, dear boy?” This goes to prove that Dickens believes that assumptions cannot be made simply on what clothing someone wears, and therefore what class society categorizes them into.

  5. Hannah Glaser

    Group 2, Mike Stoianoff, Michael Adams, Kevin O’Connor, Colin Peartree, and Hannah Glaser

    Group four presents a description of Mrs. Joe from chapter two of Great Expectations, claiming that, “This is meant to demonstrate the womanly gender roles within Victorian society, especially considering that Mrs. Joe is the archetypal female Dickensian villain who goes around cleaning the house and generally complaining about Pip’s existence.” This claim posits Mrs. Joe as, “the archetypal female Dickensian villain,” suggesting that she is a duplicate of some stock female character presented in Dickens’ work and/or that she is representative of some Victorian notion of the villainous woman. We first wish to dismiss the assertion that Mrs. Joe is a villain. Second, we would like to point out that group four refers to “the archetypal female Dickensian Villain,” which takes for granted that there is an archetype and that it is a female villain. We would like to separate these two assertions and focus only on the first, that Mrs. Joe is presented as an archetype, but it is not a villainous one. We disagree with this categorization and argue that Mrs. Joe has enough gender fluidity that she does not fit neatly into one archetype.

    Dickens presents Mrs. Joe with both male and female signifiers, in terms of Victorian gender roles, in both appearance and action. Mrs. Joe is initially described rather demonically with, “black hair and eyes,” and, “a prevailing redness of skin.” Dickens adds an aspect of violence to the description of Mrs Joe. when he writes, “…it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap” (Dickens, 13). These harsh and even violent images show that Pip is afraid of Mrs. Joe, but later we see that there is something more to her character. The same description continues, “She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron…that was stuck full of pins and needles” (Dickens, 13). This description of the apron is an example of the juxtaposition of hard and soft that frequently accompanies Mrs. Joe. The fact that she is wearing an apron indicates that she plays the role of homemaker and mother; but the pins and needles suggest that Mrs. Joe is literally unembraceable, and prickly.

    The gender contradictions in Mrs. Joe’s physical appearance and clothing are accentuated by her often protestant feminine behavior. While Mrs Joe performs nurturing tasks, she is portrayed as resentful towards her motherly role. For example, when she prepares Pip’s meagre dinner, he observes, “My sister had a trenchant way of cutting our bread and butter for us…she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her bib–where it sometimes got a pin into it, and sometimes a needle, which we afterwards got into our mouths” (Dickens, 14). Pip might interpret this behavior as his sister’s anger towards him, but we believe Mrs. Joe’s abuse of the bread reveals her anger towards her position in the Victorian world. She is fuming with silent outrage that she should be held captive by tradition. The pins represent this insuppressible anger protruding from Mrs Joe, and consequently, Pip and Joe get a taste of her rage.

    Mrs. Joe’s dialogue also shows her complexity and internal conflict. She says, “Where have you been, you young monkey? Tell me directly what you’ve been doing to wear me away with fret and fright and worrit, or I’d have you out of that corner if you was fifty Pips, and he was five hundred Gargerys” (Dickens 13). Mrs. Joe’s voice is angry and demanding, but the content of her speech, “to wear me away with fret,” shows that she is also worried for Pip’s safety, as a mother would worry. Through her physical appearance, behavior, and speech, Mrs. Joe is characterized as a woman torn between two identities, she resents the expectations Victorian society has burdened her with, but can find no escape. Mrs. Joe is not the only character torn between her inner nature and societal expectations.

    Joe is another example of gender bending in Great Expectations. In the first scene inhabited by both Joe and Mrs. Joe, Dickens reveals that the couple is a pair of foils by describing a common article of clothing, an apron. Mrs. Joe, “made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much” (Dickens, 13) Both Joe and his wife wear aprons, but for very different reasons. Joe’s blacksmith’s apron signifies his masculine ability to provide for the family, but Mrs. Joe’s apron represents her feminine obligation to serve the family. Mrs. Joe’s “reproach against Joe” stems from her resentment towards her role as the keeper of the household. The apron shows the power that gender has over perception and social expectations. Altered only by the context of gender, the same article of clothing has the power to liberate a timid man, or to mollify the most ferocious woman.

    Mrs. Joe is not a villain; contrarily, her actions prove her capable of great restraint in the face of interminable repression. Her constant internal battle against Victorian gender expectations affirms our belief that Mrs. Joe is a complex character, an individual who would be nearly impossible to duplicate, even by the author himself. Mrs. Joe is therefore not an archetype of any kind, least of all a villainous one; Dickens’ characters are Dickens characters because they are not archetypal.

  6. Alexis Donahue

    GROUP 1
    Alexis, Audrey, Jenna, Amanda, Lizzy

    Group four mentions the fact that Mrs. Joe carries a cane and that in Victorian England it was fashionable to do so, However fashionable it may have been at the time, however, in the beginning of chapter two, a piece of a cane “tickler” becomes also a weapon, a tool of punishment and method of rearing Pip; “Tickler was a wax-ended piece cane, worn smooth by collision with my tickled frame” (20). However fashionable tickler once must have been as a whole cane, fashion turns into a symbol of household roles. In Pip’s house, although she goes by ‘Mrs. Joe’, Pip’s sister holds the role of the head of house. Joe is referred to by Pip as a ‘fellow sufferer’ and later, “I always treated him as a larger species of child, and as no more than my equal” (21). While a strong female role in household matters and child rearing was a traditional concept in Victorian England, the fact that Mrs. Joe did so while taking away Joe’s power and traditional role as head of house discredits her to become, as group four points out, the villain. Dicken’s villainization of such dominant female characteristics can lead us to argue that he disapproved of any woman embodying such traits.

    Biddy, by contrast, is Pip’s equal, friend, and fellow orphan. She is described as “She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel” (49). Biddy is kind to Pip and helps him in school. Although she is young, Dickens portrays her as displaying the maternal instincts that Pip’s sister lacks. Her fashion, or rather lack of it, is of a line with Pip. Biddy’s positive role in Pip’s life allows the argument to be made that Dickens approved of and valued the female characteristics (hardworking, maternal and kind) that she embodies.

    Estella’s juxtaposition to Biddy is demonstrated through her fashion expectations and treatment of Pip. While Biddy is within the same social class as Pip and thus accepts him as he is, Estella is astonished when Miss. Havisham tells her to play cards with Pip. She continually makes derisive comments such as “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”(63). Her ability to impact Pip’s self-esteem and her enjoyment in Pip’s despair lends her villainous qualities akin to those of his sister.

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