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.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1400/1400-h/1400-h.htm (Great Expectations: Gutenberg online edition)
http://www.academia.edu/5349062/Fashion_and_Gender_Roles (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?