Published by C.R.Kramer, June 9, 2009
An analysis of how Charles Dickens uses the idea of “the power of dress” to satirize class distinctions in Victorian England.
Class conflict in Oliver Twist is an unmistakable theme. Class differences structure the actual story, and Dickens uses to story to shed light on life in Victorian Britain. Dickens uses many devices to illustrate his opinion on Victorian Britain, including clothing. Dickens uses the idea of the power of dress to reveal the arbitrariness and harmfulness of socially constructed class identity.
Handkerchiefs play a prominent role. For Fagin and these boys, they are objects to steal. Their almost worship of handkerchiefs creates a sort of capitalistic handkerchief currency. This handkerchief currency is used by Dickens to satirize class distinctions. When Oliver arrives at Fagin’s house in London, the handkerchiefs are immediately introduced. Fagin says to Oliver, “Ah, you’re a-staring at the pocket-handkerchiefs! eh my dear? There are a good many of “em, ain”t there? We’ve just looked “em out, ready for the wash; that”s all. Oliver; that’s all. Ha! ha! ha!” (Dickens 49). Oliver does not notice that the handkerchiefs are stolen. From this moment, Oliver’s participation in Fagin’s gang is marked by the image of the handkerchief.
“As they reappear and pass from one context to another, handkerchiefs take on increasing thematic and figural significance in the novel…they seem as well to have symbolic or exchange value in the thieves’ underground economy” (Jordan 585).
This characterization of handkerchiefs is brought to an absurd level by Dickens in the novel. It begins with the thieves’ prioritization of handkerchiefs and the way in which they judge some handkerchiefs to be better (especially in comparison to their own), and it continues and builds from there. Near the end of the book, the handkerchief gains full significance when Nancy is meeting with Rose Maylie. Nancy refuses Rose’s offer of money and says, “I have not done this for money. Let me have that to think of. And yet – give me something that you have worn: I should like to have something – no, no, not a ring – your gloves or your handkerchief” (Dickens 295). This signifies the handkerchief as valuable but distinct from money. This example, however, departs from other uses of the handkerchief. It promotes the handkerchief as a valuable, personal gift. Nevertheless, it sustains the idea of the handkerchief as having exchange value. By creating this hierarchical, monetary system of handkerchiefs, Dickens effectively satirizes class distinctions. In the book, the abundance of and importance placed on handkerchiefs becomes almost absurdity. This absurdity matches the way in which class distinctions played out in Victorian Britain. Dickens mocks the idea that some people are more valuable than other simply by what they can purchase. So by mocking the supposed power of the handkerchief, Dickens is deconstructing the idea of class distinctions through parody and satire.
Clothing in Oliver Twist also serves a deeper purpose than to distinguish classes: it serves to control. Workhouse clothes are used to turn orphans in to a faceless “huddled mass”. The clothes they are forced to wear identify them and allow them to be oppressed. In the first chapter of the book when discussing the ambiguity of Oliver’s background, Dickens says that “now that [Oliver] was enveloped in the old calico robes that had grown yellow in the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once…the orphan of the workhouse…despised by all and pitied by none” (3). It doesn’t matter who Oliver is as a person; the addition of workhouse clothes otherizes him enough to be oppressed – to be ungrievable. Nobody thinks twice about whether the clothes serve as an accurate marker for a person because they just assume someone in orphan clothes is worthless. As long as someone is wearing those clothes, they become the Orphan. It allows them to be controlled socially, identified, and denied basic human care and necessities all by the institution, the workhouse, which gave them those clothes. The state exercises complete control over orphans by “dressing” them up in different ways – naming, literal dressing, selling them as apprentices, and by killing them through the gallows (Jordan 586). The random assignment of a name mirrors the randomness of Oliver’s fate. The state uses the control over orphans as a way of controlling class distinctions, regulating whatever minutia of daily life will best help separate the lower class. Utilizing the handkerchief motif, “the power of the state in Oliver Twist extends to the absurd length of an attempt by the workhouse board of governors to forbid the possession of pocket-handkerchiefs by any inmate” (586). The state determines the fate of orphans and separates, commodifies, and oppresses the lower class from society through state control. They determine how a person will live. Oliver’s fate could have been anything, depending on his “dress”, so to assign him a class is a random social construct, arbitrary and unrelated to any real distinction. In fact, he actually had high-ranking heritage (although it is true that no one should be categorized in this way by class regardless of background). However, by giving him workhouse clothes they allow him to be part of the huddling orphan mass, ready to be objectified and oppressed. It is through this device that Dickens demonstrates the arbitrariness and, especially in this case, harmfulness of socially constructed class identifications.
Throughout the book, Oliver has a consistent good-naturedness and an innocent naïveté. He should be treated nicely according to his personality. However, his success in life changes depending on what clothes he is wearing, both literally and figuratively. Clothes in the book have meaning in a way that mirrors real life. They are characterized by Stephen Engel as more than simply a “guard against the elements. They communicate status. They are invested with symbolic meaning” (Engel). In the first chapter, Dickens remarks on the blankness of Oliver’s identity:
“What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a beggar; it would be hard for the haughtiest stranger to have assigned him his proper station in society” (Dickens 3).
Not surprisingly, Dickens’ characterization of Oliver gains more meaning later in the text. During the times when he is staying with the Maylies or with Mr. Brownlow, he is dressed well literally, but also figuratively in that he is provided care and an upper class station. At that time, he functions like any other regular upper class citizen. He remains the same as he ever was: good natured and innocent. When he is staying with Fagin or in the workhouse, he is treated like a lower class criminal, despite having the same innocent personality which is often demonstrated through Dodger and Bates’ characterization of Oliver as “green”. Oliver is not the only character that experiences changes based on outward appearance or social role. We find the same situation with “Mr. Bumble, who loses every vestige of authority when he takes of his beadle’s cocked hat, laced coat, and cane” (Jordan 585). He has power when he is in the position of beadle, but he is otherwise a weak, uncompassionate man. The way in which clothing and social roles functions to distort who people really are and function independently of people means that class identity really has no meaning. Dickens is trying to reach the conclusion that class roles are socially constructed and arbitrary. The book uses clothing to help make this point. The idea of clothing being the social construction of class identity means that:
“if identity is not essential, if clothing does not enable the expression of an already always existing self, but rather serves as a possible mechanism to enable that self to be realized, then identity is neither based on our relationship to what we produce nor necessarily to what we consume…but to what we perform through consumption” (Engel).
Dickens wants to show that who a person is will be determined by their own self, and that socially constructed class identity, especially that in Victorian Britain, is arbitrary and harmful.
Oliver Twist depicts a Victorian Britain that concerns itself with class roles more than people themselves, which harms the lower class. The class roles are depicted many times in clothing, such as the handkerchief currency, the workhouse clothes, and the way clothes change a person’s social role but not the person themselves. Dickens uses this idea of the power of dress, along with Oliver’s journey, to reveal the arbitrariness and harmfulness of socially constructed class identity. He discredits oppressive Victorian morality and uses the characters in the book to confront the always-pressing social issue of class boundaries, of which he was quite aware.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002. Print.
Engel, Stephen. “Marketing Everyday Life: The Postmodern Commodity Aesthetic of
Abercrombie & Fitch.” Advertising & Society Review Volume 5, Issue 3(2004) Web.11 May 2009.
Jordan, John. “The Purloined Handkerchief.” Dickens Studies Annual 18(1989): 580-593.