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Thomas Hardy Writing Dress


Simon Gatrell

This new study provides fresh readings of Thomas Hardy’s work and illuminates the social and cultural history of dress in the nineteenth century. The book argues that Hardy had a more detailed and acute understanding of the importance of dress in forming and regulating personal identity and social relations than any other writer of his time. Structured thematically, it takes into account both nineteenth-century and modern theoretical approaches to the significance of what we wear.
The author gives an extended analysis of individual works by Hardy, showing, for example, that A Pair of Blue Eyes is central to the study of the function of clothing in the expression and perception of sexuality. The Hand of Ethelberta, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Woodlanders are examined in order to show the extent to which dress obscures or reveals the nature of the self. Hardy’s other novels, as well as the short stories and poems, are used to confirm the centrality of dress and clothing in Hardy’s work. The book also raises issues such as the gendering of dress, cross-dressing, work clothes and working with clothes, dress and the environment, the symbolism of colour in clothes, and the dress conventions relating to death.


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Chapter 7Cross-Dressing in Wessex 139


Chapter 7 Cross-Dressing in Wessex There are relatively few instances of cross-dressing in the nineteenth-century literary landscape, especially when compared with that of earlier periods (for instance: ‘women dressed as men in about a quarter of the plays performed in the eighteenth century’).1 Accounting for this involves a complicated and partly speculative history. To put it very brief ly the argument is that there came a turning-point in social attitudes to cross-dressing somewhere near the end of the eighteenth century, a development that was closely related to the changed medical understanding of the physical dif ferences between men and women – in particular the abandonment of the more than two-thousand-year-old belief that women were essentially undevel- oped men, a belief which was replaced by the proposition that men and women are biologically distinct. This radical transformation meant that, rather than evincing an understandable aspiration towards the higher male form, female cross-dressers were understood as desiring to cross an inviolable boundary for presumptively suspect reasons. Cross-dressing remained acceptable in the theatre for longer than anywhere else, and it is not surprising that instances in Victorian literature are most often in the context of performance of some kind.2 At the same time there is by now a considerable repository of accounts of nineteenth-century women who by dressing as men were accepted as men, in all sorts of exclusively male arenas – as soldiers, trappers, even as doctors. Clothes, if performed with intelligence and desire, appear to be suf ficient to define gender for...

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