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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 12‘Visible Essences’ 239


Chapter 12 ‘Visible Essences’ The book might appropriately have closed with the macabrely surreal image of a spirit clothed in a shroud and a fur coat that concludes the previous chapter, were it not that the surrealism of the poem brought to mind some chapters of The Well-Beloved in which the reality of what women wear gives way gradually to something similarly surreal. Hardy published very little theoretical writing about the relationship of dress and literature, but one brief passage he wrote at about the same time as the novel does address this matter of realism and what lies behind or within it, and during the same period he made several notes that relate to the same issue, notes which he included in the typescript of his autobiography; it is with these brief hints at a theory of fiction that this chapter begins.1 In ‘The Science of Fiction’ (1891) Hardy expressed his sense of the necessity for a novelist in the 1890s to penetrate beyond naturalism: He may not count the dishes at a feast, or accurately estimate the value of the jewels in a lady’s diadem; but through the smoke of those dishes, and the rays from these jewels, he sees written on the wall:– ‘We are such stuf f As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.’2 And indeed it is a commonplace nowadays to say of Hardy that in the late 1880s he himself began to see through realism as a...

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