Undressing Tess: The Role of Clothing in Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Clothing was a marker of many conditions for Victorians: class, gender, occupation, or event. In Tess Thomas Hardy uses clothing to mark Tess as a woman unbound by social convention. As a fallen woman, Tess’s character is already questionable, so her irreprehensible adherence to social convention is not expected. While reading Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi’s “Introduction to Part I” in Erna Olafson Hellerstein’s Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France, and the United States, I realized that the constricting of women begins as early as birth. From being swaddled to being corseted, middle-class women typically are restrained by clothing from birth to death. Tess, though she is working-class, is not exempt from being marked by her clothing. In the first encounter the reader has with Tess, she is set apart from the other girls: “She was a fine and handsome girl – not handsomer than some others, possibly – but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment.” From the beginning, Tess is marked as a woman who stands out from her virginal friends by the red ribbon fixed in her hair. She continues to be a woman marked by her clothing, or lack thereof, throughout the novel.
I would like to explore these questions throughout the course of my research:
How is Tess marked by her clothing throughout the course of the novel?
How is social success or failure marked on Tess’s body?
How does Tess’s unbound body, including her child nursing in the field, disturb the expectations for bodily containment in the Victorian age?
How does Tess’s clothing indicate her social standing as she moves from virgin to fallen woman to wife to murderer?
Can we see the Victorian social conventions being overturned or upheld by Tess’s clothing?
How does Hardy use Tess’s clothing to comment on Victorian conventions? Does he?
In this paper, I hope to struggle with the role of clothing, and the marker it places on the body as contained or uncontained, within the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the ways in which that particular text compares to Victorian culture at large. I assume that I will find Tess’s body transgressing boundaries of her clothes as well as those of culture.