Styling the Self: Exploring Identity Formation Through Clothing in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Jessica Banner

University of Ottawa

 “Do I end and begin at the surface of my skin?”

– Bill Brown (“The Bodies of Things” 225)

From everyday objects to strange collections of antiques, amputated limbs, and rare gems, Victorian texts are populated by clamouring masses of things. Alongside this swelling sea of stuff, so too rose nineteenth-century concerns around “rapidly advancing industrialization” and “the unprecedented growth of consumer culture” (Boehm 3). By mid-century a considerable portion of this anxiety found itself focused on criticisms of frivolous female dress. Certainly, these concerns did not originate in the nineteenth-century, but during this period the proliferation of commodities reached new heights, and as a result “produced and sustained a culture of its own” (Richards 1). As early as 1818, William Hazlitt in his work “On Fashion” sheds light on the particular anxieties that accompanied frivolous female consumption. He warns that fashion “takes the firmest hold of weak, flimsy, and narrow minds, of those whose emptiness conceives of nothing” (203). Continuing, he suggests that “fashion is the abortive issue of vain ostentation and exclusive egotism: it is haughty, trifling, affected, servile, despotic, mean and ambitious” (204). Amidst Hazlitt’s scathing critique of fashion, he does, however draw attention to the tremendous performative and affective potential of Victorian clothing. Despite the critiques of vanity and egotism that Hazlitt associates with consumer culture, he nonetheless highlights the ways in which this new access to a wider variety of garments offered women the potential to fashion identities for themselves.

Coming in contact with the skin and enveloping the body, clothing, as formulated by Katharina Boehm in Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (2012), “prob[es] the porous boundaries, affinities, and frictions between Victorian subject and object, bodies and things” (2) in so much as it bridged the gap between the public and private self. In choosing what to wear there was a sense of forming one’s own individual social identity, which Boehm posits was linked to “new approaches” between “Victorian notions of materiality, the object world and embodied experience” (2). With such a vastly expanding range of options –particularly for middle-class women – the very materiality of clothing began to shift, moving beyond markers of class toward an increasingly personalized reflection of the wearer. Moreover, in this new world of consumable goods the wearer became “thoroughly permeated by the sensory experience of the material world” (2), in the process blurring any clear delineation between subject, object, self and other. Within this framework clothing brings “together a set of cultural narratives in which bodies and things mediate between subjects and objects by placing them in networked and processual relationships” (2). In this sense, the division between self and other collapsed into an ambiguously hazy intermediary space filled with the potential of sartorial curation.

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) clothing is vitally important for the titular character. From Miss Temple’s sensible, kind authority to Blanche Ingram’s haughty, magnificent beauty, the personality, morality and social place of every woman in the text is filtered through Jane’s first-person narrative perspective and becomes inextricably linked to what they wear – herself included. Each female character she encounters is accounted for in her narrative in terms of the frivolity of their clothing. Following Boehm’s assertion that nineteenth-century clothing had the power to blur the boundaries between subject and object – I would like to suggest that in Brontë’s text the garments worn by women are read by Jane as an integral facet of that character’s personal morality. This merging of body and garment, in turn, allows Jane to construct a vast system of signifiers, mapping out the world around her and her place within it.

Not only do the things these female characters wear become associated with their own presentations of identity – as a link between the individual and their social environment – but Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones suggest that garments and accessories (like rings, gloves, jackets, dresses, shoes etc.) function as “detachable parts” that “trouble the conceptual opposition of person and thing” (116). These things are understood by Stallybrass and Jones as “external organs of the body” that “materialize the power of people to be condensed and absorbed into things and of things to become persons” (116). Clothing in this way allows for the reformation of identity, in so much as the contact between the material object and the human subject allows for that human subject to make strategic decisions and position themselves in relation to other social subjects. However, at the same time this relationship is distinctly “troubled” because the difference between subject and object is distinctly unclear.

Sara Ahmed speaks to the complexity of this subject/object/thing relationship, suggesting that this space is characterized by “the messiness of the experiential, the unfolding of bodies into worlds” (30). Essentially, for Ahmed, there is no easy way to untangle the conceptual opposition of person and object or thing because “we are touched by what we are near” (30). Ahmed’s complex notion of entanglement draws together subjects and objects through the nexus of touch as a transformative experience of identity formation. Taken up by Stallybrass and Jones it becomes increasingly evident that the merging of subject and object (in the case of bodies and clothing) highlights a “tangled and troubled ‘contract zone’ ” (Plotz 8). Understanding the engagement between material objects and human subjects as a space of potential (although one that is admittedly difficult to interpret) prompts the question: does the clothing object itself contain its own power signification for reshaping the body and its social position?

Using this question as a springboard I will explore the ways in which this tangled and troubled “contact zone” is created by, and requires, a dynamic exchange of power – an exchange wherein the female subject only possesses a portion of the agency needed to fashion a unique identity, and must call upon the transformative power of clothing in order to push back against patriarchal constraints on the Victorian female body.

My aim in the remainder of this paper is to examine the ways in which clothing functions as a mean of identity formation for Jane, asserting that by carefully curating what she wears, Jane is able to form a unique subject position for herself as an exceptional heroic figure, and moreover as a woman who is capable of crafting a voice and identity for herself that is not limited solely to the domestic realm. I will first examine the relationship between literary depictions of clothing and the nineteenth-century female body, proposing that clothing acts as a “thing” or third term in the subject/object binary that allows Jane to push back against patriarchal conventions of female passivity. Once the relationship between clothing and the female body has been outlined I will turn explicitly to two instances of Jane’s “self-fashioning” in the text – her governess attire when she first comes to Thornfield and her shopping trip with Mr Rochester – before concluding by briefly exploring the greater ramifications of Jane’s self-fashioning in conjunction with other female characters in the text.

Thing Theory and the Materiality of the Subject/Object Relationship

Before delving into the relationship between clothing and the female body in Brontë’s text, it is essential to set out the primary terms of this investigation. Bill Brown, in his seminal work “Thing Theory” (2001) suggests that “we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us… when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested” (4). Within Brown’s framework objects assert themselves as things, marking a change in relation between subject and object (4). Furthermore, things can function as placeholders, in order to “overcome the loss of other words… for some future specifying operation” (4). For Brown things do not spontaneously come into being, but rather are formed – as objects – through their relation to subjects, and retain their “thingness” in response to a “failure, or partial failure, to name or to classify” (Brown in Plotz 110). Things will be used in this paper to investigate the subject/object relationship, and in so doing explore the possibility for a contestation of existing power structures through the change from object to thing.

Building on Brown’s work, Isobel Armstrong suggests that “things” act as a third term, with the power to re-arrange the existing organization of subjects and objects. The power of things is conceptualized by Armstrong as a “punctuation” or “punctures in experience” (20) that underscore the ability of things to interrupt or impress upon traditional subject/object relations. Armstrong continues to explain, “things constitute an ‘in-between’ that makes possible the essential coming together and separation that creates social exchange” (24). Here, “things are not stable: they transform themselves and us by forcing us into different usages and discrepant roles” (30). By creating a “puncture in experience” that interrupts the usual subject/object relationship, things (and the liminal space they create) open up the possibility of reorienting the self in relationship to society.

In this potential reorientation, things have the ability to speak (30), and moreover these thingy[i] speech acts have the ability to talk “back at us”, presenting a “challenge [to] our control and ownership over them” (30). In Armstrong’s formulation, this ability of things to “talk back” comes from the abnormal or unpredictable ways bodies and things come together. For example, if one were to accidentally bump into a table or chair the object would respond by asserting itself as a thing in the moment of contact. Brown suggests that it is “the suddenness with which things seem to assert their presence” (3) that ultimately gives them power. Although Brown and Armstrong describe the transformation from object to thing using slightly different terms, they both draw attention to the notion that things have power unto themselves, which is activated in a moment of contact with the body. But, if things are imbued with this transformative power, as Armstrong and Brown both suggest they are, the question becomes: where does this power come from?

In response, I would like to propose that nineteenth-century sartorial objects obtain their thingy power through social association. Garments in this period were socially charged with anxiety, which was fueled by the condemnation of frivolous feminine consumption. As such, even before these garments came in contact with the skin they were affectively charged. Speaking to the power of garments in the Victorian period Madeleine C. Seys explains, “during the Victorian period, colours, types of fabrics, and styles of dress had specific and established symbolic functions” (7), which were embedded in socio-cultural discourse through print culture. In dress guides, fashion plates, tailors’ manuals, periodical journals, fashion reports and conduct manuals images of current fashion, as well as debates around female dress were an important part of everyday life. In her discussion of Victorian “dress culture”, Christine Bayles Kortsche argues that textiles and their interpretation “functioned as a form of literacy” (4) that was distinctly feminine. Running parallel to nineteenth-century social expectations, which called for women’s public silence and relegation to the domestic sphere,[ii] this language of clothing fostered a “dual literacy” that acted as “an alternative to mainstream, patriarchal discourse” (4), to “expose, complicate, and redefine women’s social roles” (20) through distinctly female modes of speech.  Drawing together Seys and Kortsche’s notions of fashion of alternative language with Armstrong and Brown’s “thing power”, the potential reorientation of patriarchal discourse (which insists on a dominant male subject in contrast with the submissive female object) becomes possible through the creation of a system of individual signifiers, formed through the interaction between a woman and her clothing.

In his theory of “soft materiality”, Timothy Campbell explains why clothing, as opposed to harder material objects, plays such a crucial role in conceptualizations of identity in fiction. Campbell suggests that garments are difficult to analyze because scholars have tended to use them as a window, looking “through dress fairly quickly on the way to something else” (296). The malleable materiality of dress, in his estimation, makes it particularly easy to push aside or look through. Nonetheless Campbell emphasizes the importance of bringing dress into the foreground of our critical readings of fiction. He asserts, “we might think better… by bringing the softness of clothing into focus”, attending to what the “soft materials” of dress can tell us through their “almost animate movement on through the world, with and on the body” (301). Clothing in this framework becomes a detachable part of the body that plays a crucial role in identity formation through its close alignment with the wearer. The softness of clothing, in Campbell’s estimation, is a “porous medium” (304) that rematerializes the sensory experiences of the human body. Although bodies are often figured as having hard edges that demarcate a clear boundary between the body and its surroundings what comes to light through Campbell’s softened perspective is that both clothing and bodies are composed of “squishy organic” (307) material. What we wear inherently takes in a part of us: from absorbing our sweat and bodily smells to retaining the stains, scuffs and other marks of wear on its surface, clothing becomes a second skin that captures a fundamental essence of the wearer.

Although female clothing functioned as an important social signifier during the nineteenth century it is the moment of contact – when the body and thing are brought together – where the signifying possibilities could be unleashed. Ahmed underscores the importance of proximity in the relationship between bodies and things explaining that the “objects we do things with generate what [Edmund] Husserl might call ‘our near sphere’ or ‘core sphere’… as a sphere of practical action” (31). Positioned directly on the surface of the skin, clothing becomes a key facet of one’s “near sphere”. Furthermore, an individual’s preferences (what they like or dislike begin to “take up residence within our bodily horizon”, so that what we like establishes “what we are like” (32). Essentially, we are attracted to items of clothing that we feel represent our identity. In this way, the relationship between bodies and clothing acts like two magnetic forces pulled together by their proximity to each other. Power is transferred because “we are moved by things” and consequently “in being moved we make things” (33). Ultimately, as a result this transference of power the boundaries between bodies, clothing and the social environment become hazy and unclear. In this softened intermediary space it was possible for nineteenth-century women to create their own social identities (formed through the language of clothing) and in so doing push back against the confinement of patriarchal social constructions.

Jane Eyre

With this notion of things as a way of reconceptualising the subject/object relationship (through the blurring of boundaries and the transfer of power between sartorial things and human bodies) in mind, I want to turn now explicitly to Jane’s self-fashioning. From the moment she arrives at Thornfield Jane is immediately interested in discerning her place in the female social hierarchy of the house – with its absent, though nonetheless omnipresent patriarch, Mr Rochester. Eager to demonstrate her social virtues to the fellow inhabitants, Jane rises on her first day at Thornfield and narrates her morning routine. She states, “I rose; I dressed myself with care: obliged to be plain – for I had no article of attire that was not made with extreme simplicity – I was still by nature solicitous to be neat. It was not my habit to be disregardful of appearance or careless of the impression I made” (185). Not only is Jane paying careful attention to her clothing and the impression her appearance will create, but she aligns the plainness and simplicity of her wardrobe with her nature. Going on at length she continues:

When I had brushed my hair very smooth, and put on my black frock – which Quakerlike as it was, at least had the merit of fitting to a nicety – and adjusted my clear white tucker. I thought I should do respectably enough to appear before Mrs. Fairfax, and that my new pupil would not at least recoil from me with antipathy. Having… seen that I left all things straight and neat on the toilet table, I ventured forth. (186)

Although this description appears quite ordinary at first glance, Jane in her position as narrator very deliberately aligns the plainness and “Quakerlike” appearance of her attire with neatness and respectability as to gain the respect of her new pupil. Tied together in this pretty little package Brontë positions Jane, through her own self fashioning, as a morally upstanding woman.

For Jane, the power she elicits from her clothing draws upon the existing contemporary social discourse that aligned acceptable femininity with morality. The close link between clothing and morality is emphasized in a letter to the editor of La Belle Assemblée; or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine entitled “On the Dress of Women” (1806). The anonymous writer highlights the importance of clothing, as social signifier and identity fabricator during the Victorian period, asserting that the “science of costume” acts “not merely as subsidiary to female vanity”, but instead reflects the internal “morals and chastity of the female mind” (19). Similarly, another letter to the editor of The Lady’s Monthly Museum (1801) suggests that “the auxiliaries of dress render us not only amiable in the eyes of others, but refine our own ideas” (282). In both cases the link between clothing and morality is emphasized, highlighting an important connection in Victorian society where clothing was used as a mark of a woman’s moral value, and thus acted as a means of identifying her in the social hierarchy. Drawing upon the existing social capital associated with female morality and clothing, Jane casts herself as a morally upstanding domestic woman, a position which later gives her the platform from which she can speak up for herself.[iii]

Ariel Beaujot in Victorian Fashion Accessories (2013) speaks to the complex relationship between nineteenth-century women and their material property. Beaujot proposes that particularly for Victorian middle-class women like Jane, their interaction with clothing and accessories “reveal[ed] a rich cultural nexus” (9), wherein “femininity is an identity constructed through a series of gestures and movements that come to represent ‘womanhood” (9). As aforementioned, during the Victorian period increasing industrialization and the resulting proliferation of commodity culture sparked considerable anxiety around the erosion of moral values, particularly in relation to the showy extravagance and ephemerality of nineteenth-century female fashion. In response, women like Jane emphasized their internal moral strength through external plainness, simplicity and neatness, which highlighted traditional values “such as work ethic, self-restraint, and modesty” (5). The merging of female body and sartorial object in Brontë’s text allows Jane in her governess attire to distance herself from frivolous female consumption, empowering herself through her manipulation of socially “acceptable” notions for female dress.

For Jane, her wardrobe of simple garments becomes a protective second-skin, an intrinsic facet of her identity, and a springboard for her speech. When she unknowingly meets Mr Rochester for the first time, Jane describes how “He stopped, ran his eye over my dress, which, as usual, was quite simple: a black merino cloak, a black beaver bonnet; neither of them half fine enough for a lady’s-maid. He seemed puzzled to decide what I was; I helped him” (Brontë 216). In this instance not only does Jane draw attention to the difference between herself and other women, but she is able to rebuff Rochester’s sweeping male gaze, as he cannot immediate identify her social position. His inability to promptly infer her social identity creates a momentary hesitation, which gives Jane the opportunity to speak for herself. In the tangled “contact zone” between Jane’s body and her simple black garments, she is able (through her socially powered, self-fashioned plainness) to identify herself. In this moment, the power of Jane’s chosen “governess costume” becomes truly apparent. Her merino cloak and beaver bonnet are not “fine enough” to place her as a lady’s maid, but none-the-less her clothing blurs the boundary between subject and object, responding to his failure to classify her.

The soft material power of her garments not only functions as a momentary blurring of the social order – where she is able to classify herself –  but also importantly allows for her voice to extend beyond the confines of the domestic sphere. Drawing on Caroline Stephen’s 1868 article from Cornhill Magazine Seys suggests[iv] that “dress is a tool in the construction and expression of female subjectivity and sexuality. In short, it tells a story, whether true or fictional, of the wearer’s life” (6). Functioning much like the language of garments for women in Victorian society, Jane’s literary clothing acts as a thingy intermediary between herself and Rochester. Describing the interaction between the two of them, Jane makes sure to highlight that this was not a moment of romance (Brontë 218), a move that characterizes the interaction as socially appropriate and reinforces her embodiment of moral femininity. A few lines later she asserts, “I was pleased to have done something; trivial, transitory though the deed was, it was yet an active thing, and I was weary of an existence all passive” (218). Instead of acting as passive, silent, and accepting, her clothing is transformatively empowering as it allows her to create a narrative of her own as a subject in her own right. Here, the thingy power of body and clothing does not seek to speak back to the patriarchal social system (in the sense of attempting to dismantle it or actively contest it). Instead, by utilizing the hallmarks of respectability that reside in the social language of her garments Jane builds an identity for herself, which works along the surface of palatable modes of public femininity, (which value modesty, silence and deferral to male dominance) while at the same time doubling back on them. In this passage Jane builds upon her carefully curated image as a respectable woman, and drawing upon the thingy power of her garments she is able to transform herself from a passive object to an active subject: a respectable woman who does what she thinks is best and is an active agent in her own right able to resist consumption by Rochester’s gaze.

As Brontë’s narrative progresses and Jane’s social status and prospects increase, she resolutely refuses to alter her wardrobe to match her new position. Despite her staunch refusal, Jane records the endless material possibilities on offer to her as Rochester’s future bride. In one such instance Jane notes Rochester’s sentiments: “I will attire my Jane in satin and lace, and she shall have roses in her hair; and I will cover the head I love best with a priceless veil … I hope to pour [jewels] into your lap: for every privilege, every attention shall be yours” (493-4). Horrified, Jane responds “Oh, sir! – never… And then you won’t know me, sir; and I shall not be your Jane Eyre any longer, but an ape in a harlequin’s jacket, a jay in borrowed plumes” (494). Ten pages later Jane is still relentlessly insistent. She notes, “I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown with a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice… the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation… I never can bear being dressed like a doll” (511-512). In this moment Jane tightly aligns her identity as “Jane Eyre” – the narrative’s exceptional heroine – with her plainness, which is formed in equal measure by the coming together of her simple appearance and her simple clothing.

Lucia Ruggerone in “The Feeling of Being Dressed: Affect Studies and the Clothed Body” (2016) speaks to the important relationship between clothing and the body, which she outlines as a “process of becoming” (584). Ruggerone asserts, “dress is something that will morph into my body and into which my body will change when I go out into the world” (585), underscoring the blurred boundary between subject and object that characterizes the relationship between bodies and clothing. Ruggerone describes the self-fashioning power of clothing, suggesting that garments can act as “thinking agents” (579), which put forth an “intellectually orchestrated representation of the self” (579). In addition, “the relationship between people and clothes cannot be regarded as other than an intellectual liaison, in which a thinking agent (a sense-making mind) adorns his/her body … to give the world an intellectually orchestrated representation of the self” (579). When Brontë’s heroine steps into these socially charged garments the power of Jane (as a corporeal being) and her clothing (as a thingy or symbolic intermediary between the public and private realms) come together and allow her to mark herself as exceptional – exceptional in the sense that she simultaneously plays along with patriarchally sanctioned notions of female dress, all the while using this “acceptable” depiction of respectably moral femininity to achieve her own goals.

For Jane, her autonomy, identity and ability to speak are intimately linked to her simple clothing, and are threatened by Rochester’s extravagant additions. The importance of Jane’s staunch refusal to bend to Rochester’s will is underscored by Krista Lysack who suggests that “shopping at Millcote is not merely an anecdotal moment in the novel, a momentary diversion from the main interests of the plot, but a significant scene wherein the material nature of sexual politics is staged” (2). Lysack continues, “the dictates of fashion are in this instance male-authored, and marriage, cast here as another form of commercial and imperial exchange, conceals the ways in which men may come to regard women as commodities” (2), ultimately suggesting that “Rochester’s aggressive attentions cast shopping as a scene of temptation, as this dangerously enticing figure threatens to subsume Jane to his vision of what she should desire” (2). Lysack’s nuanced argument calls attention to the importance of clothing for Jane, not only as a form of identity, but as a means of asserting herself in the public sphere through the language of her clothes. Jane’s refusal to submit creates a “puncture in experience” (Armstrong 30) that facilitates her ability to speak for herself.

Moving Beyond Jane

Now, this self-fashioning functions well for Jane, but one of the problems gestured to at the outset of this paper continues to loom ominously at the edges of this discussion: clothing, in the Victorian period, was a double edged sword that both offered potential empowerment for some, but simultaneously imposed constraints on others. In this regard, it is crucial to note that the possibilities associated with the in-between space of things do not always constitute a positive relational change. Rather, the liminal space created by things acts much the same as a house of mirrors, where the self is “projected onto things, which then reflect back the self to the self” (Armstrong 32). On the one hand this space that opens up a possible re-orientation of the subject/object relationship, but on the other hand this potential hand in hand with the very real threat of continued confinement, trapped within the infinite reflection of the self to the self..

Broadening our focus to include other female characters in Brontë’s text, Jane’s self-fashioning and relationship to her clothing raises a number of concerns. Undoubtedly Brontë has created an exceptional heroine in the figure of Jane Eyre, but her exceptionality relies on her carefully curated plainness, which can only exist in comparison to other more elaborately dressed or remarkably beautiful female characters. From the outset of the novel Jane’s plainness is directly juxtaposed with a number of the other female characters (like Georgiana Reed and Blanche Ingram), whose beauty is directly aligned with their frivolous nature and extravagant dress.

Marjorie Garson in Moral Taste (2007) finds Brontë’s construction of Jane particularly troubling and suggests that “Brontë relies on polarity to organize her fictions, positioning her characters against one another in terms of the values they embody” (239). Specifically, in relation to Jane’s clothing Garson asserts that Jane’s “Simplicity cannot register except in terms of its opposite: it acquires a moral resonance only within a polarized system of signs, and in the context of choice” (254). In order to make use of the potential created by the thingy-ness of her clothing Jane must be able to directly compare herself to other women, and in the process, she deems herself superior. Garson highlights this facet of Jane’s identity construction, explaining how:

Brilliantly or extravagantly dressed women are condemned, modest elegance extolled… Jane…may be small and plain, but [her] dark, demure, and well-fitted costumes not only expose the frivolity and sensuality of [her] rivals but make a piquant contrast to the energy and individuality of [her] inner life. (241)

Here Garson highlights that Jane’s power is not unidirectional, but rather comes from the tangled and complex melding of her own self-determination and the socially imbued power of her clothing. However, as Garson astutely notes, Jane’s place as an exceptional heroine requires the narrative (which is written from Jane’s perspective) to present a constant critique of other immoral or frivolous female bodies.

With the expected tact of a morally upstanding lady, Jane’s narrative is subtly punctuated by her calculating appraisals of each woman with whom she interacts. For Jane to succeed in her self-fashioning it is essential that she is not the materialistic Adele enchanted with her dress of “rose-coloured satin” (Brontë 264), nor the extravagant Blanche with her “crown of thick plaits” (301). The thingy-ness of Jane’s simple wardrobe, and its ability to reorient the typical subject/object dichotomy of nineteenth-century society only becomes truly powerful when Jane has the opportunity to have more – to frivolously and materialistically adorn herself in lavish new clothing – and she declines. Jane must say no to Rochester’s lavish gifts and his proposed elopement to France, because if she gives in, one end of the magnetic relationship (between clothing and body) will lose its powerful charge. The success of her clothing as a “thing” or third term in the subject/object binary depends on her place as a socially respectable lady, but this in turn relies on the continued comparison of herself to other frivolous women.

What comes out of my reading of Jane is that we need to continue to ask questions about the relationship between women and clothing during the nineteenth century. Jane’s narrative offers a valuable entry point from which we need to begin to unpack networks of female speech for a much larger group of women who move into the public sphere during this period. For characters like Jane there are clear benefits: she is able to manipulate notions of respectability in order to fashion herself a public identity as an active agent who is able to resist consumption and classification by Rochester, but this comes at a steep cost for the other female characters in Brontë’s narrative. Jane is able to liberate herself through the intermediary space created by her garments only by distancing herself from an undesirable mode of femininity that continues to limit the women around her.


Works Cited

Aindow, Rosy. Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870-1914. Routledge, 2016.

Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J Seigworth, Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 29–51.

Armstrong, Isobel. “Bodily Things and Thingly Bodies: Circumventing the Subject-Object Binary.” Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, edited by Katharina Boehm, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 17-41.

Beaujot, Ariel. Victorian Fashion Accessories. 2nd ed., Bloomsbury, 2013.

Boehm, Katharina. “Introduction” in Bodies and Things in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 1-16.

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Things. B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1988, pp. 10-51.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, edited by Richard Nemesvari, Broadview, 1999.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1–22.

  1. S. “To the Editor of the Lady’s Monthly Museum.” The Lady’s Monthly Museum, 1801, pp. 279-282.

Garson, Marjorie. Moral Taste: Aesthetics, Subjectivity, and Social Power in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Hazlitt, William. “On Fashion” in Sketches and Essays; and Winterslow (Essays Written There). George Bell & Sons, 1890, pp. 142-48.

Kortsch, Christine Bayles. Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles and Activism. Ashgate, 2009.

Lysack, Krista. Come Buy, Come Buy: Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women’s Writing. Ohio University Press, 2008.

Plotz, John. “Materiality in Theory: What to Make of Victorian Things.” The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Literary Culture, edited by Juliet John, Oxford Handbooks Online, 2012, pp. 1-20.

–– “Can the Sofa Speak? A Look at Thing Theory.” Criticism, vol. 47, no. 1, 2005, pp. 09–118.

Richards, Thomas. The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914. Stanford University Press, 1990.

Ruggerone, Lucia. “The Feeling of Being Dressed: Affect Studies and the Clothed Body.” Fashion Theory, vol. 21, no. 5, 2016, pp. 573-93.

Seys, Madeleine C. Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature. Routledge, 2018.

Stallybrass, Peter, and Ann Rosalind Jones. “Fetishizing the Glove in Renaissance Europe.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, pp. 114-32.

Unknown Author. “Letter to the Editor: On the Dress of Women.” La Belle Assemblée; or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, London, England, issue 1, 1806, pp. 17-19.

Winslow, Rev. Hubbard. Woman as She Should Be. T. H. Carter, Stereotyped at Geo. A. & J. Curtis’s Type & Stereotype Foundary, Boston, 1837.

[i] “Thingy” (as a verb) is understood here as a kind of shorthand reference that gestures to the potential for things to reorient the subject-object relationship in ways that alter traditional power relations (i.e. where the dominance of the subject requires the subjugation of the subject).

[ii] Expectations for female behavior are highlighted by Reverand Hubbard Winslow’s Women As She Should Be (1838) wherein he asserts that “Nature had assigned them [women] to a sphere distinct from and subordinate to that of man” (10) and moreover that “women should clothe themselves with modest apparel, not with those glaring and gaudy trappings which attract vulgar and wanton eyes, as the heathen women do; and, further, that in public they should always be learners and never teachers” (17).

[iii] Although I do not have the space to discuss this here, it should be acknowledge that many women complied with notions of “acceptable” femininity in ways that trapped them within the domestic sphere, or silenced their voices in ways that merit further exploration.

[iv] Seys’ insights here make use of on Stephen’s article, wherein she proposes: “no toilette is fairly entitled to the praise of individuality which does not distinctly reflect some such quality really characteristic of the wearer’: ‘delicacy, freshness, simplicity, liveliness, elaborateness, sternness, dignity, caprice, cheerfulness, gloom, evenness or variability of temperament– all these and countless other varieties of character and disposition have their appropriate influence on dress’ (287)” (6).

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