Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dickens on Dress and Class

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens describes a gathering of the wealthy in pre-revolutionary France:

'But, the comfort was, that all the company at the grand hotel of Monseigneur were perfectly dressed. If the Day of Judgment had only been ascertained to be a dress day, everybody there would have been eternally correct. Such frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair, such delicate complexions artificially preserved and mended, such gallant swords to look at, and such delicate honour to the sense of smell, would surely keep anything going, for ever and ever. The exquisite gentlemen of the finest breeding wore little pendent trinkets that chinked as they languidly moved; these golden fetters rang like precious little bells; and what with that ringing, and with the rustle of silk and brocade and fine linen, there was a flutter in the air that fanned Saint Antoine and his devouring hunger far away.

Dress was the one unfailing talisman and charm used for keeping all things in their places. everybody was dressed for a Fancy Ball that was never to leave off. From the Palace of the Tuileries, through Monseigneur and the whole Court, through the Chambers, the Tribunals of Justice, and all society (except the scarecrows), the Fancy Ball descended to the Common Executioner: who, in pursuance of the charm, was required to officiate "frizzled, powdered, in a gold-laced coat, pumps, and white silk stockings." At the gallows and the wheel-the axe was a rarity- Monsieur Paris, as it was the episcopal mode among his brother Professors of the provinces, Monsieur Orleans, and the rest, to call him, presided in this dainty dress. And who among the company at Monseigneur's reception in that seventeen hundred and eightieth year of our Lord, could possibly doubt, that a system rooted in a frizzled hangman, powdered, gold-laced, pumped, and white-silk stockinged, would see the very stars out!'

Dickens is spot on on dress and class ('keeping all things in their places'), and on power as performance - even the executioner has to wear a costume. But there is also something about the English puritan radical tradition which I find uncomfortable - the act of dressing up is equated with decadence (and femininity) against which the soberly dressed plebeian must struggle. As an advocate of proletarian dandyism, I say the working class too has the right to the 'frizzling and powdering and sticking up of hair'!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Correct and I think you underestimate the strong whiff of divine hierarchy: 'Day of Judgment', 'precious little bells', 'year of our Lord'. It is the lack of humility that truly irks the author, rather than any class disparity.

"And Dickens is very sure that revolution is a monster. That is why everyone remembers the revolutionary scenes in A TALE OF TWO CITIES; they have the quality of nightmare, and it is Dickens's own nightmare."