Texts and Textiles from Shakespeare to Moralioğlu


in Ideas • Illustrated by Kat Zale Heller


2023’s London fashion week offered numerous designers a chance to honor the late Dame Vivienne Westwood, whose career was built on the rich union of traditional British styles and the edgiest of urban fashions. Daniel Lee at Burberry and Erdem Moralioğlu, among others, have been praised for following Westwood in daring this year, and evaluations of their work have tended to preoccupations with the question of to what extent their finding inspiration in a style icon of the past sets the tone for Britain’s fashion future. While the annual plaudits come and go, some part of the work of designers who both nod to the past and push boldly into the future shape and are shaped by the rhythms of language’s deep time, connecting the fashions of yesterday to our present via the metaphors of everyday speech. Whether you wonder how you look in your birthday suit or worry that you might be caught lining your pockets, you rely on a common but under-remarked source of English euphemisms: clothing. Like those in many other industries, designers, tailors, seamstresses, dressmakers, and their peers in related fields both adopted terms from the shoptalk of other artisans and repaid the debt to our language with countless neologisms and colloquialisms. Some examples, such as the tailor’s question of whether a gentleman dresses to the left or the right, remain unique to the trade, while many other connections between this most intimate sort of textile work and the English language point to a particularly rich intersection of physical labor, literary expression, socioeconomic status, the moment’s fashions, and everyday speech. 

Many such terms are more than familiar. Those of us who get frustrated by an inability to “pin down” a disorganized friend for a lunch might want to reflect for a moment on the fact that the expression derives to some extent from rough physical action (pinning someone to the ground, as in wrestling), but even more anciently from the work of those in the garment trade. In the latter arena, a seamstress must affix the cloth with which she works to a surface with pins so that it does not move as she sews the fragments together. Sticking pins into your dilatory acquaintance might not be the best way to keep a friend, even if a voodoo doll would help pass the time as you wait for the latecomer to arrive. Likewise, if you’re feeling “hemmed in” by circumstances, you might recognize a lexical — and possibly etymological — connection to the work a tailor does with the ends of your skirt or dress. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of “hem” is uncertain, but we can see that usage of the latter sense of the word, having to do with clothing, preceded the more general sense of enclosure or containment by roughly a century. So, if you are hemmed in and pinned down, you may be a soldier in very serious trouble or merely a pair of trousers. The garment industry’s lexicon, in any case, clearly demonstrates an impressive adaptability and powerful breadth. 

Slang, of course, joins with clothing as a marker of social identity. Which slang terms we use, and when and where we use them, situate us within class boundaries and speak to our character. At its most engaging, the slang of textile workers becomes entangled with that of other discourse communities, as when the porter in Macbeth declares, “come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose.” The porter imagines himself as guarding the gates of hell, and “goose” is tailor’s slang for a clothing iron, due to the typically wooden handles the irons were given, which were often curved like a goose’s neck. Knowing this, we can see that the porter is inviting the tailor to warm his clothing iron in the fires of hell, perhaps an appropriate fate given that the porter’s imagined tailor has apparently been using less than the full amount of cloth for which his customers have paid. The porter, however, also plays upon an alternate Elizabethan slang usage of “goose,” signifying a prostitute. Our tailor in this sense is guilty not only of being dishonest with patrons in a way that resembles the false love of a prostitute’s embrace, he is also apparently known to spend time in their company. Thus, the work and habits of the tailor combine to offer a comment on his character. 

The ethical and political implications of clothing are a persistent source of vexation in Renaissance literature. Macbeth, like so many of William Shakespeare’s works, is in part concerned with the complexities of the transfer of power, particularly in problematic cases of royal succession. In a transitional political moment, like the rise to power of Macbeth or the abdication of Lear, the question of the relation between valid claims to political authority and the act of adorning oneself in the clothing of a leader emerge as more than matters of fashion. Macbeth therefore expresses early doubts about being expected to wear the “borrowed robes” that signify his role as the new Thane of Cawdor, and Banquo reflects on the “strange garments” in which Macbeth is now dressed. Some might want to declare that clothes make the man, but not everyone in Shakespeare’s plays will concur. 

Like most any tradesmen, honest or otherwise, tailors do sometimes come under scrutiny, as the preceding reference to Macbeth illustrates, and sometimes that suspicion of the workman’s honesty infects the products he manufactures. Clothing speaks volumes about identity, and a society with fairly strict class boundaries often expresses anxieties about the ways in which dressing above one’s station can be not only an exposure of pride but also an act of civil disobedience or even treachery. Consequently, the English and other European Renaissance crowns followed ancient examples in passing extensive sumptuary laws, which laws governed who was allowed — or not — to wear certain textures, colors, and items of clothing. Everything from the metal used to decorate your horse’s tack to the color of the ribbon in your hair (if you were allowed one at all) was subject to regulation. To some extent the sumptuary laws were about over-consumption: there was a concern that people would spend on clothing beyond their means. At the heart of the matter, however, was something more than either propriety or economy; the sumptuary laws were aimed directly at preserving class distinctions during a period in which English national identity was taking shape and a growing middle class found formerly unattainable luxury goods within their grasp. Making sure that the increasingly powerful merchants could not dress like — and thus pretend to the station of — lords was in many ways even more important than reminding the peasants that they did not run the estate. Also, one wanted to be sure that colonial governors did not start looking like the natives: English landowners in Ireland, for example, were prohibited Irish hairstyles. There were exceptions. One could petition for permission to dress like one’s betters in special cases, as companies of stage actors did. Among their other intentions, then, the sumptuary laws were designed to frustrate clothing’s potential to become deceptive costume. 

While almost all English sumptuary laws were repealed in the eighteenth century, something of the social role they served was fulfilled by embargoes on the importation of foreign textiles. Furthermore, while juridical governance of dress as a signal of class standing faded, questions concerning the relations between dress and moral character persisted, a point that had significant import for the development of Anglophone prose fiction. The rise of the English novel is one with the development of the domestic novel, and, as Nancy Armstrong, Kathleen M. Oliver, and others have shown, writers such as Samuel Richardson made the question of dress a key part of their representations of both social standing and feminine virtue. Indeed, as birth became increasingly less of a consideration than wealth as a marker of opportunity and power, the question of whether feminine dress spoke to scheming misrepresentation or humble virtue became more urgent. Irene Fizer has demonstrated that the fact that the titular protagonist of Clarissa spends much of the novel’s later scenes in a glove shop, and sells her clothing second-hand, allows readers to access her otherwise-unstated reflections on used goods and ethical value. Virginia Woolf seems to have nodded to this part of Richardson’s novel when her own Clarissa, Clarissa Dalloway, visits a glove shop on Bond Street, interacting with an overworked salesgirl and hunting down with great particularity a pair of white gloves with pearl buttons. In Richardson’s later The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Sir Grandison defends both a gift he offers Miss Byron and his own dress with reference to the by-then-antiquated sumptuary laws, asserting, “In the article of personal appearance, I think, that propriety and degree should be consulted, as well as fortune. Our degree, our fortune, madam, is not mean; but I, who always wished for the revival of Sumptuary Laws, have not sought, in this article, to emulate Princes.” Grandison’s carefully articulated apologia speaks in numerous ways to the anxieties about dress on evidence in many domains of eighteenth-century culture. Style may by then have become a less reliable signal of station, but adhering to conservative manners and mores in dress still spoke to a measure of propriety and moral respectability that tempered the social power of lucre. 

Remarks like that Richardson allows Sir Grandison point to the degree to which, in the eighteenth century, codes of dress were not so much measures that ensured consistent signaling of nobility of station but instead a means to signify nobility of character. As Richardson’s works also demonstrate, these measures were oriented toward female dress in particular. In this sense, the strongest regulations of the mores of middle-class fashion were those governing proper expression of the feminine and of female sexuality. At the opening of the nineteenth century, such a subject could have found no more adept a commentator than Jane Austen. Unsurprisingly, the teenage Austen’s favorite novel was Sir Charles Grandison, and she early produced an adaptation of the book for the stage. While that work remains more a curiosity than a text to be approached on the terms one brings to her mature novels, its concerns certainly persist in her later productions. But a curious connection between a preoccupation with the sartorial and the literary can be found in some of the more distant stars in the constellation of Austen’s texts. In addition to those four novels published in her lifetime and the two major ones (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) that saw print posthumously, Austen left behind a host of juvenilia and fragments. Among the latter is The Watsons, a project she began in the first decade of the nineteenth century but never completed. Extant partial drafts of The Watsons manuscript are held by the Morgan Library in New York and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Those distant from these archives can study digitized versions at the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts website.  

Austen’s work on The Watsons may have been halting, and the project was eventually abandoned, but the surviving artifacts display extensive efforts to flesh out character, dialogue, and incident. Perhaps even more intriguing than the skeletal fictional world the unfinished novel offers the reader are the many lessons the manuscript can teach us about how Austen worked. The Watsons fragments are particularly valuable in this regard because so very few manuscript materials from Austen exist. In examining the Watsons materials, we learn that Austen created small booklets in which to write. These quires were made by folding larger sheets of paper and gathering the results. Often, too, Austen cut the paper before folding, so that she was not only weaving together the strands of a plot, but also performing the physical work of the tāliātōr, the Latin “cutter” that gives its name to the modern English tailor. In some instances, the resultant booklet was wider than long, in others longer than wide — so, portrait and landscape orientations were both used. The size varies a little, as well, although octavo dimensions generally seem the intention. Regardless of its dimensions and orientation, it is generally the case that Austen filled the pages with densely packed text, leaving no spots for extensive revision and not many more or the insertion of new words or other similarly minor edits. This is not to say, however, that there is an antipathy to revision in evidence. At several points, Austen attached small pieces of paper to the pages of the quires at points where she desired a lengthy insertion or revision of the initial draft. These revision papers were joined to the manuscript with straight pins, a practice that writers had occasionally employed since at least the early seventeenth century. While Austen may not have been innovating with this practice, it is nevertheless delightful to join Christopher Fletcher, the Keeper for the Special Collections at the Bodleian, in musing that the pins preserved in the manuscript may well have at one point been used by Austen for pinning her pinafore. That Austen used pins in this way is striking in part because it brings an item useful to home-tailoring into physical conversation with the text. Thus, her choice foregrounds the strong connections between the English novel and domestic life, as well as the balance many women novelists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (and far beyond) had to find between the demands of the work of writing and the demands of work in the home. Furthermore, the pen Austen used in writing The Watsons was almost certainly a quill — the tool of choice for writers from the medieval period until the introduction of metal nibs in the mid-nineteenth century — and thus her simultaneous compositional use of pens and pins honors the fact that both the term for the writing implements that we call “pens” and that for the slender, sharp tools that we call “pins” share an etymological home: the Latin penna, or pinna (feather).  

While Austen may have used feathers to get her prose off the ground, there are not many animals taking flight in her novels: partridges are hunted, chickens are eaten, and that’s about it. The same cannot be said for Vladimir Nabokov, whose other obsession than writing, as almost everyone knows, was lepidoptery. For Nabokov, this was no casual hobby. Among his earliest publications is a paper for a scholarly periodical, The Entomologist, and he long pursued, and eventually realized, a dream of finding a new species of butterfly (the Karner blue). Even after he was a much-published novelist, he continued his work with the insects, as an affiliate in entomology at the American Museum of Natural History and on the staff at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Furthermore, despite his own assertions that his work with words and his work with butterflies share no ground, readers can’t avoid recognizing the confluence of the two. Among other references to the insects are several in Lolita, including Humbert’s adaptation of the entomological term “nymph” to describe Lolita as a “nymphet.” Too, Humbert’s later observations in a summer camp office creepily pair “photographs of girl-children” with the sight of a “moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall.” 

Visitors to the Harvard Museum of Natural History will find impressive displays of butterfly specimens shared from the Museum of Comparative Zoology with which Nabokov was affiliated, each neatly pinned to boards and under protective glass. The samples are full-grown, with all their glorious hues presented to the curious eye. Perhaps aside from birds, no other portion of the animal kingdom outside of the ocean displays such a tendency to exuberance in color: indeed, at first glance, it appears nature imposes no mandates on the sumptuary inclinations of its citizens. The notion is a false one, of course, as no human law foregrounds the weight of life or death so powerfully as do the forces of natural selection. Nowhere else than in the order of butterflies do colorful patterns play such a role in finding a mate, nor do even the strictest of human manners demand such thorough levels of social invisibility as camouflage entails in the wild. 

In short, in both the cases of self-advertisement and self-abnegation, many other animals have us beat. This is not to say that we’ve shrugged off restrictions on dress: our cultures still have deeply ingrained expectations that shape how we select and wear clothing. If nothing else, most of us in the United States continue to think that a bride should wear white and a mourner black. Yet, if you feel after watching the catwalks of fashion week that a pair of leopard-print leggings are tailor-made for the look you want, you can slip them on, and post a selfie on the web. If the friends and strangers who comment find you’ve chosen poorly, take heart in the fact that little more than your reputation for sound sartorial judgment is on the line, and the endless reinvention allowed by the web will allow you to follow Austen’s lead by editing your look and pinning a revised image to the page.•


Christopher K. Coffman is a Master Lecturer in Humanities at Boston University. He is the author or editor of four scholarly books, including most recently After Postmodernism: The New American Fiction (Routledge, 2021), and his poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in various on- and off-line magazines, including Gobshite Quarterly, The Adirondack Review, and Gone Lawn.