Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'The Pinafore, the Childish Garment ... and Aprons': Dress and the Representation of Victorian Womanhood in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cousin Phillis

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'The Pinafore, the Childish Garment ... and Aprons': Dress and the Representation of Victorian Womanhood in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cousin Phillis

Article excerpt

The novella Cousin Phillis, serialised from November 1863 to February 1864 in The Cornhill Magazine, has been described as Elizabeth Gaskell's most 'perfect' story. Certainly on a surface level, the narrator's reminiscences about a bucolic, pastoral idyll aligned with the natural rhythms of the farming year grant the text a certain prelapsarian charm.1 Indeed, the very name 'Phillis' is redolent of a pastoral poetic tradition evoking Arcadian scenes of courtship and love.2 Furthermore, Shirley Foster declares that the rural setting of Hope Farm recalls Gaskell's own childhood days at 'Sandlebridge, the farm owned by [her] maternal grandfather, Samuel Holland', and no doubt to the middle class, largely urban readers of The Cornhill, the rural location of the novella was evocative of a former way of life that was now a distant memory.3 However, Gaskell's tale is not merely a homely lament to a bygone age. It is set retrospectively in the early 1840s, when the onset of mass communications via the 'penny-post reform' and the advancement of the railway network mean that Hope Farm cannot be immune from the effects of industrialisation and, more particularly, from their concomitant socio-cultural reverberations (CP, p.434). These include an evolving domestic ideology and an ongoing debate about the position and education of women within society. Indeed, to Christine Bayles Kortsch, the connotations of such significant words as 'nature [...] beauty, woman, English [...] and civilized' were highly unstable and much contested for the period about which Gaskell writes.4 Thus, I will argue that within the novella, in her 'quiet' tone, Gaskell reflects and comments upon such major issues.5 In fact, by specifically examining the femininity of a young farmer's daughter as she approaches womanhood, Gaskell reveals the constraints, restrictions and contradictions that society imposed on young girls. In addition, it will be shown how such constrictions are also internalised within Gaskell's own creative imagination, in the sense that the narrative voice falls silent at some significant moments in her protagonist's journey to adulthood.

Via the language of 'dress culture', specifically as it relates to females, this essay will discuss how Gaskell's manipulation of the 'pinafore', an iconic article of clothing representative of Victorian childhood, comments upon a Victorian construction of femininity that was founded on the maintenance of a childlike innocence and purity, which disavowed any sexual awakening until marriage. It is apposite to examine this piece of clothing because, as Susan Gubar argues, 'within the life of domesticity assigned [to the woman] [...] from birth, the body is the only accessible medium for self-expression'.6 Furthermore, fashion theorist Joanna Entwistle asserts that as human bodies are 'dressed bodies' they are thus embedded within the context of social relations, and thus there is a complex dynamic relationship between the body, dress and culture in the formation of identity.7

It is therefore a significant moment when Phillis replaces her childlike pinafore for neat aprons, a reflection that her 'dress [...] is the outcome of social pressures and the image the dressed body makes'.8 Consequently, latter-day readers may begin to unravel the social context of the text and decode the semiotic clues to Gaskell's use of dress culture, to uncover meanings that were unsayable, even socially taboo, in Victorian literature. An item of clothing, forming an intimate layer with the flesh, also has the ability to evoke 'sensory and suggestive power', which can stir both 'conscious and unconscious memory' within the text's reader, inviting a multiplicity of interpretations and responses.9 Contemporary readers would have been very conscious of the different haptic sensations stirred by the wearing of pinafores compared to more constraining womanly attire.

Gaskell wrote Cousin Phillis in an epoch when the periodical press and its readers were highly instrumental to debates on the significant issues of the day, including 'The Woman Question' and the education of young girls. …

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