WHY ARE JANE EYRE AND DOROTHEA BROOKE clad by their creators in “Quakerish” garb? The oppositional plainness and simplicity of Quakerish heroines have often been read as signs of classlessness and sexlessness.1 Plain and simple clothing seems, to both Victorian and contemporary eyes, part of the package of reticence, reserve, and repression associated with the evangelical wing of nineteenth-century dissenting sects.2 The typical sociological view of the function of dress within conservative religious groups holds that “strict dress codes are enforced because dress is considered symbolic of religiosity. Hence dress becomes a symbol of social control as it controls the external body” (Arthur 1). The control of female sexuality and the restraint of desire would seem to be the core function of modest clothing. Then the plain dress of some of the liveliest heroines of Victorian fiction presents a puzzle that can be solved only by recuperating the meaning of that clothing for Victorians. As fashion historian Anne Hollander points out, nineteenth-century novels testify to the way that clothes “always correctly express character” (Feeding the Eye 12), but the meaning of particular articles of clothing or styles can slip away. Accurately reading the characters of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot thus requires careful interpretation of their dress, in this case reversing the conventional reading of their plain, modest, and simple style. This essay argues that Quakerish clothing expresses both a promise of spirited sexuality and an admonition about the class-crossing potential of the respectable female contained within it.
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