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Vocation and Dress in *Jude the Obscure*

Throughout Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy pays a great deal of attention to clothing details, lingering on sartorial choices and changes characters make over the course of the narrative. From Arabella’s ostentatious widow’s weeds to Jude’s transition back and forth between his white work clothes and his finer dark suit, Hardy focuses on the ways in which dress reflects shifts in identity, emotional state, and vocation. Sue’s clothing seems to merge with her body to form both her physical appearance and inner character, while Jude fixates on dress as a marker of occupation. Given the text’s emphasis on the theme of vocation as it traces the lives and careers of its two central characters, its engagement with clothing deserves a closer look. I propose to engage with scholarship regarding Hardy’s literary treatment of dress as well as Thomas Carlyle’s influential 1834 novel Sartor Resartus in order to show the relationship between dress, vocation, and identity in Jude the Obscure. For both Hardy and Carlyle, the relationship between clothing and identity is complex. Carlyle’s text, widely read in the nineteenth century, promotes the notion of “clothes philosophy,” a sartorial metaphor in which social and political structures serve as the “clothing” obscuring the divine truths beneath. Likewise, literal garments may hide or distort the body and soul of the wearer. Carlyle’s “clothes philosophy” provides a helpful framework to investigate the extent to which vocation and identity are natural and inherent, and to what extent they are formed by external circumstances — the “clothes” making the man. Furthermore, reading the text’s engagement with dress alongside its ultimate cynicism raises the question of whether Hardy is undermining the notion of a true vocation, or illustrating the difficulty in perceiving vocation beneath the “clothes” of social, economic, and academic institutions.

In Ruth Danon’s analysis of the role of work in Jude the Obscure, she lays out the text’s crucial distinction between vocational work and ordinary labour. She defines vocation as “an occupation chosen freely and integrated with the spirit of the person choosing it,” and labour as “instrumental action […] undertaken to fulfil specific and generally material goods” (Danon 160). Vocation, unlike labour, carries significant spiritual and personal weight; it is “the human aspiration which most necessarily integrates the public and the private, the social and the psychological dimensions of personality and belief” (157). Danon contends that many critics erroneously separate the issues of vocation and love in Jude the Obscure, and that this goes against the work Hardy is doing.[1] In a similar manner, while scholars have explored both the roles of vocation, identity, and, to a lesser extent, dress in the text, they have failed to synthesize the connection between these themes. Simon Gatrell argues that the relationship between dress and identity is a key motif for Hardy.[2] Despite this, however, he notes that the topic of dress has largely “been of incidental or passing interest to most of [Hardy’s] critics” (1). Other scholars have contributed to filling this gap in the scholarship in recent years, including Rachel Worth, who argues that “Hardy’s preoccupations were frequently veiled in references to clothing” (128). The prevalent contemporary view regarding the relationship between clothing and identity was best expressed in Sartor Resartus, which sees each individual person as a “divine me for whom the god-given flesh-garment and the man-constructed clothes-thatch are merely distractions and hindrances” (Gatrell 4-5). By contrast, in Hardy’s writing “there is no such thing as a single stable identity, but rather a myriad of possible selves, bodied forth by the variety of clothes we wear and multiplied by the number of interpretations others make of our appearance” (4). Though Hardy evidently is not a proponent of Carlyle’s philosophy, its prevalence combined with Hardy’s intricate engagement with dress makes it a useful lens through which to analyze the themes of vocation and identity. The parallel between the level of integration between the self and clothing in Hardy’s text, and Danon’s conception of the integrated vocational life, suggests an analogous metaphor of the “clothing” of vocation which adorns the “body” of the self. In this sense, the fulfilled vocation integrates the identity with its outward expression in both appearance and occupation.

Danon uses two key episodes early in the text to illustrate the differences between vocation and labour: Phillotson’s departure from Marygreen and the young Jude’s employment as a human scarecrow in a neighbouring farmer’s field. In addition to these selections, I would add a further two instances which use a sartorial image to presage Jude’s inability to achieve what Danon refers to as the “integral life” (160). When Jude is a little boy, he has a habit of “pull[ing] his straw hat over his face” to peer “through the interstices of the plaiting at the white brightness, vaguely reflecting” (18). The first time he does so in the text is when he feels “more than ever his existence to be an undemanded one” (18). Later, after discovering the requisite labour to learn languages, he is “an utterly miserable boy,” and as “he had often done before, he pull[s] his hat over his face and watch[es] the sun peering insidiously at him through the interstices of the straw” while he tries to make sense of the world around him and the way in which he might achieve the future he dreams of (30). These two moments are remarkable to read alongside Jude’s wider trajectory. He attempts to lift himself from his existential gloom by studying the heavens, but only catches a fragmented image of it through the gaps in his woven hat. In one sense, he is imposing a coherent, organized system on the world by choosing to study the sky through the framework of his hat. The comfortingly consistent pattern of interwoven straw is like his youthful Christian faith, his visions of Christminster, Hardy’s fictionalized version of Oxford, and his belief in the structures of society — a clear way in which to view and interpret the world around him. However, it is by nature an incomplete image. Ultimately, it reflects the novel’s oppressive sense of inescapable fate with which Hardy burdens the lives of Jude and Sue. Just as the hat does not allow for a full picture of the sun and sky, Hardy does not allow Jude (and Sue) to view more than one or two possibilities or optional paths for themselves. It is an artificial restriction.

The scenes with the straw hat are a literalization of the central metaphor of Sartor Resartus. In the text, Carlyle lays out his “Philosophy of Clothes” (6). This philosophy holds that external forms, including words and symbols, which he refers to as “Clothes,” are flawed representations of the divine ideal underneath.[3] Through this metaphor, Carlyle “forces readers to work hard to glimpse, if only briefly and vaguely, the Infinite lying beneath ‘Clothes’” (Cowlishaw 51). Its protagonist, Teufelsdrökh, undergoes a crisis of faith, eventually gaining “a new and more inward radicalism” (Lamb 276). He finds meaning and freedom in earnest endeavours to “create, to improve, and […] to become,” and takes up social causes (Cowlishaw 59). Sartor Resartus demonstrates “the changeable and constructed nature of all earthly phenomena, of all ‘Clothes’, including all methods of ordering experience and society” (Cowlishaw 52), and in the process shows its readers “that and how they can change their world” (Cowlishaw 59). The artificiality and changeability of social and political “clothes” is a source of opportunity and reform rather than despair.

Hardy read Sartor Resartus, and evidence indicates that his novel The Hand of Ethelberta is a response to Carlyle’s text.[4] Gatrell argues that Hardy uses The Hand of Ethelberta to suggest that “the Shows of things – in particular the Shows that are clothes – may and often do accurately represent the Things themselves, in particular […] the secular self or soul of the individual” (30). I argue that Jude the Obscure represents another attempt by Hardy to engage with Carlyle’s work, as he cynically subverts the conclusions drawn in Sartor Resartus. Like Teufelsdrökh, Jude suffers a crisis of faith and becomes disillusioned with his vocational aspiration, along with his religion. However, where Teufelsdrökh reaches a sense of contentedness, Jude falls into despair despite exhibiting the qualities of “openness of Sense, affectionate Temper,” and “ingenious Curiosity” which Teufelsdrökh declares necessary (Carlyle 76). If Carlyle “unravels the political and ‘social clothing’ of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century” (Lamb 271), then Hardy unravels the clothing of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. However, he does not offer viable alternatives to Jude’s ultimate misery. There is no position of what Cowlishaw terms “romantic irony,” the “simultaneous construction and deconstruction, a perpetual striving for the ideal coexisting with a constant dissatisfaction with the actual, a never-ending struggle to ‘become’” (Cowlishaw 52). Instead, Jude’s tragic inability to see his way forward, to envision a clear path to achieving his dreams, prevents such a state of hopeful endeavour. In the case of the straw hat episodes, the clothing is a literal barrier to Jude’s view of the heavens – the mundane obscuring the divine, the greater picture. He cares about his fellow creatures, both people and animals, feeling that a “magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs” (15), but, unlike Teufelsdrökh, is unable to find his way to the path of contentment by promoting the greater social good through his work. Furthermore, the notion of sight and obscurity suggests another question: whether Jude is truly able to see the truth of his own vocation beneath the “clothing” of society and circumstance. Danon notes that while “Jude appears to be failing in pursuit of a pure vocational ideal,” his deeper failure is his “betrayal of his true, albeit as yet unrecognized, vocation” (174) of lay preaching. She also argues that in the end, Jude’s story and ideas provide “a model for a way of life that will not demand either compromise or self-destruction. […] And the reader can choose” (196). This appears an unduly optimistic reading, especially when placed alongside Jude’s predecessor Sartor Resartus. Jude struggles to see past the “clothes,” and it is not at all apparent that the reader has learned to do so from his example. Indeed, the text’s bleak disillusionment indicates that, not only might it be impossible to see beneath the “clothes,” but that, Oz-like, in the end, there may be no divine truth behind the curtain.

Jude’s straw hat visions set the tone for the novel’s extended interest in the relationship between clothing, identity, and vocation. The two professions associated with both Jude’s and Phillotson’s vocational dreams – academics and ministers – are closely linked to their corresponding uniforms: the gown, and the dog collar and surplice. When the working men of rural Wessex imagine the academic transformations which take place at Christminster, they imagine it in terms of clothing:

And though it do take – how many years, Bob? – five years to turn a lirruping hobble-de-hoy chap into a solemn preaching man with no corrupt passions, they’ll do it, if it can be done, and polish un off like the workmen they be, and turn un out wi’ a long face, and a long black coat and waistcoat, and a religious collar and hat, same as they used to wear in the Scriptures, so that his own mother wouldn’t know un sometimes. (24)

Educated “workmen” undergo a complete metamorphosis in both body and mind, until they are visibly and mentally estranged from their communities, and even their “own mother wouldn’t know” them (24). It is not simply that they have been decked out in elite garb, but that the clothing reflects the change within. Once the boundary between rural labourer and metropolitan academic has been crossed, the shift is irrevocable in the eyes of the working class. The man further remarks that in Christminster they “raise pa’sons […] like radishes in a bed” (24). This agricultural image implies that the transformation is a naturalized process, at least in the eyes of outsiders, the clothing and the soul harmonizing as identity and appearance change and meld. These new clothes do not hide the self within; they are the transformed self. The people of the “college life,” says the man, live “on a lofty level; there’s no gainsaying it, though I myself med not think much of ’em. As we be here in our bodies on this high ground, so be they in their minds […] able to earn hundreds by thinking out loud” (24-5). The seat of identity and labour of the educated classes of Christminster is the mind, in contrast to the earthly, embodied inhabitants of rural Wessex, who work with their bodies. Working-class clothes are involved in their labour, while the clothing of the upper classes is an extension and display of their minds.

This visual alienation along class lines reflects Jude’s own dissonance between his mental improvement and his working-class compatriots; he is unable to display his inward vocation, to unite his inner and outer identities, in the same way as these archetypal Christminster academics. When he sees the “procession of heads of houses and new Doctors” on Remembrance Day, he sees “their red and black gowned forms” as “inaccessible planets across an object-glass” (328). It is their gowns he seizes on, their gowns which estrange them wholly from him. A sartorial understanding of Christminster institutions is not limited to Jude and the other people of the Wessex countryside. The inhabitants of Christminster are traditionally split between the spiritual and learned elite on the one hand — “the gown life” — and the ordinary citizens on the other — “the town life” (118). The members of the “gown life” literally wear their vocational prestige upon their bodies, demonstrating their university membership for institutional protection (note 3, Book II chapter VII) or casting off their identities as it suits them. The “gownless undergraduates” (120) who goad the drunken Jude into committing blasphemy in a pub have shed the markers of their identities in order to cavort with the lower classes. However, the fact that they are “proved” to be “gownless undergraduates” indicates that they are still “wearing” their status by other means: their demeanour, their accent, and their dialect (120). At the same time, the symbolic vestments of Christminster are the fruits of working-class labour. The text reminds the reader of this fact when Jude encounters a “gown- and surplice-maker’s assistant” (119); the “town” makes the “gown”. The occupations — or vocations — of the lower classes provide the expression of the fulfilment of upper-class vocations: the people who work by necessity allow the elite to labour by choice.

Once in Christminster, Jude feels keenly the way in which his appearance indicates — and perhaps helps to create — his status and occupation. He observes how his stonemason garb separates him wholly from the university community. He feels,

as far from [the university members] as if he had been at the antipodes. Of course he was. He was a young workman in a white blouse, and with stone-dust in the creases of his clothes; and in passing him they did not even see him, or hear him, rather saw through him as through a pane of glass at their familiars beyond. (Hardy 86)

If the rural worker who joins the academic elite is sartorially estranged from his own family, he also joins a new community of “familiars.” Jude, meanwhile, fits neither in the working classes of his childhood nor the elite circle of his vocational fantasy. His only true “familiar” is Sue, his cousin and lover. Furthermore, here, as elsewhere, the markers of Jude’s occupation cling to his clothing and his hair, as the stone dust infuses itself into his bodily identity. His “white blouse” stands in contrast to his “dark clothes” which he wears as his Sunday suit and finer attire (176). He reflects disparagingly on his appearance as “a young workman in a white blouse” and prefers his “best dark suit” (144). However, the emotional and cerebral perspective he brings to his stonemasonry indicates that it is a part of his wider vocational feeling. Danon argues that, due to his education, Jude’s vocation “cannot lie in stonework, but it can have its foundation there” (175). Indeed, her remark that “Vocation […] defines an attitude toward work and a way of experiencing it more than it does a specific kind of activity” (174) raises the question of whether, after all, it is not something inherent within the self, the soul, the body, but rather, something to try on, alter, or discard. More than one set of garments may fit the body, and someone can have more than one all-encompassing, singular calling. A non-vocational occupation, on the other hand, acts like unsuitable clothing. It may be tailored somewhat to suit the body wearing it, but if one does not have the money or means to do so, one must wear something, any old garment no matter how ill-fitting, to keep out the elements. In this way, although stonemasonry is not necessarily Jude’s one true full vocation, it can still be vocational work, as Danon claims. The true calling is the body, and the particular labour is the clothing which can either obscure — as an ordinary occupation — or reflect — as an integrated and chosen vocation — the body beneath. Jude tries on different occupations, or vocational aspirations, like articles of clothing. None ever seem to quite fit, and while he comes close to recognizing the vocational potential of his stonemasonry, ultimately he pines for his airy dreams of an academic gown.

Even more so than Jude, Sue is associated with dress throughout the text; she often seems to become subsumed by clothing, both physically and metaphorically. On two occasions her body is lost in her garments: Phillotson sees the “white heap” of her nightgown “on the gravel before him” (226) when she flees out the window, and Jude sees her as “what appeared to be a heap of black clothes” (349) in the church after her grief-induced religious conversion following the deaths of her and Jude’s children. Before Jude meets Sue, she exists in his mind as “more or less an ideal character, about whose form he began to weave curious and fantastic day-dreams” (89). His daydreams about Sue are woven garments which he places about her spiritual form, obscuring, in Carlyle’s philosophy, the real soul beneath. Despite this, Jude believes that he “knows what might constitute Sue’s real life or her real self” beneath her exterior garments (Gatrell 60). When Jude sees her in her plain school uniform, it comforts him that “only himself knew the charms those habiliments subdued,” and that “A matter of ten pounds spent in a drapery-shop, which had no connection with her real life or her real self, would have set all Melchester staring” (Hardy 137). Gatrell argues that if this perspective comes “with the authority of the narrator,” then “Hardy seems to be coming down on Carlyle’s side of the debate over the relationship of dress to the self,” while if it comes from Jude, then it is his “lover’s arrogance” which leads him to misread Sue and discount the way in which clothing helps to shape and represent identity (Gatrell 60). As Danon points out, Sue is neither Jude’s imagined “Christminster priestess, at one with her vocation, nor a compensatory domestic angel” (Danon 177). Phillotson, meanwhile, pictures her as the “prettily dressed, maddening compound of sympathy and averseness who bore his name” (Hardy 251). Here, she is a dehumanized “compound” covered in pretty clothing and the external marker, another kind of social “garment,” of Phillotson’s surname. Sue herself takes part in the use of linguistic clothing to conceptualize her identity on her own terms. When she tells Jude about her friendship with the undergraduate, she uses a sartorial quotation to wryly lament her loss of innocence in Jude’s imagination, saying: “I am not particularly innocent, as you see, now that I have

‘twitched the robe From that blank lay-figure your fancy draped’” (149)

She recognizes that Jude’s fancy has “draped” her in his woven garments of idealized love, and now disrobes her identity before him. Gatrell argues that Hardy, in contrast to Carlyle,

believes that the relationship between the self of an individual and the clothes she wears is by no means fixed, that it can be as tenuous as conceivable and as close to the identity as can be imagined, depending upon the nature of the self and the circumstances she finds herself in. (Gatrell 13)

However, while Jude’s identity is frequently linked closely to his clothing, Sue (and, to a lesser extent, Arabella) is more closely aligned with Carlyle’s “clothes philosophy.” Sue’s physical and social clothing might swallow her body up, but, as both she and the narrator make clear, it is not her true identity.

Unlike Jude, Sue does not appear to have vocational aspirations in a strictly traditional sense. Nevertheless, she has her own complex relationship between her inner self, her vocation, and her outward expression of identity. Danon uses the episode after Sue’s flight from her school in which she sits across from Jude while wearing his clothes to illustrate her depiction of Jude and Sue as “doubles, sharing contradictions of personality and belief” (179), and it follows that she, too, struggles to find vocational fulfillment. When she is employed at the school, her plain clothes provide a visual restraint on her expression of selfhood beneath which a “brightness” shines “which that discipline had not yet been able to reach” (132). Thus far, she has not yet been “tailoriz[ed] and demoraliz[ed]” by the “Clothes-Thatch” of society (Carlyle 44). When she finds joy with Jude after separating from Phillotson, the text repeatedly emphasizes the lightness and brightness of her dress: she wears “light spring clothing” in which she flits like a moth (Hardy 249); when her divorce is finalized she puts on “a joyful coloured gown in observance of her liberty; seeing which Jude put on a lighter tie” (258); she is “flexible and light as a bird” in “her new summer clothes,” moving “as if she hardly touched the ground, and as if a moderately strong puff of wind would float her over the hedge into the next field” (292). At all times, she is either tightly tied into her clothing, or so light that she may fly from her body entirely. While Jude is associated with two primary sets of clothing, the white suit and the black, themselves representative of his two would-be vocations of stonemasonry and academia, Sue has a wider selection of clothing throughout the novel. Furthermore, her sartorial choices represent a more detailed expression of her identity and emotional state than do Jude’s. In relation to this greater emphasis on choice, the portrayal of Sue’s occupational development in the text reflects Danon’s definition of vocation as chosen rather than inherently destined. Before the events of the text, she worked as a teacher, but “had abandoned that vocation of late” (105). She later returns to teaching, “going to enter a Training College at Melchester to complete herself for the vocation she had chosen, partly by [Jude’s] influence” (130). Vocational training is not just education, it is “completing herself.”

For Sue, nevertheless, teaching does not seem to have the same kind of emotional pull that Christminster has on Jude. Her real vocation, her real dream, involves not physical consummation or labour, but the integration of her own independence alongside spiritual communion with her fellow creatures. When she is working for Phillotson, her attitude towards him illustrates this desire, as well as her belief in the ability to see past a person’s “clothes” to their soul. She behaves “as if she assumed that, being the master, he must perceive all that was passing in her brain, as right or wrong” (Hardy 105). Like Carlyle with his clothes-philosophy, Sue appears to believe in a pure self lying beneath the outward body. Sue is “perceptive about the politics of relationships” (Danon 184), in contrast to Jude, who frequently misinterprets the people around him but is “sensitive to the strength of human passions” (184). However, the narrator suggests the naïveté of her position. If Jude’s tragedy is that he cannot read the truth of his own vocational identity, then Sue’s is her desperate wish for people to see the truth of hers — if only they would look.

Hardy’s focus on the symbolic function of clothing continues until the novel’s tragic climax. On the fateful Remembrance Day in Christminster, Jude and Sue notice lively groups of “straw-hatted young men” greeting their family members who have come to celebrate the day, including “young girls who bore a remarkable family likeness to their welcomers, and who were dressed up in the brightest and lightest of raiment” (323). These hordes of happy youths are clad in the clothing with which Jude and Sue are often associated — the straw hat of Jude’s childhood and Sue’s light, brightly coloured dresses — and like Jude and Sue, physically resemble each other as gendered pairs of the same whole. Given the text’s resounding cynicism, it is uncertain whether this vision of hopeful youth is founded on reality, or the kinds of dreams that Jude and Sue saw slip away from them. Are these happier doubles bound to make the same mistakes and meet similarly miserable, unfulfilled fates? In Hardy’s world, it is difficult to say that they are not. These young men may have achieved the membership of Christminster University which remained elusive for Jude, but given the indications that such an accomplishment would likely not have brought all the joy Jude believed it would, this is not evidence for vocational fulfilment. There may be a closer identification of dress with the self in Hardy’s work than in Carlyle’s, but where clothes are an obscuring force or an impediment in Carlyle, in Hardy’s universe they take on an antagonistic life of their own. In Jude the Obscure, the social clothing strangles the souls beneath.


[1] See Ruth Danon, Work in the English Novel: The Myth of Vocation, p. 157. [2] See Simon Gatrell, Thomas Hardy Writing Dress, p. 5. [3] See Brian Cowlishaw, “The Cultural Revolution of Sartor Resartus,” p. 51. [4] See Gatrell, p. 28.

Works Cited

Carlyle, Thomas. Sartor Resartus. University of California Press, 2020.

Cowlishaw, Brian. “The Cultural Revolution of Sartor Resartus.Carlyle Studies Annual, no. 16, 1996, pp. 51–60. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

Danon, Ruth. Work in the English Novel: The Myth of Vocation. Routledge, 2020.

Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy Writing Dress. Peter Lang, 2011.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Penguin Classics, 1998.

Lamb, John B. “‘Spiritual Enfranchisement’: Sartor Resartus and the Politics of Bildung.” Studies in Philology, vol. 107, no. 2, 2010, pp. 259–82. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Dec. 2022.

Worth, Rachel. Clothing and Landscape in Victorian England: Working-Class Dress and Rural Life. I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Date submitted: February 2, 2023

Date accepted: April 17, 2023

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