Generally, Thackeray does not use clothing to illustrate character to any great extent in ‘Vanity Fair’. He will often tell us someone is wearing ‘smart’ or ‘worn’ or ‘faded’ clothes, without providing any further detail. But I noticed a couple of exceptions to this approach that caught my attention, one example relating to Amelia Sedley, and the other to her alter-ego, Becky Sharp. (Incidentally, it is interesting to me that Sharp is the name Becky is popularly known by, despite the fact that for most of the novel she is Becky Crawley – Sharp is obviously a much closer fit to her character, even though she can be obsequious with the best of them at times!)
The first example occurs when Amelia is getting married. Thackeray describes her thus:“The bride was dressed in a brown silk pelisse…and wore a straw bonnet with a pink ribbon; over the bonnet she had a veil of white Chantilly lace”
I had not come across the term pelisse before, but the internet tells me that “in early 19th-century Europe, (Vanity Fair is set in 181 and the following decades) when military clothing was often used as inspiration for fashionable ladies’ garments, the term pelisse was applied to a woman’s long, fitted coat with set-in sleeves and the then-fashionable Empire waist. Although initially these Regency-era pelisses copied the Hussars’ fur and braid, they soon lost these initial associations, and in fact were often made entirely of silk and without fur at all. They did, however, tend to retain traces of their military inspiration with frog fastenings and braid trim.
Amelia is wearing – as her wedding dress – a brown silk coat of a military design. In the picture I have used here it looks a lot more feminine than it sounds; from the description alone you might think she was heading out on manoeuvres, rather than going to a wedding. The context of course is crucial – this wedding is being held in secret, in the face of opposition from the groom’s father, shortly before the groom and his best man (Major Dobbin) head off to face the French at Waterloo. It is, in other words, a military wedding, in which the participants must have many mixed feelings other than the pure joy normally associated with these occasions. A dark, uniform based costume seems in the circumstances more appropriate than a traditional wedding dress.
The accompanying “straw bonnet with a pink ribbon” and “veil of white Chantilly lace” are arguably more traditional items. The Wikipedia entry on Chantilly lace is, as entries on lace go, fascinating. It originated in Chantilly (duh), near Paris. Amelia is wearing French lace, even though her husband is about to go off and fight the French. This might be seen as being insensitive, but is consistent with the rest of the novel, in which there is not a trace of animosity amongst the adults against the French themselves – for example Becky has a French mother and teaches French – this is not a cause for comment or censure in the slightest. The fact that her mother was a dancer is on the other hand utterly scandalous. After Waterloo Paris resumes its place in the Grand Tour as if the war had never taken place. I think what is happening here is that the conflict was seen – on the northern side of the Channel at least – as not being Britain versus France, but Britain versus Napoleon, and the forces of revolution he represented.
Chantilly laces, Wikipedia goes on to tell us, were “generally black, which made them suitable for mourning wear. Little white Chantilly was ever made.” In wearing a lace more traditionally worn as mourning, the novel is foreshadowing the widow’s weeds that Amelia is to wear for so long after George dies at Waterloo. But there is more – in the gift that keeps on giving, Wikipedia also tells us that Chantilly “was a special favourite of…Marie Antoinette. When the French Revolution began…the lace-makers were seen as protégés of the royals, and after Mme du Barry and Marie Antoinette were guillotined in 1793, the lace-makers of Chantilly were themselves killed. Napoleon I sponsored revivals of Chantilly lace, most especially between the years 1804 and 1815.” This is a garment very specifically associated with the French aristocracy, revolution, and Napoleon. Not very diplomatic of Amelia, was it? Thackeray dresses Amelia with particular care in this scene, even if modern readers need to have recourse to the internet to decode it!
The second example I wanted to pick out occurs when Jos visits Becky in her down-at-heels apartment in Paris in chapter 65:
“She had, by way of morning robe, a pink domino, a trifle faded and soiled, and marked here and there with pomaturn; but her arms shone out from the loose sleeves of the dress very white and fair, and it was tied round her little waist so as to not ill set off the trim little figure of the wearer.”
I took me some time to track down precisely what a domino was in this context. All the references online were to a domino being worn at a masquerade, or more simply as a form of fancy dress, often with a mask. One website explains:
“All the participants at a masquerade had to be masked and in disguise. Perhaps the most frequent sight at a masquerade was the “domino” costume. Venetian in origin, this disguise was very simple; it was comprised of a dark loose cloak that enveloped the body accompanied by a mask. These costumes were usually black, but occasionally varied to white and blue. The domino costume represented intrigue, adventure, conspiracy and mystery, four elements that were a distinct part of the masquerade atmosphere. The Domino costume was also often worn by both sexes.”
Intrigue, adventure, conspiracy and mystery – Becky’s favourite qualities. If ever there was a costume that fitted her personality it is one which represents these elements. The robe is one of the many costumes that Becky wears in the course of the novel – she is always performing, putting on an act, sometimes literally acting out a scene to impersonate and mock someone to others. The true Becky is rarely revealed – we get glimpses of her internal narration, but for most of the novel she is playing a role, be it the injured wife, the love struck young women, the bereft mother, and so on, always with an eye on the main chance. It is therefore hugely appropriate that she should wear – as casual morning wear – a performer’s costume, part of a disguise. The robe is faded and soiled and marked with hair oil – pomaturn (whose, I wonder? – I don’t think Becky wears hair oil) but despite this the narrator, seeing her largely through the eyes of Jos Sedley I think, cannot avoid noticing her attractive, petite arms and waist, and her trim little figure. By this stage in the novel there is little disguising the fact that Becky is a fallen woman – the scene later in this chapter were she hides her dinner and bottle of spirits under the bed-clothes to hide them from Jos, then has to try to avoid sitting on them, is comic but also a bit pathetic – and wears the worn, soiled costume of a performer fallen on hard times, which for once is exactly what she is.
What do you think – am I reading too much into these descriptions of Amelia and Becky, or is Thackeray a deceptively skillful author who can tell us a lot about a character using apparently incidental detail?