The Fashion of Charles Dickens by Miriam Phelan

 

‘Any Man May Be in Good Spirits and Good Temper when He’s Well Dressed’

The court suit on display in the dressing room of the Charles Dickens Museum is the only known surviving example of Dickens’s clothing and was worn once for a very special occasion. Dickens wore the court suit to a levee at St James Palace on the 6th April 1870, which was hosted on behalf of the Queen by Edward, Prince of Wales.

The fact that this suit survives is probably due to the fact that it was only worn for this special event, and because of its association with Dickens being honoured by the Royal family. Unfortunately, no other examples of Dickens clothing survive but the suit makes an interesting starting point to begin thinking about what he would have worn.

Court Suit
Court Suit, 1870, DH206, © Charles Dickens Museum  

Dickens’s letters reveal lots of rich and fascinating information about the clothes he owned, what he kept in his wardrobe, what he wore and even where he went shopping. These valuable pieces of information build a really clear picture of Dickens’s relationship with clothing and the role that fashion played in his public and private lives. In 1859, Dickens ordered his manservant John Thompson to collect his ‘red and blue morning Jacket’ from behind the bedroom door to bring to the tailor to be altered.[1] In 1861, Dickens asked Georgina to bring his ‘dress coat (the one without the velvet collar) and black trousers’ with her from Gads Hill.[2] In 1862 he requests that Thompson make a package of clothing to be sent to the offices of All the Year Round including

‘…the drab travelling coat and waistcoat hanging up in the wardrobe – and the waterproof coat and straps hanging up in my room’[3].

Again in 1865 Dickens orders Thompson collect his new suit of clothes and black silk boots from his bedroom.[4] And in a letter to another manservant, William Johnson, in 1867 Dickens describes the contents of his wardrobe in the bedroom of his office; ‘please open the wardrobe…’ Dickens instructs;

'…and take out all the summer trousers there (they are all on one shelf), and all the white waistcoats which are on a different shelf, I think; and from the Wing of the Wardrobe take out a light brown summer coat. If there is any waistcoat like it (I am not sure about that) take that out too.'[5]  

Already, we get a sense of the extent of Dickens wardrobe in a 6-year period from 1859 to 1867, and we know that Dickens regularly purchased new items of clothing. From his letters we can learn that Dickens had a bootmaker, a hosier and glover, a waterproofer and a silversmith and at least five different tailors in London throughout his life. We even know that Dickens bought his elastic stockings from Messers Spark and Son. Dickens often went shopping himself, as in 1853 Dickens describes how he ‘went to three shops this morning, for some things I want to wear.’[6] Dickens’s enjoyment of shopping as a social pastime is also evident because we know he went shopping with a close friend in 1851, none other than the fashionable dandy, Count D’Orsay.[7]

Charles Dickens and Count D'Orsay

Charles Dickens; Alfred, Count D'Orsay by Alfred, Count D'Orsay, hand-coloured lithograph, 16 December 1841, 10 3/4 in. x 6 7/8 in. (273 mm x 176 mm) paper size, NPG D20137, © National Portrait Gallery.  

 

Dickens’s friendship with D’Orsay, who is pictured on the right, is enlightening when considering Dickens’s fashion and sense of style. D’Orsay was well-known for his fashionable and flamboyant dress sense and his influence over Dickens’s own style comes across in their correspondence. D’Orsay helped Dickens to accessorise by giving him gifts such as canes and scarves. Dickens even wanted a copy of a waistcoat designed by D’Orsay in 1845 for himself, describing it as:

'…a remarkable and precious Waistcoat wherein certain broad stripes of blue or purple, disported themselves as by a combination of extraordinary circumstances, too happy to occur again.'[8]  

Dickens was famed for his flamboyant taste in jewellery and waistcoats and early descriptions of Dickens’s colourful clothing demonstrate a link between the development of his style and success in his career. John Payne Collier recounts the change in Dickens after he was appointed to work for the Morning Chronicle in 1834:  

'…I may add here that soon after [his appointment to the Chronicle] I observed a great difference in C. D.’s appearance and dress; for he had bought a new hat and a very handsome blue cloak, with black velvet facings, the corner of which he threw over his shoulder a l’Espagnol.'[9]  

Charles Mackay’s recollections of him from the late 1830’s describe him as: ‘…rather inclined to what was once called “dandyism” in his attire, and to a rather exuberant display of jewellery on his vest and on his fingers.’[10]

However Dickens style of dress wasn’t always well received as one young woman remembers meeting him in 1839:   

'I was very much struck with him and liked everything but the intolerable dandyism of his dress, which is such as he might, and I believe has humorously described himself; but it will probably wear away with his youth.'[11]  

Another example of how Dickens styled his image is in the portrait by William Powell Frith from 1859. Seen here, Dickens is reclining at his desk in a shirt with a small necktie, dark trousers and a velvet jacket with large rolled back sleeves. Dickens demonstrates his awareness of the importance of his public image, and he had his tailor make this coat for the portrait, which he jokingly suggested to Frith would transmit him ‘to posterity’.[12]  

Dickens’s attitude towards fashion comes to the fore again in The Uncommercial Traveller when Dickens took on the role of the flâneur, a gentleman who walks through and observes the urban environment. Shabbiness in London, according to Dickens, came in part from ‘the absence of a distinctive dress’.[13] From the research set out so far Dickens’s style was certainly distinctive and this often jarred with people’s expectations of him. Comments such as: ‘his whole appearance is foppish and partakes of the flash order’[14], became common amongst those who met him for the first time. Dickens’s ‘distinctiveness’ in dress may not have been an accident however, as his own observations of fashion show, clothing had the potential to help you stand out from the crowd, and whether you liked how he dressed or not, Dickens made an impression.    

 

Dickens Oil Painting by William Powell Frith
Oil painting, 'Charles Dickens', William Powell Frith, 1859, F.7, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.      

 

Miriam Phelan is a PhD candidate in the School of Arts and Humanities at the Royal College of Art and the V&A. Miriam has worked on collecting, conserving and exhibiting men’s dress and fashion during her time at the Jewish Museum before being awarded a TECHNE AHRC doctoral award to commence her PhD in 2017. Miriam’s doctoral research focuses on commemoration and men’s dress in Ireland and she has most recently been working with the Charles Dickens Museum researching the Museum's dress and textile collection. 

[1] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 9: 1859–1861: 1859–1861 (Oxford University Press), 4th January to 1859 John Thompson, p. 4.
[2] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 9, 9th January 1861 to Georgina Hogarth, p. 365.
[3] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 10: 1862–1864: 1862–1864 (Oxford University Press), 21st July 1862 to John Thompson, p. 111.
[4] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 11, 17th December 1865 to John Thompson, p. 124.
[5] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 11, 29th May 1867 to William Johnson, p. 373.
[6] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 7: 1853–1855: 1853–1855 (Oxford University Press), 27th November 1853 to Catherine Dickens, pp. 215-217.
[7] William Teignmouth Shore, D’Orsay; or, The Complete Dandy (London: J. Long, limited, 1911), p. 293.
[8] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 4: 1844–1846: 1844–1846 (Oxford University Press), 17th October 1845 to William Macready, p. 406.
[9] Philip Collins, Dickens, Interviews and Recollections (Macmillan, 1981), p. 13.
[10] Collins, p. 14.
[11] Collins, p. 20.
[12] The British Academy/The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 9, 12th January 1859 to W. P. Frith, p. 9.
[13] Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller; Edited by Daniel Tyler. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 245.
[14] Collins, p. 54.

 

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