Of all the varied types of cultural creations, such as visual art, literature, music and the like, I find fashion to be so interesting because of its immense practicality. Defying Oscar Wilde’s mandate from the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray that, “all art is quite useless”[i], fashion is living, useful art: you wear it on your body so that you don’t die from exposure/get charged with public indecency, as well as expressing a particular statement. Is that statement as complex or varied as something that you could express in a painting or poem? No, probably not. Nevertheless, certain types of clothing and styles make meaningful statements about your beliefs, mood, or the type of person you would like people to see you as. The creation of clothing can also be an empowering act, something that Nathaniel Hawthorne picks up on in The Scarlet Letter. Despite his gendered description of sewing as “almost the only one within a woman’s grasp”,[ii] (give him a break he was writing in the nineteenth century), sewing within the novel is a means of Hester Prynne gaining some power in the community, as well as serving an important symbolic purpose of exposition of sin. This is a tiny meditation mainly on the chapter “Hester at her Needle”, but I’m sure my assessment of sewing extends to other parts of the text.
Hester’s sewing in The Scarlet Letter is a creative outlet for her and a means of exposing the hypocrisy of Puritan Boston. Her sewing is empowering and subversive, giving her both a means of providing for herself and her child in a time when it was very difficult for a single woman to support herself and a way to incorporate diverse stylistic sensibilities into the community. Hester’s aesthetic taste is out of place within the community and her lavish work would seemingly have greater demand among the “dames of court”[iii] than the plain Puritanic modes of dress, making her both a social and aesthetic outcast. There are remarks occasionally of Hester leaving Boston to find greater happiness elsewhere, but ultimately her leaving is unsuccessful; she returns to live out her days in Boston by the novel’s conclusion. Because the New World has irrevocably changed Hester, she cannot return to Europe. Hester can, however infuse some elements of a past aesthetic into her present through her sewing.
Even as Hester acquiesces to wearing the scarlet letter as punishment, she rebels by making the letter out of “fine red cloth” with “elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread”[iv], defying the typical austere garb of the Puritans and complicating the means of her punishment. The letter is a means of public shaming but it also has mythic qualities, as Hester has made the letter so beautiful that townsfolk suspect the letter is “red-hot with infernal fire”[v]. Sewing is associated with sinfulness as it was part of the production of the scarlet letter. Many in the town sneer at Hester yet are attracted to her “delicate and imaginative skill”[vi] of needlework and commission so much of her work that eventually her work becomes “the fashion”[vii]. The popularity of Hester’s handiwork exposes the hypocrisy of the Bostonians; if Hester’s embroidery is associated with sin and now most members of the town wear Hester’s sewing, then all the townsfolk are tainted with sin. The only difference between them and Hester though is they do not have letters emblazoned on their chests.
Hawthorne takes the act of sewing, traditionally women’s work, and uses it as a means for Hester to use her creativity in an otherwise creatively sterile community, while also using it as a representation of her sin. Just as Hawthorne is ambiguous in other aspects of the novel, such as in his treatment of Pearl as either a demonic or angelic, he figures sewing as something that is both generative and dangerous. Sewing is one of many ways Hawthorne figures Hester as a dissident character and uses something that, at least at the time, is a distinctly feminine activity to help her enact her rebellion.
[i] Wilde, Oscar. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 17-160. Print, 17.
[ii] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print, 74.
[iv] Ibid, 50.
[v] Ibid, 79.
[vi] Ibid, 74.