Pygmalion

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Clothing Symbol Analysis

Clothing Symbol Icon
In Pygmalion, clothing is an important part (perhaps the most important part) of characters' appearances and how they display their identity and social standing. In the opening scene, the different people under the church portico are able to discern each other's social class particularly by their clothes. Pickering is easily recognizable as a gentleman, whereas Eliza is easily identifiable as a poor flower-girl. Because of this, clothing is naturally an important part of Eliza's transformation. In Act Two, after she changes clothes, her own father doesn't even recognize her at first—and this is before she even begins to act or talk differently. Mr. Doolittle's own social transformation is also symbolized by clothing. He arrives at Mrs. Higgins' house in Act Five dressed like a gentleman, and Higgins assumes that this cannot be Eliza's father, whom he met earlier. The importance of clothes in the formation of one's social identity suggests that such identity is rather shallow. Indeed, a central ambiguity in the play is whether one's identity can really be changed by learning to speak differently or putting on a different outfit, or whether this is merely a façade that covers up one's true, unchanging identity. This tension comes to the forefront in Act Four when Eliza asks Higgins whether her new, expensive clothes actually belong to her now. Behind the question of whether she is or isn't the owner of the clothes, Eliza also wants to know whether her new, upper-class identity is really hers, or whether it is just a role she is playing, a costume she is wearing but will have to give up eventually. Clothes thus symbolize the importance of appearances in establishing one's identity and class, while also questioning how deep this kind of social identity goes.

Clothing Quotes in Pygmalion

The Pygmalion quotes below all refer to the symbol of Clothing. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Language and Speech Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Pygmalion published in 2000.
Act 1 Quotes

It's aw rawt: e's a genleman: look at his ba-oots.

Related Characters: Bystander (speaker), Henry Higgins
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

When a bystander notes to Eliza that there is a man writing down everything she is saying, she's immediately concerned that he is a policeman, and that she has unwittingly committed a crime. When the note-taker comes forward, however, a bystander notes that he is a gentleman, not a policeman, as is apparent by his manner of dress (his boots in particular). 

In Victorian society, the way one looked and acted was meant to be indicative of their status in society. By this standard, it was generally believed that one who had manners and money had higher morals than those who were poor and unkempt (thus the way the word "gentleman" has come to mean someone with integrity and manners, whereas once it was only a marker of wealth and social rank). Because of this, the bystander (who's way of speaking itself identifies her as being of the lower class) immediately believes the man is to be trusted simply by the luxury he exudes by the shoes on his feet. Eliza, by contrast, is considered unclean and inferior because she is poor, does not speak like the upper class, and sells flowers on the street to earn a living. Side by side, Higgins is considered to be much more trustworthy simply based on the way he dresses. 

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Act 2 Quotes

Then might I ask you not to come down to breakfast in your dressing-gown, or at any rate not to use it as a napkin to the extent you do, sir. And if you would be so good as not to eat everything off the same plate, and to remember not to put the porridge saucepan out of your hand on the clean tablecloth, it would be a better example to the girl.

Related Characters: Mrs. Pearce (speaker), Henry Higgins
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

After taking Eliza away to wash up and change, Mrs. Pearce comes back into Higgins' study to ask him to promise not to practice some of his bad habits in Eliza's presence.

Higgins, a "confirmed old bachelor," has lived along with just Mrs. Pearce for years, and as a result, has acquired a number of habits, such as walking around in his pajamas and cursing, that the housekeeper does not believe are suitable for a young woman (particularly one to whom Higgins is supposedly going to give elocution and etiquette lessons). Given Higgins' classist and sexist views, it is ironic that his housekeeper, a woman and a member of a lower class, is reprimanding him for his manners. Here Mrs. Pearce acts as a foil to Higgins' ego--though he talks a big game, he requires Mrs. Pearce's care to live his day-to-day life, and he often acts immaturely, despite his supposedly upper class etiquette. Mrs. Pearce reveals his true habits when no one is looking, thus confirming them as his hypocrisies.

This sentiment is similar to Higgins' hope to pass Eliza off as a noblewoman, not actually make her into a genuine member of the upper class: class is all about how one hopes to be perceived, not how they truly are as a human being. For all of her faults, Eliza is true to herself, whereas Higgins' pretension is almost entirely an act. 

Act 4 Quotes

Do my clothes belong to me or to Colonel Pickering?

Related Characters: Eliza Doolittle (speaker), Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

After fighting with Higgins, Eliza declares that she has no choice but to leave Wimpole Street. In this quote, before she leaves, she asks Higgins if the clothes she is wearing belong to her, or to Pickering, since he was the one who technically paid for her entire transformation. 

As the two men's "doll," Eliza is unsure what is now hers--tangibly, or emotionally--and what is property of Pickering and Higgins. This comment deeply wounds Higgins, since he genuinely did not realize that she felt this complexly about anything, let alone that she was smart enough to realize the sarcasm and condescension entrenched in his treatment towards her. Higgins considers himself charitable for having taken Eliza in, given her fancy things and an upper-crust attitude. By asking whether her clothing is her own or if she must return it to Pickering--presumably, for their next experiment with a girl they find on the street--hurts him, since he feels that she has not been grateful or understood the act of charity. 

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