In Kate Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” Mrs. Sommers is given the almost impossible task of navigating America’s nineteenth-century Puritanism—and the moral judgement it cast over poor, lower class women like her—as well as the increasing social pressures placed on women to succumb to the demands of a booming consumer culture. Chopin uses her protagonist to explore the superficial elitism of an American class structure that asserted double moral standards—on the one hand encouraging extravagant spending (for the sake of a strong economy), and on the other expecting working-class women to live pure, selfless, and modest lives. Mrs. Sommers embodies America’s moral and social paradoxes through her position as an outsider; she neither belongs with her working-class neighbors, who sense and discuss her difference from them, nor to the luxurious middle- and upper-class world she longs for. In this context, Mrs. Sommers’s self-worth is inextricably tied to outward appearances, which Chopin seems to reject as shallow and reductive.
To some extent, Mrs. Sommers is empowered by the fifteen dollars in her possession; the money boosts her confidence and transforms her from a state of passivity—“found herself the unexpected possessor”—to a woman in active pursuit of her own desires. In the story’s opening, Mrs. Sommers derives pleasure from the way the money “stuffed and bulged” in her purse. Readers learn that the possession of the fifteen dollars “gave her a feeling of importance such as she had not enjoyed for years,” suggesting that Mrs. Sommers’s self-worth is linked closely to her financial status. Mrs. Sommers delights in the promise of exercising her new spending power, an experience that is not wholly unfamiliar to her, but one she has not had the luxury of enjoying in recent years. When the shop assistant in the store invites Mrs. Sommers to examine a pair of silk stockings, “[Mrs. Sommers] smiled, just as if she had been asked to inspect a tiara of diamonds with the ultimate view of purchasing it.” The regal connotations illustrate how pleased and proud she feels to have been perceived as someone who could afford such “luxurious things.” Indeed, after her rash shopping spree, Mrs. Sommers “lifted her skirts at the crossings” in order to show off her new shoes and stockings. Her purchases “had given her a feeling of assurance, a sense of belonging to the well-dressed multitude.” Mrs. Sommers’s indulgences have given the previously exhausted woman a new lease of life, transformed her posture and improved her “bearing.” Perhaps her indulgences have been shallow and materialistic, but after her stoicism in the face of poverty, the implication is that Mrs. Sommers deserves her afternoon of luxury, certainly more than the other women in the story, who engage in such leisure activities just to show off their wealth.
Dressed predominantly in her modest, shabby clothes, Mrs. Sommers still risks rejection from “the well-dressed multitude” she so desperately wants to be accepted by. As a working-class woman, Mrs. Sommers is expected to behave selflessly and modestly, entirely devoted to her household duties and to her family obligations. In the context of American Puritanism, her indulgent purchases could be construed not only as irresponsible, but also as highly immoral. This moral judgement—or at least the fear of it—manifests itself in the dread Mrs. Sommers harbors of others noticing that she doesn’t belong in their social set. In the restaurant, for example, “she feared” that her “appearance” might create “surprise,” presumably one that might result in her being rejected or outcast by her social superiors, who are positioned as the arbiters of style, class, and belonging. By highlighting the double moral standard that allows wealthy women to indulge in fashion, pampering, and excess, while judging a poor woman’s character for the very same behavior, Chopin exposes the class inequality and social disenfranchisement experienced by working-class women.
Through the fact that the purchase of just a few elegant and luxurious items can buy Mrs. Sommers social acceptance, Chopin highlights the superficial and shallow elitism of the middle class. Through her new purchases, Mrs. Sommers gains a social capital that allows her to enter spaces previously restricted to her. Initially she worries that people will dismiss her, laugh at her, or prevent her from entering their upscale restaurants and theaters. Mrs. Sommers is pleasantly surprised, then, when her presence in these middle-class establishments causes no alarm. Her new stockings, shoes, gloves, and magazines make her feel more confident, but they also change people’s perceptions of her. However, when Mrs. Sommers encounters the “gaudy” women in the theater, it becomes clear that Chopin condemns this superficiality. Visiting the theater solely to show off, the women are shallow, trivial, and one-dimensional. They share their candy with Mrs. Sommers, not because they actually care for her, but because they perceive her as belonging to their social set. Without her new clothes, Mrs. Sommers would have likely been rejected by these very same women. The comfort of acceptance that she finds among the “quiet ladies and gentlemen” has been misguided; money has given Mrs. Sommers a particular kind of self-worth—one tied to the approval of others—but it is devoid of any real value or meaning. Ultimately Chopin renders nineteenth-century class distinctions completely ridiculous, as it is obvious that Mrs. Sommers was once both wealthier and more socially important than she is now, and despite her changing outward appearance, is the same person she always has been.
“A Pair of Silk Stockings” is a damning indictment on the state of social class in America. The more fortunate echelons of society will continue to participate in mass consumption, buying things they do not need, simply to “display” their wealth, while poor, hard-working women like Mrs. Sommers remain marginalized, positioned firmly on the outside, looking in.
Social Class and Belonging ThemeTracker
Social Class and Belonging Quotes in A Pair of Silk Stockings
It seemed to her a very large amount of money, and the way in which it stuffed and bulged her worn old porte-monnaie gave her a feeling of importance such as she had not enjoyed for years.
The neighbors sometimes talked of certain “better days” that little Mrs. Sommers had known before she had ever thought of being Mrs. Sommers. She herself indulged in no such morbid retrospection. She had no time—no second of time to devote to the past.
A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily to-morrow never comes.
She went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things—with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.
Her foot and ankle looked very pretty. She could not realize that they belonged to her and were a part of herself.
She was hungry.
The play was over, the music ceased, the crowd filed out. It was like a dream ended.