Alias Grace

Alias Grace

Clothing Symbol Analysis

Clothing Symbol Icon

In Alias Grace, clothing is a symbol of identity—and particularly of identity’s malleability. From a young age, Grace is keenly attuned to the way that clothes not only function as a status symbol, but also mask people’s true selves. For example, Grace points out that society at large believes that “people dressed in a certain kind of clothing are never wrong” (she is referencing the doctors who “treated” her at the asylum but also sexually abused her). Grace thus gestures at the way society wrongly associates certain kinds of clothing with authority and morality.

Exchanging clothes with someone is also an important act in the novel. When the two first meet, Mary Whitney lends Grace her nightdress while Grace washes up; when Mary is buried she wears Grace’s nightdress, because hers is covered in blood. In this instance, exchanging clothes is a symbol of intimacy, but it also foreshadows Mary and Grace’s converging identities at the end of the book. Later in the novel, wearing someone else’s clothes becomes a transgressive act—indeed, almost a violent one. This is most clearly seen when Grace dons Nancy’s clothes shortly after Nancy is murdered. Grace also insists on wearing Nancy’s clothes when she is on trial, which the public interprets as a lack of remorse on Grace’s part and also as a status transgression, since Nancy’s clothes are nicer than Grace’s social class can afford. Finally, Mary Whitney takes the idea of exchanging clothing to an extreme when she claims that, upon her death, she “borrowed [Grace’s] clothing,” or her “fleshly garment.” In this way, changing “clothes” is shown to be a means not only of changing one’s social status, but also changing a person’s actual identity.

Clothing Quotes in Alias Grace

The Alias Grace 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:
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Anchor Books edition of Alias Grace published in 1997.
Chapter 3 Quotes

They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen’s trousers. The Governor’s wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker), Nancy Montgomery, The Governor’s Wife
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
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All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.

Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker)
Related Symbols: Clothing, Flowers
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 25 Quotes

What was in there for wiping was an old copy of the Godey’s Ladies’ Book; I always looked at the pictures before using them. Most were of the latest fashions, but some were of duchesses from England and high-society ladies in New York and the like. You should never let your picture be in a magazine or newspaper if you can help it, as you never know what ends your face may be made to serve, by others, once it has got out of your control.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker)
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 26 Quotes

And they do say that cleanliness is next to Godliness; and sometimes, when I have seen the pure white clouds billowing in the sky after a rain, I used to think that it was as if the angels themselves were hanging out their washing; for I reasoned that someone must do it, as everything in Heaven must be very clean and fresh.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker)
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:
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So there I was, pretending not to watch, and there he was, pretending not to be watched; and you may see the very same thing, Sir, at any polite gathering of society ladies and gentlemen. There is a good deal that can be seen slantwise, especially by the ladies, who do not wish to be caught staring. They can also see through veils, and window curtains, and over the tops of fans; and it is a good thing they can see in this way, or they would never see much of anything. But those of us who do not have to be bothered with all the veils and fans manage to see a good deal more.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker), Dr. Simon Jordan, James McDermott
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 27 Quotes

But is it red where it most counts, says the other, a fire in a treetop is no use at all, it must be in a fireplace to cast enough heat, in a little cookstove, you know why God made women with skirts, it’s so they can be pulled up over their heads and tied at the top, that way you don’t get so much noise out of them, I hate a screeching slut, women should be born without mouths on them, the only thing of use in them is below the waist.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker), The Guards
Related Symbols: Clothing, Mouths
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 32 Quotes

Underneath her stiff dress there must be breasts, not starched and corset-shaped, but made of soft flesh, with nipples; he finds himself idly guessing what colour these nipples would be, in sunlight or else in lamplight, and how large. Nipples pink and small like the snouts of animals, of rabbits or mice perhaps; or the almost-red of ripening currants; or the scaly brown of acorn caps. His imagination runs, he notes, to wildwood details, and to things hard or alert.

Related Characters: Dr. Simon Jordan (speaker), Mrs. Rachel Humphrey
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 38 Quotes

Then I put on a clean apron, and stirred up the fire in the summer kitchen stove, which still had some embers left in it, and burnt my own clothes; I didn’t like the thought of wearing them ever again, as they would remind me of things I wished to forget. It may have been my fancy, but a smell went up from them like scorching meat; and it was like my own dirtied and cast-off skin that was burning.

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker)
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 333
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 39 Quotes

I was horrified, and asked how could he do such a thing; and he said what did I mean, as I was wearing Nancy’s dress and bonnet myself. And I said it was not the same thing, and he said it was; and I said at least I had not taken the boots off a corpse.

Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 338
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 48 Quotes

“You killed her,” breathes Lydia. “I always thought so.” She sounds, if anything, admiring.

“The kerchief killed her. Hands held it,” says the voice. “She had to die. The wages of sin is death. And this time the gentleman died as well, for once. Share and share alike!”

Related Characters: Grace Marks (speaker), Mary Whitney (speaker), Miss Lydia (speaker), Dr. Simon Jordan, Mr. Thomas Kinnear, Nancy Montgomery
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 401
Explanation and Analysis:
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Clothing Symbol Timeline in Alias Grace

The timeline below shows where the symbol Clothing appears in Alias Grace. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 18
Female Sexuality and the Nature of Women Theme Icon
Social Class and Propriety Theme Icon
Mary helps Grace bathe and wash her clothes. The two then go shopping in Toronto to purchase materials to make Grace “a decent... (full context)
Chapter 31
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
Justice and Religion Theme Icon
When Grace awakens she finds that her nightdress is wet and her feet are dirty. She worries that she “must have been walking... (full context)
Chapter 38
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
Gender, Ownership, and Power Theme Icon
...McDermott agrees and, Grace says, “in the end we ransacked the house.” Grace takes Nancy’s clothes, but leaves the dress Nancy had been sewing for herself. “I’d heard the dead would... (full context)
Social Class and Propriety Theme Icon
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
...ears, describing the smell as “a comfort of sorts.” While she is burning her own clothes, McDermott comes into the kitchen and says he is ready to leave. When Grace complains... (full context)
Chapter 39
Justice and Religion Theme Icon
Grace convinces McDermott to change his clothes and she does the same. The moment he leaves to shave, Grace says, “was the... (full context)
Chapter 43
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
Social Class and Propriety Theme Icon
Justice and Religion Theme Icon
...angers Grace. Grace and McDermott are imprisoned in Toronto. Grace asks for her box of clothes and notes that the newspapers “sneered at [her] for referring to it as [hers]”—but, she... (full context)
Chapter 45
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
Female Sexuality and the Nature of Women Theme Icon
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
...he says, he did his best to absolve Grace despite her insistence on wearing Nancy’s clothes at the trial and the fact that she “had muddied the trail considerably” by telling... (full context)
Chapter 46
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
Gender, Ownership, and Power Theme Icon
...had one. She considers the following items: “A piece of coarse cotton, from my Penitentiary nightdress. A square of blood-stained petticoat. A strip of kerchief, white with blue flowers. Love-in-a-mist.” (full context)
Chapter 48
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
Female Sexuality and the Nature of Women Theme Icon
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
Justice and Religion Theme Icon
...voice he is hearing belongs to Mary Whitney. Mary’s voice admits that she inhabited Grace’s “clothing” (i.e. her body) when Grace forgot to open the window the night Mary died. (full context)
Chapter 51
Social Class and Propriety Theme Icon
...box of her things that was put into storage upon her imprisonment. Most of Grace’s clothes are moth-eaten, so Janet hunts up some material and other clothes from her friends. Grace... (full context)
Chapter 53
Storytelling and Power Theme Icon
Truth, Memory, and Madness Theme Icon
Gender, Ownership, and Power Theme Icon
Justice and Religion Theme Icon
...in her tree that will be different. One will be made of Mary Whitney’s white petticoat, one of the yellow prison nightdress Grace took with her from the Penitentiary, and one... (full context)