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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
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.