Horatio Alger didn’t coin the adage, “dress for the job you want, not the one you have,” but he certainly believed in it. Clothes are incredibly important in Ragged Dick, a story whose titular fourteen-year-old orphan shines shoes on the streets of New York. In the book, those who wear nice clothes and take care of their appearance, are successful, where those with little care for their apparel, or whose clothing is ill-fitted or worn, are presented as lazy—and thus bound to remain in poverty. This is more than just a reflection of class values or even the late-nineteenth-century obsession with clothing; Alger suggests that the clothes literally make the man. Even a simple upgrade in one’s wardrobe, then, is capable of changing a person and being a springboard into a new life of social respectability and economic prosperity.
Dick’s new suit—presented to him by Frank Whitney before the two begin their sight-seeing tour—doesn’t just change the way he looks; it changes the way he feels about his life. After seeing himself in the new suit, he realizes how dirty and worthless he looks in his former vagabond clothes and is unwilling to return to them. With this realization comes adjacent ones, like the understanding that he doesn’t want to eat breakfast, or live at, at the same places where boys in vagabond clothes do. It’s not that Dick feels as though he’s suddenly better than these boys. Rather, he feels as though he’s been awakened to a new way of life, one that has shown him who he is capable of becoming. The other boys could be awakened to their potential, too, if they only had the right clothes. In this way, the suit has alienated Dick from his previous existence. He no longer feels like he can be a part of that life, and instead begins making plans for a new one—one better fitting a boy in a nice suit.
A similar transformation happens to Dick’s friend Fosdick when Dick helps him to purchase a new set of clothes. Fosdick always suspected that he was cut out to be more than a shoeshine boy. Indeed, he expected—because Fosdick had been groomed for college by his father, prior to his untimely death—that he would attend college and live a comfortable life. However, as his deteriorating circumstances forced him into the ragged clothes of a bootblack (someone who shines shoes), his vision for that life began to dim. While Dick’s friendship, coupled with the room and board that Dick provides the boy, give Fosdick a better life, his outlook isn’t improved until Dick buys him a suit. Once adorned in the trappings of a successful young man, however, Fosdick again believes that he can be one—and instantly finds the courage to look for a better job.
Almost as a testament to their figurative statuses in Ragged Dick, neither of the boys’ suits appear susceptible to wear and tear—despite the hard use that the shoeshine boys surely put them to. Both boys own only a single suit, which they wear daily during their long outdoor shifts. Besides the obvious, damaging exposure to the weather, the boys’ work consists of a constant bending down to shine shoes, which would wear the garments out, and a constant exposure to shoe polish itself, which would easily stain them. Indeed, this hard work is precisely the reason that the boys’ former clothes are so dirty, tattered, and generally out of order. Yet the suits are resilient—a testament to the fact that they are more than mere clothes and are, instead, enduring symbols of the boys’ newfound path towards a more respectable life.
It’s no wonder, then, that Dick and Fosdick putting on suits cause such anger in people like the street urchin Micky Maguire, who tries to hurt Dick when he sees him wearing fancy new clothes. Though Micky believes that Dick is “putting on airs” through his sartorial choices, the reality is quite different. Through his clothes, Dick has already taken the first step down the path to a better life. This new life is one that Micky, whose clothes are of the same vagabond sort as Dick’s were previously, will never have access to—not because he doesn’t own a suit, but because he doesn’t want to own one. He is, instead, quite happy to wear tattered hand-me-downs, including Dick’s original clothes, which Maguire steals by story’s end. At that time, Maguire had a chance to steal Dick’s better clothing, as well, but—happy with his station in life—had no desire to do so. Clothes, then, are yet another testament to Dick’s pluck and industrious nature.
Clothes Make the Man ThemeTracker
Clothes Make the Man Quotes in Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks
Another of Dick's faults was his extravagance. Being always wide-awake and ready for business, he earned enough to have supported him comfortably and respectably. There were not a few young clerks who employed Dick from time to time in his professional capacity, who scarcely earned as much as he, greatly as their style and dress exceeded his. But Dick was careless of his earnings.
“I’m afraid you haven’t washed your face this morning,” said Mr. Whitney […]
“They didn’t have no wash-bowls at the hotel where I stopped,” said Dick.
“What hotel did you stop at?”
“The Box Hotel.”
“The Box Hotel?”
“Yes, sir, I slept in a box on Spruce Street.”
When Dick was dressed in his new attire, with his face and hands clean, and his hair brushed, it was difficult to imagine that he was the same boy.
Dick succeeded in getting quite a neat-looking cap, which corresponded much better with his appearance than the one he had on. The last, not being considered worth keeping, Dick dropped on the sidewalk, from which, on looking back, he saw it picked up by a brother boot-black who appeared to consider it better than his own.
“Did you ever read the Bible?” asked Frank, who had some idea of the neglected state of Dick’s education.
“No,” said Dick. “I’ve heard it’s a good book, but I never read one. I ain’t much on readin’. It makes my head ache.”
“Some boys is born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Victoria’s boys is born with a gold spoon, set with di’monds; but gold and silver was scarce when I was born, and mine was pewter.”
I ain’t got no mother. She died when I wasn’t but three years old. My father went to sea; but he went off before mother died, and nothin’ was ever heard of him. I expect he got wrecked, or died at sea.
There isn’t but one thing to do. Just give me back that money, and I’ll see that you’re not touched. If you don’t, I’ll give you up to the first p’liceman we meet.
Dick read this letter with much satisfaction. It is always pleasant to be remembered, and Dick had so few friends that it was more to him than to boys who are better provided. Again, he felt a new sense of importance in having a letter addressed to him. It was the first letter he had ever received. If it had been sent to him a year before, he would not have been able to read it. But now, thanks to Fosdick's instructions, he could not only read writing, but he could write a very good hand himself.
I've give up sleepin' in boxes, and old wagons, findin' it didn't agree with my constitution. I've hired a room in Mott Street, and have got a private tooter,
who rooms with me and looks after my studies in the evenin'. Mott Street ain't very fashionable; but my manshun on Fifth Avenoo isn't finished yet, and I'm afraid it won't be till I'm a gray-haired veteran. I've got a hundred dollars towards it, which I've saved from my earnin's. I haven't forgot what you and your uncle said to me, and I'm trying to grow up 'spectable.
“…you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name, and think of yourself now as—”
“Richard Hunter, Esq.” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.