By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Clothes maketh the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’ So Mark Twain is thought to have once opined; and yet poetry has been less concerned with the material features of our clothing than we might perhaps expect.
How many classic poems about clothing can you name? In this post, we’ve tasked ourselves with choosing five of the very best poems about clothes.
John Donne, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals …
No sooner have we begun this rundown of some of the greatest clothes poems, and we’re taking them off. Not too hastily, though: Donne’s poem may be regarded as one long literary striptease, as a naked Donne undresses his mistress verbally, one item of clothing at a time.
Donne concludes ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ by leading by example: ‘Look, to show you how it’s done, I’ll take off my clothes first. See? And why would you need to have more covering than a man?’
Robert Herrick, ‘Upon Julia’s Clothes’.
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes …
This very short poem, by one of England’s foremost Cavalier poets of the seventeenth century, is deceptively simple. It seems to be simply a description of the woman’s silken clothing, and its pleasure-inducing effects on our poet.
The ‘vibration’ and ‘glittering’ may be the result of Julia’s gracefully moving about, her silken garments shimmering in the light (perhaps shortly before she removes the clothes: note the implied shift between the silken-clad Julia in the first stanza, and the ‘brave vibration each way free’ in the second, ‘Next’: what is now ‘free’ exactly?).
But the poem seems to hint at far more than this, as we’ve explored in the analysis that follows the poem (in the link provided above).
Thomas Hood, ‘The Song of the Shirt’.
First published in 1843, ‘The Song of the Shirt’ takes its title from the song the woman sings to herself as she works hard at her stitching, making shirts from dawn till – well, beyond dusk.
Work! work! work!
While the cock is crowing aloof!
And work — work — work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
All day, every day, the woman slaves away at her stitching, yet she remains in ‘poverty, hunger, and dirt’. Given the exploitation of cheap labour still occurring around the world, especially in the production of clothes, this poem remains all too topical.
Gertrude Stein, ‘A Long Dress’.
Taken from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (an aptly named volume for a classic clothes poem to be found!), this short poem is cryptic, as we’d perhaps expect from one of American modernism’s greatest poets. Including a fair bit of lexical play on the words ‘current’ and ‘line’, ‘A Long Dress’ seems to question how we view the very clothes we wear.
Pablo Neruda, ‘Ode to My Socks’.
The humble pair of socks, it’s fair to say, has been overlooked in the annals of poetry. But not by Pablo Neruda, who offers a charming ode to his woollen feet-warmers here: ‘what is good is doubly good / when it is a matter of two socks / made of wool in winter.’
For more classic poetry, we also recommendThe Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here, and list the best books for the poetry student here). Discover more great poems with these poems about the world of work and these poems for birthdays.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.