Symbolism of Clothes in Canterbury Tales

Clothing in a literary work can serve as a detail that communicates certain information about the hero. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are replete with detailed depictions of various characters’ wardrobes. At the same time, Chaucer’s numerous descriptions of clothing are equipped with varying artistic functions, serving special expressive purposes. The way people dress in The Canterbury Tales may reflect the psychology of the characters, represent their social characteristics, and also reliably depict England in the late Middle Ages.

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Сlothing in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is reflecting social conditions and rules established in the late Middle Ages. Social inequality and the place of a person in society at that time was the subject of lively discussion. Chaucer was neutral on this issue, but he was still questioning the need for inequality between people (Rigby 206). The clothes in The Canterbury Tales seem as a reflection of belonging to a particular social circle. The description of the pilgrims in the prologue is a vivid example of how Chaucer brings together representatives of various social strata in one picture. The attire of the pilgrims is described in accordance with the actual fashion of these times, which gives us a faithful representation of the English medieval society. However, coarse wool items worn by some heroes, such as the Miller, also inform us of the low social status of these heroes, who cannot wear clothes from the more expensive fabrics. Therefore, the difference in the decoration of the heroes of different classes can be perceived as a veiled criticism of social inequality and the unfair distribution of wealth.

In addition to the social category, clothes in The Canterbury Tales should be perceived as a reflection of the moral side of the human soul. For example, it is known that women’s dresses at that time were supposed to be as unattractive for men as possible (Haan 76). In this context, it would be interesting to consider the image of the wife from Bath. Having been married five times, she is an extremely independent and domineering woman. Her defiant behavior is emphasized by the fact that she wears hose “of the finest scarlet red” (Chaucer 35) in order to seem brash and attractive to the opposite sex. The psychological portrait of a person in The Canterbury Tales is able to be presented through the outfit.

Clothing in Chaucer’s oeuvre can also serve as a symbol of deception, ethical disguise. For instance, the character of the Prioress expresses only an external desire for compassion and spiritual values, while in fact, she possesses all the manners of a sophisticated courtly aristocrat (Swami 304). Her style of dress reflects exactly this – she chooses the finest cloak for herself and flaunts her forehead, pinning a hairpin to her veil. Also, this contradiction within the psychology of the character can be viewed as “a perfect example” of the search for a true identity by a medieval woman (Swami 303). Attaching great importance to clothing, Chaucer emphasizes that appearance still can be deceiving.

In summary, Chaucer’s descriptions of clothing in The Canterbury Tales perform a variety of purposes. In addition to a clear description of the fashion of a bygone era, the reader gets an opportunity to better understand the psychology of the characters. Clothes worn by people in The Canterbury Tales can express not only the social status of their possessors but also their internal aspirations and inner contradictions.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Nevill Coghill, Penguin Books, 2003.

Haan, Emily. “Expressions of Modesty in Costume.” Stellar Research Journal, vol. 12, 2018, pp. 75-86, www.okcu.edu/uploads/arts-and-sciences/english/docs/Stellar-2018.pdf.

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Rigby, Stephen H. “Ideology.” A New Companion to Chaucer, edited by Peter Brown, John Wiley & Sons, 2019. pp. 201-12.

Swami, Agrata. “Chaucer’s Prioress: A Representation of 14th Century Womanhood.” Smart Moves Journal IJELLH, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017, pp. 303-307, ijellh.com/OJS/index.php/OJS/article/view/1854.

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