In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, there’s an apparent focus on clothing that gradually links to freedom of identity.
When Mr. B gives Pamela his mother’s/her employer’s clothes after her death, the 15-year-old experiences a shift in identity. According to an article by Debra Goss called “Pamela’s Fourth Bundle: Writing and Apparel in Pamela,” clothing was “one of the first commodities to cross gender and class lines,” so it was a norm for a servant to receive her employer’s hand-me-downs. In fact, the article claims that female servants would imitate their mistresses by wearing hoops as these employees directly connected the upper and lower classes. Goss explaons that the hoop petticoat is cited as class mobility in Daniel Defoe’s “Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business” and in the Eighteenth century, it became a popular fashion item— one “more fragile than its Elizabethan predecessor, and suited to lighter fabrics like silk, which were coming in from France in abundance.”
Therefore, since female servants bridged the gap between the upper and lower classes, Pamela’s original tattered clothes of poverty free her identity— as she would no longer stand on the border of two classes or on the verge of losing her virtue. That is evident when she starts knitting clothes fit for her poor condition after escaping Mr. B’s third attempt to rape her (Richardson 44). She writes to her parents, “So think I, I had better get myself at once ‘quipt in the dress that would become my condition; and tho’ it might look but poor to what I was us’d to wear of late Days, yet it would serve me, when I came to you” (45). At the end of her letter, she says that she wishes to appear in her original clothes rather than in her mistress’s because that would mean she “shall be soon after with [her parents] and at ease in her mind, which reveals her plan to free herself from an identity that could result in her losing her virtue.
In a later instance, Pamela divides her clothes into three “parcels”— the clothes her Mistress had given her, clothes Mr. B had given her after her Mistress’s death, and the clothes that represent her condition of poverty at her parents’ house (78). Then, she told Mrs. Jervis to look over her clothes and let others at the house have what belongs to them, so she can take with her only what she “can properly call [her] own” (78). She calls the last bundle the “companion of my poverty” and the “Witness of her honesty,” while she calls the second the would-be “Price of my shame” (79) because of Mr. B’s intention to rape her. Therefore, she gives each bundle of clothes different identities and chooses to keep the one that frees her from harm. However, Mr. B tricks her and imprisons her instead of sending her home. Near the end of the volume, Pamela tries to escape, but fails as the rest of the servants search for her and find her petticoat, hat, and handkerchief in the pond. They at first believe she drowned, but then Nan finds her. Just as Goss states, this scene symbolizes her attempt to free herself by throwing away the clothes Mr. B gave her to reclaim her original identity.