What Mr. Thornton’s clothes tell us in “North & South” (2004)
31 October 2011
He first appears in the dream-world of the weaving floor. His posture is impeccable. Whereas the wage workers have bits of cotton fluff sticking like snow to their hair, eyelashes, (lungs) and clothing, Mr. Thornton’s black hair, black suit, and black tie appear untouched.
You hardly have time to think, now that’s a fine-looking man, because within seconds he will race down from his perch and brutally beat the worker he catches trying to light a pipe. Did I say brutally? I should say savagely. What are we to do with such a man?
You’d be forgiven if at first you mistake North and South for a ramped-up (and less witty) Pride and Prejudice. The contrast of temperaments, regions, and classes between nouveau pauvre Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and nouveau riche John Thornton (Richard Armitage) proves more obstacle than frisson of potential love. Yes, they are beset by problems of pride and prejudice — but this series is far more concerned with the real-life costs of industrial and financial change, making P&P appear much more a never-never land outside of history.No one could have done a better Thornton than Richard Armitage — and in the spirit of my Dear Friend (and after being assured she had not already covered the subject) I’d like to indulge here in a close reading of Thornton’s language of clothes. Even the most casual viewer will have noticed, even if only subconsciously, the way Thornton’s high starched collars, long frock coats, and, especially, the wrapped-around neckties help to cement our image of him as a man who feels acutely his responsibilities, a need for control over the business. I think his clothes do more — and they beg (beg, I tell you!) for analysis.
Let’s start with the big picture — and let’s be honest: his clothing undergoes only minute alterations throughout the four episodes. At first glance his clothes may appear synonymous with the drab greys, blacks, and dark blues of the North, which contrast so much with the vivid sunlight and colors of the South. In the first two episodes Thornton usually looks as he does here: hatless, but fully garbed in frock coat/perfectly tied neckcloth/white shirt and collar. Being hatless is important in the series’ first half: it helps us see more clearly how conflicted he is, because the severity of his costume is always contrasted by the waves of emotion crossing his face. He can appear enraged, prideful, agonized, ashamed, earnest, and infatuated — and that’s just while having tea at the Hales’ and finding it necessary to explain his riches-to-rags-to-riches tale. Being hatless in the first two episodes becomes a contrast to Episode 3, when he dons the hat far more frequently after being refused by Margaret. It signals his becoming more shut off emotionally, and also more beset by financial worries. There’s nothing much more severe than a stovetop hat, which accentuates his height while helping to cloak his face, which he now fixes in a poker-face glower.So if we have a pattern here — Eps 1 & 2 hatless, Ep 3 many more shots in hats — the small variations from the pattern are the most telling of all. Let’s start with that early scene in which his mother adjusts his tie on his way out:It’s our first glimpse into Thornton domestique, and that look on his face makes you remember why to end up with a man who loves his mother. (And I should note here that although I know their relationship might seem unnaturally close to some 21st-century viewers, I’m so impressed that the series showed the intimacy between mother and son that was so important to the Victorian age. Every time I watch it I marvel that they got it right). When I see this tie-tying scene, I think the filmmakers are showing us that a man who loves his mother is capable of truly loving a wife — and he’s also prone to respect women, as he can acknowledge a need for and reliance on women’s strength. Plus, I just like this little give-and-take between mother and son:
Thornton: Don’t worry, Mother — I’m in no danger from Miss Hale. She’s very unlikely to consider me a catch. She’s from the South — she doesn’t care for our Northern ways.
Mrs. Thornton: Airs and graces. What business has she? A renegade clergyman’s daughter — who’s only fit to give useless lectures to those who have no wish to hear them. What right has she to turn up her nose at you?
Personally, my favorite tie is the ivory linen one he wears at dinner, again chez Thornton, looking the contented domestic man, perhaps because of his growing thought that Margaret might eventually stand by his side:And let’s pause here on the complex semiotics of ties. More varied than in later eras, the 1850s neckties Thornton wears are wound two or three times around the neck, making the neck appear fuller especially at the throat. Even during a pre-Freudian age, variations on the knot had strong sexual connotations, as this slightly tongue-in-cheek illustrated 1818 sheet shows us. (One version here is called the trone d’amour for “its resemblance to the Seat of Love” — i.e., women’s genitalia — and the author advises that when utilizing that style, one should choose a fabric in the color of “a young girl’s eyes in ecstasy.” Note: click on the image to get a much clearer view of the details.) See also the 1828 Art of Tying the Cravat (which on Google Books sadly lacks the illustrations).
Even if they didn’t always serve as a code for rakish men’s sexual proclivities, ties were well-regarded as bearing a relationship to the throat, the voice, creativity, and one’s temper. “A tight cravat will cramp the imagination,” Lord Byron believed; singers carefully wrapped their throats to protect their voices. Positioning Thornton in tie after tie evokes in our minds a man torn between self-control and temperamental rages because it brings our eyes back, again and again, to his throat — that narrow channel where sustenance goes down yet where bile can bubble up; where the voice can be modulated or let loose. Not to get all anachronistically Eastern on you, but I can’t help but think about yogis’ views of the throat chakra. All of which brings me, obviously, to that rare moment after the riot, after Margaret has been struck by Boucher’s rock and has left the Thornton’s to return home. It’s a crucial moment for Thornton: he’s been juggling the police, his Irish scab laborers, an angry mob of Union workers, and serious financial concerns, and meanwhile his mind is still swimming after Margaret rushed down to try to protect him. Suddenly he appears at his mother’s side without tie and with his shirt open just at the top — all of which shows how vulnerable he is, how much in love he’s fallen. Of course at this moment his voice here cannot be impeded by a tie; he steps away from all those competing problems, and with the safety of only his mother close by, he abandons his carefully-won propriety and self-control to admit his feelings.Mrs. Thornton begs him not to go to Margaret’s, but she also persuades him that Margaret’s actions have effectively declared her love for him. He’s skeptical but acknowledges this is his dearest dream: “She did save me … but Mother, I daren’t believe such a woman could care for me,” he says with the barest, nakedest of emotions. Within a few moments he will wrap himself up to propose to her — and then, rejected, he leaves the Hales’ but forgets his gloves (and what a classic Freudian move — signaling by those abandoned gloves how much he had hoped to remain there with a different narrative) — but in this moment with his mother, we see for the first time the open-hearted, open-throated Thornton, ready at last to acknowledge his feelings.
With all of this in mind, you can see why it seems so cruel to us that by Episode 3, Thornton would appear so hard, so remote in his stovetop hats:Even when he smoothes over Margaret’s run-in with the police detective during the dramatic sub-plot surrounding Margaret’s brother’s visit (none of which Thornton comprehends), he tells himself that his motives are straightforward:
Margaret: Mr. Thornton, wait. I have to thank you —
Thornton: No. No thanks. I did not do anything for you. Do you not realize the risk you’ve taken, being so indiscreet? Have you no explanation for your behavior, that night at the station? You must imagine what I must think.
Margaret: Mr. Thornton, please. I’m aware of what you must think of me — I know how it must have appeared, being with a stranger so late at night. The man you saw me with, he — [she shakes her head, hopelessly]. The secret is another person’s — I cannot explain without doing him harm.
Thornton: I have not the slightest wish to pry into the gentleman’s secrets. My only concern is as your father’s friend. I hope you realize that any foolish passion for you on my part is entirely over. I’m looking to the future.
Who believes proclamations as harsh as those? Not us! And sure enough, in Episode 4 we measure his emotional vacillations and vulnerabilities by his changeable dress. He dramatically removes his hat before knocking on Nicholas Higgins’ door in what might be seen as the first sign of Thornton Thaw: he agrees to hire him, and they speak on frank and equal terms about their new relationship. Then, as his finances collapse, we see him much more frequently at the mill in shirt sleeves, including in the new mill-yard canteen where he swallows Mary Higgins’s excellent stew. Worse, he cannot seem to leave his office, where the news is only bad:
Thornton’s business fails while he’s in shirt sleeves, but it’s also in that costume where his spirit revives — in the green, sunlit field at Helston:And his transformation is complete by the time his north-bound train accidentally meets Margaret’s south-bound train halfway in between both regions. As improbable as it may seem that such a man would appear without jacket or tie at such a public place, it again shows us how open he is now to both love and change [insert involuntary gurgling noise here]:
All of this just goes to show how much more important Thornton’s clothes are than Margaret’s — at least insofar as they serve as codes to the narrative and the portrayal of his character. I’ll end with only one nice moment in which Margaret’s talk about clothes tell us a great deal about where her character is at that moment. She’s in Bessie Higgins’ tiny apartment after having a brief conversation with Thornton in the yard at Marlborough Mills under the watchful eye of his mother. She and Bessie are laughing, and we can see how much Margaret has finally learned about these Northerners’ senses of humor:
Margaret: And all the time, there she is, looking down on us like a great black angry crow guarding the nest! As if I would ever consider her son as a suitor.
Bessie: C’mon, don’t say you haven’t thought about it. — Mind you, you’d have to get some smarter clothes if you want to mix in at Marlborough Mills.
Margaret: Thank you! I’ll have you know these were new last year!
Bessie: You don’t stand a chance. There’s loads o’ girls after him!
Margaret: Well they’re welcome to him — with my good wishes.
Oh Margaret, how much you have to learn. If Victorians spoke an elaborate language of flowers that appears strange to us now, at least us modern viewers can learn — after frequent viewings of four-hour BBC series — can learn to translate the language of men’s clothes as a means of understanding a man’s emotional register.
One final note: many thanks to the many Armitage bloggers whose beautiful screen caps helped me decorate this post — I’ve lost track of where I got each one, but I mightily appreciate it.