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Clothes, from "Upon Julia's Clothes," a poem by Robert Herrick

Subthemes: Quality, Person Plus, Mighty Apparel Industry

Robert Herrick’s poetic adoration of Julia and the wonders of her expensive silks captures the handsomeness of fine clothes. Long ago, in 1648, he created a timeless, memorable image of flowing, glowing loveliness. We can draw from the six lines of “Upon Julia’s Clothes” several subthemes of Clothes.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see
That brave vibration each way free,
O how that glittering taketh me!

Quality: Herrick revels almost erotically in the swish and brilliance of Julia’s silken gown. Aside from its dramatic beauty, silk indicated then and still exudes rarity, expense and quality. Only the wealthy can afford it. We learn from Discover Magazine that silk’s “unmatched beauty, durability and comfort was prized by the ranks of nobility … . For more than a thousand years, how that silk was produced remained a well-guarded secret kept by ancient China, reluctant to let its monopoly go. The fabric was one of the most valued commodities that traveled westward along the vast network known as the Silk Road. In that era, silk was worth as much as its weight in gold and was sometimes used as a form of currency.” In our century, other kinds of clothes convey money and fine taste, such as fine leathers, silk chiffon, beaded gowns, and individually tailored suits. Furs once radiated elegance and wealth, but the cruelty of their production has deeply tarnished their approval. At the opposite end of the spectrum, cheap clothing poorly made dominates the streetscape. Shoppers can buy t-shirts for pennies, as well as low-cost shorts, sneakers, and jeans, not to mention swimming trunks and sandals. You can spot bargain-basement clothes everywhere, badly manufactured, faded and tired-looking from frequent use and washing, or showing rips and discoloration. If you spend little on what’s on your back, you’re in the back of the pack.

Person Plus: Clothing looks sharp on racks, mannequins, displays or catalogue pages, but it appeals the most when a stylish person wears the clothes well. The finest Saville Row suit on a hobo loses all luster; the smart choices of a London guttersnipe radiates glittering that taketh me. The combination of the wearer plus colors, textures, fabrics, accessories, skin revealed, fit, and liquefaction can conjure an ineffable combination of personality, impression, and signals. Simple clothes matched well to the wearer catch the eye; thousands of dollars of a classy outfit and costly accoutrement on a morose person lose the intended effect.

Mighty Apparel Industry: The silk that enchanted Herrick came to England from China. That transaction was a forerunner of the vast trade that collects and weaves raw material into fabric, designs and manufactures items, markets them, ships and distributes the clothes, and sells them. Malls across the United States and downtown retail stores offer the traditional and trendy clothes they hope buyers want to wear. In 2019, global retail sales of apparel and footwear reached $1.9 trillion dollars, according to Statista.. The global fashion industries employ more than 75 million workers, as estimated by Solidarity Center. Who knows how many global citizens make a living based on what is worn if we add in laundromats, dry cleaners, tailors, store clerks, delivery truckers, and others? In any case, clothes are cash registers.

 

These few lines of Robert Herrick convey the fetching good looks embodied by silk clothing. The quality (and costliness) of the fabric combined with the person wearing it are superlative. Julia acquired an expensive gown as one transaction in what is now a sprawling, global industry.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept “Clothes,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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