Book Review: Dress Behind Bars

The subject of prison clothing never really enters my mind, the image of a man in a black and white striped suit and some screenshots of A Man Escaped being the only images it conjures. Dress Behind Bars made me question why I had never given the subject a second thought. Juliet Ash discusses its development in detail, framing the subject in contemporary thought, political and social reforms and financial restraints, making the subject compelling by putting it in context.

Apparently, my lack of knowledge on prison clothing is understandable, given that the image of the striped prison uniform is in itself misleading. The black and white striped uniform was abolished by 1914 in most American prisons. Regardless, early American films adopted this notorious uniform into the cinematic vocabulary as a shorthand to depict criminals. Some examples are Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917) and Buster Keaton’s Convict 13 (1920). The resultant fictional stereotype was that of the “heroic underdog humiliated by clothing.”

Ash draws upon contemporary contexts to further the reader’s understanding of the development of prison clothing beyond its depictions in popular culture. For example, let’s dig deeper into the end of the black-and-white striped uniform. At the turn of the century, when prisoners were still wearing the striped uniform in America and the broad arrow in Britain, the fin-de-siècle fashion system outside of the walls was marked by “public participation in the novel and the new.” The stark contrast between these conditions increased the level of humiliation endured by the prisoners. This, along with the realization that prison clothing is a highly ineffective instrument for rehabilitation, motivated penal reforms in the first decades of the twentieth century. The result was the eradication of “uniforms that visibly stigmatized.”

Ash then investigates the aftermath of this abolition and finds that harsh conditions still existed. In the spirit of 1920s America, prisoners provided cheap labour that fuelled the American economy. This influenced the subsequent prison clothing regulation in that prisoners’ productivity levels became a priority. In Auburn prison, the striped uniform was replaced by “workwear greys.” Compared to America, British penal reforms developed at a much slower pace. The use of clothing with broad arrow was still visible well into the 1930s. The Depression further encouraged the lack of progress in that production of new clothing was only to commence after “articles, and materials [had been] used until exhausted.”

The part of Dress Behind Bars that I love the most is its bibliography. Ash has considered an amazingly wide variety of prison diaries, going as far back as the 1800s. These include personal accounts from Sylvia Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. Written from first-hand experiences, they vividly realize the extent to which prison clothing conditions evoke humiliation or resistance. In addition, she dedicates half a chapter especially to “descriptive autobiography” of inmates writing about their sartorial experiences throughout their time in prison. Of course, Dress Behind Bars is also contextualized within published works of notable costume historians such as Christopher Breward and Rebecca Arnold.

Impressive as it is, there is a downside to this A-list bibliography and Ash’s thorough analytical approach. As a book that opens a new topic and is based on original research, Dress Behind Bars is a bit hard to approach. While sticking to a chronological order, the much more complicated connection in the chain of causality often leads to arguments that are sporadic in the temporal sense (read: confusing). So, no, it’s not really a summer read. I would however, recommend it for those winter days as you sit by the fire clinging to survival. You will learn so many cool facts about the history of prison clothing that will surely come in handy for a few Did-You-Know’s at next spring’s cocktail parties.

Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality by Juliet Ash, I.B. Tauris, 2010.
Reviewed by Marsya Maharani

One thought on “Book Review: Dress Behind Bars

  1. “These include personal accounts from Sylvia Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.”

    Part of me feels like this would be a really heavy read – but I’m always fascinated by firsthand accounts, especially if there’s a wide range of experience/opinion.
    Great review!

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