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Clothing

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Clothing is a pretty much universal (and timeless) status symbol, and clothing-as-symbolic pops up quite a bit in this play. It often tells us about a person’s station in life... much like today. You know a little something about the Birkin-toting CEO just from the way she presents herself, just like you know something about the nurse wearing scrubs.

But this play’s characters don't just change their stances on love and their reputations as easily as if they were changing clothes—the refer to their love lives in terms of clothing. For example: Hero’s reputation is described as clean, stained, and then clean again. When Beatrice teases Don Pedro about how she won’t take him for a husband, she says she’d need a less fancy man: Don Pedro is too fine to wear on working days. Dogberry, who is hyperconscious of his status, and tries to prove he’s a gentleman by bringing up the fact that he has two gowns (wowee) and fine things to make himself handsome.

Looks are everything here—Benedick’s appearance is what exposes him as a lovesick man:

CLAUDIO If he be not in love with some woman, there is no believing old signs. He brushes his hat o' mornings. What should that bode? 

DON PEDRO Hath any man seen him at the barber's? 

CLAUDIO No, but the barber's man hath been seen with him, and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls. 

LEONATO Indeed he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard. 

DON PEDRO Nay, he rubs himself with civet. Can you smell him out by that? 

CLAUDIO That's as much as to say, the sweet youth's in love. (3.2.38-50)

Finally in one of the most crucial and revealing conversations in the play—when Borachio comes clean to Conrade about the plot against Hero—there’s a conversation about fashion, which Conrade claims "wears out more apparel than the man." 

The idea is that fashions change too quickly, and this encourages otherwise reasonable men to get rid of perfectly good clothes. This capriciousness describes the fashion, but it also describes love in the play, as characters fall in and out of love and are made foolish by it. The point is that love is a fashion, and people change love like they change clothes.

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