© 2014 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
Pygmalion

Pygmalion

by George Bernard Shaw

Clothing

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

You know how they say "The clothes make the man"? Well, in Pygmalion it holds true…for the most part. The most striking example of this takes place just before the discussion of the mirror. Doolittle is about to leave Higgins's house when "he is confronted with a dainty and exquisitely clean young Japanese lady in a simple blue cotton kimono":

DOOLITTLE: Beg pardon, miss.
THE JAPANESE LADY: Garn! Don't you recognize your own daughter?
DOOLITTLE {exclaiming Bly me! it's Eliza!
HIGGINS {simul- What's that! This!
PICKERING {taneously By Jove!
(2.289-293)

When Eliza is shown to the bath by Mrs. Pearce, she's nothing more than a poor young woman trying (and failing) to look presentable. When she comes back out, she's been so completely transformed that even her father can't recognize her. Shaw lets us know how drastic the change is within the text by referring to Eliza as "The Japanese Lady." Even we're supposed to be fooled, if only until Eliza opens her mouth.

Here we can see how powerful appearance is – sometimes that suit you're wearing really can make you look like a million bucks – but Shaw also lets us know how flimsy the illusion really is. Sure, sometimes clothes can help give an accurate impression of someone – the bystander in Act 1 can tell that Higgins isn't a cop just by looking at his expensive shoes – but they can just as easily give a false one. Admit it, that whole "Japanese Lady" bit did trick you, right?

Using clothes, Shaw can make a point about appearances and about social class. Pygmalion is more about language than it is about clothes; after all, Henry Higgins isn't a tailor, he's a specialist in speech. Still, Eliza is left in pickle at the end of the play because she can't get by simply by speaking like a rich person. She needs to clean herself like one, to dress like one, to spend money like one. Sure, she could marry a rich guy, but she doesn't want to; her sense of "goodness," which we see on display in the mirror scene, prevents her from doing that.

In the end, Shaw leaves us in a pickle, too. Appearance is important he tells us again and again. After all, Eliza can bypass any number of social barriers just by getting all gussied up. The problem is, she, Pickering, and Higgins spend so much time getting ready to crash the party that they don't know what to do when they get there. What can you do when you're all dressed up with nowhere to go?

People who Shmooped this also Shmooped...

Advertisement
Noodle's College Search
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement