Costumes of English Literary Characters: Oliver Twist (1838)

Figure 1.--Here Oliver and the young women is depicted in styles common in the 1860s rather than the early Victorian period tht illustrators commonly use. Note Oliver's cut-away jacket and longish knee pants and the young woman's hoop skirt.

Oliver Twist may not be Dicken's best novel nor is his portarait of Oliver the most finely crafted of his boy characters. It is probably Oliver, however, that is the most widely recognized of all his works. We arenot sure just why. There are certainly some wonderful characters. Perhaps it was because it was the first of his great successes. Perhaps it is Oliver's truiumphs over all of life's obscalcles. Perhaps it is his plucky, most British spirit that makes Oliver such an engaging and beloved chraracter to this day.


What a cast of characters the reader and Oliver encounters. Oliver himself is almost a sypher for intouduceing some of the strongest characters in English literature. Dickens was at his best in creating literary characters and in Oliver he was at the top of his game.

The Novel

This fiercely comic second novel stands in marked contrast to its genial predecessor, The Pickwick Papers.


With the stock of fantastic characters in Oliver Twist it is a strange failing of Dickens that the eponymous hero is sometimes little more than a cipher. It is at times as if Oliver doesn't really exist, he's just a foil who brings out the worst or the best in those who come into contact with him. Oliver Twist may not be Dicken's best novel nor is his portarait of Oliver the most finely crafted of his boy characters. It is probably Oliver, however, that is the most widely recognized. Perhaps it was the first of his great successes. Perhaps it is Oliver's truiumphs over all of life's obscalcles. Perhaps it is his plucky, most British spirit that makes Oliver such an engaging chracter to this day.

Bill Sikes

Bill Sikes is such a suitably deplorable villain that his villainy becomes etched in your mind. Few villans are so starkly drawn as Bill Sikes in all of English literature. One almost fears that you might bump into him and his evil dog.


Fagin, the Jewish pied piper, has a strange charm, although I'm sure Dickens didn't mean him to be taken as anything other than another arch villain (of the manipulative kind--a foil to Sikes's horribly violent nature).


Oliver was as popular in America as in England, and also popular in many European countries as well.

The Times

Oliver Twist is one of Charles Dickens's early works and shows its Victorian origins when he sometimes strays into extended passages of gross sentimentality. The theme of a dispossed child is a theme that was repeated in some way in all his subsequent work. His depiction of the cruelty of England's poor laws and the petty tyranny of the minor bureaucrats who sprung up as a result of those laws was so vivid that it stirred people to demand change. The book was first publisgec in serail form in 1837-38. Readees may want to look at the 1830s.


Dickens in Oliver Twist uncoveres his fierce passion for defending the underdog in Oliver Twist. Set against London's seedy backstreet slums, Oliver Twist is the saga of a workhouse orphan captured and thrust into a thieves' den, where some of Dickens's most depraved villains preside: the incorrigible Artful Dodger, the murderous bully Sikes, and the terrible Fagin, that treacherous ringleader whose grinning knavery threatens to send them all to the "ghastly gallows." Yet at the heart of this drama is the orphan Oliver, whose unsullied goodness leads him at last to salvation.

After spending 9 years, since birth, in a deplorable workhouse, Oliver's troubles multiply when painfully hungry, he asks for "more." As a punishment for calling attention to his empty belly, Oliver is apprenticed to an undertaker. He is treated so cruelly that he makes his way to far off London instead of returning to the workhouse. Not knowing where to go, he is "rescued" by the Artful Dodger, who tells him, "I knows a respectable old gentleman as lives there, wot'll give you lodging for nothink." The "respectable old gentleman" is none other than, Fagin, "a crafty, old, shriveled, scoundrel who enriches himself by teaching outcast boys how to steal." There is "nothink" to recommend about this wretched rascal.

It's unsettling to witness the calculated manipulation of the trusting and impressionable Oliver into the world of petty crime. And, it isn't only Fagin who spreads evil among the cast-off waifs of London. There is someone who viler, someone even Fagin fears - Bill Sikes, a brute and a murderer. He has his own criminal pursuits with our little hero in mind. Through many a "Twist," and the help from a wealthy benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, Oliver manages to escape the clutches of Victorian London's underbelly - for a time. The scoundrels are not through with him yet. They reclaim their young prize and put him back "to work." Like a gripping, Victorian melodrama, Oliver Twist is put through a gauntlet of close calls. Dickens' sense of justice does prevails on our supporting cast of ne'er-do-well's. The good are rewarded and the evil are vanquished with a satisfying flourish!

Victorian London

One of the great strengths of Oliver Twist are the passages describing London, and especially the miserably poor part of London, in the 1830s. Follow Sikes and Oliver on their trek across this metropolis and you'll get as clear and vivid a picture of Industrial Revolution London as ever was put into prose. No-one could write about dirt, squalor, or injustice quite like Dickens, and when you combine this facility with a real comic genius you have a winning formula.

The Author: Charles Dickens

In 1838 the publication of Oliver Twist firmly established the literary eminence of the young Dickens. It was, according to Edgar Johnson, "a clarion peal announcing to the world that in Charles Dickens the rejected and forgotten and misused of the world had a champion." Charles Dickens is regarded by many as the greatest novelist in the English language. He is especially notable for the wonderfully diverse chracters he created. Among them are some of the most famous boy characters in literary history. Oliver Twist was in fact the first boy character to be the main character of a novel. Dickens authored 15 major novels and numerous short stories and articles. Oliver David, and Pip are the best known, but many other boys and girls populate his novels. The most memorable are those wounded and in some cases destroyed by poverty, in pat because of his boyhood experiences. The epitat on his tombstone in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey reads: "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world".

Queen Victoria

Charles Dickens serialized Oliver Twist as Princess Victoria was becoming queen. She asked her primeminister Lord Melbourne if she should read the book everyone was talking about. He suggested that she should not read it. He told her, "It's all among workhouses and Coffin Makers and Pivkpockets ... I don't like these things; I wish to avoid them; I don't like them in reality, and therefore I don't wish to see them represented." [Melbourne] It was Lord Melbourne who as primeminister presided over the parliament that in 1834 created the workhouse in England. He is the same primeminister when Victoria asked about th desirability of educating the poor, quoted from Sir Walter Scott and advised her, "Why bother with the poor? Leave them alone!" [Melbourne]


Several different illustrators have ilustrated different editions of Oliver Twist.

The New Oxford illustrated Dickens was published in 1949 with 24 illustrations by George Cruikshank.


There are several clothing topics associated with Dicken's Oliver Twist novel. First, there are several references to clthing in the book. Unfortunately virtually no details about the clothes referred to are provided. Second, the novel is set in the early Victorian period. Thus the clothing worn by the characters can be inferred by determining the popular styles at the time. Illustrators have not always been careful about this. Third, there were popular styles that hakened back to Oliver Twist in the early 20th century--the popular Oliver Twist suit.

Book references to clothin

HBC was suprised to find that there are very few passages in Oliver Twist that provide interesting information about boys' clothing. Dickens' tells us virtually nothing about the style of the clothing that Oliver and the other boys wear. A review of the novel finds very few pertinent pasages. The passages that do exist are notable for their lack of detail. Images of Oliver's clothings come primarily from illustrators that have attempted to reproduce the fashions of early Victorian England.

"He was no sooner strong enough to put his clothes on, properly, than Mr. Brownlow caused a complete new suit, and a new cap, and a new pair of shoes, to be provided for him. As Oliver was told that he might do what he liked with the old clothes, he gave them to a servant who had been very kind to him, and asked her to sell them to a Jew, and keep the money for herself. This she very readily did; and, as Oliver looked out of the parlour window, and saw the Jew roll them up in his bag and walk away, he felt quite delighted to think that they were safely gone, and that there was now no possible danger of his ever being able to wear them again. They were sad rags, to tell the truth; and Oliver had never had a new suit before.

'Delighted to see you looking so well, my dear,' said the Jew, bowing with mock humility. 'The Artful shall give you another suit, my dear, for fear you should spoil that Sunday one. Why didn't you write, my dear, and say you were coming? We'd have got something warm for supper.'

Master Bates, apparently much delighted with his commission, took the cleft stick: and led Oliver into an adjacent kitchen, where there were two or three of the beds on which he had slept before; and here, with many uncontrollable bursts of laughter, he produced the identical old suit of clothes which Oliver had so much congratulated himself upon leaving off at Mr. Brownlow's; and the accidental display of which, to Fagin, by the Jew who purchased them, had been the very first clue received, of his whereabout.

'Put off the smart ones,' said Charley, 'and I'll give 'em to Fagin to take care of. What fun it is!'

Poor Oliver unwillingly complied. Master Bates rolling up the new clothes under his arm, departed from the room, leaving Oliver in the dark, and locking the door behind him.

Period fashions (1830s)

The Dickens novel is set in the early Victorian period. There is nothing in the novel that specfies a precise date. Dicken's approach was to write about contemporary fashions, in part because he addressed current social issues. Thus the clothing worn by the characters can be inferred by determining the popular styles at the time. Illustrators have not always been careful about this. Dickens' published the book in the late 1830s which means the appropriate fashions are those of the 1830s or perhaps the 20s, but not the 40s. Important styles would include the skeleton suit, although this by the late-830s was going out of style. A peaked miitary cap popular at thetime is now sometimes referred to as the Oliver Twist cap.

Oliver Twist suits

There were popular styles that harkened back to Oliver Twist in the early 20th century--the popular Oliver Twist suit is the best example. These suits picked up on the button-on styling associated with the skeleton suit. Thee were many different styles of these suits, but the button-styling seems to be the essential common feature. We note them done n many different colors. They were widely worn by pre-school boys in the 1910s and 20s.

Figure 2.--Jackie Coogan is pictured here in a silent film. This classic scene where Oliver asks for more gruel.


There have been several movie productions of Oliver Twist, providing varied interpretations of the characters and various depictions of how Oliver mays have been dressed. The book seems to have been done more than virtually any other book about boys, except for Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.

1922: Jackie Coogan--Oliver Twist

The first film version of Oliver Twuist that I know of starred Jackie Coogan in 1922. It was said at the time that if any one was made to play Oliver Twist it was 1920s child star Jackie Coogan.

1933: Dickie Moore--Oliver Twist

Dickie Moore played the part touchingly in 1933,

1948: John Howard Davis--Oliver Twist

John Howard Davis appeared in the 1948 production that featured Alec Guinness' marvelous interpretation of the sly Fagin.

1968: Mark Lester--Oliver!

Lovely musical version of Oliver Twist. Staring a young Mark Lester who was superb in the role. The acting was first rate, but the costumes were isappointing. Jack Wild played Dodger. Sir Carol Reed produced "Oliver!", a musical version of the Dickens' classic. Sir Carol needed to find a child that could sing and dance as well as act. About 2,000 boys applied and 250 actually auditioned. Clayton recommended Mark to Sir Carol and he was offered the role soon after his audition. "Oliver!" emerged as one of the colossal productions of the 1960s. It was the version thay I have been most impressed with. I was impressed with Mark's lovely performance. Some believe that his performance was lost in the competition with the strong cast. One reviewer wrote "The focus of the movie is so wide, and the logistics of the production is so heavy, that Oliver himself, dutifully played by 9-year old Mark Lester, gets flattened out and almost lost, as if he had been run over by a studio bulldozer." I think, however, that Mark's performance was superb. He played a boy completely adrift, totally incapable of controlling his situation and swept along by events and the people he comes into contact with. The feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability were critical to the part and perfectly executed.

1982: Ricghard Charles-Oliver Twist

Well made version starring George C. Scott as Fagan. Oliver has long blond hair. His costuming is terrible. When Oliver is taken in unknowingly by his grandfather, you would think he would be formally dressed. He wears a long pants suit with a big floppy bow.


Melbourne, Lord. Cited by A.N. Wilson, The Victorians (W.W. Norton: New York, 2002), 724p.


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Created: October 19, 1998
Last updated: 5:08 PM 3/27/2008