Silk Stockings and Bare Legs: Class Struggles in Upton Sinclair’s Oil!

Silk Stockings and Bare Legs: Class Struggles in Upton Sinclair’s Oil! | Lindsay Aarons

Silk Stockings and Bare Legs: Class Struggles in Upton Sinclair’s Oil! | Lindsay Aarons

Throughout Upton Sinclair’s novel of class warfare, Oil!, Bunny Ross, son of an oil tycoon, struggles to reconcile his upbringing with his own views of the working class. The comparisons between the upper-classes and the lower-classes are both pointed and subtle, with one example of the latter being the role that silk stockings play in the lives of the rich and the poor; Sinclair deftly weaves in references to stockings to establish the role of finery in America in the 1920s.

A careful reader will observe that references to silk stockings draw stark comparisons between the rich and the poor, the bourgeioisie and the proletariat. When Mrs. Groarty, a woman hovering on the brink of wealth, wishes to cross this line, she purchases a fine dress and silk stockings:

“Mrs. Groarty had […] been driven down-town for an evening gown of yellow satin. Now she felt embarrassed because there was not enough of it, either at the top where her arms and bosom came out, or below, where her fat calves were encased in embroidered silk stockings, so thin as to seem almost nothing. It was what ‘they’ were wearing, the saleswoman had assured her; and Mrs. Groarty was grimly set upon being one of ‘them.'” (27)

These stockings, though they are described as “almost nothing,” serve as a symbol of the temptatations of wealth and luxury. Mrs. Groarty, however, instead of being elevated by the acquisition of this symbol of wealth, is instead made to look ridiculous as she apes what “they” are wearing.

This is in direct contrast to the virtues of bare legs, which serve as a symbol of the happy and free poor: “Bunny knew: she was healthy and happy, sitting out there in the sun with her bare brown legs; it was the best thing in the world for her–far better than if her legs were covered with costly silk stockings” (101). Bunny recognizes the stockings as confining, but it is only the poor who are “freed” from the silken confines of stockings, unable to afford them, and Bunny innocently wonders why, if bare legs are so wonderful, “other women” need stockings at all.

Elsewhere in the book, stockings serve as temptations of another kind, adorning the ankles of prostitutes: “Bunny knew enough to realize that the women in the neighborhood of this camp who were open to adventures must be pretty well debauched after a year, so he had little interest in their glances or the trim silk-stockinged ankles they displayed” (229). While these women are not members of the bourgeoisie, they adopt a symbol of wealth while at the same time commodifying their bodies. In order to make money (a symbol of capitalism), they must sell their bodies, and silk stockings are all they get in return.

The novel’s classic example of the commodification of the female body is, of course, Vee Tracy, the World’s Darling: “She believed in her money; she had starved for it, sold herself, body and mind, for it, and she meant to hang onto it. Bunny’s so-called ‘radical movement’ meant to her that other wanted to take it away” (398). The irony, however, is that, as a member of the lower-class who clawed her way to the top, Vee recognizes what stockings, symbols of property and material wealth, do to people:

“‘My God!’ exclaimed Bunny. ‘What property does to people!’
“‘To women especially,’ said Vee. “It’s too much for their nerves. I look at the old women I meet, and think, which of them do I want to be? And I say, Oh, my God! and jump into my car and drive fifty miles an hour to get away from my troubles, and from people who want to tell me theirs!'” (342-3)

While she recognizes this weakness “of nerves” in other people, however, she is absolutely blind to its impact in her own life; her escape from the idea of turning into a rich old woman is to “jump into [her] car,” a 1920s symbol of wealth in its own right. She has completely assimilated the values of the bourgeoisie, becoming “nothing but a prostitute, and the fact that she’s highly paid makes her all the more loathsome” (375). She is neither of the lower class nor of the upper class, instead trapped somewhere in the middle.
This class distinction is hammered home when a “red” meeting is invaded by the police and a little girl is thrown into a vat of boiling coffee, causing her stockings to stick to the skin of her legs in one of the most horrifyingly graphic scenes of the novel: “A little girl lay on the floor, screaming in agony, and some one was pulling off her stockings, and the raw flesh was coming with them” (530). Because the little girl tried through communism to appropriate the wealth of the upper class, she is punished by having not only her stockings but the skin of her bare legs ripped away. She is now without the symbol of either class–she has neither stockings nor “bare, brown legs,” both having been taken from her.

Bunny recognizes this desire for material goods in the socialist movement, reproaching those around him for falling victims to the temptations of “imitation finery”:

“I think one reason the movement suffers is that we haven’t made the new moral standards that we need. Our own members, many of them, are personally weak; the women like to have silk stockings and look like the bourgeoisie, and their idea of freedom is to adopt the bad habits of the men. If the movement really meant enough to Socialists, they wouldn’t have to sepnd money for tobacco, and booze, and imitation finery.” (511)

Bunny expects his companions to reject what he sees as moral weaknesses, wanting them to instead choose “the movement” over symbols of the bourgeioisie.

Rachel Menzies, however, the woman with whom Bunny ultimately decides to share his life, has no aspirations toward the bourgeioisie: “[she] made no pretense at finery, but came to the university in black cotton stockings and a shirt-waist that did not match her skirt” (266). She rejects the opportunities and restrictions offered by silk stockings, instead choosing cotton stockings and plain clothing. It is this honesty and loyalty to her cause that at last brings her and Bunny together: “As he kissed her, there was mingled in his emotion the memory of how brave she had been, and how loyal, and ho honest; yes, it was worth while making a girl like that happy! To mingle love with those other emotions, that appeared to be safe!” (522) While Bunny is temporarily dazzled by Vee Tracy’s brilliance, in the end he chooses Rachel and her cotton stockings.

In Sinclair’s final vision of a perfect, class-free world, he writes: “Some day all those unlovely derricks will be gone, and so will the picket fence and the graves. There will be other girls with bare brown legs running over those hills, and they may grow up to be happier women, if men can find some way to chain the black and cruel demon which killed Ruth Watkins and her brother” (548). It is only be rejecting the instant wealth of oil and the silken bonds of stockings that America can move closer to a happier world.