The Shawl (1980) is a short story by American writer Cynthia Ozick, born 1928. In 2014, Joyce Carol Oates joined Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker to read and discuss Ozick’s story.
This horrific short story reminds me most of a narrative from another side of the same war: Grave of the Fireflies. Both are about starving, desperate war victims on a journey to nowhere. Both result in death from starvation. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has its similarities, including another horrific baby scene. (If you’ve watched the film adaptation and not read McCarthy’s novel, you have escaped it. The scene was clearly considered too harrowing for a film-going audience.)
Grave of the Fireflies utilises an empty box of sweets (replaced with stones) in the way Ozick utilises the corner of a shawl — the young starving character sucks on a non-food item as a way to quell their hunger. Both are grim motifs. The shawl in Ozicks’ narrative adds an extra layer, functioning metonymically for comfort spread thin.
The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)
Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.
In various territories around the world it is considered improper to leave the house without covering your head. We tend to put this down to religious beliefs of the area, though it is mostly cultural. People younger than about 60 may not be aware that until quite recently it was impolite in Western countries to appear in public without headgear. No hat, not dressed.
My mother was a child of the 1950s. When we watched Mad Men together she noticed an inaccuracy. Unless America was vastly different from New Zealand, the real world secretaries of Madison Ave would have been wearing hats, even in the office. Don Draper would have also worn a hat more than depicted on the show. He was an old-fashioned guy. Lack of hats on Mad Men was an anachronism, possibly a stylistic choice which allowed the viewer to get a better look at actors’ faces. (For the same reason we rarely see characters on screen wearing sunglasses outside.)
The painting below demonstrates how, in earlier eras, women’s decorative hats were considered a part of their day wear, not necessarily functional, and therefore worn inside.
These days, here in New Zealand and Australia, hats are mainly worn for practical reasons — hard hats on building sites, sun hats under our harsh UV rays. Hats are also worn on certain specific occasions, for example by women to The Melbourne Cup (as fascinators).
But why is headgear so important in many places across most eras?
Hats and Status
Headgear identifies the status of the wearer. Peaked hats in general authority. The witch’s hat is very tall and spiky. The hat supposedly contains the essence of her magical power in the form of a spiral of energy. The medieval Jewish hat and the papal tiara (triregnum) are also tall and spiky. Some believe these are phallic symbols.
A crown means royalty, and is the clearest example of headgear as status symbol: There is literally no reason to wear a crown other than to show off your status. Crowns can be so heavy they would’ve given the wearer a headache.
Crowns are circular and therefore inherit the symbolism of the circle — eternity, immortality and a connection between the spiritual and material world. This is symbolised by the coronation itself.
Jewels are often affixed to a crown. These are expensive and pretty, but also symbolise rays of sun. The wearer becomes one with the ‘illumination’ from above. Read illumination in all senses — someone who wears a crown achieves illumination — greatness, knowledge, power.
The Catholic Pope wears a triple crown. It’s called a triregnum. The three parts symbolise different aspects of the Catholic faith and of their papal role.
Crowns aren’t always made of precious metals and jewels. A crown made of laurels signals victory and carries equivalent status. In Ancient Roman times, the highest accolade for a soldier was to wear a crown of grass. A crown of grass was called a corona graminea. It meant he now owned the territory.
Native Americans traditionally make use of feathers to indicate status. The feathers themselves signify the different qualities of the birds they belong to. The most valuable feather is the eagle feather.
In contrast, beggars take off their hat (‘cap in hand’) in order to collect coins in it, but also to defer. An uppity beggar won’t have much luck.
The top of the head is a sacred part of the body because it’s closest to the heavens, and first contact with spirits who descend from above. In sacred places you take off your shoes but worshippers are likely to cover their heads. Both acts signal modesty and deference.
An excellent example of this belief is the skullcap worn by Orthodox Jews (the yarmulke or kippah). The Torah says no man may walk more than four paces without head covering. The head should always be covered in the presence of God. God is believed to be omnipresent. Many other faiths also require the covering of heads, though mainly in a place of worship.
The paper hat in the role playing game below is important to the scenario. Without a fancy hat it’s difficult to imagine one’s own importance.
Kate Greenaway was a prolific and pre-eminent English Children’s Book Illustrator throughout the Victorian Era. This is a case in which reality mimics ‘fiction’.
A ‘High End’ London Children’s Clothing Store stocked Kate Greenaway’s designs. These fashion items were copied from her book illustrations. Upper class Victorian mothers adorned their children in Kate Greenaway’s Designs.
By putting on hats, humans likewise metamorphose from base, animalistic creatures into civilised human beings.
The painting below shocked its turn of the century audience not really because the woman wears no clothes, but because of the combo: She is wearing no clothes EXCEPT a hat. At the time this felt especially shocking, because hats were almost sacred. Hats were a marker of respectability. You’d not leave the house without one. When a naked person wears only a hat, they are thereby emphasising their nakedness. They are more naked than before. In fact, the painting below was so shocking, it wasn’t viewed by the public for another 40 years:
Wilson Steer, one of the most impressionist of British painters, posed his nudes in everyday settings, and here the model is playfully trying on a hat she has found in the studio. Steer did not exhibit this sketch, and it was chosen for the Tate Gallery directly from his studio in 1941, by the then Director Sir John Rothenstein. Steer told him ‘friends told me it was spoiled by the hat; they thought it indecent that a nude should be wearing a hat, so it’s never been shown’.
Hats can be utilised to mark deference. A man might tip his hat in greeting. As another form of respect, he takes it off when entering a room. Women’s hats are decorative in function and decorative hats are not designed to be easily removed.
Hats for women typically look quite different from hats for men. Hats are therefore binary gender markers before they are anything else.
The Smurf Hat
Why are smurf hats shaped like that? This is technically called a Phrygian cap and people have been wearing versions of this hat for at least 2000 years. King Midas wore a Smurf hat.
The Phrygians lived in a kingdom in the west central part of Anatolia, in what is now Asian Turkey, centred on the Sangarios River. Their language and culture was extinct by the 6th century CE.
Hats as Symbols of Freedom
The Phyrgian cap later became known as a Freedom Cap. This happened as a result of the American Revolution and then the French Revolution. That wasn’t the original association with Phrygian caps.
In Ancient Rome hats were also a symbol of freedom beacuse slaves never wore one.
Hats as Symbols of Oppression
The picturebook Voices In The Park by Anthony Browne uses the surreal imagery of a bowler hat to symbolise opressive patriarchy for the boy. Hats can be symbols of liberty or oppression, depending the history of who has been wearing them.
The fedora is a modern version of the bowler which is an evolution on the top hats of aristocracy: At the end of the 19th century, gentlemen gradually swapped their top hats for bowlers.
The Easter Bonnet
The Easter bonnet actually originated as a European tradition. People would wear new clothes and hats to celebrate the coming of spring and meaning of Easter. Spring and Easter signal new life and rebirth. Getting a new outfit and hat was one way to honor that meaning. The first bonnets were circles of leaves and flowers to show the cycle of the seasons. It was also a time when many people attended church a few days in a row for Easter, and a time to see who was wearing the latest fashions.
Forsyth Family Magazine
Hat As Symbol Of Wasteful Female Frippery
The ‘joke’ in the illustration above suggests the wife has indirectly killed her husband by overwork. The massive and ostentatious hats worn by the women signal to the viewer that they have been wasting the man’s hard-earned money on vain and unnecessary things.
This illustration appeared in an age where women were not permitted credit cards, mortgages equal pay or jobs after marriage. Look out for hats as symbols of feminine ‘leeches’ off their hard done-by husbands in older illustrations and advertisements. It’s common.
Related to this is the idea that women are so vain they would each be mortified if the women could see each other wearing the same hat (thus driving the excessive purchasing). Dealt with humorously in the illustration below:
CHILDREN’S STORIES FEATURING HATS
Because of their link with play and status, hats are of course a popular motif across children’s stories, especially carnivalesque children’s stories, which exist for the child to have fun.
Header painting: Carlton Alfred Smith – The Hat Makers 1891
Shoes and footwear contain plenty of symbolic meaning. Horse shoes are different again, but I’ll include horse shoes here for comparison.
Early Nancy Drew stories were high concept hooks which generally paired two disparate things which are nonetheless related in some obscure way. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels, those two things are tap dancing and morse code. Tap dancing is a ‘girl’ thing; Morse code is a detective thing. Both involve tapping, voila, there’s the basis for a story.
Why does the imagery of disembodied shoes with a life of their own intrigue us? Why does it work beautifully as horror comedy? There’s a long fairytale history of dancing shoes. Some of these stories end in genuine horror and are commonly dialled down for a young audience.
In fairytales, shoes come in a variety of types: ballet shoes, slippers (all Medieval shoes were like slippers), moccasins, clogs, sandals and other marvellous footwear. One example of marvellous footwear were seven league boots.
Seven League Boots
A league is an ancient measure of distance, equivalent to about 3 miles. Seven league boots come up frequently in fairy tales. These were boots which allowed the wearer to traverse vast distances in a single leap. The mythology clearly influenced the modern superhero narrative. In children’s literature, Roald Dahl‘s The BFG is also able to traverse vast distances. Ostensibly this is because the character is a giant and has very long legs, but the distances covered suggests he is aided by some kind of fairytale magic akin to the seven league boots of fairytale.
More widely, then, shoes symbolise travel. This symbolic meaning precedes the era of quick and easy motorised transport. Your shoes were your vehicle.
In some Northern European territories (The Netherlands, Germany and Iceland) children leave shoes out instead of stockings. Father Christmas fills the shoes with gifts. The symbolism is two-fold:
Father Christmas has himself made an arduous journey
His gifts help children with their ‘journey’ over the coming year. (In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas appears — weirdly — and gives the children gifts which are very clearly meant to help them on their journeys.)
Boots which take you to faraway places very quickly go back further than fairytales, back to Greek and Roman legend. Hermes and Perseus have winged sandals, basically the mythological equivalent of flying shoes found in fairytales.
Iron shoes come up in fairy tales all the time. They’re sometimes a punishment, sometimes a trial to be endured, in order to achieve something or expiate some ill. Everything in fairy tales is both real and a metaphor. That’s the way that they work. In this case … (it’s) all the horrible poisonous narratives that women kind of have to drag around with them in order to navigate the world. Early on in this story, Tabitha is thinking about shoes and thinking about, isn’t it odd that in stories, the shoes that men get to wear make everything easier – their seven-league boots or their winged sandals – but the shoes women wear are made of glass or are iron shoes that are heated red hot? I definitely feel like there are two governing metaphors in this. These are two women who have very different lives. One of them is governed entirely by constraint. She can only survive if she holds completely still, and someone else has to constantly endure hardship. These are equal and opposite terrible situations.
Even more famous than the iron shoes of fairytales: The glass slipper dropped by Cinderella. Early versions of Cinderella have no glass slipper. It was an old European tradition that a potential suitor would show his sincerity by making a pair of fur boots for his potential wife. The word for ‘fur’ was vair. Scholars think that vair was confused with verre, meaning glass. The glass slipper may have started as a mistranslation but caught on because this is a beautifully resonant and unexpected detail.
There’s another similar tale from ancient Greece.
“Rhodopis” is an ancient tale about a Greek slave girl who marries the king of Egypt. The story was first recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the late first century BC or early first century AD and is considered the earliest known variant of the “Cinderella” story.
In that tale, Psammetichos catches sight of Rhodopis’s sandal and basically becomes sexually aroused.
The Shoe As Sexual Symbol
Feet and footwear are traditionally linked to sexuality. Going back to the Cinderella example, the old word for fur happens to share its roots with a word meaning ‘sheath’.
Shoes and slippers are historically very sexualised in parts of China, where foot-binding practices occurred until late in the 20th century. In Northern China the word for ‘slipper’ and ‘mutual agreement’ are homophones, which is partly why slippers are given as wedding presents.
The Shoe As Status Symbol
Perhaps more than anything else worn on the body, shoes indicate how much money you have. While it’s always been possible to buy a cheaper coat or a cheaper dress, shoes have until very recently remained a major expense even for middle class families.
This is why shoes are a status symbol. Since slaves generally went barefoot, to wear shoes meant you were not a slave.
But going barefoot for free children equals more freedom.
The gold shoes in this story function as seven league boots from classic fairytales.
In the fairytale “Puss In Boots“, the high boots worn by the cat are a caricature of pretended high social status. This is a classic example of ‘dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.’
Shoes As Ownership Of Territory
In many sacred places around the world visitors must remove shoes before entering. Why is that? It’s partly about dirt and wear-and-tear inside ancient buildings but there’s more to it than that. Why would the wearing of shoes offend the gods?
Symbolically, when you place your foot upon the ground, you are taking possession of the earth beneath it. This is why some people get so irrationally cranky about trespassers.
Territory at a holy site does not symbolically belong to humans. It belongs to the supernatural realm. This is the main reason why you take your shoes off. You are acknowledging to the gods that you are a visitor in this space and have no claim to sacred territory. The space really belongs to the gods.
Famously, there’s a scene in Robinson Crusoe where the hero discovers a footprint. At this moment he realises he is not alone. Any scene in which one character discovers footprints will be reminiscent of this famous one.
There’s also a footprints sequence in The Wind In The Willows when Ratty goes searching for Mole, who has been attracted to the home of the mysterious Badger.
Oftentimes when we go somewhere, we may aim to leave nothing behind but we can’t help but leave footprints. Therefore, footprints are of use to characters in chase scenes, whether in detective stories, thrillers or Westerns. Footprint is a proxy for any sort of left-behind-evidence, especially in stories relying on easily recognisable tropes, such as picture books. The footprint is the ‘storybook forensic evidence’.
In the winter of 1855, after a heavy fall of snow, residents across a large area of the county of Devon, in the South West of the UK, awoke to find a mysterious trail of prints in the snow. Looking like an hoof, the single-file line of prints allegedly covered a distance of some 100 miles, ignoring obstructions in their path and continuing over high walls hayricks and even the roofs of houses. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for the event, which became known as the Great Devon Mystery.
Although the case has been widely reported, interestingly it is not the only time that this has happened. Very similar lines of marks have been found in different parts of the world over the last 175 years or so. It’s just that the other cases are much more obscure.
As a child I was never allowed to put a new box of shoes on the table. If I ever did this, it elicited a cry of alarm from my superstitious parent. Depending on what you do with them, shoes can bring both bad luck and good luck.
Concealed shoes hidden in the fabric of a building have been discovered in many European countries, as well as in other parts of the world, since at least the early modern period. Independent researcher Brian Hoggard has observed that the locations in which these shoes are typically found – in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows, in the roof – suggest that some may have been concealed as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building against evil influences such as demons, ghosts and witches. Others may have been intended to bestow fertility on a female member of the household, or been an offering to a household deity.
Cats … shoes … bottles … coins. At first glance these objects don’t seem to have much in common. But these, and many other objects, are all items which have been found concealed within the fabric of old buildings during renovations or other works. Why were they placed there?
In many ways, shoes function the same as a coat. A pair of abandoned shoes, like a coat, suggests the presence of a person, even when the person is not there.
First, horse shoes may be older technology than you realise:
Writers and artists like Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin popularized the image of the Middle Ages as an unmechanical, rustic arcadia. This latest revision has greatly influenced our own view of the Middle Ages, and has given rise to the idea that medieval society was both untechnological, and uninterested in technology.
This notion is altogether mistaken. The Middle Ages not only produced illuminated books, but also eyeglasses, not only the cathedral, but also the coal mine. Revolutionary changes occurred in both primary industry and manufacturing. The first recorded instance of mass production — of horse-shoes — occurred during the Middle Ages.
Home by Witold Rybczynski
Okay so horse shoes are technically also ‘footwear’ but the symbolism behind horse shoes has nothing to do with the symbolism behind human shoes. The symbolism of the horse shoe comes partly from its shape.
The horse shoe is shaped like an arc. The arc was one of the first sacred symbols to represent the vault of the Heavens.
Upside down, the horse shoe resembles the last letter in the Greek alphabet, the omega.
Turn it again. Now you have a crescent moon. Now the shape invokes the Moon Goddess. Added to that, it kind of reminds people of yoni (the womb). (Does everything end up reminding people of penises, breasts and wombs?)
Apart from that, the horse shoe is made of iron, a heavy, protective metal. This imbues the horse shoe with the apotropaic power of an amulet. The horse shoe is therefore a good luck charm. People nail them over doorways, give them to newlyweds as gifts.
No one can agree which way up the lucky horse shoe should go. I’ve been told to hold a wedding souvenir horseshoe as if it’s a vessel, so its imaginary luck can’t ‘tip out’. But in the pre-Christian era, it was meant to be held the other way so it resembles the sky (and also the womb, with a vaginal opening the right way down, presumably).
Also, iron was thought to repel fairies. That exaplains why horseshoes, nails and shears have all been used to keep travellers and newborns safe. Smiths and smithys, who worked with iron, were seen as magical places in former times, probably because their work was highly skilled and so important to humanity. On top of that, objects made of iron are clearly human constructions, and represent humans’ ability to dominate nature, with nature including evil fairies. In Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evan-Wentz says that the fairies of Britian and Ireland were unable to make iron and that’s why they feared it. They may also be afraid of its magnetic properties (which is more a comment on human fear of magnetic properties: “What on earth are these two pieces of metal doing? They feel alive in my hands!.”)
WEIRD FEET IN FOLK AND FAIRYTALE
Read a lot of fairytales and you’ll soon notice how many weird feet there are. Feet which are actually hooves, chicken feet, deformed feet…
The shoe in Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter is especially interesting.
The Elves and the Shoemaker isn’t really about shoe symbolism despite the story being full of shoes. But it is a very interesting example of a fairytale whose meaning changed pretty much permanently after the Grimm Brothers wrote a certain version down. If shoes are important in this story, it’s because they are highly desirable. Until just two or three generations ago, footwear was very expensive.
SCIENCE FICTION SHOES
SHOE RELATED WORDS
BUSKINS: (kothorni in Greek) Buskins is a Renaissance term for the laced boots worn by actors in ancient Greek tragedy. The buskins later became elevator shoes that made the actor wearing them unusually tall to emphasize the royal status or importance of the character.
COTHURNI:The Greek word for the elevator shoes worn by important actors on stage
Header illustration: The Modern Magic Shoes by Maxfield Parrish
The Hundred Dresses is a middle grade American novel by Eleanor Estes, first published 1944. I consider this story a children’s literature sister of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House“. The Hundred Dresses remains resonant with young readers today, and is happily still in print after winning a Newbery Honor. (The medal was awarded to Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson that year.)
The Hundred Dresses is illustrated by Louis Slobodkin in his usual loose watercolour and sketchy style. Slobodkin was a good choice, since he shared in common with fictional Wanda Petronski a non-Anglo last name in a more overtly racist era — a rare #OwnVoices before #OwnVoices was a thing.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND ME
I was 10 years old when my Year 6 teacher read us The Hundred Dresses. He said, “I normally read this book when I suspect bullying problems. I don’t think there are problems like this going on in this class, but I’m going to read it anyway.” I immediately wondered if he knew what was going on.
After he’d read The Hundred Dresses, I knew he had seen what was going on. He’d seen at least some of it. I knew it was a little about me.
This was the eighties. The ‘Mean Girl’ group started up in full force that year. The Mean Girls themselves were victims in a system which requires women and girls to look a certain way. They wore tan coloured pantyhose under their short skirts, even on hot days, because suntans were in fashion. There was a hierarchy regarding who had the most ear piercings. Some of the piercings extended right up into the painful cartilage area of their ten-year-old ears. They tied their hair in a whale spout fountain.
I wasn’t one of those girls. Unlike in Estes’ book, this wasn’t about socioeconomic status. Our hierarchy was a kind of rich-poor inversion. These girls with the piercings and the whale spouts had the most permissive parents. They rode their bikes around the neighbourhood all evening in summer, unsupervised. Their families didn’t seem to have much money. The girls somehow found cash for pantyhose and stud earrings. But when they learned I’d been enrolled in karate (they turned up one evening on their bikes and peered through the dojo — classroom — window), they expressed their envy the following day. “How long have you been doing karate?” they asked, envious, because The Karate Kid was new out. I felt little bad for them then. Extra curricular activities were for ‘rich’ kids, like me. If my parents seemed rich to them it was because my folks were so very careful about money.
Case in point: The school photographer was bad at his job. He took a portrait of me with my eyes closed. I carried it home feeling the utmost shame. You weren’t supposed to blink for photos and I had been bad. Film was expensive. You were supposed to stare at the camera with a smile affixed to your face. If your eyes were closed it was all your fault. My mother was dismissive, borderline disgusted. “I’m not paying five dollars for that,” she said. “You can take it right back.”
Masking my shame, I had to return the stupid photo to school. The worst of it was, I was smiling as directed. Grinning with my eyes closed, I looked like a simpleton. I placed the portrait discreetly upon the teacher’s desk. But I was the only kid in the class whose parents didn’t pay the five bucks for their portrait. The teacher said nothing, thank goodness. But that afternoon, the girl with the most elaborate fountain of ponytail cornered me near my box. (We had boxes, not individualistic desks — our teacher was a Rudolph Steiner type). She said, “I know why your mum didn’t buy your photo. You’re too ugly.”
My mother did pay for the class photo, though not for the portrait. I don’t look at it much. Then, last year, as most of my class turned 40, someone tagged me in it on Facebook. It struck me how similar my ten-year-old self looked to that nasty girl with the most flamboyant fountain ponytail. Same height, same build, same freckled face. By any measure, our ten-year-old selves are identical on glossy paper. If this were fiction, she’d be my foil character.
Back in 1988, I believed what this identical-looking classmate said about me. To clarify, I knew ugliness had not been the reason my mother sent the photo back. But I suspected this girl was right, in a general way, about ‘ugly’. I had no piercings and a bad haircut, not quite long enough to tie up. I looked kind of like a boy (by design, actually). I was the youngest in my year. I (gladly) hadn’t hit puberty. I wore homemade, practical athletic clothes, sewn with love, if not by fashion, by my auntie who owned an overlocker and sold polar fleece jumpers at the Saturday Morning Market. These clothes were great for running around in, and when I wasn’t reading Ramona Quimby in the school library, I ran around a lot. But elastic is a precious resource, so my track pants featured two stripes instead of the superfluous Adidas triple, which marked the apex of Year 6 status at that time.
I wonder if our teacher overheard that insult by the boxes when he decided to read The Hundred Dresses to our class. He could’ve heard any number of others.
I do wonder what that girl is doing now. I’ll never know, because nobody tagged her in our class photo 30 years later. I left the town after Year Six, because my father was transferred to the city. I didn’t attend high school with that cohort, and had spent only two years with them in total. So I was surprised anyone remembered my name to tag me in a photo. I’d aimed for invisible.
Back in Year Six, Marie was the opposite of invisible. Fast forward three decades, I wonder if anyone else remembers her name at all.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES AND HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY
WOMEN OBSESSED OVER WOMEN
Lately, lots of people are talking about the highly promoted TV series Killing Eve, which features a woman increasingly obsessed with another woman. The BBC’s Woman’s Hour podcast discussed other similar dynamics in fiction (at 31 minutes)and I thought immediately of Hundred Dresses as the children’s book equivalent of:
Many French novels, usually set in school, usually someone younger who becomes obsessed.
Sarah Waters does it beautifully in Affinity and The Paying Guests
The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud
The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
Sleep With Me features a character who inspires obsession in others
All About Eve (1950)
In each of these stories there’s a possessive charge between each of these women and their objects, whether that’s sexual, intellectual or whatever. It’s about owning a piece of another person.
Why do audiences respond so well to this dynamic?
Despite all the examples above, we don’t see it all that often. There’s a current trend of writing ‘strong women’ who support each other. These stories are necessary too, but there are also conniving, devious, treacherous women. Audiences want to see all kinds of dynamic, not just the idealised ones.
The male gaze is default in narrative, so watching a woman gaze at another woman feels refreshing in a different kind of maybe-feminist way.
This kind of relationship is about identity and self-lack and not necessarily about the object in the way the gazer thinks it is. So the nature of the gaze is different. It’s turned inward.
In the past, authors have hidden behind the male gaze. Willa Cather is one example. (Cather wrote “Paul’s Case“.)
Women’s lust for power is rarely represented. It’s a new take on power dynamics. In the past it was more of a ‘woman catfight’.
The woman with the obsession is lacking something in her own life. She watches another woman from the sidelines, fascinated.
There’s a freedomthat comes from watching another woman have the courage to do all the things you want to do yourself.
We rarely see two female leads on screen unless it’s this dynamic.
I have seen literary agents who represent young adult fiction lament the huge number of submissions they get about the viewpoint character best friend looking on at the life of the cool, interesting, sparky best friend. This probably speaks to a common pitfall for writers — both characters must be equally interesting in their own right.
DEHUMANISATION IN THE HUNDRED DRESSES
We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. One striking example of this blatant dehumanisation came from a brain-scan study that found a small group of students exhibited less neural activity associated with thinking about people when they looked at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts, as compared with higher-status individuals. Another study showed that people who are opposed to Arab immigration tended to rate Arabs and Muslims as literally less evolved than average. Among other examples, there’s also evidence that young people dehumanise older people; and that men and women alike dehumanise drunk women. What’s more, the inclination to dehumanise starts early – children as young as five view out-group faces (of people from a different city or a different gender to the child) as less human than in-group faces.
For everyone, the deep desire is identical — to have as much social capital as possible.
In a story there have to be outworkings. For Wanda, it’s the desire to have everyone believe that she has more than the one worn dress in her closet.
For Peggy and Maddie, it’s the Desire to have friends who are truthful and transparent, and in order to achieve this end they must ostracise those who they feel don’t follow the moral code of their community. They have been taught that lying is wrong; they will therefore punish liars. Since they are girls, they aren’t allowed to be outright mean, so they will do this is in a nasty-nice way.
Old Man Svenson is set up as the potential Baddie in this story.
People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn’t work and, worse still, his house and yard were disgracefully dirty, with rusty tin cans strewn about and even an old straw hat. He lived alone with his dog and his cat.
But we’re all used to the classic Girl Opposition, which contains archetypes:
The popular pretty girl (Peggy)
Her sidekick (Maddie) Is the narrator Maddie? The narrator has excellent insight into Maddie’s head — she feels guilty for being a bystander to ostracism.
The unpopular girl (Wanda)
Various other by-standers
Peggy was the most popular girl in school. She was pretty; she had many pretty clothes and her auburn hair was curly. Maddie was her closest friend.
A Hundred Dresses remains a standout book because of its treatment of bullying, as a system rather than a good kid, bad kid dichotomy, which is not how bullying works:
Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, “Don’t you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?” she would have been very surprised. Cruel? What did the girl want to go and say she had a hundred dresses for? Anybody could tell that was a lie. Why did she want to lie? And she wasn’t just an ordinary person, else why would she have a name like that? Anyway, they never made her cry.
Readers will likely sympathise with Peggy a little, or a lot. After all, Wanda appears to be a liar. If Magritte were about, he would say “This is not a dress.” (It is a picture of a dress.) It is a little baffling why Wanda won’t say that her dresses are pictures — this is lampshaded at the beginning with the description that she doesn’t say much. Her laconic way of speaking seems to preclude her from uttering the simple words “I have drawings of pictures.”
ENEMY VS NEMESIS
There is a kind of rivalry, as mentioned above, which is a more like a love-hate relationship. I appreciate what Roxane Gay has to say about the distinction between an ‘enemy’ and a ‘nemesis’. We tend to love our nemeses as much as we hate them:
There are many famous nemeses both real and imagined — Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, Professor X and Magneto, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, Eve and Villanelle.
The most important thing to remember is that the rivalry must be tended to, nurtured. It is an eternal flame, the heat of which can warm you during dark times.
An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. It is far too easy for someone completely odious to be a nemesis. People often ask if, for example, the President is my nemesis but that would absolutely be beneath me. Envy is certainly part of having a nemesis but it is not quite jealousy because generally you and your nemesis are equals in some way, even if you are the only person who believes that to be true. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.
When there is a drawing competition at school Wanda takes this opportunity to reveal that the dresses are drawings of dresses. She enters every image into the competition.
After Wanda leaves the character focus shifts to Peggy and Maddie. Because they feel bad, their plan is to write a letter to Wanda as a friendly gesture. This will assuage their own guilt.
Wanda disappears. Her father says she has been bullied. The teacher gives the class a lecture. Wanda is basically the blow-in saviour trope, so now the Battle is internal, focusing on the psychology of Maddie. She feels guilt.
The first plot revelation is that Wanda was talking about dresses.
The second revelation is that Wanda drew the popular girls as models for her dresses.
What is not revealed is how the poor girl really feels about the rich one. Does Wanda genuinely admire Peggy? We are left thinking that, and as a child I did think that, but how does she feel, really?
I suspect this is a love-hate relationship from her side, and a nothing, you’re-less-than-nothing relationship from the other.
It is the rich girl who has the Anagnorisis — that even when you pay someone no mind, that doesn’t mean they feel the same about you. The moral? Treat everyone with respect, no matter how worthy you deem them. Everyone is worthy of your attention. Attention equals respect.
“New Dresses” (1912) is nowhere near as accomplished as Katherine Mansfield’s later short stories as it lacks focus and appears contrived. “New Dresses” is a different sort of story altogether from the Prelude trilogy, and we need a different yardstick. That said, The Carsfield family is said to be the prototype of the Burnells who we meet later in Prelude, At the Bayand The Doll’s House.
I’m interested in why “New Dresses” is considered ‘contrived’. What makes one story feel contrived and another natural, given that both are made from scratch, technically making one as contrived as the other?
STORY STRUCTURE OF “NEW DRESSES”
“New Dresses” is the story of a family and the family’s toxic dynamics rather than the story of an individual. In these cases, the narration will be a fairly distant third person, ducking from one character’s head to another.
This is a story about parenting. Especially by today’s parenting standards, the Carfield adults are terrible.
“New Dresses” is valuable as an historical document of parenting practices common in early 1900s New Zealand. My own grandparents — and to a lesser extent my parents — were certainly brought up with some of the practices seen in “New Dresses”:
The belief that corporal punishment is an effective way of stopping unwanted behaviours. Also: That delayed corporal punishment has an even stronger effect, because the child must spend time dreading it, which is supposed to give them extra time to ‘mull it over’.
The belief that if corporal punishment is dished out alongside exchanges of love, the child will not be damaged. This view of parenting is still disturbingly common, but if adults hurt their children while requiring the child to tell them they love them, or when telling the child that they are loved, the adult is preparing that child for a
Lack of understanding about neurodiversity, and in this case the idea that stuttering is an affectation — that when children are ‘different’ they’re doing it because they’re attention seekers.
Overt favouritism between one’s own children, predicated on an old-fashioned view of genetics — that some children are just born better than others, and that your treatment of them has nothing to do with anything.
The sympathetic adult is the doctor. The doctor is also the viewpoint character, and viewpoint characters tend to automatically align with the audience. The doctor is the only reasonable adult in the story. We are encouraged to side with his point of view and with his actions. It is especially easy to side with him as a modern reader, since the culture of parenting has changed considerably.
Also by today’s standards, it’s odd and borderline creepy for a man to make off with a little girl’s dress, even if his intentions with it are honourable.
The doctor is the character who has the revelation at the end and, for my purposes, that makes him ‘the main character’ as well as ‘the erstwhile viewpoint character’.
“New Dresses” is divided into two quite distinct parts:
The conversation between Mrs Anne Carsfield and the grandmother as Mrs Carsfield makes the dresses on the sewing machine. This scene exists to show the family’s dynamic, though ‘showing’ is via dialogue.
The scenes including the children and the doctor, whose lively personalities make for a much more engaging read.
It’s possibly a mistake to have started where Mansfield did. She needed some way of conveying to the reader:
The favouritism. Helen is insecure within the family structure.
The mother’s irritating emphasis on image and dresses
The grandmother’s way of deferring. Although Helen’s grandmother understands, the elderly woman is powerless to act.
But in general, writers need to trust readers to pick up subtleties, and I believe it was possible to convey those ideas in a shorter scene, or to combine them into a subsequent one. I believe this is one major reason why “New Dresses” feels contrived to some readers.
The shortcoming of the family: The parents can’t see their children equally.
The shortcoming of the grandmother: The first scene shows us she’s powerless within the family structure, but the doctor’s anagnorisis will show us there’s a little more to it than that.
There’s plenty to be said about gender roles in this story, too. If these characters weren’t victims of a strict delineation of gender, they’d all be a lot better off:
Although women of this class aren’t even allowed to work for money, and although unpaid the labour of shopping and sewing falls upon them, Mrs Carsfield is roundly criticised for performing her wifely role. And as part of that criticism, her husband talks about ‘his’ money, as if it doesn’t belong rightly to all of them. The reader doesn’t know if Mrs Carsfield has flagrantly spent money they don’t have — she thinks to herself that they have more than enough and that her husband is treating her like a child. I’m inclined to go with that, because of Henry Carsfield’s attitude towards ownership of the finances, and also because he seems to think making trousers out of old ironing material is prudent. He doesn’t seem to realise, as his wife does, that there would be a social cost to such frugality.
Whereas the girls are required to be still, ostensibly to protect their expensive dresses, boys are expected to behave in a rough, and probably very annoying, manner. The Boy (unnamed, since his gender is the main point as far as Mansfield is concerned) bangs a spoon for a solid five minutes. Instead of a reprimand, the father says, “Go it, old man. Tell Mother boys like to kick up a row.”
Mrs Carsfield wants to dress her children in pretty clothes for church, but of course it’s not about the clothes, per se. Her deeper desire, so we can deduce, is for her family to look good in the eyes of the community.
She could not help thrilling, they looked so very superior.
(Superior to who? To their former, undressed selves, or to certain other social classes in their community?)
For an image conscious mother such as Anne Carsfield, a daughter like Helen is a curse. Helen is hardly boisterous by her little brother’s standards, but she is not a naturally clean and tidy girl, which embarrasses her mother. Mother and daughter are the main opponents here, though Henry Carsfield and the grandmother could nip this in the bud if they had a mind to.
It feels good to write a story and then send a capable character in to save an underdog. Here we have a doctor who steps in to save Helen. Mansfield gives the reader enough information to know what he’s done — he’s taken the dress, and we can guess he’s going to have it fixed.
Meanwhile, Helen’s father plans to punish his daughter with corporal punishment.
The Grandmother isn’t happy about this, but we learn later that she deals with these parenting decisions by buying presents for her grandchildren after they have been roundly whipped. She has consoled Helen with this. (I can’t think of many worse ways in which to ruin a child.)
An underdog character is about to get a whipping for something that isn’t wholly her fault. (Expensive material shouldn’t rip so easily, especially not when the child is doing a regular childhood thing, such as sitting on a swing.)
The natural Battle scene in a story like this is the whipping scene itself, but Mansfield knows this isn’t the interesting thing. Writers don’t have to write the most obvious scene.
That said, we can’t skip any part of compulsory story parts either, and the Battle stage is not optional.
So what’s the Battle stage in this particular story?
The discussion in the girls’ bedroom in which Helen denies doing anything with the dress, and in which Henry refuses to believe her, forms the first part of the Battle. The second is the visit from the doctor to the grandmother, which leads right up to the doctor’s anagnorisis.
When the doctor hears the grandmother’s response, and laments that she can’t give her granddaughter the new doll unless she ‘earns it’ by enduring the whipping, he knows the problems in this family run much deeper. He had mistaken the grandmother for someone who understands the toxicity running in the family, assuming her simply powerless to intervene. But now he realises she doesn’t understand at all, in which case she is useless to Helen, and to the doctor’s own wishes to act.
The reader may realise something at this point, too. By trying to help, the doctor may have made things worse. Helen has sworn to her father that she left the dress in her bedroom, but the doctor has taken it, and the story is that Helen took it to school. It now appears that Helen has lied as well as torn her dress.
I fully expect that Helen will receive her whipping — possibly a double dose — and the grandmother will give her the doll.
Helen will learn that whenever good things happen in life, she doesn’t fully deserve them until enduring terrible experiences first. Her natal family is preparing Helen for a subservient role in an abusive marriage.
What do you make of the ending? Do you think the doctor took the dresses, or do you think his story about Lena, and Helen taking it to school saying she’d grown out of it, is true? Do you think Helen will escape a sound smacking if the grandmother tells Helen’s parents she found the dress under her dolman? (What’s a dolman? It describes any number of loose robes, based on the Turkish model.) I’m pretty sure a mother who makes dresses will notice if one of her creations has been sewn up.
Perhaps part of the problem with this ending — and its contrivance — is that we’re not sure if Mansfield herself had all of this straight in her head.