Dressing Up, Dressing Down: Power and Personhood in Faulknerian Fashion

Faulkner, William. "Classes." Drawing. As pub'd in //William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry//.
Faulkner, William. "Classes." Drawing. As pub'd in //William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry//.

To dress a body is to endow it with meaning, both individual and social, and to assign it a place within existing social structures and hierarchies of power. In this act, the materiality of the garment is significant, as are the modes of its production. The characters in The Sound and the Fury, Absalom Absalom, Light in August, Go Down Moses, and The Unvanquished purchase ready-made garments at stores, but they also create and patch their own at home, inherit them, and impose them upon others. These choices are not arbitrary or meaningless; how Faulkner’s characters choose to dress often stands as an articulation of a character’s personal identity. While this expression may be liberating, it simultaneously generates the potential for retaliatory and disciplinary actions which may constrict or contradict these desired expressions. For some, this means they are marked as outsiders in communities in which they seek belonging; for others, this is bound up in larger consequences of subjugation within existing power dynamics, whether of race, class, or gender. The power of the garment is ultimately a bifurcated one: while the act of dressing compiles and constructs a public self, that self is not stable nor really a self at all, but rather a fraught canvas—able to be projected upon, rewritten, and interpreted at will.

Clothing poses an immediate problem of signification in its inclusion within text. In real life, clothes are “read” in the moment of visual perception; to see what someone is wearing is to interpret it within a series of contexts, including the social, relational, regional, meteorological, etc. To wear it is to engage in an act of personal expression, an act Manuela Freire distinguishes as part of the “work of self-construction, its search for an ideal image and for a legible identity that can actually be recognized by the Other” (Freire 2). Transforming the materiality of clothing in its direct visibility into text also transforms its “reading.” As Sylvia J. Cook examines in her analysis of Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, the transposition of fashion into literary text destabilizes that “logical and metonymic association between garment and wearer” by engendering additional complications in its “attention to what is unseen” (Cook 6). What frequently operates “unseen” within Faulkner are the dynamics of power at play which underlie the materiality, quality, and choice of what garments are worn and towards what end. Cook underscores this question of materiality by noting the specific role “the cultivation, spinning, and weaving of cotton” held in American Southern culture as “a dominant force in southern life and a pervasive presence in its imaginative record” (Cook 4). Faulkner is sensitive to the role cotton and its production occupied within the material culture of the South, delineating that point within class and social concerns through a specific contrast against manufactured clothing.

Hine, Lewis. "Callie Campbell, 11 years old." 1916. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington DC.
Hine, Lewis. "Callie Campbell, 11 years old." 1916. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Store-bought garments are fraught with considerations of class and social position, even as they themselves are intended to present as specific markers of social inclusion for the wearer. For example, in The Sound and the Fury, one of Quentin’s schoolmates’ parents purchase him flannels in order to become a rower because they “had read somewhere that Oxford students pulled in flannels and stiff hats” (TSAF 90). In Go Down Moses, there are the additional men who come to join the hunt, some of whom wore “hunting-clothes and boots [that] had been on a store shelf yesterday” (GDM 215). What ostensibly is purchased for its signifying power—that of belonging and membership—instead signifies the opposite; the attempt to articulate belonging culminates in confirmation that the individual actually does not belong. The artificial nature of store-bought clothing contributes to the message it conveys: while it appears to indicate someone’s inclusion, it is no more than a statement of the desire to be included.

This indication of the aspirations of its purchasers/wearers is intrinsic to the role of fashion (and clothing) itself. As Freire argues, the means by which fashion assists in articulating identity is through two countervailing movements: the process of identification, “the desire to ‘be like,’ to resemble,” and that of dis-identification, which she connects with (sartorial) dismantlement, where “one learns to walk in her/his own shoes” (Freire 9). By purchasing garments and dressing themselves, characters seek to redraw their social position and their expressions of personal identity on their own terms—which the community, or the various narrators of Faulkner’s texts, may choose to acknowledge or challenge. The garment itself may convey or confer a social position in itself. For example, in LIA, Lena Grove is indicated as dressing in “a mailorder dress” for her occasional trips to town, of which the narrator makes no additional comment or judgment (LIA 3). However, later in the novel, the narrator observes attendees of a dance with careful scrutiny: “[T]he girls in stiff offcolors and mailorder stockings and heels; the men, young men in illcut and boardlike garments also from the mailorder, with hard, ruined hands and eyes already revealing a heritage of patient brooding upon endless furrows” (LIA 206). What, for Lena, is a garment to wear to town becomes imbued with larger social significance in the space at the dance: the clothes themselves, purchased from the mailorder, do not seem to meet the standards of fashion or refinement one would hope for the dance; instead, the artificial quality of the clothing makes them “stiff,” “illcut,” and “boardlike,” just as “hard” as the bodies that wear them (206).

While mass-produced clothing enables accessibility to a variety of consumers, mail order or otherwise, it is this accessibility that threatens the rigid and stratified class divisions in place, which are partly reinforced through avenues of consumption. Cook, echoing Richard Godden, recognizes the “materially slight” yet “culturally abundant” power of clothes, particularly in societies “like the South that have been highly stratified in terms of wealth, gender, race, and class” (Cook 3). For Jason Compson in TSAF, the increasing social significance of merchants and availability of store-bought goods is nothing other than a kind of redistribution of wealth, bound up in the usual anxieties of the other. In his denigration of Jewish Easterners, Jason’s criticism rests significantly on the question of economic production: “It’s just the race. You’ll admit that they produce nothing. They follow the pioneers into a new country and sell them clothes” (TSAF 191). Jason is vehement and decisive in his anger, which is pointedly concerned with class positioning. As the would-be patriarch of a family in both social and economic decline, Jason’s fixation filters clothing and garments through this lens of class. When he faces criticism from the other members of the community, he answers them by saying, “my people owned slaves here when you all were running little shirt tail country stores” (TSAF 239). What embodies true social cachet within the former “plantocracy” is patrimony and possession, which Jason believes ought to accord him social respect. However, mass production and capitalism disrupt the idyllic hierarchical system he longs for, upending the structure and positioning him nearer the bottom than the top.
Unknown. 1922 Spring/Summer Catalog, National Cloak & Suit Co., p. 333.
Unknown. 1922 Spring/Summer Catalog, National Cloak & Suit Co., p. 333.

Yet despite Jason’s vitriol about merchants, his expressions of personal power within the Compson family are tied to fashion and acts of dress, specifically in conjunction to the women in his family. He appears to be deeply sensitive to the relationship women hold with their clothing, whether in terms of expressions of personal agency or signifiers of personal maturation, and frequently challenges for his own authority to be recognized by calling attention to those garments. As an adolescent, Jason insults Caddy by calling out the dress she wears and accusing it of upsetting Benjy: “‘He dont like that prissy dress,’ Jason said. ‘You think you’re grown up, dont you. You think you’re better than anybody else, dont you. Prissy” (TSAF 41). Jason’s anxieties about his place in the family hierarchy are leveled against Caddy’s dress, which he interprets both as a signal of her expression of her own maturity (“grown up”) as well as her superiority. In his interactions with Quentin (II), fashion again represents a contested space for power within the household. When Quentin (II) purports to “tear [her dress] right off and throw it into the street,” Jason responds with a threat: “‘You tear that dress,’ I says, ‘and I’ll give you a whipping right here that you’ll remember all your life” (TSAF 188). Patricia M. Gantt links Quentin (II)’s actions of resistance with a kind of guerrilla warfare, the only kind of resistance available for a girl like Quentin who holds “such minimal control over her circumstances that this small but continual insurrection is her only resort” (Gantt 412). But Quentin’s resistance is not unilaterally her own: the space it opens also enables Jason to assert his authority, one which aligns with the current social order (of female deference and financial dependency).

In contrast to the store-bought is the homemade, which also eludes easy placement in part because such placement is so heavily dependent upon the intention and means of construction. The definition of “homespun” as a term itself brackets both intent and response: while it indicates process and product (the act of spinning yarn at home, and the cloth that produces), its definitions also include a potential interpretation: of being “simple” or “homely” (Merriam Webster 1). For the driving masculine forces of Thomas Sutpen and Joe Christmas, the homemade garment is unwanted, whether due to the stake of feminine care involved in its production (for Christmas) or because of the ways in which the product reflects upon a lesser social value (for Sutpen). It is the material content of the garment itself, as well as its social “reading,” that Christmas and Sutpen both reject because of what it confers upon their conceptions of their own identities. The younger Sutpen, headed to the plantation home “in garments his father had got from the plantation commissary…which one of his sisters had patched and cut down to fit him” with no self-consciousness “of his appearance in them or of the possibility that anyone else would be than he was of his skin,” finds himself being confronted with a reminder and reinforcement of his own lesser social positioning because of how his outfit is read (AA 185). The clothes he wears are deeply enmeshed in his personhood, comparable to “his skin”; rejection as a social equal because of how those clothes are read becomes a spurning of Sutpen the individual. For Joe Christmas, the maternal and feminine care invested in the maintenance of the homemade garment is one that signifies a dynamic of dependency which he refuses. Much like Quentin (II), he resorts to direct action, thieving “his own garments from the family wash before [Mrs. McEachern] could get to them and replace the missing buttons” (LIA 107). What is symbolic of maternal care and affection for his foster mother is reinterpreted by Christmas into another kind of power dynamic—one where masculine authority needs to be reasserted, however possible, in order to avoid being the passive recipient of feminine care.

Homemade garments, however, are more complicated representations for women, for whom they are simultaneously artifacts of female labor and production as well as expressions of social place. For Rosa Coldfield, this engagement in the means of production serves as an expression of her personal agency, not just in defiance of male authority but also in support of her own independence and familial authority. Having been abandoned by her aunt, Rosa learns to “cut [dresses] down to fit herself who had never been taught to sew either,” but still offers to “teach Judith to do the same” (AA 57). While Rosa’s domestic skill set is limited, she seeks to establish herself as a guiding female authority within the social hierarchy of the domestic space. Unlike the Compsons in TSAF, who have their black servants to maintain the domestic social order, the Sutpen-Coldfield homes do not have the same network of domestic service, and so rely more heavily upon their own labor. (Clytie, as both a black servant and a Sutpen, illustrates just how blurred this boundary is within their household.) Rosa, defined throughout the novel as an isolated spinster, visualizes herself as a kind of matriarch—one who mentors, guides, and ultimately, passes knowledge down. This image is further solidified in her commitment to piecing together Judith’s trousseau,

sewing tediously and without skill on the garments which she was making for her niece’s trousseau and which she had to keep hidden not only from her father but from the two negresses, who might have told Mr Coldfield—whipping lace out of ravelled and hoarded string and thread and sewing it onto garments while news came of Lincoln’s election and of the fall of Sumpter and she scarce listening, hearing and losing the knell and doom of her native land between two tedious and clumsy stitches on a garment which she would never wear (AA 61).

The garments are significant not because of their aesthetic quality, but rather, because of the emphasis of Rosa’s labor. Done in secrecy, obscured from her father, Rosa maintains the project out of her own desire, much in the same way that Sutpen manages the construction of his own Hundred. While significant events around her gesture to the changing political landscape and the onset of war, Rosa was “scarce listening,” instead devoting herself to her passion project, one which supports and upholds the existing framework of gender dynamics. While “Sartoris’ womenfolks [who] had sewed together [regimental colors] out of silk dresses” may also engage in processes of production, they do so through a partial cannibalism of the social order, sacrificing their “silk dresses” towards an objective of war through their own labor. Yet Rosa engages in the opposite, ignoring the war around her to construct an excessively feminine craft-work out of nothing other than “hoarded string and thread.”

Amanda R. Gradisek reads Rosa’s engagement in this act of creation as one specifically grappling with the concept of Southern femininity in a period of time when idealized Southern femininity was being eroded due to the Civil War. While Gradisek argues that the act of domestic labor traditionally distinguished lower-class women from Southern ladies, Rosa utilizes labor in order to “participate in a tradition of femininity to which she has had only limited access. In coming to domesticity from such a distance, Miss Rosa knows none of its burdens and finds in its performance only the comfort of a new yet manageable feminine identity” (Gradisek 324). By throwing herself into sewing, Rosa crafts the parameters for her own participation in and expression of a Southern feminine identity. What the Civil War enables in its destabilizing historical moment, Rosa capitalizes on, specifically through an act of dressing (another).

Rothstein, Arthur. "Daughter of a Sharecropper, Lauderdale County, Mississippi." 1935. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington DC.
Rothstein, Arthur. "Daughter of a Sharecropper, Lauderdale County, Mississippi." 1935. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington DC.

For Judith Sutpen and Joanna Burden, homemade garments offer not participation, but an alternative to the kinds of feminine performance and gendered social order into which Rosa seeks entrée. After the death of Charles Bon, Judith is identified by the “homemade and shapeless clothing” she wears, as well as the domestic work she does, which includes “hold[ing] a plow straight in furrow (AA 151). This image of Judith in “faded and shapeless” clothing recurs throughout, linking her visually with other women of lower stature. In the text’s repetition of the calico dress as “shapeless,” the garments link Judith with her own aunt even: Sutpen’s older sister, engaged in similar acts of domestic labor, dressed in a “shapeless…calico dress and a pair of the old man’s shoes unlaced and flapping about her bare ankles” (AA 191). The power of the shapeless calico dress is in its lack of signification; plain and shapeless, the body that wears it becomes neither expressively feminine nor particularly defined. For Judith, in the presence of war and Bon’s death, reclamation of authority over the homestead coincides with her clothing changing to the faded and the shapeless. In contrast to the grandeur of Sutpen’s envisioned estate, Judith reclaims her own power of labor as well as her own personal expression by articulating her womanhood through its absence.

Joanna Burden also articulates her independence through her plain garments, an “apparently endless succession of clean calico house dresses and sometimes a cloth sunbonnet like a countrywoman” (LIA 233). Unlike Christmas, who is particularly attuned to his clothing, Joanna utilizes the faded quality of her clothing to signal her disconnect from the (white) community as well as her kinship with the black community. Christmas himself maligns her appearance, noting that “folks in a passing wagon that would see her now and then standing in the yard in a dress and sunbonnet that some nigger women I know wouldn’t have wore for its shape” (LIA 88). This disciplinary critique by Christmas is complicated by their unique power dynamics: where Christmas believes himself to be black, Joanna is white; Christmas is male, Joanna female; Joanna is possessed of financial resources where Christmas is not. Joanna’s decision to dress herself in things even “nigger women…wouldn’t have wore” subjugates her beneath that of arguably the lowest social position—that of the black woman. What Joanna wears becomes a kind of reification, for Christmas, of racial identification: as Joanna dresses worse than even black people, so too is she linked with blackness.

This conception of race as superimposed costume is one which tracks Christmas through the novel, particularly in his appearance, which was “gaunt, the flesh a level dead parchment color. Not the skin: the flesh itself, as though the skull had been molded in a still and deadly regularity and then baked” (LIA 34, emphasis mine). The perception of his skin color is distinct from the actual substance of his flesh; what flesh Christmas wears is “parchment color,” which vacillates between being read as black or white. This expression is also attached through simile to a method of production, as if he were being “molded in a still” and “baked.” While Joanna is able to step outside of her own skin and flesh through the kinds of dresses she places over them, Christmas is constrained by the appearance of his flesh, which must constantly be read, interpreted, and reinterpreted by the larger social world around him. He is stripped of his own self-constructive power in part because he is divorced from the production; what he can control (his clothing) has no bearing on the flesh which is prominently visible to others, leaving him a purely interpretive artifact.

However, Christmas’ own anxiety about his blackness may contribute to the weighted significance of his “parchment” flesh. For Dilsey in TSAF, a character whose blackness is never in question, clothing and dress are not an attempt to masquerade her race, but instead operates in conjunction with it. Dilsey’s multiple attempts at outfitting herself all fail in comparison to the power of her skin. The garments themselves are ill-fitting or ill-fashioned: “stiff,” “mangy and anonymous,” “frayed,” “uneven,” and “soiled” (TSAF 265-267). When Dilsey wears one gown, it “fell gauntly from her shoulders, …then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments” (TSAF 265). These garments are not appropriate self-expressions but are rather clumsy composites assembled from the materials and resources to which she has access. In contrast, her skin itself is endowed with “a rich, lustrous quality” which emerges out of “a faint dusting of wood ashes which both [her skin] and Luster’s had worn” (TSAF 274). What is a diluted color for Christmas (“parchment”) is rich in Dilsey; what is a fixed identifier for Christmas is organic for Dilsey, rising to richness out of faintness.

As an object worn and visible, clothing, subject to intense scrutiny and interpretation, may also function as a conduit for contests of power within personal relationships. As social expressions in their own right, improper sartorial communications are often redressed by others, who impose outfits of clothing in a disciplinary function to correct the wayward behavior. Drusilla Hawk and Caddy Compson’s attempts to broach social propriety and articulate their own agency are met with equal measures of discipline in dress. In each case, it is not only the quality of the clothing that is taken into symbolic consideration, but also its organization and effect—how it is being worn, how it ought to be worn, and what is signified by its presence or absence.

In TSAF, the attempts made to control and revise Caddy Compson’s body and outfitting are primarily constituted through two major outfits: the muddy drawers and the wedding dress. Both illustrate a socially corrective function at work: the muddy drawers stand in need of cleaning, just as the wedding dress operates as a ceremonial symbol of bridal virginity and purity (to supply a lack). From the outset, Caddy’s relationship to fashion and propriety is defined through her willfulness. When Versh tells a young Caddy, “Your mommer going to whip you for getting your dress wet,” she responds, “It’s not wet” (TSAF 17-18). Versh then echoes her perspective, noting that the wet stain “dont show on you” (TSAF 19). The muddy stain on Caddy’s drawers, however, poses a significant problem, one that threads through the events of the book for numerous characters. For Quentin especially, the sight of the muddy drawers remains profoundly affecting in part because of its larger indications for Caddy’s position within society. When he confronts her about the loss of her virginity, he links it to the sight of the muddy drawers, asking, “Caddy do you remember how Dilsey fussed at you because your drawers were muddy” to which Caddy’s noted response is “dont cry” (TSAF 152). What represents a potent symbol of Caddy’s social downfall for Quentin is one that she responds to neutrally. For Caddy, the stained garments are no determination of her social identity or womanhood, but are rather just stained garments. The loss of her virginity, which Quentin feels as a profound loss, figures less significantly within Caddy’s own understanding of herself.

The ultimate consequence for the muddy drawers is the correction offered by the wedding dress. In Quentin’s recollection of the wedding day, Caddy is depicted in resistance against the garment of the dress itself. Quentin observes, “That quick her train caught up over her arm as she ran out of the mirror like a cloud, her veil swirling in long glints her heels brittle and fast clutching her dress onto her shoulder with her other hand… She ran out of her dress, clutching her bridal” (TSAF 81). The wedding dress is not passively worn, but is actively battled. Her dress, rather than a second skin, is instead an impediment, “caught up over her arm” until she is able to contain it by “clutching [it] onto her shoulder.” While the dress is intended to confer social respectability and correct her mistake, Caddy fights it; she “[runs] out of her dress” in order to express her own independent will—in trying to find Benjy on her wedding day.
Compson family. Still from "The Sound and the Fury" (2014), dir. J. Franco.
Compson family. Still from "The Sound and the Fury" (2014), dir. J. Franco.

Drusilla Hawk faces similar acts of disciplining through dress, albeit her response is closer to capitulation and defeat. Having found an opportunity in the war to dress as a man and engage in the war effort, Drusilla remains aware of the obligations and standards for women under the previous social system. As she reflects on the process of getting married, she links it with both a process of inheritance as well as the physical garments of bridal-wear. It used to be that upon finding and falling in love “with your acceptable young man…you would marry him, in your mother’s wedding gown perhaps” (U 100). In the aftermath of the war and the loss of her fiancé, Drusilla is briefly liberated from the obligation of meeting that standard and seems to personally repudiate it.

In contrast to her defiance, the requisite disciplinary response then requires a successful performance of femininity. Michael Williams discusses Drusilla’s various clothing changes extensively in his article examining the significance of cross-dressing. For Williams, the confrontation between the Yoknapatawphan women and Drusilla encompasses two results: first, of an imposition of a particular dress, and second, of a reinforcement of a set of proper social behaviors. In doing so, the women confirm the “masquerade” of femininity, a particular construction that seeks to obscure a “non-identity” (Williams 1). For Drusilla, this “mask” of Southern womanhood is one we see “being taken off, and put back on again” (1). When Aunt Louisa forces Drusilla into a dress after years, Bayard observes that “[she] was already beaten” (U 201). When Colonel Sartoris seeks her out to console her, he says, “What’s a dress? …It don’t matter. Come. Get up, soldier” (U 201). For Drusilla, the damage has already been done; a return to the typical social restraints of womanhood has shifted the lines of her personal identification, and despite his attempts to convey equality of standing as fellow soldiers, Drusilla “was beaten, like as soon as she let them put the dress on her she was whipped; like in the dress she could neither fight back nor run away” (U 201). The dress itself, operating as a symbol and signifier of social codes, has subdued Drusilla. By wearing it, she has been “read” and accordingly placed within the social order, one which does not recognize her agency.

Yet, like Caddy, Drusilla only plays along so far. Forced into the position of marrying, Drusilla is dressed by the other women (U 205). However, her wedding dress is coupled with the addition of “[Sartoris’] big riding cloak” which sits “over the veil and wreath too” (U 205). What would be a mere addition to the wedding regalia becomes a charged moment for Drusilla, dressed in both male and female garments, each possessed of significant gendered power. The wedding gown is a garment of femininity, conveying bridal purity, just as the “big riding cloak” of John Sartoris is linked with his masculinity. What results is a scene of disarray. Drusilla, in the midst of attempting to serve her duty as an officer, does not so much wear the wedding gown as run it to pieces. The pinnacle of Southern feminine outfitting—the wedding gown—becomes nothing more than a hindrance that slowly dissembles. As she runs “toward the hotel,” Bayard observes “her wreath on one side of her head and the veil streaming behind” (U 206). By the time the other men take the ballot box back to town, Drusilla wears a “torn” wedding dress with a “crooked wreath and veil” (U 210). The garments, stripped and ruined, seem to lose their disciplining power, standing instead as a kind of monument to their own destruction. While Gantt concludes that “Faulkner’s literary women who do not ultimately conform to society’s domestic norms die or suffer destruction,” Drusilla and her dresses—both the wedding and the yellow ball gown in “An Odor of Verbena”—complicate that reading; her conformity is, as Williams argues, a masquerade, merely transforming on the surface rather than completely (Gantt 422). While Drusilla’s body may model those ideals, her actions and interiority defy any actual adherence to them.

As cultural artifacts, the presence and substance of clothes may also reflect larger social anxieties, mores, and concerns. Charles Bon is one character who speaks in silks, who effectively maneuvers through the various potential meanings of clothing and uses it to communicate precisely what he intends and no more. Bon himself is treated as a kind of object by the text, recognized as “a garment which Judith might wear as she would a riding habit or a ball gown” (AA 59). An imitated figure at university, he is also a figure fellow students “[ape in] clothing and manner and (to the extent which they were able) his very manner of living” (AA 76). The text views Bon as a kind of artifact of clothing himself, something to be picked up and worn in order to perform social grace. In effect, he is a kind of living mannequin, whose body represents, for the other students at Oxford as well as for Henry Sutpen, a site of social desire, which must be mined, imitated, and reproduced.

However, this fashionable shell is one that Henry begins to see through, in part because of the ceremonial nature of Bon’s relationship to dress. As Bon became “immersed and oblivious now in the formal, almost ritual, preparations for the visit, finicking almost like a woman over the fit of the new coat which he would have ordered for Henry,” Henry observes that “[Bon] was shrewd, this man whom for weeks now Henry was realizing that he knew less and less” (AA 90). It is Bon’s navigation of the artifice of fashion that illustrates for Henry his lack of substance. Further, the performance itself is troubled by its closeness to womanhood, by the “almost like a woman” nature of his fussing. Bon, as a representative of the height of European fashion, is frequently positioned within an ambiguous sexuality, spanning both male and female.

Rosa Coldfield embodies a similar ambiguity in her expressions of Southern femininity and womanhood. As Mr. Compson tells Quentin, “Years ago we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts” (AA 7). Rosa, committed to this construction of womanhood, becomes one such spirit. A spinster, unmarried and virginal, Rosa is subsumed into the kind of cloistered womanhood that only spinsters are able to express, which is reinforced by her dress, that “eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now” (AA 3). Her clothing, defined by the “unmoving triangle of dim lace,” connects, for Quentin, with a sense of “dead time” (AA 14). Like the “eternal,” the “dead” does not change, but projects instead a sense of stasis. The blackness of her clothing, as well as its state of “unmoving,” projects a femininity defined by absence rather than presence—absence of sex, color, time, etc. This suspension of time links Southern femininity from the “prim skirts and pantalettes” of young girls to the “rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity” (AA 4, 14-15). Rosa’s display of womanhood spans only childhood and old age, eliding completely the middle span of female life wherein female sexuality is most prominent. Having committed to the ideals of Southern womanhood, Rosa has been doomed by it, trapped within the “dead time” and fixed in her outfit of mourning, which no longer communicates womanhood, but rather a ghoulish quality. The garment and identity have been worn for so long that they no longer effectively communicate any actual meaning.
Lange, Dorothea. "Negro sharecropper and wife." 1937. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington DC.
Lange, Dorothea. "Negro sharecropper and wife." 1937. Photograph. Library of Congress, Washington DC.

Joe Christmas faces a similar interpretive problem when he arrives into town. As a stranger, and without the narrator’s disclosure of any measure of his history, Christmas is first understood through a reading of his clothes, one conducted by Byron Bunch:

He looked like a tramp, yet not like a tramp either. His shoes were dusty and his trousers were soiled too. But they were of decent serge, sharply creased, and his shirt was soiled but it was a white shirt, and he wore a tie and a stiffbrim straw hat that was quite new, cocked at an angle arrogant and baleful above his still face. He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. (LIA 32)

The clothing is read first before it is placed in context with the whole. All of the men at the factory “[watched] the stranger in his soiled city clothes, with his dark, insufferable face and his whole air of cold and quiet contempt” (LIA 32). The clothing itself is “decent,” if “dusty” and “soiled.” A piece is even observed to be “new,” just as the others appear to be “professional,” although not professional enough to avoid being linked with “a tramp.” Christmas’ outfit is purely ambiguous, requiring the readers (the other factory men, and Byron) to project their own suppositions onto the blank space he represents. In distilling the question to one of rootedness, the community positions him against itself; a rootless vagrant must either be absorbed into the community, or removed—and the presence of the pejorative suggests the town’s ambivalence about his successful incorporation and inclusion.

In the absence of the defined and present individual, clothing stands in to offer a message indicating towards those absences. For Christmas, what the town reads in his clothing—since he does not choose to disclose it himself—is colored by suspicion and ambivalence. However, the role of clothing is expanded even more within TSAF, coming to stand in for absent bodies altogether. Caddy glosses this briefly as a child in attempting to conceive of the concept of death. When speaking with her siblings, musing over what happens after one’s passing, Caddy remarks, “Do you think buzzards are going to undress Damuddy. …You’re crazy” (TSAF 35). While Caddy rejects the idea, the connection between dismantlement (in Freire’s terminology) and death conveys greater significance to the totemic power of clothing garments. If, in death, the flesh of the body is “undressed” to reveal nothing, the absence of both life and consciousness, then identity is a necessary construction assembled through the garments laid over it: skin and clothes.

TSAF recognizes the profound power of these garments to convey identity by having absent characters represented in objects of clothing. Benjy frequently eats with one of Caddy’s slippers on the table, standing in for the person who remains absent. Undergarments also gain a heightened significance, in part because of how they reflect upon the women who have worn/shed them. Quentin’s room at Harvard displays Caddy’s wedding invitation within a kind of diorama, “on the table a candle burning at each corner upon the envelope tied in a soiled pink garter two artificial flowers” (TSAF 94). The wedding invitation, a source of irreconcilable anxiety for Quentin, is bound up with “a soiled pink garter.” His perception of Caddy’s lost femininity, reified into a garment, can now be displayed. The scene and object are also revisited in Quentin (II)’s escape from the Compson house. Within her room, “a soiled undergarment of cheap silk a little too pink” can be found on the floor (TSAF 282). In Quentin (II)’s absence, the undergarment stands in for the girl herself, her expression of femininity cheap and loud in the garment that is “a little too pink” and “soiled.” Like Caddy, the anxieties about Quentin (II)’s expressions of femininity are distilled into those objects: the soiled pink undergarments as well as the “single stocking” left dangling from a bureau drawer (TSAF 282). In the absence of her body, what remains are the items that once constructed her identity; the detritus left behind can then be “read” and applied to a conception of Quentin (II) that exists even in (narrative) absence, just as the “muddy drawers” and wedding dress come to stand in for Caddy.

There is no one way to read an outfit. Combinations of different garments generate a multiplicity of possibilities, not only in how one chooses to present oneself, but also in how that presentation is read and interpreted. In Faulkner, these are never uncontested, but are indicative of larger concerns over the agency of individuals, the placement of ambiguous racial or gender figures, and a reinforcement of the structured and stratified hierarchy of the Southern social order. Individuals who threaten that order face necessary discipline and redress—literally and figuratively—in order to preserve the social dynamics at work. Within concerns of dress are laid concerns of female sexuality, gender performance and identity, race, and labor and class conflict, obscured through discussions of aesthetics and appearance. Resolution of these concerns involves a disposition of the individual’s identity entirely, whether subsumed into the standard required by the larger social contexts, or resisted and embattled. Faulkner suggests there is no easy route towards signification, understanding, and acknowledgment of these identities; rather, it is equally possible that a pair of muddy drawers, for example, stands as an inkblot test—potentially signifying everything and nothing at the same time, dependent only on the watching eye to lend it meaning.

Works Cited

Cook, Sylvia J. “Reading Clothes: Literary Dress in William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell.” The Southern Literary Journal vol. 46, iss. 1, 2013, pp.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!. Vintage International, 1990.

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---. Light in August. Vintage International, 1990.

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Fraire, Manuela. “No Frills, No-Body, Nobody.” Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Gantt, Patricia M. "'This guerrilla warfare of everyday life': the politics of clothing in Faulkner's fiction." The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 49, iss. 3, 1996,
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Gradisek, Amanda R. “The eyes of the strange: Absalom, Absalom! and domestic modernism.” The Mississippi Quarterly vol. 66, iss. 2, 2013, pp.

“Homespun.” Merriam Webster online, 2017. Accessed 13 May 2017.

Williams, Michael. “Cross-dressing in Yoknapatawpha County.” The Mississippi Quarterly vol. 47, iss. 3, 1994, pp. 369-391. Academic OneFile,