English 177 | Mesle
Boots With The Fur: Clothing and Selfhood in YA Literature [Los Angeles Review of Books]
What girl can honestly say she hasn’t spent time agonizing over which outfit to wear out, or lusting after that perfect pair of pumps, far beyond reasonable price range? But to what extent is our identity and understanding of our place in society tied up in considerations of presentation and commodity? In contemporary young adult literature, for such heroines as Bella Swan in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Alina in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, their relationship to clothing mirrors the struggle to fit in, find their own sense of self worth, and come to terms with the power of social hierarchy. Their clothing options define and frame these issues in their respective lives.
For both Bella and Alina, clothes exert control over them and help other characters in the novel to do the same. While Bella uses clothing to blend in among the other students at her high school, always choosing inconspicuous articles, frequently black, Alina’s initial situation as a poor orphan allows her no choice regarding her apparel. For both, this represents their place at the beginning of their character arc in the novel, both with so much to discover about themselves. Bella’s clothes in the beginning tend to have a limiting or menacing relationship to her: her jacket, for example, “had the feel of a biohazard suit” (12). Bella’s use of clothes to disappear amidst her peers shows her powerlessness as a character; she can do nothing to set herself apart from everyone else, nor does she want to do so. For Alina, her initial powerlessness takes a different form: authority figures consistently tell her to remove articles of her clothing. The Darkling, for example, commands her to push up her sleeve, so that he may help enable her powers. Later in the narrative, a Grisha Healer instructs her to remove her shirt to be healed. Both Bella and Alina find themselves at the mercy of others’ choices and imperatives.
Alina worries that, if she does not even recognize an image of herself, she has no grip on her own identity. Though she protests the idea of Genya using her magic to make her more beautiful, she makes it clear that she does not consider herself beautiful, she simply feels that her “‘life has gotten confusing enough without seeing a stranger’s face in the mirror’” (95). Alina would rather be plain and be herself than start figuring herself out again from square one. This connects to John Berger’s argument in his essay “Ways of Seeing,” where he posits that “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself” (46). Alina, as the Sun Summoner, finds herself the object of the gaze of so many others that she understands how much her appearance is of the utmost importance.
Bella lacks a positive image of herself just as she lacks power. She only sees herself as beautiful once Edward does; before she meets Edward, Bella thinks of herself as awkward, plain, and clumsy. Additionally, though she hates the fancy dress and complicated makeup regime Alice forces upon her, she allows herself to be a canvas in order to look beautiful for Edward at what turns out to be her Prom. She submits to Alice’s manipulations in order to cater to the expected and accepted image of beauty in the novel.
Both protagonists’ experience of awe towards a group of characters with far superior garments helps construct a sense of class hierarchy within the novel and juxtaposes characters who deem themselves worthy of extravagant clothes with the self-conscious and self-deprecating young heroines. For Bella, this is the Cullens, who always have fine designer clothes. For Alina, it is the Grisha, whose fine robes she has admired since childhood. The clothes represent a glamorous lifestyle to which the main heroines do not have access. Both Bella and Alina doubt themselves and have low self-confidence, thinking their sudden special treatment must result from some confusion. As they come to accept their elevated role in the novel, however, they begin to wear more of this fine clothing themselves.
By wearing the clothes of their idols, the two protagonists mark their maturation and individuation, but also grant the respective men in their lives ownership of them. Bella wears Edward’s jacket when they go out for dinner in Seattle, but has to push up the sleeves before she can wear it properly. She can’t quite handle the burden of wearing his jacket without alteration, but with a minor change (the sleeves), she too feels justified wearing his finery. Alina earns her Grisha robes by exhibiting her power, accidentally at first. Her response to wearing Grisha robes, however, is to be reminded of her low socioeconomic origins, as she wipes her dirty fingers on the beautiful fabric (77). Alina does not consider herself worthy of the beautiful Grisha robes she has always admired and considers it a mark of her low class status that she must denigrate them in such a way. Aware, to some degree, that clothing in the two novels functions to show ownership, over one’s self or other characters, Alina holds off, at first, wearing robes of the Darkling’s colors so as not to set herself apart from the rest of the Grisha and so as not to allow the Darkling power over her. Even once she escapes from the Darkling for good and starts her new life with Mal, however, she must wear clothes he approves of and provides: “‘I bought the first clothes I could find. … I never want to see you in black again’” (351).
Clothing is a multi-valent element of both novels, representing acquisition of power, class hierarchies, conceptions of self-worth, and individuation. Clothing reinforces ideas the narratives impose that mark The Cullens and The Grisha as somehow more special then the rest of the characters in the novels. Both heroines, however, are dressed (by others) to be pleasing to their love-interest, Bella to Edward and Alina to the Darkling. This is in accordance with another of Berger’s claims, namely: “The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. … the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (64). Has clothing in today’s day and age come to help us express our own identity or has it led us to allow others to exert their power and control over us? An answer may take more than a good look in the mirror.