Many regard dress as an integral part of identity development and a means of communicating identity; in fact, fashion theorists define dress as “a means whereby individuals express themselves and construct identities” (Wilson and de la Haye 1). In her classic study of people’s clothing and its complex meanings, Alison Lurie explains, “To choose clothes, either in a store or at home, is to define and describe ourselves” (5). Joanne Entwistle agrees and notes that clothing is like a language: “Clothes and other bodily adornments are part of the vocabulary with which humans invent themselves” (182). If, in fact, dress is a means of constructing and conveying identity, it is logical to conclude that the novelist who chooses to include as a part of character invention precise details of her characters’ garments is expecting the reader to recognize their importance. All of Tawni O’Dell’s novels contain vivid descriptions of the characters’ clothing, and Back Roads (2000), her debut novel and a selection of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, is no exception. In O’Dell’s working class, rustbelt setting, women wear “Wal-Mart workday separates from the Kathie Lee Collection and all the men [wear] suits from JC Penney’s” (148), and poor fashion choices are criticized as being “[t]oo hillbilly” (164) or “so Appalachia” (190). Indeed, if the performative enactment of an identity happens, at least partly, through clothing, then the Back Roads characters’ attire has great significance as the characters attempt to reconcile with their wavering identities, and throughout the work, clothing is used to validate, entice, contradict, and mislead.
Back Roads explores the lives of Harley Altmeyer and his three sisters. The passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood is a difficult one, even in the best of circumstances, but nineteen-year-old Harley finds himself in an unimaginable situation: his mother is in prison for killing his abusive father, and he must care for his otherwise orphaned sisters. The result of this tragedy is that the older children, Harley and sixteen-year-old Amber, are forced to become the heads of their working class, financially strapped household. Perhaps because of the uncertainty he feels regarding his ability to perform his new duties, Harley begins to dress for the part, if you will, by wearing his dead father’s camouflage hunting jacket. Naturally, an obvious function of a coat is to protect one from the elements, but Harley wears the coat daily, even in warm weather, and he refuses to remove it when asked; in fact, he remarks that not wearing it “felt like giving up [his] skin” (61). Thus, the coat not only protects Harley, but it makes him feel protected, so much so that when his lover removes it, his “instinct was to grab a handful of her hair and smash her head into a wall” (210). Lurie notes that “[t]o put on someone else’s clothes is symbolically to take on their personality” (24). Harley resists being like his violent father, though, and it is with much difficulty that he concedes that his father was responsible, that he “did everything he was supposed to do” (80), but Harley is like his father in that he has become the bearer of what were once his father’s responsibilities, and repeatedly choosing to wear his father’s coat serves as a continual reminder of these burdens and reinforces his new identity as the family patriarch. Harely’s outerwear, then, serves much more than its intended function in that it is a symbol of what he has lost and the responsibility that he has, in turn, acquired.
Harley also regularly sports a cap that reads Redi-Mix Concrete, which is where his father worked (11). Even more so than the coat, Harley’s hat does not serve any practical purpose in that it is not worn for warmth or as a sunshield; instead, it, too, is a symbol. In his discussion of how a person’s clothing choices reflect his or her class standing, Paul Fussell explains that “[b]y donning legible clothing you fuse your private identity with external commercial success, redeeming your insignificance and becoming, for the moment, somebody” (57). Thus, while Harley’s outerwear is a constant reminder to him that he has taken his father’s place as the man of the house and must act the part, regardless of how unqualified he believes himself to be, the legible cap also has what Fussell calls a “totemistic power” (57) in that it helps to validate Harley and enables him to feel like he is somebody significant, merely by association. For Harley, then, the significance of clothing lies in its ability to empower him during trying times.
Even more noteworthy is Amber’s choice in outfits, especially her lingerie, which is often conspicuously visible. Indeed, Amber is well aware of the power of clothing and, in fact, “she never forgot an outfit and how it made someone look” (163). At various points in the novel, Amber is clad in a red lace bra (16), string bikinis (87), a stretch lace chemise (133), and a short, silky red robe that reveals a black lace nightie underneath (187), pretty racy attire for a sixteen-year-old girl to wear in front of her brother, even by today’s standards, but Amber’s lingerie illustrates the degree to which she, like Harley, dresses for her new role in life. Amber, as the oldest daughter, has become the woman of the house and expects to be treated as such by Harley, the acting man of the house. Indeed, she takes her role so seriously that she attempts to seduce her brother: “You can touch me” (133), she offers. When he refuses, she reminds him that his responsibility to her encompasses more than putting food on the table: “You’re supposed to take care of me too” (134), she complains. So convincing is her charade that even the resistant Harley begins to see her as his spousal equivalent: when she offers him a cup of coffee while wearing a “skimpy robe” and “holding the coffeepot out to one side,” Harley thinks that she resembles “a newlywed in a Folger’s commercial” (195), and on another occasion, Harley remarks, “She reminded me of the times Mom put on slinky stuff waiting for Dad to come back from the bars after a bad fight” (187). Clearly, clothing also communicates, and while Fred Davis acknowledges the ambiguity of clothing because “it is hard to get people in general to interpret the same clothing symbols in the same way” (9), he goes on to say that “there exists among a society’s members a sufficiently shared perception of how to ‘read’ different items, combinations, and styles of clothing” (13-14). There is no denying that Amber’s sexy attire acts as an invitation to sexually entice the onlooker.
Certainly, Amber’s preference for overtly sexual garments may represent the fragile state of her young psyche and the tragedies with which she has been confronted, but there is also significance to her other clothing choices for they demonstrate how clothing plays a role in the interchangeability of identity: one day Amber masquerades as a wife trying to seduce her husband with skimpy lingerie; the next day, she’s a wounded teen in a t-shirt and flannel boxer shorts. While her cotton garments might represent an unconscious need to be comforted, at other times, Amber is very aware of the transformative power of dress, and she deliberately manipulates her appearance in order to mislead. Indeed, as Lurie notes, “You can lie in the language of dress just as you can in English. . . . The lie may be voluntary, or it may be involuntary” (Lurie 24). When their father’s brother stops by for his obligatory visit, “Amber came out of the house in a prim pale-yellow t-shirt dress sprinkled with little blue flowers and her hair pulled back in a ponytail with a ribbon” (125), clearly attempting to convey the image of virginal innocence to her uncle. Harley, though, who has been witness to Amber’s lewd performances on many occasions, isn’t buying the costume: “She still managed to look like a slut” (125), he says knowingly. Like Davis, Malcolm Barnard believes that clothing is ambiguous. In his discussion of the ways fashion serves as a means of communication, he points out that despite one’s intended message, there is always the possibility of a communication breakdown because “even if the intention of the . . . wearer does not reach the receiver, that receiver will always mange to construct some meaning for the garment or outfit” (31). So while Amber’s contrived outfit may have been successful at convincing her uncle that she is a “good girl,” Harley, as an informed receiver, is not misled by the disguise.
In reality, Amber’s coquettish appearance and behavior are not unusual for a girl her age and can be attributed to a sex-charged contemporary culture that blurs the boundaries between child and adult. In his criticism of child beauty pageants, Henry A. Giroux points to “the increasing use of advertising that depicts the ideal modern American female as young, extremely thin, sexually alluring, and available” as playing a key role in society’s “sexualization and commodification of young children” (46), and O’Dell’s characterization of teenage girls is an accurate representation of this troubling ideal. At the mall, Harley notes that the sexily clad teenage girls “were interchangeable. Same fluffy hair. Same doe-eyed makeup and berry brown lipstick. Same clingy halter tops and fringed cutoffs and stacked-heeled sandals” (111). Barnard observes that boys and girls who dress like adults are striving for a type of status in doing so: it is “the feeling that one is a grown-up man or woman...that is indicated by the various garments and which is so desired” (62). Once again, though, the informed receiver is not going to be misled by such manufactured efforts; in fact, Harley is well aware of the age of his young date, whose made-up face reminds him “of all those child beauty queens that were on TV” (114). Disgusted, Harley rejects the nymph’s premature attempt to look and act like an adult, along with her offer of sex.
Cultural critic Neil Postman refers to this as the adultification of children, and he believes that contemporary media are responsible for what he calls the “disappearing child” (120). Postman criticizes American society’s tendency to adultify children and observes that “children’s clothing has virtually disappeared” (128). Indeed, Harley is infuriated by the appearance of a little girl that he observes in the visitors’ room at the prison who sports pierced ears and fake tattoos, an exposed belly, eyelids that “were smeared with glittery lavender” and lips that “were neon pink” (248). “Are you the one who lets her wear makeup and dress like a slut?” he asks her aunt accusingly (249), for he is convinced that the child’s inappropriate clothing seals her future as a teenaged mother, and he recognizes that the adults in the little girl’s life are responsible for her eroticized appearance. Giroux agrees that while adults should be protecting children from “society’s ills,” they are, in fact, responsible for permitting their “objectification and commodification” (38), and children’s clothing is just one way that this transgression is manifested. No doubt Harley’s reaction to the unsuitably dressed child is heightened by the fact that she is the same age as his youngest sister, Jody. It is interesting to note that six-year-old Jody is consistently clad in clothing that embodies her identity as the baby of the family. She wears pink sneakers (235), a pink coat and a flowered dress (45), and a Minnie Mouse shirt (160). In fact, Jody might be the one female character in the novel whose clothing is not an affect but is, instead, an accurate representation of who she is.
Middle sister Misty, who has just reached puberty, has a less clearly defined role in the family than do her siblings, and her clothing reflects this. On the one hand, she has traded her dolls and stuffed animals, obvious symbols of her childhood, for nail polish and eye shadow, a nod to the woman that she may become; on the other hand, Harley has a difficult time describing her: “It wasn’t that Misty was a butch,” he ponders, “but she was definitely a tomboy” (75). Indeed, her attempts to accentuate her femininity with makeup are negated by the baggy, androgynous overalls that disguise her developing body. At the same time, though, she chooses to wear a tube top under her overalls and she carries a purse, both decidedly feminine accessories. But it is understandable that Misty’s identity is in conflict, for it is Misty, not Harley, who was their father’s hunting companion, and although she shared this pastime with her father, Misty recognizes that she was merely a substitute for Harley: “He took me because I wanted to go, but he always wished I was you” (306), says Misty. No doubt, then, young Misty’s developing identity was thwarted by the fact that she was never good enough for her father, who resented her because she was not the boy that he wanted Harley to be; in fact, she laments that their father never missed the opportunity to say, “She’s more of a man than you’ll [Harley] ever be” (74). So Misty’s identity as a girl, as her name suggests, is clouded by the fact that she was valued for being more masculine than her brother, and this ambivalence is reflected in her androgynous outfits.
O’Dell does not limit the meticulously developed attire to Harley and his sisters. Harley has an affair with a married woman who has two small children and seems to be suffering from an identity crisis of her own, and her clothes reflect her conflict. When Harley notices thirty-three-year-old Callie in the grocery store where he works, she is wearing jeans and a sweater, which give her the appearance of being, as Harley remarks, “more of a girl” (30). In fact, on more than one occasion, her clothing reflects Amber’s, who is half her age: both wear denim cutoffs, bikini tops, and crop tops, and Callie even dons the pink denim shorts that Amber coveted at Fashion Bug (91). Lurie reminds us that “[p]eople are expected to dress their age” (53), and even the often inappropriate Amber recognizes that Callie’s clothing might be considered an unsuitable choice for a mother of two. “I can’t believe the way she dresses” (90), she remarks: her jeans are “way too tight for someone her age” (91). Giroux observes that while “young girls are being taught to become little women...women are being taught to assume the identities of powerless, child-like waifs” (46). Colin McDowell blames this on a society that is obsessed with and fears aging: “years of indoctrination have convinced us that the attractive body is the youthful one” (16). It is not surprising that clothing becomes a means of conveying this youthful image. Thus, while children are now dressing like adults, adults are, as Postman observes, “mimicking...children’s style of dress” (128).
As a literary device, Callie’s unsuitable clothing is also significant in that it foreshadows her inappropriate affair with Harley, and her choice in garments takes an ironic turn when she and Harley consummate their relationship. On the night of their first sexual encounter, Callie wears a “World’s Greatest Mom” nightshirt, a mocking reminder of her role as wife and mother (135). Even more ironic, though, is that as Harley watches her bathe in the creek by the pre-dawn light, he is reminded of the Virgin Mary statues that he has admired in his neighbors’ yards (142). Efrat Tseëlon links contemporary women with traditional notions of women, and in her analysis notes that the “obedient and sexually pure” Mary is, in fact, the second Eve who is meant to atone for the sins of Eve (11). Thus, by imagining the Virgin Mary when he watches Callie, Harley is absolving her of her sin and restoring her to her pre-coitus status. The morning after another night of passion, Callie wears “the cleanest, fluffiest white bathrobe” Harley has ever seen (185), once again suggesting that her purity has been restored.
Barnard discusses the types of information that clothing may communicate. This includes particulars about people’s social roles and the status that can come with those roles: “A person’s social role, then, is produced by their status and refers to the sorts of ways in which they are expected to behave.... In all societies, wives are expected to behave in certain ways and not in others” (63). In turn, Barnard goes on to say, “Clothing and fashion may also be used to indicate or define social roles that people have. They may be taken as signs that a certain person occupies a certain role and may therefore be expected to behave in a particular way” (62). Thus, one might conclude that Callie’s youthful clothing is meant to deny the reality of her marital status, and when her clothing does reflect her position as a wife and mother, her actions do not so that, once again, clothing serves to contradict and the befuddled receiver, in this case, Harley, is left to unravel its meaning.
Harley’s therapist, Betty, is another character that uses the language of clothing to deliberately mislead, albeit with seemingly honorable intentions. Tseëlon’s findings indicate that the act of getting dressed involves “varying degrees of consciousness according to the situation” (qtd. in Entwistle 31). Entwistle discusses how time, such as the change in seasons, and space, meaning location, impact the choices that we make: “Dress forms part of the micro-social order of most social spaces and when we dress we have to orientate ourselves to the implicit norms of these spaces: is there a code of dress we have to abide by? who are we likely to meet...how visible do we want to be? (do we want to stand out in the crowd or blend in?)” (34). Not surprisingly, she notes that occupations, especially for professionals, “can take up a significant amount of time, energy and expense” (51). Indeed, it appears that Betty the doctor carefully chooses her clothing to match her contrasting offices and the disparate patients she encounters.
Harley explains that Betty has two offices. He sees her at the County Behavioral Health Services location, where she sees her government cases. As the observant Harley takes an inventory of her possessions, he notes the starkness of the office: “Desk. Window. Chair. Table with lamp. Couch. Table with box of Kleenex. Door. Betty. She didn’t even have a framed diploma or a bookcase here” (7). There are no conspicuous displays because, in fact, it becomes clear that Betty explicitly downplays her identity as a successful doctor by dressing down when she sees her government cases. Barnard notes how "[m]any workers in professions like social work are wary of wearing anything that will mark them out as an obvious figure of power to their clients and will tend to avoid a show of opulence. Consequently fashions and clothing that will mark them out as establishment or authority figures will be avoided and some sort of attempt made to dress on a level of the client" (66-7).
To the keen observer, though, there are subtle clues that betray Betty. Indeed, Harley notices the incongruity between Betty’s haircut and clothing: “[h]er hair was expensive looking, cut on an angle and shiny solid like a helmet - It didn’t go with the rest of her” (9). He also wonders about the quality of her accessories; for example, he recognizes that the “chocolaty leather-bound planner” is “a cut above what Hallmark sold at the mall” (82). And on another occasion, he is aware of her shoes: "They weren’t her usual scuffed black pumps that gapped at the sides when she walked. These were a soft silver-green like the wrong side of a leaf. Not a mark on them. Not even on the soles. They didn’t go at all with the coarse, putty-colored dress she was wearing. It wasn’t just the color that was wrong. I thought of Cinderella finding herself in rags again with one glass slipper still sparkling on her foot" (76). When Betty sees Harley studying her elegant shoes, she “tucked her feet under her chair like she was concealing an accident” (76). Apparently, Betty has forgotten to select shoes that match the rest of the ordinary outfit that she sports for her impoverished clients.
Later in the novel, Harley visits what he refers to as Betty’s “real office” (310), where everything about her has shifted. She has changed her identity just as she has changed her clothing. Here, she is no longer “Betty” but “the doctor,” and she has exchanged her matronly outfits for attire that matches her appellation: “She had on a respectable skirt the color of coconut, nylons and heels, and a sleeveless cream silk top with pearls. A pair of polished yellow-gold squares on her ears shone through her sterling hair whenever she moved her head” (311). While Betty’s working-class clients might be wary of an elegantly dressed doctor, conversely, Betty’s more affluent clients might find security in knowing that her success as a therapist is reflected in her expensive clothing. Entwistle notes that certain quality fabrics, such as “silk, linen and cashmere” (50), serve as an indicator of a person’s class standing, and she goes on to say that “[k]nowing what counts as quality and recognizing it in the dress of others requires knowledge in the form of ‘cultural capital’” (50). While Betty’s well-to-do clients might be informed about such details, the reader might wonder, though, how the sheltered Harley has managed to acquire the “cultural capital” to recognize the seemingly subtle changes in Betty’s wardrobe.
O’Dell makes it clear that through clothing, identity is performative and interchangeable. It is also ambiguous: sometimes the message that is intended by one’s dress is accurately communicated to the viewer, but sometimes it is not, either because the observer is too informed or is not informed enough. Ultimately, then, identity is mediated by the communicator and the observer. When a text contains details of dress that are deliberately intrusive, the reader also becomes an observer whose interpretation is both unpredictable and variable. Ultimately, the observer/reader has a responsibility to unravel the meanings of a person’s clothed persona, for the shrewd Harley is correct when he says, “People have to judge other people by the way they look. We don’t have a choice” (217).
Barnard, Malcolm. Fashion as Communication. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2001.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity P, 2000.
Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. New York: Summitt, 1983.
Giroux, Henry "A. Nymphet Fantasies: Child Beauty Pageants and the Politics of Innocence.” Sociology 16.4 (1998): 31-53.
Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. 1981. New York: Henry Holt, 2000.
McDowell, Colin. Dressed to Kill: Sex Power and Clothes. London: Hutchinson, 1992.
O’Dell, Tawni. Back Roads. New York: Viking, 2000.
Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of Childhood. 1982. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Tseëlon, Efrat. The Masque of Femininity: The Presentation of Woman in Everyday Life. London: Sage, 1995.
Wilson, Elizabeth and Amy de la Haye. Introduction. Defining Dress: Dress as Object, Meaning and Identity. Eds. Amy de la Haye and Elizabeth Wilson. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1999.