Fashion as a Means of Overcoming Liminality: 
The Construction of an American Woman's "Self" in
Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers and
Margaret Dilloway's How to Be an American Housewife

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2017, Volume 16, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2017/todd.htm

 

Diane M. Todd (Bucci)
Robert MorrisUniversity


At first glance, one might question the bearing of a discussion that links Jewish-American and Japanese-American authors, but in fact, as Jonathan Freedman rationalizes in his discussion of Jewish- and Asian-American reactions to the mythos of the model minority, there is a long history of associating Jewish and Asian Americans – "one dating back at least to nineteenth century America”"– because both groups were "[d]efined as outsiders to the black/white binary that governed American race ideology" (69). Freedman goes on to explain further reasons for the comparison:  "Jewish- and Asian-Americans have been shaped by a number of similar, but not identical events: imperial adventurism, revolutionary ferment, genocide. Each group, therefore, is composed of émigrés, seekers of economic opportunity, refugees, victims of racist anti-immigration laws, or their progeny" (72). Indeed, Freedman believes that it is perfectly rational to encourage a discussion between Jewish- and Asian-American studies for there is a "crossings between Jewish and Asian-American experiences and identities" (95). Freedman is not alone in this linking. Isaiah Ben-Dasan wrote the bestseller The Japanese and the Jews in 1982; Cathy Schlund-Vials published Modeling Citizenship:  Jewish and Asian American Writing in 2011; celebrated Chinese-American author Gish Jen explicitly portrays upwardly mobile suburban Chinese and Jewish Americans in her novel Mona in the Promised Land (1996); and Ljiljana Coklin examines the connection that Jewish-American author Anzia Yezierska's novel Salome of the Tenements has with the "Orient" and the "exotic otherness" (138) in the essay "Between the Orient and the Ghetto:  A Modern Immigrant Woman in Anzia Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements."

Indeed, the shared experience of Jewish and Asian Americans often includes a liminal – a threshold, transitional, or in-between – space that manifests in their literature. Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep introduced the term liminal, and Victor Turner elaborated upon the concept that has come to be used in a variety of disciplines and contexts, and as such, in the introduction to their monograph entitled Mapping Liminalities: Thresholds in Cultural and Literary Texts, Lucy Kay, Zoe Kinsley, and Alan Roughley note that because of its variability, it is important to define the term. Given that the essays in their collection extend to literary criticism, it is apt to borrow from their explanations:  the limen is “a space where thresholds are crossed and recrossed, [and it] is a likely sight of hybridity” (13); further, they warn that “the liminal can be a place of threat as well as of promise” (8).

That the liminal space offers both danger and possibility is obvious to Jewish- and Asian-American immigrants who are trying to make sense of where they do and do not belong: they are new to America and are treated as outsiders, and the threat of the liminal state is exacerbated for immigrant women, who are marginalized by both their gender and their ethnicity; thus, immigrant women are eager to traverse the threshold and become accepted as American women.  Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir argues that "[o]ne is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (267), and the notion of becoming someone else is much the same for the immigrant, who is not born an American, yet often yearns to become one.

Theorist Judith Butler expands upon Beauvoir's theory about the relationship between sex and gender. According to Butler, Beauvoir "suggests that gender is an aspect of identity gradually acquired" (qtd. in "Sex and Gender" 35), and Butler believes that this gradual acquisition is culturally influenced: "Becoming a gender is an impulsive yet mindful process of interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos, and prescriptions. The choice to assume a certain kind of body, to live or wear one's body a certain way, implies a world of already established corporeal styles" (Butler, "Sex and Gender," 40). Thus, as Butler notes, "Gender is not only a cultural construction imposed upon identity, but in some sense gender is a process of constructing ourselves" ("Sex and Gender" 36). Again, although her discussion pertains to gender, her points are relevant to ethnic identity as well, for the process of becoming an American is a gradual construct that is comprised of cultural prescriptions. Further, it is not uncommon for a portion of the construction of the American self to be facilitated by clothing. 

Fashion theorists agree that dress has the power to transform a person – in the introduction to their monograph, Elizabeth Wilson and Amy de la Haye note that dress is "a means whereby individuals express and construct identities" (1), and Joanne Entwistle states that "[c]lothes and other bodily adornments are part of the vocabulary with which humans invent themselves" (182), so it is not surprising that as they cross the literal and metaphorical threshold into America, immigrants, especially women, turn to dress to help themselves assemble their identities as American women. Indeed, Barbara A. Schreier emphasizes the importance of clothing for Jewish immigrants as they struggled to assimilate and explains, "To newly arrived immigrants a change of clothes was the most visible way they could identify themselves as American Jews. This first act of initiation helped to blur the obvious differences between the 'greenhorn' and the 'real' American" (50). The desire to overcome their liminal status and acquire an American identity is a common topic in immigrant literature, and many authors use the details of dress to depict their characters' attempts to assimilate, so much so that dress becomes a means of performing emerging American identities, especially for female characters. The novels Bread Givers (1925), by Jewish-American author Anzia Yezierska, and How to be an American Housewife (2010), by Japanese-American writer Margaret Dilloway, show how immigrants, especially young women, often use dress in an attempt to construct their identities as American women and to overcome their liminal status, yet they learn, ultimately, that the transformation is more complex than a quick change of clothes.

Bread Givers tells the story of a Jewish immigrant family that has come to America in the early part of the twentieth century to escape political and financial oppression in their homeland. That the liminal is a place of threat was clear to newly arrived immigrants. In his discussion of Bread Givers and Louis Adamic's Laughing in the Jungle, Kevin Piper notes that this threat "culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924.The climate was especially intolerant of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe" (103). Piper points to "the putative inferiority of non-northern Europeans [that] had taken hold in the mind of the American public" (104) and the question of whether these immigrants "could successfully assimilate" (104) as being among the reasons for this hostility. Indeed, it was this animosity that caused immigrants to be eager to overcome their liminal status, and Yezierska's novel reflects this attitude: the shabbily dressed Smolinsky sisters are drawn to anything that might render them less conspicuous in the New World because, as Thorstein Veblen notes in his satirical, turn-of-the-twentieth century discussion of American mores, "probably at no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in the matter of dress" (168). Thus, it is not surprising that the Smolinsky sisters are attracted to fashion and its accoutrements because of the possibilities offered by a new article of clothing. According to Schreier, "a new set of clothes could almost magically transform a newcomer's status from poverty to prosperity" (65). Indeed, it is because of such sartorial promises that the Smolinsky sisters are hungry for the potential offered by American fashion.

Masha, the oldest daughter, is the first member of the family to acquire an awareness of and appreciation for American attire. Masha cherishes her American fashion trimmings – her lace collar, handkerchief, and beauty pin (Yezierska 5) – because acquiring these items is congruent with the construction of a new, Americanized self, a self like the one she sees portrayed in American magazines. Masha believes that the faux roses she has purchased to wear on her hat will make her "look just like the picture on the magazine cover" (3). The family agrees that Masha has been altered by her purchases, for the refashioned Masha is unlike the dreary Old World immigrants they see in themselves, but her mother is angry that Masha spends money that is needed for food and angrily criticizes her for wanting "to play the lady" (6), indicating the performative aspect to Masha's altered appearance, which is reinforced when Sara, the novel's protagonist and the youngest of the daughters, says that Masha looks "like the dressed-up doll lady from the show window of the grandest department store" (4). Note, too, that Masha is compared to a doll, an inanimate object – in fact, her father even calls her "empty-headed" and "brainless" – suggesting an artificial aspect to Masha’s new fashions: indeed, her American identity is as artificial as the roses on her hat. In fact, in her discussion of the sartorial details of the novel, Meredith Goldsmith calls Masha "an imitator of a Fifth Avenue lady" (40),because Masha is just that:  an imitator, for in reality, her identity as a greenhorn remains unaltered by such superficial change, especially in the eyes of knowing Americans. That clothing merely allows a performative and, as such, superficial change in identity is illustrated by other characters' attempts to transform themselves, as well.

When middle sister Bessie, who is eager to attract a husband as a means of escaping their tyrannical father, secretly attempts to squeeze herself into Masha's much coveted "pink princess dress" (Yezierska 41), Bessie is so certain of the dress's ability to alter her identity that she insists upon wearing it when her suitor comes to visit even though it doesn't fit. Sadly, she splits the seams of the dress, but refuses to relent and wears it with the seams pinned together. Bessie's fashion mishap, as Goldsmith observes, "gives us a first glimpse of the inevitable incompleteness of Americanization:  the failure of the body to fit into the 'ready-made' self America offers points to the impossibility of successfully repressing the past" (41). In other words, the threat of the liminal persists: an attempt to reconstruct oneself by way of a quick change of clothes cannot disguise the ethnic identity that the young greenhorn is trying to escape. The torn dress reveals what is underneath: an awkward immigrant girl.

Even secondary characters use clothing in an attempt to reconstruct themselves, only to have their true identities revealed. Widower Zalmon, the fish monger, whose "black, greasy beard was spotted with scales from the fish," is eager to court Bessie (Yezierska 91). Zalmon is in need of a caretaker for his motherless, disheveled children and is motivated by Bessie's reputation as a hard worker, so he offers her a fancy fur and a gold watch as well as deliberately (and temporarily) improving his appearance to lure her. His new black suit and starched white collar make him look "just like those wax figures in the show windows where they have clothes to hire for weddings" (99). Sara's observation that "[n]o one could believe" (100) Zalmon's makeover is not surprising because, like the fake wax figures in the shop windows, Zalmon's transformation is artificial and is, in fact, only for show while he attempts to land a wife. Indeed, Bessie is not fooled by the charade: in her eyes, Zalmon remains the foul fish peddler he always was, regardless of his fancy attire.

"Diamond dealer" Moe Mirsky is motivated to use similar textile tactics as he attempts to dazzle the Smolinsky family "with the glitter of his shining wealth" (74). He is eager to impress Reb so that he can marry a Smolinsky daughter, but Fania is not fooled by Moe's swanky costume and refers to him as a "diamond show window" (75), indicating that she sees beyond his façade and recognizes that he is putting on a performance for the family. In fact, no one is really surprised when it is revealed that Moe is a fraud and has been fired from his job as a mere salesman at the neighborhood jewelry store.

Even the young Sara is aware that her drab appearance is proof of her liminal status. At work, Sara finds that she is socially segregated. She wants to cross the threshold, blend in, and "look like" (183) the American girls, so she buys what Goldsmith refers to as the "accoutrements of American beauty" (35):  lipstick, a lace collar, and, like Masha, fake roses to adorn her hat. Sara is eager to create a "new self" but observes that her "painted face didn't hang together with the rest of" her; she feels "like a dolled-up dummy," like she's wearing a "false face...a mask" (Yezierska 183). What occurs here is what Butler calls a "hyperbolic citation", when something normative is acted out in an exaggerated fashion (Bodies that Matter 232). Indeed, the "false face" that Sara sports is an exaggerated version of Sara's amateurish attempt to imitate her perception of American fashion in terms of poorly applied makeup.

To be sure, Entwistle believes that "dress is connected to a (rather fragile)... sense of self" (35), so it is not surprising that when Sara leaves for work wearing her new costume, she is "panicky with self-consciousness" (Yezierska 183), and Sara's uncertainty is not unfounded: her veteran coworkers laugh at her amateurish attempt to assimilate, and she feels humiliated and is "raw with shame" (183). Entwistle emphasizes that it is not uncommon for people to "feel vulnerable and embarrassed" when their altered appearance "fails" them (35), and Beauvoir agrees and notes that if a woman is attired in something that "is a failure, she feels herself an outcast" (536). In fact, Sara is an outcast and, once again, is forced to retreat across the threshold and return to her solitary existence as an immigrant woman.

During her college years, Sara's drab appearance continues to haunt her and remind her of her indeterminate status:  “What a sight I was in my gray pushcart clothes against the beautiful gay [colors] and the fine things those young girls wore” (212). Note, as fashion theorist Alison Lurie points out, that gray “is an ambiguous, indefinite color” (193), much like the identity of the liminal immigrant. Lurie further notes that “[t]he individual whose clothes do not fall within the recognized range of colors for a given situation attracts attention, usually...unfavorable attention” (205). Indeed, to be less conspicuous and with the hope of overcoming the ambiguity of her immigrant status, Sara, once again, subscribes to the transformative possibilities of appearance: if she could "only look a little bit like other girls on the outside," she thinks, she might blend in and be accepted (214), so she allows herself to be distracted by the acquisition of fashion accessories – gloves, shoes, stockings – and works extra hours to afford them. Beauvoir is sympathetic to the American woman's plight: 

Since woman is an object, it is quite understandable that her intrinsic value is affected by her style of dress and adornment. It is not entirely futile for her to attach so much importance as she does to silk or nylon stockings, to gloves, to a hat, because it is an imperative obligation for her to keep up her position. In America a large part of the working girls' budget is assigned to beauty care and clothes. (534)

Beauvoir notes that such "bondage" leads some women to exercise bad judgment and steal or engage in prostitution (534). In fact, the consequences of Sara's poor judgment manifest when the overworked student fails her geometry class. Perhaps worse, her makeover is unsuccessful, yet again, and she finds herself on the wrong side of the threshold, remaining invisible to the "real" Americans:  "I was nothing and nobody.  It was worse than being ignored. Worse than being an outcast. I simply didn't belong. I had no existence in their young eyes" (Yezierska 219). 

Sara concludes that it is not "character or brains" that render one visible in America, but she seeks an education nevertheless. When Sara first decides upon a path that will enable her to escape the poverty of the ghetto, her naiveté leads her to think that she can obtain an education with the same speed at which she acquires new fashion accessories:  "I want to learn everything in the school from the beginning to the end...I want a quick education for a teacher" (162), she says eagerly as she hungers for an "educated world, where only the thoughts you give out count and not how you look" (183).

Despite her understanding of the importance of education, at college, Sara continues to believe that it is her appearance – "what is on the outside" (214) – that prevents her from being accepted by her American peers. It is worth noting, however, that when Sara is identified at commencement as the winner of the local newspaper's essay contest, the shift from invisible to visible occurs and her classmates do, indeed, acknowledge her through cheers and applause. In fact, it is important to understand that Sara's collegiate transformation is deep-rooted, for it has been fueled not by the acquisition of superfluous fashion accessories, but by the years of effort that were spent acquiring a meaningful education. Thus, her peers' recognition of her academic accomplishments serves as validation of her educated doppelganger and proves that perhaps it is "the thoughts you give out [that] count" (183). Indeed, in his analysis of the novel, Chip Rhodes addresses the value of education in relationship to a person's construction of self: "Education...is designed to give its recipient a sense of selfhood. It is no verbal slip that, upon arriving in New York after graduating from college, Sara cries: 'Home!  Back to New York! Sara Smolinsky, from Hester Street, changed into a person!'" (300).

No doubt, though, it is significant that Sara's shift from invisible to visible is reinforced by the finely tailored suit that she purchases with her prize money on New York's prestigious Fifth Avenue. This, too, is a critical moment for Sara because the suit is tangible proof of her success and her ability, for the first time in her life, to indulge herself with a full set of clothes. She purchases a dark blue suit made of strong cloth that has a “graceful quietness” and “more style in its plainness than the richest velvet” (Yezierska 239). That Sara chooses an ensemble described as being quiet and plain is important as well.

When Sara lived in the ghetto, she became conscious of how clothing identifies one's class standing and that one's wealth is often revealed by "grand clothes" (58). In fact, Sara, who was an observant and malleable child when her family arrived in America, gradually acquired the skill needed to interpret such subtleties. For example, when she meets Jacob Novak, she recognizes that "Jacob looked like from rich people. It didn’t shout from his clothes, the money they cost...it breathed from his quiet things, the solid richness from the rich who didn't have to show it off any more” (56). Jacob's tasteful, understated attire is a sharp contrast to "diamond dealer" Moe. The ensembles of the over-accessorized, bejeweled Moe include a diamond tiepin and multiple diamond rings (73) and a "checkered suit... and new patent-leather shoes" (144).  On the one hand, as Veblen notes, the patent-leather shoes give the "suggestion of leisure – exemption from personal contact with industrial processes of any kind" (170); on the other hand, the diamond jewelry and checkered suit are "tells." Much like Veblen, Paul Fussell lends a satirical interpretation to the American class system and explores how appearance can reveal a person's true status; jewelry worn by men is an "instant class-lowerer" (65). Further, he notes that John T. Mollory, author of Dress for Success, insists that "[b]usiness suits should be plain; no fancy or extra buttons; no weird color stitching" (Fussel 59). In fact, Moe exemplifies one committed to conspicuous consumption as a superficial means of demonstrating that he is a wealthy man of leisure, and what Moe lacks is an understanding of what Veblen refers to as the "delicate variations in the evidences of wealth and leisure." Veblen explains that a certain "skill" is necessary for "interpreting the subtler signs of expenditure. 'Loud' dress becomes offensive to people of taste" and is regarded as "vulgar" (187). Indeed, the ostentatious Moe offends sensitive Sara, much like her father's second wife, whom Sara believes looks absurd in her new finery that includes silk stockings and pink ribbons (Yezierska 263).

That clothing is a marker of status is reinforced when the adult Sara reunites with sisters Fania and Bessie: "What a picture of poverty and riches! Bessie in her old fish-store clothes...Fania, like a Queen of Sheba, shining with silks and sparkling with diamonds" (174). Bessie, who has relented and married Zalmon, has not escaped the ghetto, but Fania has climbed the social ladder by marrying Abe Schmukler, who, not surprisingly given the influx of immigrants eager for fashion makeovers, acquired his wealth in the cloaks-and-suits business. But despite the fact that she appears to be a "grand lady" (174), Fania is living in an unhappy marriage and is a mere accessory for her husband, who uses her to show "off to his friends that he's rich" (175). Thus, Yezierska continues to emphasize that one should not be misled by the artificial construction of fancy veneer; rather, one needs to look beyond the surface to determine a person's authentic identity.

It is Sara's educated doppelganger that is genuine and shows the confidence that Sara lacks throughout the novel. In fact, Sara becomes what Beauvoir refers to as a "woman of elegance," a woman who "can if need be seek sensuous or aesthetic pleasure in her toilette but she will certainly keep it appropriate to her appearance; the color of her gown will favor her complexion, its cut will emphasize or improve her figure" (531). When Sara, a newly employed teacher, looks in the mirror, she observes: "[h]ow becoming was that soft green with that touch of rose embroidery. How well it suited my pale skin and dark hair that I learned to braid so becomingly around my head!" (283). It must be noted that it is not the sartorial details of her appearance that Sara admires but, rather, herself. Indeed, Beauvoir describes the "woman of elegance": "what she treasures is herself adorned, and not the objects that adorn her" (531). 

Certainly, Sara’s identity as an American woman has been affirmed by her ability to purchase her clothing at the "Sport Shop," "[w]here the college girls get their college clothes" (Yezierska 238) and, especially, by her peers' recognition of her. While she has crossed and recrossed the threshold multiple times – as indicated by the title of Book II, "Between Two Worlds" – Sara has become the American that she proclaimed herself to be when she left home. Yet the liminal is also a place of hybridity, and despite being drawn to "real American people," (233), Sara chooses to reunite with the Jewish part of her identity by returning to live in the Jewish community that she fought to escape, showing Sara's acceptance of her Jewish-American self.

It is this acceptance of one's ethnic identity that is especially significant in Margaret Dilloway's How to Be an American Housewife, which was influenced by a book her American father gave her Japanese mother entitled The American Way of Housekeeping. Dilloway intersperses the novel's narrative with clever quips from a fictionalized version of this post-World War II handbook. The novel, which is told from the perspectives of a Japanese mother and her Japanese-American daughter, divulges the ways in which the narrators struggle with their identity.

The first half of the novel is narrated by the mother, Shoko, and begins when she is a child in Japan. In her discussion of Japanese tradition, Masami Suga explains that during the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western customs greatly influenced Japan in many respects, and the "Meiji government eagerly promoted western fashion both in dress and hairstyle" (Dilloway 97). Suga goes on to note that "Japan's adoption of western dress was a visible signature of that influence. Both Japanese men and women...incorporated western fashion into their way of life" (97). Suga also points out the "post-World War II" goal of "catching up to the West" (98) and states that “western dress dominates Japan's everyday apparel scene” (98). Thus, it is not surprising that Shoko, a young woman in the years after World War II has ended, is informed about and sports American clothing, rather than the traditional Japanese kimono. Ironically, there are times when it is her identity as a Japanese woman that Shoko finds she must "perform"; for example, she is forced to cast off her American attire when she is hired to work in a hotel gift shop in Kumamoto City where she is required to wear a kimono and play the part of a diminutive Japanese woman for American servicemen.  Indeed, Shoko is as much on display as the Japanese figurines in the shop's showcase (59-60), and this is not the only time that Shoko finds that she is objectified.     

When Shoko works as a maid for an American naval officer, she is aware of the importance of dressing properly, especially when she meets American servicemen who might have less-than-honorable motives. She says, "My father was always warning me against wearing clingy sweaters with those bullet bras. But I was wearing a maid's uniform, the most unflattering thing anyone could wear" (53). In fact, Shoko and her father seem to understand Beauvoir's warning that the "purpose of the fashions to which [woman] is enslaved is...to offer her as prey to male desires” (529). Despite her modest attire, Shoko is the victim of her boss's improper advances, which complicates her understanding of the role of appearances, especially as they relate to one's class standing.

Shoko's true love is Ronin, but because of an outlawed but persistent caste system, marrying him is unacceptable, because he is an Eta, "the lowest of the low" (Dilloway 54), so she acquiesces and allows her father to guide her in her selection of an American husband, knowing that marrying is the only way to improve her class standing. Shoko is not particular, because, to her, American men are "interchangeable" (72). She and her father agree upon blue-eyed, all-American Charlie, who sports "a blue dress shirt, blue tie, and black pants" (70).

Charlie and Shoko go on a date, and they are "[l]ike two Americans in a movie" (85), and this moment establishes the performative aspect of Shoko's future as an American housewife; in fact, years later, their daughter realizes, "Dad had dozens of photos of Mom posing, shoulders back, bust out, hands on hips, red-lipsticked lips smiling like Lana Turner" (190). Before long, Shoko and Charlie agree to marry. Despite their father's support of the marriage, her brother, Taro, is bitter that she chooses to marry an American. Shoko understands his hostility:  "while [Charlie] was being trained to call us yellow-skinned monsters, we had been trained to call [Americans] fiends" (89). Although "[t]here was a certain cachet in marrying an American" (72), and Charlie shows much respect for the Japanese culture – he wears a kimono at their wedding – Taro refuses to attend the wedding, and he and Shoko become estranged.

The newly married couple rent a house in town, one that is larger than either has lived in and more extravagant than they can afford; in addition, they have no money to purchase furniture. Despite their lack of funds, Charlie is quick to objectify his new wife, and he lavishes Shoko with "lots of beautiful clothes" and encourages her to go to a tailor to have "fashionable American-style dresses made" (86). Indeed, Charlie understands that Shoko's "intrinsic value is affected by her style of dress and adornment" (Beauvoir 534); as such, he increases her value by investing in her appearance. Even after fifty years of marriage, their financial situation does not improve – their home is in need of repairs, and Shoko longs to replace their old car – but Shoko continues to wear expensive clothing. Indeed, Shoko, too, is aware of her responsibility to her American husband and her concomitant "obligation [to] keep up her position" (Beauvoir 534) as an American housewife.

When the young couple leaves Japan, they are stationed in Hawaii, where Shoko finds it easy to "blend in": "There were so many darker-skinned people that no one gave [her] a second glance" (Dilloway 41). However, Shoko's experience as a Navy housewife is very different when they move to a "white, Christian, working-class" part of San Diego (45). Despite the fact that she is married to an American and is informed about American fashion, the Japanese Shoko is conscious of the threat that comes with her liminal status – indeterminant and ambiguous. While Piper notes that the American "climate was especially intolerant of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe" (103), resulting in the Immigration Act of 1924, the hostility directed at Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and during World War II was worse. In his discussion of Cynthia Kadohata's novel Kira-Kira, Frank Cha reminds us that Japanese Americans were "[m]arked as an internal threat solely by their racial identity, [and] Japanese Americans became prisoners in their own country" (110) – confined to internment camps. The negative feelings that Americans felt for Japanese immigrants persisted in the years following World War II.

Despite the poor reception, like Sara, Shoko is determined to be "a true American" (Dilloway 41). Although she finds it difficult to acclimate to American customs in her new city, she accepts that "American ways were different" (27), and Shoko, like Sara and her sisters, focuses her attention on the transformative power of fashion to delineate her identity as an American housewife. As previously noted, Shoko understands that she must "keep up her position" (Beauvoir 534); indeed, Beauvoir notes that the wife "must 'make a good showing' where she is herself concerned," so when she goes out, she "dresses up" (528). To be sure, when Shoko walks to the nearby market with her newborn son, she aims "to look presentable, not like a maid or a Jap with buckteeth and wild hair, but an American girl" (Dilloway 17). She wears a pencil skirt and tidy blouse (17), yet Shoko cannot escape the hostility that post-World-War-II Americans had for the Japanese: "There goes that Jap wife," the American neighbors would whisper with contempt (17). Despite her carefully chosen outfit, Shoko cannot conceal the physical features that reveal her Japanese identity; as such, Shoko is unable to transcend her liminal status for she is, as Benson Tong calls it, "visibly racially marked" (11).  

Indeed, despite Shoko's ongoing attempts to be perceived and welcomed as an all-American mother, she is unsuccessful. She finds herself sitting alone at her son’s Little League games while the other mothers cluster together. Shoko wrongly believes that her outsider status is due to her ongoing confusion about appropriate American attire: the mothers wear "button-down shirts in pastel colors and Capri pants like a secret uniform" (25). However, Shoko, like Sara, is mistaken in believing that clothing serves as the ultimate equalizer. At her daughter's science fair, the "parents all looked like professionals" and were "[w]ell groomed, the women in short heels and slacks, the men in polo shirts and khakis" (100). From Shoko's perspective, she "looked no different" in her own pants, sweater set, and pearls; indeed, she believes, "I looked like I belonged" (100). But despite her carefully chosen fashion assemble, Shoko does not look like she "belonged," for while Shoko has attempted to construct an identity as an American housewife by wearing the appropriate attire, the fact remains: unlike Sara, she cannot physically assimilate. Indeed, Shoko feels like an imposter among the other American parents: "I looked at my own clothes and felt like a pretender" (101). It is significant to note that when Sara feels like an imposter, it is due to Butler's "hyperbolic citation" – mentioned above – when something normative is acted out in an exaggerated fashion – however, there is nothing exaggerated about Shoko's sartorial selections. Rather, Shoko feels like an imposter because her clothing cannot disguise her Japanese features.

Despite Shoko's revelation, as the years pass, she continues to hope that clothing will enable her to overcome her liminal status, and her determination to construct her identity as an American housewife does not relent. When she visits her daughter at work, Shoko dresses up in her “brown wool slacks and... cream cashmere sweater...along with [her] heavy gold rope chain” (Dilloway 97). In her mind, Shoko's carefully chosen outfits are meant to signify her American success because she believes she has the "skill" needed for "interpreting the subtler signs of expenditure" (Veblen 187). Indeed, Entwistle notes that certain quality fabrics, such as "silk, linen and cashmere" (50), serve as an indicator of a person's class standing. She further asserts that "[k]nowing what counts as quality and recognizing it in the dress of others requires knowledge in the form of 'cultural capital'" (50). Although Shoko has acquired an understanding of the cultural capital of America, Shoko and Charlie live beyond their means; Shoko only "felt rich" (Dilloway 86), reinforcing the idea that Shoko is merely performing her identity as a refined American woman of leisure, just as the Smolinsky sisters were when they began to acquire what they believed were "millionaire things" (5).

Shoko and Charlie’s daughter acknowledges her Japanese and American names, Suiko and Sue, which might reflect the quiet uncertainty that she feels regarding her bicultural identity, a confusion that is further complicated by the fact that she "had never looked like she belonged to me [her mother, Shoko] or to Charlie" (106). In a way that is both similar to and different from the Smolinsky sisters, what adds to Sue's identity conflict is the fact that, as a teenager, she did not dress like her peers. Sue "wore dresses when [she] wanted to wear jeans" (149), and even in high school, she dutifully wore what her conservative American father – Charlie is a Mormon – identified as appropriate attire:  "School is your job and you need to dress like it," he advised. "So instead of jeans and sneakers, I was forced to wear middle-aged dresses with big shoulder pads and nylons," she explains, wryly referring to this time in her life as her "Dynasty years" (160). Of course, the fact that Sue's attire is reflective of that which is appropriate to the artificial world of a television show is indicative of its lack of authenticity for the American teen. But during her junior year in high school, Sue transforms her appearance by perming her hair and getting contacts. Whereas before she was, like Sara, invisible, or "[u]nnoticed," as Sue calls it, Sue's transformation renders her visible to her classmates, and a popular football player takes note:  "Just like that, I was in his circle" (170). Because Sue does not resemble her mother and is not visibly Japanese, her simple makeover garners her the American acceptance that her mother coveted, enabling Sue to deny the Japanese part of her "self."

As an adult, Sue insists, "I'm American through and through" (175). It is not surprising that because she is American born and does not resemble her mother, Sue chooses to self-identify as American and feels no connection with the Japanese part of her identity. Tong agrees: "As children, multiracial Americans who have Asian origins often self-identify as 'white’'"(17).  Further, as Min Zhou explains, "Differing from their foreign-born parents, many immigrant children and children of immigrant parentage lack meaningful connections to their parents' homelands" (33). Indeed, it is not until she is forced to visit Japan that Sue becomes conscious of the Japanese part of her "self."

When Shoko fears that she is dying, she laments the loss of her relationship with her brother, and she realizes that before she dies, she must "make peace" with him:  "My family, I no can die without" (Dilloway 101). While Shoko has maintained a spiritual connection to her Japanese heritage – she prays before the shrine that her father gave her when she left Japan – she has had no contact with her Japanese family. Because she is too ill to make the journey herself, Shoko enlists her daughter and her granddaughter, Helena, to travel to Japan on her behalf. For Sue and her daughter, the trip to Japan is not a reconciliation with their Japanese identity; rather, it is an introduction to the Japanese part of themselves.

Sue takes seriously her journey to this foreign land, and she reserves a room at an inn that will give her and her daughter a "true Japanese experience" (178). It is interesting to note that when she meets a Japanese man on the flight to Japan, Sue introduces herself using her Japanese name:  "I almost never identified myself by my Japanese name, not even in college, when doing so would have been chic" (172). Sue is beginning to recognize that this journey to her mother's homeland will have significance for her. Indeed, when Sue arrives in Japan, although she does not speak Japanese, she finds that the "chatter of Japanese" is "both familiar and foreign" to her (169), suggesting that her Japanese heritage resonates with her more than she believes. Indeed, when her mother's brother, Taro, begins to introduce her to the Japanese traditions with which she is unacquainted, her daughter, Helena, wonders, "Is it funny to feel homesick for a place I've never been before?" (228), and Sue realizes that she "had been feeling the same way" (228). In fact, even Taro remarks, "You turning Japanese" (241). Sue's trip to Japan enables her to construct the other half of her polyvalent identity. In her discussion of Lydia Minatoya's autobiography, Aki Uchida notes that Minatoya's "identity as a Japanese American was not a given but had to be constructed in her odyssey" to Japan (136). Similarly, Sue's identity as a Japanese American (rather than as an American) is constructed by way of her journey. It is not surprising that when Sue returns to the United States, she feels less connected to her homeland and thinks, "My American life seemed like it had happened to someone else" (Dilloway 267). As a result of Sue’s journey, her homeland, “San Diego[,] had become a foreign nation” to which she needs to adjust (259). In some respects, the novel comes full circle, but it is Sue, not Shoko, who returns to Japan. Just as Sara goes back to Hester Street to teach, Sue moves to Japan to teach, as well, which shows her acceptance of her Japanese-American identity and, again, demonstrates that the liminal is a place of hybridity. 

Although the linking of Jewish- and Asian-American authors has validity because of the groups’ shared experiences as recounted in the opening remarks, the more significant revelation remains, as Freedman reminds us,  "Jews have the ability to pass as white; Asians do not" (70). Mary C. Waters agrees and emphasizes that “all ethnicities are not equal” (160). Waters further explains that people with European ancestry cannot be equated with those from other minority groups. They are not "interchangeable" (Waters 160); in fact, "the degree of discrimination against white European immigrants and their children never matched the systematic, legal, and official discrimination and violence experienced by blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in American" (164). Indeed, ultimately, Sara is able to overcome her liminal status and assimilate into white America, but Shoko, despite her knowledge of American fashion, remains an outsider. Yet the true mark of success for the protagonists occurs when they reconcile with the ethnic part of their fragmented identities. Thus, an often unacknowledged aspect of "American success" is overcoming the fractured self that many immigrants experience because of their developing and often conflicting bicultural identities.

Further, consideration should also be given to the polyvalent nature of a hybrid identity. As Uchida points out, one needs to be cautious of having an "essentialistic view of identity" (126); in other words, "In the attempt to define what it means to be a Japanese [or Jewish] American woman, one can fall into the trap of assuming that there is an 'authentic' set of experiences or 'voice' that is essential for one to be defined" as such (Uchida 126). Uchida continues: "[t]he question that needs to be asked is not what the 'real' Japanese American identity is but how identities are resisted, created, and transformed" (127).

 

 

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. 1949. Translated by H. M. Parshley,  Vintage, 1989.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  Routledge, 1990.

---. "Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex." Yale French Studies, vol. 72, 1986, pp. 35-49.

Cha, Frank. "Migrating to the 'Broiler Belt': Japanese American Labor and the Jim Crow South in Kira-Kira." Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 1, 2012, pp. 103-120. 

Coklin, Ljiljana. "Between the Orient and the Ghetto: A Modern Immigrant Woman in Anzia Yezierska's Salome of the Tenements." Frontiers, vol. 27, no. 2, 2006, pp. 136-161.

Dilloway, Margaret. How to Be an American Housewife. Putnam, 2010.

Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress, and Modern Social Theory. Polity, 2000.

Freedman, Jonathan. "Transgressions of a Model Minority." Shofar, vol. 23, no. 4, 2005, pp. 69-97.

Fussell, Paul. Class:  A Guide through the American Status System. Summit, 1983.

Goldsmith, Meredith. "Dressing, Passing, and Americanizing:  Anzia Yezierska’s Sartorial Fictions." Studies in American Jewish Fiction, vol. 16, 1997, pp. 34-45.

Kay, Lucy, Zoe Kinsley, and Alan Roughley. Introduction. Mapping Liminalities: Thresholds in Cultural and Literary Texts, edited by Kay, Kinsley, and Roughly, Peter Lang, 2007, pp. 7-16.

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. 1981. Henry Holt, 2000.

Piper, Kevin. "The Making of an American: Counternarration in Louis Adamic's Laughing in the Jungle and Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers." MELUS, vol. 35, no. 1, 2010, pp. 99-118.

Rhodes, Chip. "Education as Liberation: The Case of Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers." Science & Society, vol. 57, no. 3, 1993, pp. 294-312.

Schreier, Barbara A. Becoming American Women: Clothing and the Jewish Immigrant Experience, 1880-1920. Chicago Historical Society, 1994.

Suga, Masami.  "Exotic West to Exotic Japan: Revival of Japanese Tradition in Modern Japan." Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time, edited by Joanne B. Eicher, Bloomsbury, 1995, pp. 95-115.

Tong, Benson. "Introduction: The Worldview of Asian American Children." Asian American Children:  A Historical Handbook and Guide, edited by Benson Tong, Greenwood, 2004, pp. 3-23.

Uchida, Aki. "Reconstructing Identity: The Autobiographical Self of a Japanese American Woman in Lydia Minatoya's Talking to High Monks in the Snow." Frontiers, vol. 19, no. 1, 1998, pp. 124-146.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. 1899. Penguin, 1994.

Waters, Mary C. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. U of  California P, 1990.

Wilson, Elizabeth, and Amy de la Haye. Introduction. Defining Dress:  Dress as Object, Meaning and Identity, edited by WIlson and Haye, Manchester UP, 1991, pp. 1-9.

Yezierska, Anzia.  Bread Givers. 1925. New York:  Persea, 2003.

Zhou, Min.  “Coming of Age at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century:  A Demographic Profile of Asian American Youth.” Asian American Youth: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity,  edited by Jennifer Lee and Zhou,  Routledge, 2004, pp. 33-50.

 
Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2017 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
AmericanPopularCulture.com