[(essay date fall 1986) In the following essay, Tavormina analyzes the parallels between clothing and the perception of the characters in The Color Purple, noting how Walker's characters use sewing to create a sense of accomplishment and freedom of expression.]
When a message has no clothes on How can it be spoken? --Thomas Merton1
Language is the clothing of thought, the skin of the soul. The mysterious entity of self is first expressed internally, in thoughts and feelings of various degrees of clarity; yet to give that self external expression, it must be "uttered"--made outward by being dressed in language. Just as clothing protects, adorns, interprets, and helps create the first impression of the body, the outer self, so language displays the inner self, giving shape to thought and feeling, defining yet covering them, significantly influencing others' perceptions of that self. Like a membrane, like skin, language simultaneously connects and divides self to and from others. The familiar metaphors of spinning yarns and weaving words, of text as textile, suggest the purpose of language as well as the intricate manner of its making.
Thus it is not surprising to find both clothing and language playing important, related thematic roles in Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple.2 Among the novel's major concerns are the discovery, definition, and expression of self, and the connections between self and other. Since both language and clothing are means of expressing--and, to our misfortune, also of repressing--the self, they are highly effective vehicles for Walker's views on the search her characters engage in. The present essay examines The Color Purple's treatment of this search, as reflected in images of clothing, sewing, and quilting, and the relation of these images to her use of such personalized forms of language as dialect and letters.
I had been trying to establish a respect for women and women's art; to forge a new kind of art expressing women's experience; and to find a way to make that art accessible to a large audience. I firmly believed that if art speaks clearly about something relevant to people's lives, it can change the way they perceive reality. ... Since most of the world is illiterate in terms of women's history and contributions to culture, it seemed appropriate to relate our history through art, particularly through techniques traditionally associated with women.--Judy Chicago3
References to cloth, clothing, and clothworking abound in The Color Purple. Again and again we read about people's clothing, especially Shug's. Both Nettie and Celie have a keen eye for what people wear, and are sharply conscious of their own dress as well, at times embarrassed by it, at times pleased. Most important, sewing and designing clothes becomes Celie's refuge and then her work. The meaning of these ubiquitous references goes beyond a realistic description of a common female interest or activity, however. By the end of the novel, Walker's clothing and clothworking images have reinforced several major themes: the nature of self-definition, the creative...