The role of clothing as confirming, revising, or questioning gender roles in Angela Carter’s story The Bloody Chamber
The definitions of gender are becoming more and more vague, reflecting the cultural uncertainty that surrounds the male and female roles. Clothing for men and women is often culturally defined because cultural norms and expectations are closely related to being a man or a woman and are closely linked to appearance. Gender specific attire enhances the internalization of gender specific behavior. Through the examination of historical changes in Western men’s and women’s dress during the twentieth century, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the changes in the social meanings of clothing and its relationship to gender.
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Through the 1950s, men followed a restricted code for appearance, men’s business attire was linked to a display of power facilitated by the uniform nature of dress. Women, in contrast, have had a more elaborate fashion code, meaning that they could wear some of what men wore, a wide range of dresses and clothing accessors, such as jewelry. Clothing is the main instrument of the appearance of the body and could signify a certain social status, economic class or even a desire to comply with social norms or vary from them. Clothing is made with clear distinction between male and female to show the socially constructed nature of gender differences.
Some aspects of dress mark the gender of an individual more than others, for example, a white wedding dress, interest in fashion and jewelry. A white wedding dress meaning innocence and virginal purity. Furthermore, women were always associated with interest in fashion and clothing accessories more than men. The female dress has historically limited the social roles of women both physically and socially because the dress itself would demonstrate the economic situation of her husband or her father, who were the family providers.
In the short story by Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, clothing is introduced very early on. Starting off with “the tumbled garments I would not need anymore” (Carter 1), signify a certain change in social status. The protagonist in Carter’s short story has come from the lower social class, even poverty and could very well not be able to afford clothing that would be fit for the noble women she was about to become by marrying Marquis. She is portrayed as inexperienced in the ways of the world, and it is her innocence which captivates the lecherous Marquis. The female character in the story is an easy target for the rich gentleman because he can offer her riches, social status and security. “This ring, the bloody bondage of rubies, the wardrobe of clothes from Poiret and Worth” (Carter 8), means the young bride is charmed by the expensive clothing and jewelry that is now available to her, by accepting to be his bride.
She does not yet realize that this world she in leaving behind, protected as it might have been, is a place where femininity is active and independent. For example, the Marquis’ generous lavishing of expensive, sophisticated gifts on his child bride indicates his abiding to what Thorstein Veblen has defined as “the code of reputability” (88) demonstrating what is acceptable and suitable to wear or to consume, so as too project a certain image of social status. Her wedding dress is described as “black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water” (Carter 2), suggesting her dress would be more suited for a funeral or a mourning ceremony. Imagery of oil and water could also be interpreted as a warning sign, because oil and water do not mix well together.
The middle-class young girl in The Bloody Chamber moves, with marriage, from the lowly status indicated by her “twice-darned underwear, faded gingham, serge skirts, hand me downs” (Carter 6) into the “exile” of the trophy wife condition, signifying by the profusion of what Ruth Barcan calls “liminal clothes” (16). This so called “liminal clothing” show the lack of social rank or status and emphasize the transition initiated by the new extravagant clothes. The young bride suddenly felt a remorse, as if “when he put the gold ribbon on my finger” (Carter 2), she was not her mother’s daughter anymore because the gold ribbon as a clothing accessory, transitions her from a daughter into a wife. By becoming his wife in this context, means she became his property. Wife’s were expected to obey their husbands in a patriarchal society and men had the authority over women. The items of clothing and jewelry she receives, the expensive satin nightdress, with its promise of erotic pleasure in its silken touch, or the virginal Poiret dress “a sinuous shift of white muslin tied with a silk string under the breasts” (Carter 6) reaffirms the new elevated social status. The detailed imagery of clothing, especially clothing that might be associated with arousal and intercourse in other words indicate his power of making her a woman. As a man and her husband, he can transform her from a young lady who is a virgin, into a real woman, showing further gender dominance.
Marquis was dressing his wife as a mannequin, as an object. By thinking about his wife as a non-human material possession supports the fact that the male gender had absolute power over women, therefore illustrating the injustice created by gender roles. He does not see her as a living, breathing, autonomous woman but only as another trophy in his bloody chamber of misogyny.
In addition, a special significance is reserved for a piece of a non-garment, the obscene ruby choker, “two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” (Carter 6) a description which figuratively recalls Veblen’s remark that luxury consumption by others other the “master”, “can take place only on the basis of sufferance” (51). The ruby choker could be interpreted as a sneak preview of the show in which the girl plays a main role, her decapitation. The choker is a symbol of suffocation and the girl eventually finds herself confined and casted in a pornographic role that Marquis beholds for her, as the object of his sadistic desires. Further objectified in this way and deprived of her autonomy, the girl begins the transformation from a human being into an object, a flesh into meat. For Carter, clothing reflects the general distinction between “beings under social restrain and beings that are not” (Barcan 67). The expensive clothing and gifts that he lavishes upon his prisoner wife in return for her total surrender reflects his position of social dominance coupled with gender ascendancy.
The extreme manifestation of the double power in The Bloody Chamber is the Marquis’ secret chamber of torture and punishment for his disobedient wife’s; as a scene of deadly bondage and ultimate subjection, the “bloody chamber” is a symbol of class oppression and gender inequality. The fearful torture device mocks both the protective and the ceremonial functions of clothes, which constitutes a secondary, exterior body, by canceling the distinction outward-inward and by substituting, with its dull “metal shell” (Carter 31), the rich jewelry which identified women as a possessed object. The most effective metaphorical expression of women’s unfreedom in the world of the Marquis is the Iron Lady, the clothes of death, the mutilating apparel, whose hundred spikes penetrated the “newly dead, so full of blood” (Carter 31) in a dark gothic parody of erotic embrace. There is nothing more unsettling in this creative text than this opening hypothesis about the relationship between clothes and the politics of gender. Carter somehow indicates the true nakedness as a form of clothing as well. The skin itself is a piece of garment or a costume. The young bride feels that her nakedness, requested by the Marquis, casts her in the role of courtesan.
Another example of clothing as an important factor in gender roles is her sudden change of appearance “I have never been vain until I met him” (Carter 9), as a girl who has never cared about her appearance, suddenly become concerned with what she wears. Hinting that if she wears nice clothes, she will attract male glaze and her husbands’ interest. Her involvement with the Marquis and assimilation into this new world is causing her to transform into high society’s perfect women, concerning herself mostly with her outside appearance.
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The young bride although innocent, in not entirely ignorant or her objectification. She is quite aware of power and ownership the Marquis might have over her. On the night before their wedding day, he takes her to Opera where she gets a glimpse of herself from his perspective. Carter uses a scene at the Opera to show that the girl is aware of to how Marquis looks at her, with lust, inspecting her body and objectifying her, making her believe she might not be as innocent as she thought she was (7). Besides clothing, Carter uses mirror imagery to demonstrate the loss of identity. The girl loses her individuality and becomes a series of produced items, an object in her new harem.
Circling back to the beginning of the short story, in the first opening paragraph a beautiful cloth is introduced as “impeccable linen of the pillow” (Carter 1), where the young girl kept her head on the linen covered pillow, meaning she is well and alive. In contrast, when the girl entered the torture room, one of the dead wife’s was covered by the linen, laying underneath it, meaning death. Linen as a non-garment in this case still has a deeper meaning because it shows the linen as the line between life and death. “The third and final time Marquis requires his wife to wear a white dress is at her decreed execution” (Roemer 110), just like he had the power to transform her from a virgin to a woman, he now tries to transform her into a sculpture or an artifact.
This dark version of Beauty and the Beast story ends, however on a more positive note with an alternative model of femininity standing up against the criminal oppressor. The mother comes to rescue equipped with her own husband’s revolver as an unconventional peace of non-garment, yet another substitute for jewelry, which instead of imprisoning her in a circuit of conspicuous waste, takes on a liberating function. The warrior like mother, unlike her daughter appears almost masculine in her fierceness, she is the man-eating killer saving her daughter from her predatory “meat eating” husband. By introducing mother figure, whose unconventional dress appearance suggests a certain freedom from social restraint, Carter also implies that this freedom might be acquired by an acknowledgment to the fluid nature of gender, by blurring and transgressing gender boundaries.
In relating the cultural fact of clothing to the gender identity, we could argue that there is no such thing as a pure femininity or masculinity but rather that they are fixed culturally and socially by conventional outward appearance. Carters feminist dominance is quite satisfying and there is even a happy ending to The Bloody Chamber story. The last recorded sign of Marquis dominance in gender roles, is the red-blooded key mark on the girl’s forehead. Therefore, the happy ending of the story is stained with blood, the mark is a sign of apparel or a decoration. This emblem of shame which cannot be hidden is symbolic of the girl’s complicity in her own objectification.
In conclusion, Carter has provided vivid imagery in the short story The Bloody Chamber, both of clothing and non-garment elements to clarify the blurred lines between gender roles. The female character remains nameless throughout the story which makes her seem insignificant and further objectified. Her clothing transformation becomes her personal transformation, from a free young girl into a trophy wife and an emotionless object. In the story, clothing does play a major role in gender itself but also in power and dominance that comes from certain gender roles. Clearly, gender as a social and cultural construction needs and demands the appropriate props to successfully convince the audience that one’s gender presentation is authentic. The dress we wear is layered with many meanings, such as culturally appropriate gender behavior, gender socialization via dress, codes of dress and gender, historical perspectives of dress and gender, dressing parts of the self, social resistance, and gender markers.
- Barcan, Ruth. Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, Oxford, New York, 2004.
- Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber, New York, 1979.
- Veblem, Thorstain. The Theory of Leisure Class, Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Roemer, Danielle M. “The Contextualization of the Marquis in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, vol.12, no 1. 1998, pp. 95-115. JSTOR,
- https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/stable/41388484 Accessed 9 Nov. 2018
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