restricted access Magical Dress: Clothing and Transformation in Folk Tales
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Magical Dress:
Clothing and Transformation in Folk Tales

The recognition that clothing is inherently magical, its fabric woven from the stuff of dreams, is repeatedly expressed in folk literature. In its simplest form an article of clothing such as a cloak or a hat may transform the ordinary person into a powerful one; the effect of such garments is impersonal, passing from wearer to wearer without distinction. But besides these uncomplicated fantasies of empowerment arc subtle, complex, and symbol-laden narratives in which clothing becomes the agent of many kinds of metamorphoses. These range from simple changes in appearance to dramatic magical transformations that revolutionize the lives of the characters involved. In some cases garments express the rules of a moral universe with appropriate rewards and punishments. But in a more magical dimension, especially in those tales that Ruth Bottigheimer identifies as "fairy tales" (9), clothes are used to break the rules of the ordered world and the boundaries of the reasonable expectations that life has taught. Not only are the social barriers shattered and the web of conventions dissolved; clothing is also used to express in outward form the psyche's deepest desires and shadowy dreams, by enchantment bringing about a fantastical transmutation into our other or into our ultimate selves.

Clothes mark the point at which the inner and outer vision meet, the point at which the physical self and the world touch. Clothing is the outer expression of an inner identity, an imaginative vision transformed into tangible form for others (and ourselves) to sec. Dress enables people to identify themselves—socially, sexually, morally, aesthetically—to be recognized or to be misrecognized. The folk tales in which clothing takes on significance focus upon two kinds of transformation: the transformation of raw, shapeless material into cloth and clothes, and the transformation of the wearer who puts on the finished product. The talcs involve questions of self-definition and identity, image and disguise, and the implicit sense of power that these invoke. I have chosen for special attention Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm's "The Six Swans" and its variants to illustrate the lonely struggle that characterizes the creation of clothing as a symbol for self-realization and identity in a hostile world, and "Cinderella" in its diverse forms to exemplify the transformation of people by means of clothing, with emphasis on image, recognition, and misrecognition. Both lines of inquiry lead to an examination of what kind of power clothes represent, what the talcs reveal about the balance of power in society, and what they challenge us to change.

In an indirect slap at the fashion industry, the story of Adam and Eve presents the first clothing as the outcome of moral transgression. As described in Genesis, eating the forbidden apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads the pair to a sense of shame at the realization of nakedness and to the need to conceal their bodies with the clothes they must fashion. They arc also driven to hide themselves away from God's sight: "And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons....and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden" (Genesis 3:7-8).

The thought that clothing was immediately involved in humanity's first moment of self-consciousness is of particular interest when one considers the story in terms of Jacques Lacan's mirror stage. This is the point at which the sudden awareness of ourselves caught in another's vision causes self-image and self-understanding to fragment; we become both the person we feel ourselves to be and the image that the mirror reflects, "what one sees and how one is seen" (McGillis 42). This dramatic event gives rise to a sense of defined perspective, of otherness, which alters the person's relationship with him or herself. As Psalm 33 tells us, "From where [God] sits enthroned he turns his gaze on all who dwell on the earth. He fashions all the hearts of them and understands all their works...