Clothing and Gender Identity

by Stephanie Cawley

Similarly to the way that clothing becomes a significant trope for the emergence of identity in Persepolis, clothing is a trope that is significant to Alison’s negotiation and articulation of her identity in Fun Home. Concern with clothing is generally a feminized trait in American society. Shopping features prominently in various stereotypes of femininity and womanhood—see Sex and the City or Confessions of a Shopaholic, for examples. As such, reclaiming clothing as an important signifier of identities beyond just mainstream femininity, particularly within the contexts of two works that are overtly feminist, seems to claim this element as significant, worthy of more serious consideration than is often attributed to it. In Fun Home, early sections of the text discuss artifice versus utility, and articulate a philosophy that embraces the utility of artifice itself. Thus the “artificial” identity created by clothing seems both authentic and useful as a way to articulate and express what is internal. Additionally, much like in Persepolis, clothing becomes an important signifier of transgressive identities within Fun Home, serving as a signifier of complex identities beyond the simplistic binaries of gender that are used to code clothing and bodies in mainstream society.

Clothing is a significant trope particularly in Chapter Four, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.” The chapter opens with a hand-drawn “Polaroid,” as all the chapters do, of a figure in a woman’s bathing suit and some kind of headscarf, in a somewhat effeminate posture, posing as if a fashion model. It is difficult to determine, at this first glance out of context, who the figure is. It is not until the very last page of the chapter that it is revealed that this figure is Bruce: “He’s wearing a women’s bathing suit. A fraternity prank? But the pose he strikes is not mincing or silly at all. He’s lissome, elegant” (Bechdel 120).

(Bechdel 87)

To the reader, the first encounter with this image is perhaps ambiguous, in terms of understanding which family member is present in this photograph, but is also definite in the assessment that this image is of a woman. Although a closer examination shows that the figure’s arms and torso are masculine, the signifier of the woman’s bathing suit and an effeminate pose leads readers to believe that this is a woman. When the image is returned to almost forty pages later, it is revealed that this initial reading is in fact a misreading. In addition to mimicking the process of memory—seeing an image and much later understanding its meaning—this seems to suggest that gender identity is far more complex than the simple binaries of masculine and feminine that are enforced by external markers of gender such as clothing.

(Bechdel 98)

While the image of Bruce in a bathing suit calls into question the gendered assumptions created by clothing and external appearance, clothing figures importantly in both Alison and Bruce’s self-identities. One particularly striking panel depicts the two standing side-by-side in a mirror, both attempting to construct identities that are both socially acceptable and expressive of their complex gender identities. Both Alison and Bruce seem to desire an appearance that is socially unacceptable, and therefore Bruce “attempt[s] to express something feminine through [Alison]” (98) while Alison tries “to compensate for something unmanly in him” (98). Femininity and masculinity are thus shown to exist along a continuum, and their respective clothing choices problematize the gendered assumptions of clothing items like suits and dresses, as Alison’s dress is the “least girly dress in the store” (98) and Bruce’s suit is “velvet!” (98).

(Bechdel 118)

The third appearance of clothing as a signifier of subversive gender and sexual identities in this chapter occurs when Alison and Bruce see a “truck-driving bulldyke” (118) in a luncheonette. This image, of a woman wearing “men’s clothes” and a “men’s haircut” (118) invokes perhaps the most prevalent cultural image of lesbianism as a woman wearing men’s’ clothes. Alison recognizes her own desires and identity in this woman who most clearly subverts gender stereotypes. While Alison’s “least girly dress” is the closest she as a child can come to an expression of her identity within the conventional social norms imposed by her father, this woman represents a desired expression of gender that is even more overtly transgressive of the male/female binary.

Just as in Persepolis, complex gender and political identities are enacted on the body, making the body and clothing become spaces for the articulation of hybrid identities. The images of Alison in the “least girly dress” (98), Bruce in a woman’s bathing suit, and the “butch” woman at the diner, all contest and challenge mainstream conceptions of gender existing across a sharp binary between male and female. Clothing becomes a way for individuals in Fun Home to articulate their affiliations and identities outside of the social constructions of gender. Bechdel plays with these social constructions most directly in the image of Bruce in a bathing suit and the way that this image is initially “misread.” This mis-reading asserts the gap between external appearance and internal identity, calling into question all such external appearances and forcing a reconsideration of the meaning of even highly gendered items like women’s bathing suits, or even the gendered understanding of bodies. Instead, she seems to ask readers to understand individuals as more complex than these reductive, simplistic formulations of gender that rely on sharp distinctions between masculinity and femininity.

Works Cited

2 Comments to “Clothing and Gender Identity”

  1. janineutell 18 October 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    Great work here. I’ve read other discussions of hybridity in Bechdel, mostly having to do with intertextuality and genre-crossing, so I think you’re really extending the discussion here through *gender*-crossing.

    The focus on clothing opens a few doors to further reading, too: Robyn Warhol’s recent article in College Literature briefly talks about embodiment and narrative in Fun Home, and I wonder if there is room to engage even more with embodiment/corporeality in a few areas, specifically two.

    The first is Bechdel’s use of nudity/semi-clothedness: does the explicit removal of clothing do anything for the argument here, development of an erotic identity counter to a dominant heteronormative paradigm, etc.? The second is Bechdel’s own dressing-up and posing in photographs which formed the templates for her illustration, part of her process which she’s discussed in interviews: each illustration began as a photograph, with Bechdel herself taking the parts in costume. I wonder if that element of gender performance has a place in your discussion, too.

    • stephaniecawley 19 October 2011 at 1:28 pm #

      Thanks for the comments, Janine! I had not considered nudity or semi-clothedness but that is an interesting trope throughout that could definitely tie into this discussion. And I have seen the interviews where Bechdel describes her intense dressing-up/posing processes and was amazed and fascinated by that, but haven’t quite found the right way to tie it into my discussion of hybridity yet. Two good areas to think about expanding though, for sure.

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