Cinderella and the Instability of Meaning

There were many more reponses to my recounting of my dream last week than I had expected. And in reading the comments here and on the Facebook, I learned a great deal, for often it isn’t until you know what something is not before you can say what it is. Thank you to all who shared your thoughts. 

It was not a dream about weddings, or dresses. Not really. It was a dream about power and about value and about disillusionment. It was a dream, ultimately, about the instability of meaning.

I have always loved beautiful clothes. For as far back as I can remember I wanted to wear ballgowns. I remember especially one October evening coming home to a blue taffeta dress in the style of Disney’s Cinderella which my mum had made for me. I even got to wear those little plastic glass slippers with the kitten heel. There is a great photo of me in a rocking chair all dressed up drinking soymilk out of a bottle. I felt awesome. I was four years old.

My mother was hard pressed to prevent me from wearing it to kindergarten every day. Even long after I couldn’t have fit into it, I remember asking her if I could wear it to school.

Because in a dress, I was powerful. I was special. I was Someone.

Okay, so even not in a dress, I was someone, yeah. But not the way Tara Lipinski was someone in her figure skating outfit. (“Mom, when we go skating, I want to wear that!” “Okay, but you have to wear your snowpants and your jacket, too.”) Not the way Snow White was the protagonist, not the way Queen Elizabeth I was empowered by her ermine fur lined cape. I made the same mistake everybody makes at some point. I took in the appearances of the women who were offered up as role models, I mistook their outfits for their power.

The fashion industry is built on this. Marie Antoinette wielded power in the 18th century by changing her dresses. Indeed, her Rousseau-inspired shift from the gaudy, bejeweled gowns of the 1780s to the simple, peasant-like lines of the 1790s played a role in sparking the French revolution — every aristocrat who wanted to survive politically at Versailles had to follow her lead, and suddenly a lot of seamstresses, and hairdressers, and jewelers, and fine-metal workers had a lot less business. Anyone who tells you that clothing can’t change the world is either lying or isn’t paying attention.

The story of Cinderella illustrates this perfectly — a sad, lonely, abused young woman puts on a beautiful dress and gains access to a bright world of attention and (apparently) love, she is freed from the clutches of her abusive stepmother, and in fact gains power OVER her stepmother as a newly married woman who has become a princess. As an adult, in other words.

I may have had an especially strong case of believing in the magical dress, but I posit that I am not at all the only one. Disney’s Princess franchise is an easy place to start. The next place is Say Yes to the Dress. If you’ve watched that show, think about how many times the word “princess” and “perfect” get used. The thing is, superficial as it may be, it works. If I walk into a room wearing a ballgown, I know I will be treated differently than if I come in wearing jeans and a t-shirt. It is totally possible to get high off of clothing. And it can be totally magical. And part of this is because the illusion of power that comes with beauty is not held individually. Everybody has a little of it at least.

And so wedding gowns make perfect sense. It’s appropriate in many ways to have a special outfit for such a significant ritual. The experience of preparing it, wearing it, and removing it makes up a part of the ritual which solidifies the transition between unmarried and married. Especially because even in 2014, the adulthood of a woman is still in part wrapped up in marriage. Because we just haven’t lived long enough since marriage actually physically marked the first step out of your parent’s house into your own. A wedding dress in many ways represents freedom–represents power.

So in my dream, I was asleep. I wanted deeply not the actual relationship or even to be married which my friend was close to acquiring, rather I got hooked on the idea of power, of independence, of value, which I felt when I created that dress. And when I pricked my finger I woke up. I began to see the meaninglessness of the dress itself without the relationships and life-events it was meant to accompany. And I know that the relationships and life events (boyfriends, weddings) are not any more guarenteed to give me power, value, or freedom, than a wedding dress will. At the end of the dream I was alone again, aching a little, knowing that I have to find power and value and freedom for myself.

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