Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Clothes Make the Man (and Woman): The Performative Enactment of Identity in Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Clothes Make the Man (and Woman): The Performative Enactment of Identity in Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads

Article excerpt

Many regard dress as an integral part of identity development and a means of communicating identity; in fact, fashion theorists define dress as "a means whereby individuals express themselves and construct identities" (Wilson and de la Haye 1). In her classic study of people's clothing and its complex meanings, Alison Lurie explains, "To choose clothes, either in a store or at home, is to define and describe ourselves" (5). Joanne Entwistle agrees and notes that clothing is like a language: "Clothes and other bodily adornments are part of the vocabulary with which humans invent themselves" (182). If, in fact, dress is a means of constructing and conveying identity, it is logical to conclude that the novelist who chooses to include as a part of character invention precise details of her characters' garments is expecting the reader to recognize their importance. All of Tawni O'Dell's novels contain vivid descriptions of the characters' clothing, and Back Roads (2000), her debut novel and a selection of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, is no exception. In O'Dell's working class, rustbelt setting, women wear "Wal-Mart workday separates from the Kathie Lee Collection and all the men [wear] suits from JC Penney's" (148), and poor fashion choices are criticized as being "[t]oo hillbilly" (164) or "so Appalachia" (190). Indeed, if the performative enactment of an identity happens, at least partly, through clothing, then the Back Roads characters' attire has great significance as the characters attempt to reconcile with their wavering identities, and throughout the work, clothing is used to validate, entice, contradict, and mislead.

Back Roads explores the lives of Harley Altmeyer and his three sisters. The passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood is a difficult one, even in the best of circumstances, but nineteen-year-old Harley finds himself in an unimaginable situation: his mother is in prison for killing his abusive father, and he must care for his otherwise orphaned sisters. The result of this tragedy is that the older children, Harley and sixteen-year-old Amber, are forced to become the heads of their working class, financially strapped household. Perhaps because of the uncertainty he feels regarding his ability to perform his new duties, Harley begins to dress for the part, if you will, by wearing his dead father's camouflage hunting jacket. Naturally, an obvious function of a coat is to protect one from the elements, but Harley wears the coat daily, even in warm weather, and he refuses to remove it when asked; in fact, he remarks that not wearing it "felt like giving up [his] skin" (61). Thus, the coat not only protects Harley, but it makes him feel protected, so much so that when his lover removes it, his "instinct was to grab a handful of her hair and smash her head into a wall" (210). Lurie notes that "[t]o put on someone else's clothes is symbolically to take on their personality" (24). Harley resists being like his violent father, though, and it is with much difficulty that he concedes that his father was responsible, that he "did everything he was supposed to do" (80), but Harley is like his father in that he has become the bearer of what were once his father's responsibilities, and repeatedly choosing to wear his father's coat serves as a continual reminder of these burdens and reinforces his new identity as the family patriarch. Harely's outerwear, then, serves much more than its intended function in that it is a symbol of what he has lost and the responsibility that he has, in turn, acquired.

Harley also regularly sports a cap that reads Redi-Mix Concrete, which is where his father worked (11). Even more so than the coat, Harley's hat does not serve any practical purpose in that it is not worn for warmth or as a sunshield; instead, it, too, is a symbol. In his discussion of how a person's clothing choices reflect his or her class standing, Paul Fussell explains that "[b]y donning legible clothing you fuse your private identity with external commercial success, redeeming your insignificance and becoming, for the moment, somebody" (57). …

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