Writer’s Craft #22 – Not the dress!

Reading Jaleta Clegg’s novel, Nexus Point, I encountered a scene that struck a resonance with one of my own about a female protagonist rejecting a dress.

Here is Clegg’s heroine, Dace, threatened with a pink dress:

      “Keep thinking pink, Dace. Tell me enough of the truth and I’ll find something much more suitable for you.”
“Do they teach this kind of torture to all undercover operatives?” Anything to stall him, anything to avoid answering. I wanted Will to like me. He’d called me pretty.
“The pink dress torture is reserved for very senior agents.” Will kept a straight face. “What are you hiding?”

And my take on the rejection of ladylike attire from the draft version of Gathering Storm: Part 8 of the Okal Rel Saga

     “I am not wearing this!” Sanal declared, and proceeded to wriggle out of the rest of the fantastical pink construction that rippled down her lean body in tiers of soft loops, like rich icing, creating — Horth thought — a rather pleasing esthetic effect even if it did look odd on his space-hardened sister.
Rohan and Solar reacted with something like horror while the servants in the room either stared or panicked at the revelation that Sanal wasn’t stopping at the dress, but shedding her new, Demish underwear, too. One man pulled his apron over his head, poking his cheek with the needle stuck into it for safe-keeping.

Tough girls rejecting dresses. Why do we write such scenes in SF? Have you? Got an explanation? Or an example to share?


28 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #22 – Not the dress!

  1. Mine don’t shy from dressing up. Some of them keep in mind whether or not it’s too floofy to fight in…grin, but they don’t shy from a dress. Honestly, my heroines tend to dress to fit the occasion.


  2. Explanation – easy. No one can DO anything in fluffy feminine attire. Hard to be a hero in 6″ heels, never mind what they show in movies.

  3. Ellen Kushner inverts this in Privilege of the Sword when the protagonist recoils from wearing trousers for the first time. And then of course there are Pratchett’s female dwarves who cause a ruckus in the dwarf community when they begin to go against tradition and embrace dresses and makeup. 🙂

    Actually, the reactions of Kushner’s protag and Pratchett’s female dwarves come from pretty much the same place as the fancy-dress recoil of many fictional warrior women: rebellion against lack of choice and/or standards imposed from without.

  4. Though we’ve come a long way from burning bras, we still have a strong, societal mindset that heroism and femininity are polar opposites. Create a culture in which “fancy dress” does not involve putting women in costumes that hinder the ability to fight, thereby dooming them to “damsel in distress” roles, and you’ll find as many heroines disdaining whatever they define to be “fancy dress” as you will find heroes who shun suits and ties….

  5. Thanks for spotlighting my book. I used clothing for a reason with Dace – she came from a very repressive world where women were second class. Dresses and feminine attire make her feel too vulnerable and bring back too many memories of her childhood. Now she’s stuck on another world where women are property, mostly. Dresses are a symbol of helplessness and inferiority.

    Dace is also very insecure with her own feminine side. She chops her hair short and dresses in concealing clothing because she doesn’t know how to be a woman. Every woman she’s known has been devious, controlling, and power hungry or repressed, battered, and inferior. So much of our society is based on clothing and attire. When writing, keep that in mind. It can really add depth to a character and a story. Social status really is measured by what we wear.

  6. Kathryn Hinds sums up the issue well, I thought: lack of choice leads to rebellion. And as Jaleta points out, that’s doubly so when the “dress up” option is associated with inferiority or helplessness. In my bit, I used it to expose (pardon the pun) diverging Demish/Vrellish cultural norms about not only dressing up but nudity. I suspect many of you, like me, play with variations on this classic issue to make a point or to develop your characters. At first, when I noticed the phenomenon I thought — it’s been done! Why do so many of us keep doing it? Then I thought, nah, there’s something necessary and useful about including familiar business in unfamiliar settings. It’s not just what you do that’s new. It’s how you re-vitalize the old favorites, which is what we’re doing even if we reject the standard portrayal. Readers might be disappointed if we didn’t address the expected issue. Whether it’s rejection of a pretty dress, or the “oooh” moment when scruffy heroine finally does dress up and gets a “wow” look from the erstwhile oblivious hero. Spotted one of those in the new Harry Potter movie, with Hermione Granger at the wedding.

  7. Jaleta: “Dace is also very insecure with her own feminine side. She chops her hair short and dresses in concealing clothing because she doesn’t know how to be a woman” None of my characters did that, yet. But she has described me in my teens. :^)

    So I did the reverse: in the Jules-Verna Saga (YA SF) my brittle-boned and shy Martian anti-heroine is rather pleased to dress in a ravishing living gown, and she is still more pleased when said gown protects her from harm… (The girl had been raised by two mothers in light gravity)

  8. I think there is a bit of comic moment and a little bit of rejection of the feminine as being a weakness that is involved in these scenes. Most tough girls that I know are of the “clean up really good” persuasion. they prefer practical gear, but they don’t shun their feminine side when they need to rely on it. Most of them dread the comments from others who tease them for showing their feminine side.

  9. My comment on the common SF and Fantasy trope of a female character who rejects wearing a dress is that it WORKS. And it works because that’s how some female people think and behave, so of course it works for characters in fiction as well!
    The reasons behind that rejection are many. As the rare wearer of a dress, I have to admit that my rejection isn’t only rejection of cultural gender roles, but the awareness that in the wrong dress, one looks rather like a sheep dressed up.
    It felt very true in one fantasy series when a great big strong (and beautiful) Amazon of a character agreed to wear her first gown, a simple sheath that was a gift made for her by a friend’s family… and her friend was pleased at the caring the garment showed, by her family and by the Amazon.

  10. The heroine in my books was told how to dress by her master for fifty years. She cleans up well, but avoids it if she can. Perhaps it’s because the men around her are annoyingly stylish,or maybe it’s the author’s preference for sweatpants getting in the way. Are a lot of us tomboys at heart?

  11. If placed early in our relationship with a character, a dress-rejection scene provides an easy way–I might even say a shortcut–to establish her as a “tough girl” without having to say “so-and-so is a tough girl. We can simply show the scene in which so-and-so reveals herself to be so hardcore she won’t wear a dress even if circumstances clearly call for it.

    Clothes are an important part of character development, and what characters won’t wear can tell us as much about them as what they will.

    1. True. Oddly, a couple of my men in the Okal Rel Saga are more stylish than most of my female characters. At least in the first five books. Amel likes nice clothes and while Horth can rough it, he is an aristo when it comes to black silk shirts embroidered in red dragons. The real-honest-to-goodness Demish women start to feature with the introduction of Princess Samanda O’Pearl in book 6.

  12. “Warrior in a dress” is comedy gold regardless of gender, and has been for a very long time. As I recall, one of the Norse myths involves an occasion when Loki and Thor had to attend a wedding in drag–Thor was actually impersonating the bride.

    Just as an observation, this approach to martial skill and gender identity is not universal. One of the recurrent figures of the Legendary Swordsman in Japan is a willowy male with long, loose hair. I’ve seen the same plot device in which this archetypical figure is mistaken for (or deliberately living as) a beautiful woman countless times; his lethality never seems to be hampered by his beautiful hair and clothes, and his gender ambiguity seems to come across as eerily erotic rather than humorous. *shrug* It’s a big ol’ world.

    1. And then you have the ancient Romans, who made fun of the Celts and Germans for their “unmanly” attire–said attire being trousers. Real men wore tunics and togas, you know.

      I love that Thor story, BTW. He was impersonating the goddess Freyja–no easy task for him! Loki, on the other hand, was perfectly at home with gender bending. 🙂

  13. Why are only women commenting on this post? I want to hear from some of the men out there…

    I second Eli’s comments that what a character won’t wear tells us just as much as what she (or he) will…and when stated early on, a character’s choice of attire shortcuts the character building.

    (Stepping out on a limb here, I’ll add that I think the modern female reader probably relates better to the “tough girl” than the “ultra feminine” – so establishing that from the beginning possibly forges more reader sympathy for the character from the start.)

    I do like to see this refusal taken a step further than just establishing the “tough girl” persona – or even establishing the fact that you just can’t fight in high heels – because that’s a given, right?

    I want there to be more to the female character than the stereotype…even if it’s only a bit more.

    The warrior heroine in my WIP wants to wear dresses – because it represents the life she’s been torn away from. But when she’s finally able to dress like a woman again, she refuses, because doing aligns her with a group of women she has no respect for.

    (Just wait until she finds out she’s one of those women!) 🙂

    1. … and there were very few women contributing to the previous post, about realism in fight scenes. Yet another example of why I no longer hold with the “blank slate” theory about girls and boys. There are differences. We just need to remember they are a) statistical which means outliers exist and b) not always accurately portrayed.

  14. It’s a scene that can work as shorthand, but I think there’s a risk it can come off as rote – instead of the character actually doing tough badass actions that move the story, she wears a leather jacket and beat-up jeans. But when it comes to the crunch, she has to be rescued by a hawt guy (yes, I am thinking of some recent YA paranormals). So I guess my take would be that sure, it can reveal character – but only if the character’s other actions support it.

    Because I’d read one of limyaael’s fantasy rants on the topic, I decided to subvert this trope, and when my young heroine has to wear her brother’s breeches because of the cold, she finds them uncomfortable and confining compared to the freedom of skirts.

  15. To be fair, this is one short scene from a book with little context to set the stage. I don’t know where the scene from Lynda’s book comes, but the pink dress scene happens half way through my book. I agree that the reject-the-dress heroine can be very cliché, but it’s all in how you handle it. If the book sets up the character right and the context fits, it can be very effective. Dace is not really a tough girl bad a$$. She’s in the middle of the woods with a bunch of rough men on a world stuck in a medieval level of tech and society. Pink fluffy dresses are the last thing any sane woman would want to wear in that situation. Go read the book and see if I made a cliché or not. It’s really the only way to tell.

  16. I have a woman character in a world where women are about where they were in 1880s America — no real rights, couldn’t own property, expected to wear dresses, not allowed to hold paying jobs, etc. But her brother left home to become a mercenary, and her father, being a superb trainer of horses, wanted to pass on his art, so he secretly taught her so that she become one of the premiere horsemen in the tallgrass (there was no such thing as a horsewoman) — in secret. When with horses, she wore her brother’s cast-off britches under her skirts and worked out in the tallgrass where no one could see.

    Then she went on a quest, for which she wore britches as a practical matter — and so did the friend who went with her. By the end of the quest, they’d gotten so used to wearing them they forgot they were forbidden back home! They chose to continue wearing them, despite all the spite from both women and men. The britches were both comfortable and practical. They had nothing against dresses, these just worked better.

    And yes, the protag was a secret kick-ass heroine, as taught by her brother when he visited at home.

    1. Horsemanship as the skill instead of fencing or other methods of fighting — interesting take.

  17. I have a suspicion that the “not the dress” scene gets its underlying charge from the fact that, in our culture, pretty much no matter what a woman puts on can be (and frequently is) interpreted as placing her somewhere along the “virgin – slut”, “madonna – whore”, “hot – frigid” axes. When another individual or a society offers or tries to impose a change of attire on a woman, they’re not merely trying to overwrite her public presentation, but her sexual presentation* as well. So depending on context, and participants, the scene can be played variously as empowerment, flirtation, coercion, repression, or abuse.

    I got hooked on James Schmitz by one line in “A Tale of Two Clocks”. Trigger Argee is aboard a luxury liner, escorted by Heslet Quillan, who is acting as her bodyguard. Trigger is a confident young woman, and is slightly put out that her best dress looks very country cousin in this environment. Quillan has a top of the line fashion item sent to her cabin, and in a gently comic scene, Trigger has to figure out how to wear it, because there doesn’t seem to be quite enough dress to go round. The line that caught me (I may be slightly misquoting) was Trigger’s reaction to her reflection: “The Beldon did go with a woman the way stripes went with a tiger!” And I thought – Schmitz gets it! (Another aspect of the scene that is right here is that Trigger is left to figure out the dress by herself. No under the male gaze thing here.)

    At the other end of the continuum, early in “Throne Price” there’s a subtly disturbing scene in which Amel comes back from off-planet to find Ev’rel has cleared his wardrobe of all his casual and conservative wear. She has a gift for him in the form of a lovely new outfit, but it is one suitable for a courtesan—part of her ongoing campaign to undermine his attempts to escape his role as The Courtesan Prince, controlling his sexual presentation.

    From a writerly point of view, playing off a situation that is so charged with sex and power in the real world can be a bit risky: it has to work with the fictional world and relationships being depicted, or it comes of as jarring, something of a cheap trick.

    *I’m not equipped to decipher the cultural baggage of men’s attire, since I don’t live with that baggage in the same way. I’d venture to suggest that the presentation has less to do with presentation of sexual availability than presentation of masculinity. Maybe the equivalent for men is the “get your hair cut” scene, which seemed to play out in any number of books and movies I remember reading/viewing—Guys . . . ?

  18. Thanks for reminding me of the wardrobe scene in Throne Price, Alison. Poor Amel, always winding up in the female role in the sexual intimidation game, poor guy. Amel-lovers will be glad to know he gets serious protection as the series progresses although he struggles for a few books with the transition to Genuine Demish Prince. And for the intro to James Schmitz. Found him on Wikipedia. Best known as a writer of space opera! Cool.

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