Fashion & Fiction in the South:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
“What if Eatonville could see her now in her blue denim overalls and heavy shoes?”
I didn’t set out to buy a pair of overalls because of Zora Neale Hurston or her denim-wearing heroine Janie Crawford. I didn’t buy them for any sort of practical reason either, unless you count the fact that they cost next to nothing on eBay. That’s practical enough, I guess. What I should say is that I didn’t buy them for any utilitarian purpose. Not for gardening or extreme housework or any other reason that would justify the purchase of a pair of faded OshKosh B’goshes from the 1970s.
I bought them for the sake of fashion a few years back when overalls were turning up on street-style websites and on “It” girls who were resurrecting the grungiest trends of the ’90s and actually succeeding in pulling them off. Knowing better—or maybe just not being very adventurous—I went for a modified overall jumper dress rather than the real deal. That way I could still be “on trend” (a phrase invented by the women’s magazines, and basically just a gentler way of saying fashion victim) without having to deal with the inevitable farmer jokes. Because I know they would have come sooner or later.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford has to deal with taunts about her overalls when she wears them on her return home to Eatonville. Not that she really cares. I suppose that after surviving three marriages, a hurricane, and an attack from a rabid dog (and husband), clothes are the very last thing on her mind. Janie has been through it all: boom times and poor times, good marriages and bad marriages. She’s gone from living in the finest house in Eatonville to sleeping in a shack down on the muck. So when Janie saunters into town in her “faded shirt and muddy overalls,” the residents of Eatonville can’t help but question and gloat. “‘What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls?’ they ask. ‘Can’t she find no dress to put on? – Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?’”
That blue satin dress is long gone, probably sitting in a pile of hurricane debris somewhere on the muck or maybe floating around in an Everglades swamp. Janie doesn’t care. Actually I think that she might be relieved because after years of dressing for her husbands, she can finally dress for herself. Gone are the aprons she was constantly wearing as the hard-working Mrs. Logan Killicks. Gone are the silk dresses she wore as Mrs. Mayor Starks, and gone too are the head-rags that Joe Starks demanded she hide her beautiful hair in. Even Tea Cake, the love of her life, has her wear a uniform of some sort. He tells her to wear blue because he likes to see her in it. Blue satin and “high heel slippers and a ten dollar hat” for a woman approaching forty. The people of Eatonville laugh at her for that too.
But no one tells Janie to wear overalls; she chooses them for herself. Dissatisfied with sitting around the house while Tea Cake picks beans all day, and uncomfortable in her dresses that trick neighbors into thinking that she’s too pampered to work, Janie throws on a pair of overalls one day and hits the fields. And this, Hurston says, is where Janie finds her happiness. Working in the fields in her overalls, she finally comes into herself, finally blossoms in full. At the novel’s end, post-hurricane and post-Tea Cake, Janie may look shaken and somewhat worse for wear, but her hair is hanging down her back, and she is free.
Sadly my own overalls—or overall dress—didn’t give me any kind of transformative experience. I wore them a few times and even wore them with heavy shoes, though they were probably not the kind Hurston had in mind when she described Janie’s bean-picking outfit. No one laughed at me—at least to my face—but no one really said much of anything at all. After a while I began to see the ridiculousness of overalls on a woman approaching thirty, and I folded them and put them away in my closet.