I’m filing this, my ninth entry in the 100 Untimed Books challenge under prompt #71 – Zero Tolerance.
The Hundred Dresses, written by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, is a children’s book published in 1944 and has been in continuous print since. Which I suspect says a great deal both about the quality of the story, and also sadly the continual need to address the topic of tolerance and compassion for those who appear different from us.
The story is about how a young girl, Wanda Petronski, is ostracized by her classmates because of her strange non-WASPy name and her apparent poverty. She wears the same clean, yet well-worn dress to school every day and lives in the poorest neighborhood, and her English isn’t the best. One day one of the girls comes to school in a fancy new dress, and when the conversation is all abuzz about clothes, and for the first time it seems Wanda is invited into the conversation, she says she has 100 dresses at home in her closet. Of course no one believes her, and from that moment forward, every day on the way to and from school the other girls find a way to taunt her. Then one day Wanda simply doesn’t come to school. She’s really not missed as no one pays attention to her. But a couple of days later, the day of the annual drawing contest where all the girls are invited to submit drawings of dresses, they come to school to find the entire room filled with 100 drawings of beautiful dresses drawn by Wanda. And although Wanda has won the contest, she’s not there to accept the award. Instead the teacher reads a letter from Wanda’s father saying they’ve moved to a larger city where her name won’t seem so funny and she might find acceptance.
The remainder of the story is about how two of the girls examine their part in the situation, and what they choose to do about it.
It’s a sad and beautiful book, and a powerful reminder of how far we still need to move as a collective to embrace and celebrate diversity while understanding we in fact are all the same. Clearly a lesson for our times as much as it was 73 years ago when the book was published.
In keeping with my floriography rating system, which simultaneously offers a hint at the plot, I’m giving this a nosegay of Stinging Nettle (you are cruel), Thorn Evergreen (solace in adversity), Creeping Cerebus (modest genius), and Raspberry (remorse).
Of course all the talk of dresses reminded me of an on-going art journal I’ve kept for ages, which I’ve entitled My Secret Closet: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Periodically I’m obsessed with clothes as both costumes and as adornments bringing greater clarity to one’s true essence. The paradox of that dichotomy fascinates me. I’m also interested in how crazily persuasive corporate interests are in shaping fashion trends.
Keeping this journal amuses me on all sorts of levels, and since I delight in naming things and word play, it was no accident I subtitled it Journal of Women in Culture and Society. There is an actual academic journal with that title, which has been in continual print since 1975, and one of the sources of feminist scholarship that greatly influenced me.
I can’t help but agree with Thomas More who wrote:
“[how can anyone] be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woolen thread than theirs. After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep.”
I’m no fashionista, and I tend to lean towards Gilda Radner’s philosophy of “I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn’t itch.” But I do firmly believe we should all adorn ourselves in whatever way delights us most. What do you think?