Follow the development of clothes as symbols in The Color Purple and explain how clothes become symbols of protection.
What is fascinating about clothes in this novel is the way that they are used to indicate the rejection of gender norms by Celie and her embracing of liberation and a more equitable society. Consider how the clothing Celie chooses to wear is a very potent symbol of this: before she makes her break and lives life without men, Celie had always worn dresses. It is only after she breaks free from Mr.__ that she likewise breaks free from her identity as an oppressed female. The change in her identity is cemented through the change in her clothes as she starts to wear pants, which was considered to be an item of clothing reserved for men only. Celie not only wears pants but then also starts a successful business herself making pants for not just men, but for women too, showing the way that she refuses to be cowed by sexual stereotypes of her society. Clothing therefore becomes a symbol of sexual and gender liberation as they identify the way that Celie escapes from her gender restricted role that society has given her and strives for her own freedom and independence, both economically and in terms of her identity.
The way in which clothing changes in terms of its meaning is likewise paralleled by the way that the understanding of God changes to Celie and the other female characters. Celie has to disassociate God from her image of white men, which is automatically associated with oppression, and this is similar for the other characters, as this quote indicates:
God is different to us now, after all these years in Africa. More spirit than never before, and more internal. Most people think he has to look like something or someone—a roofleaf or Christ—but we don’t. And not being tied to what God looks like, frees us.
Nettie and Samuel have had to change their image of God in the same way that Celie has, and also in the same way that the meaning that is attached to clothes changes in the course of the novel. Both God and clothes begin being associated by male oppression and end up becoming symbols of freedom and unrestricted identity.