What is the significance of clothing in Munro's "Tricks"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that in many respects, clothing occupies "the moment" for Robin. Clothing represents a distinct moment in time that Robin strives to recreate. Clothing, in the form of the green dress, represents that instant where separate entities meet, only to be separated again, destined not to meet again. Clothing represents the totality that human beings wish to be, but as Robin finds out, will never be.

The opening of the story reflects the importance of clothing for Robin in her desire to overcome time and circumstance.  When she says, “I’ll die if they don’t have that dress ready," it is a reflection of Robin's desire to recreate that instant in time.  Clothing becomes an extension of everything else in this desire to bring the past into the present:   “You will wear the same dress. Your green dress. And your hair the same.”  The recreation of the past is also fueled by a desire that in the present moment, the past will be even better than it originally was.  Clothing is the key element behind such a varied interpretation of time.  Robin has to wear the same dress.  The dress is symbolic of a promise, of a testament that exists between she and Daniel.  It is representative of a means to bring the past into the present.  Robin's desire to recreate the present is a conditional construction of the past in modern context. The dress, clothing, is the vehicle through which this happens.  Robin believes that if she recreates everything, the moment will duplicate the instant of longing that was created.  Clothing never changes, and thus Robin projects her own desire for nothing to have changed between them onto clothing.  Human consciousness in flux and alteration is cast against the inanimate object of clothing that never changes.

From that night at the play, the focus of the green dress represents the idea that clothing is "something more" than simply an object. When she admires herself in the mirror, it becomes clear that clothing is an extension of how Robin perceives herself:

She had greenish-gray eyes and black eyebrows and a skin that tanned whether she tried or not, and all this was set off well by her tight-waisted, full-skirted dress of avocado-green polished cotton, with the rows of little tucks around the hips. 

The object, in the form of the green dress, sets the stage for a "brief encounter."  It was a moment that presented itself, and one that resonated in Robin's memory for 12 months.  Throughout that time, Robin was convinced that she could recreate it due to the dress.  Clothing is the means through which Robin can step back in time and pull it into the present.  Munro designs clothing as a "ticket" that can reclaim that which is lost and make it better.  

It is for this reason that she constructs Robin in a panic when the dress cannot materialize:   “The dress was not ready. The child was still sick. Robin considered taking the dress home and ironing it herself, but she thought she would be too nervous to make a good job of it. ”  With this, clothing becomes symbolic of how consciousness changes.  The moments in the past which are frozen in time, ones that represent a desire to bring them into the present and make them better, end up slipping through our grasp.  This experience is illuminated in Robin's inability to have the green dress.  It slips through her grasp, just as time and "the moment" eludes her hold.  As a result, Robin tries to substitute, but it doesn't have the same effect:

She went immediately downtown, to the only possible dress shop, and was lucky enough, she thought, to find another green dress, just as good a fit but made along straight lines, and sleeveless. The color was not avocado, but lime, green. The woman in the store said that was the color this year, and that full skirts and pinched waists had gone out.

It is not surprising that the change results her Robin "shivering in the air-conditioned theater because this dress was made of such light material and had no sleeves.”  This change in clothing comes to represent the change that time plays on everyone.  When Robin does try to step back into time, the moment has passed.  Time, as seen in the clothing, is now different:   “She had feared a change. She had feared in fact that she was not remembering him accurately. Or that Montenegro might have altered something—given him a new haircut, a beard. But no—he was the same.”  Robin's failure to materialize the past is representative of trying to use a different dress to bring back "the moment." Like her efforts, it fails.

It is from this point that clothing represents Robin becoming more guarded and more inwardly drawn. From the line that Robin remembers which says that  “You can’t trust anything in trousers,” to her own belief that things will forever be different, Robin's resolve of having her faith broken in her desire to recreate the past is reflected in clothing:  "There were other things she was going to do, or not do. Never go to Stratford, never walk on those streets, never see another play. Never wear the green dresses, neither the lime nor the avocado." Clothing represents something more to Robin.  It represents the instant when the crushing weight of external reality smashed into her own subjectivity. Clothing represents the fundamental gulf between what we wish for and what we are condemned to.

In Part II of the narrative, Robin has moved on.  Her sister has passed and her days are now spent working in the psych word.  Whereas clothing was used to be distinctive for  Daniel, it now separates her from everyone else:

Most women are into their winter uniform of sweatpants and ski jackets.  But not Robin. When she steps off the elevator to visit the third and top floor of the hospital, she is wearing a long black coat, gray wool skirt, and a lilac-gray silk blouse. Her thick, straight, charcoal-gray hair is cut shoulder-length, and she has tiny diamonds in her ears. 

The vitality of shimmering green has become replaced with "lilac gray" and "charcoal gray," softer and darker colors from a world of brightness. This shift is symbolic of the collision between external reality and subjective hope.  When confronted with the truth of what happened, Robin's thoughts go back to the clothing:  “If she has failed in that department, it would be in the matter of the green dress. Because of the woman at the cleaners, the sick child, she wore the wrong green dress. She wished she could tell somebody. Him.”  The "wrong green dress" represents more than just a clothing switch.  It represents freedom's futility for Robin, and the resounding sense of regret that accompanies it.

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