Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The story uses first-person-limited narration from the perspective of a forty-three-year-old woman who tells the story of the yellow dress she wore on her second birthday. The focus of the story is the dress, and the characters of the narrator and her mother are expanded in parenthetical asides that tell the reader what the narrator knew at the time and what she has learned since the events of the story took place.
The story opens with the narrator’s observations on the color of the dress: “the same shade as boiled cornmeal.” She makes observations about the food she ate at the time, specifying the kinds of food she liked and disliked as a child.
The narrator then details her recollection of the day her mother went to buy the fabric and thread to make the dress. The woman who helped her mother at the fabric store Harneys was named Miss Verna. The narrator recalls biting Miss Verna on the cheek the day her mother bought the fabric. She recalls that much later, as a twelve-year-old, she threw rocks at Miss Verna in the street. The narrator’s mother chooses yellow cloth. They then go to another store, Murdoch’s, to buy two different kinds of yellow thread. As they walk along the street the narrator recalls her mother singing to her in French patois, which she could not understand. Her mother also stopped to converse with passersby in both French and English.
That evening, after the narrator and her mother and father have eaten dinner, the narrator’s mother cuts the fabric into pieces to make the dress. Over the next few days, the narrator’s mother finishes her cleaning and then sits “on the sill of the doorway,” sewing the pieces together to make the dress. The narrator reveals that her mother based the dress on a dress worn by a little white girl in a magazine advertisement for soap—a girl who was nothing like the narrator. The narrator wonders about the life of that little girl in the soap ad, as well as her mother’s motivations for basing the dress so closely on that ad.
The narrator then recalls how her ears were pierced in anticipation of her second birthday. She is taken by her mother to a Dominican woman’s house, where “two thorns that had been heated in the fireplace” were used to pierce her earlobes. The narrator recalls the pain, and she wonders at her mother’s motivations. The narrator recalls the impact of the pain being that she “became two people… one having the experience, the other observing the one having the experience.” The narrator recalls that her earlobes were swollen and covered in a yellow crust for days after the piercing.
The final scene of the story is the day of the narrator’s second birthday. The narrator describes in detail how her mother put gold hoops through her freshly-healed ear piercings and a pair of silver bracelets on each of the narrator’s wrist. She was “bathed and powdered” and also had new shoes for the occasion. The narrator observes that when her mother put the new yellow dress on her for the first time it “had about it the feeling of being draped in a shroud.” It was a very hot day, and the narrator’s mother carried her to the house of Mr. Walker, a photographer. The photographer asks the narrator’s mother to hold her up on a table for the photograph, and as she is...
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doing so she accidentally digs her thumb “deep into [her] shoulder” and hurts the narrator. The narrator recalls looking up at her mother’s face and not being able to figure out why she had hurt her. As an adult reflecting on the situation, the narrator observes that her mother’s motivations for making the dress and having the photo taken are probably independent of her feelings for her daughter. During the photo session, the narrator sees the photographer go to a mirror and squeeze a boil on his cheek, releasing a “long ribbon of thick, yellow pus” that reminded the narrator of the decorations on her birthday cake.
As the story comes to an end, the narrator reflects on the fact that she never wore the dress again. It was stored carefully, but by the time another occasion came around that called for a nice dress, she had grown too big to fit into it.