Biography of a Dress

by Jamaica Kincaid

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

A Mother’s Expectations and Sacrifices

Much of Jamaica Kincaid’s story “Biography of a Dress” centers around the narrator’s relationship with her mother, exploring her mother’s expectations for her as well as the sacrifices she makes. Much of the story depicts the preparations that the narrator’s mother makes to celebrate her second birthday. The narrator’s mother purchases cloth and thread, which she uses to sew a dress for the narrator. She has the narrator’s ears pierced. She acquires gold hoop earrings, silver bracelets, and new shoes, all of which she uses to dress the narrator. She bathes and powders the narrator. She physically carries the narrator to a photographer, both conveying a maternal warmth and likely trying to preserve her blemish-free clothing for the photo. All of these efforts require great sacrifices on the part of the mother. Early in the story, the now-adult narrator reflects that she and her mother were poor at this time. She has come to appreciate the great expense of her second birthday—both the attire and the photographic portrait. Yet she understands that it was important to her mother to preserve this moment in time.

At the beginning of the story, the narrator notes that she was not an especially easy child; she had no idea of their economic status and was quite choosy about what she would eat. She notes that she would only eat meat after her mother had chewed it and gently placed it in her mouth. The foods she insists on eating are more expensive and difficult to come by than the cornmeal her mother tries to persuade her to eat. Yet, somehow, her mother provides the food her daughter desires.

The narrator notes a picture on an almanac cover of a girl wearing a dress that resembles the one her mother is making. The girl, however, looks quite different than the narrator. Her skin is the color of cream. Her hair is like flax. Her eyes shine like two blue jewels in a crown. The narrator begins to wonder how her mother views her and whether she silently wishes for a daughter who looks more like the girl in the photo.

At the photography appointment, the narrator's mother looks at her with something akin to exhaustion—exhaustion from the hectic day and from motherhood itself. The narrator wonders if her mother is exhausted because she never really wanted to be a mother at all and is now trying to make the best of a situation somewhat forced upon her.

The narrator's mother nurtures her well, but there is also an underlying current of the sacrifices she makes to give her daughter the best life possible. These sacrifices are wrapped up in expectations for her daughter. The narrator’s mother expresses these expectations through “kind and loving words… in a kind and loving voice.” But the narrator now sees in her mother’s photographed expression evidence of a contrary truth.

The Power of Perspective

The narrator’s parenthetical asides weave a powerful thread through the story. These asides reveal the now-adult narrator’s more mature and expansive perspective on the events of her childhood. However, sometimes we see that, even with experience and wisdom, her knowledge of an event or moment has not changed. For example, she writes,

I do not now know (and could not have known then) if the pain I experienced resembled in any way the pain my mother experienced while giving birth to me or even if my mother, in having my ears bored in that way, at that time, meant to express hostility or aggression toward me...

The narrator’s ears are pierced...

(This entire section contains 1158 words.)

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with hot thorns, and the pain is significant. As she reflects on this pain, she wonders if this pain is equal to the pain of her mother’s labor and whether this act was some subconscious desire to release pent-up aggression toward her daughter. As a child, she cannot comprehend such a truth, and even as a wiser adult, she does not know if these thoughts are valid. Although her understanding of life has changed, the truth will remain unknown.

Yet in many cases her adult perspective does indeed give her a deeper understanding of childhood events:

Mr. Walker, who was not at all interested in my mother’s ups and downs and would never have dreamed of taking in the haphazard mess of her life (but there was nothing so unusual about that, every life, I now know, is a haphazard mess)...

As the photographer passively observes a moment between the narrator and her mother, the narrator notes that her mother’s life was a “haphazard mess.” With the wisdom that can only come from further life experience, the narrator now realizes that no one is spared the messiness of life. Her mother’s struggles are representative of not only the struggle of all mothers but of all people. These types of revelations reflect subtle but significant shifts in perspective and are rationed out to readers through carefully crafted parenthetical comments.

The Quest for Identity

The story begins when the narrator is young, just turning two years old, and has no sense of her own identity. However, her actions and thoughts are beginning to give form to the woman she will become, from her food choices to her examination of the girl on the magazine cover. Her burgeoning self is also shaped by the customs of her society, such as the traditional piercing of her ears on her second birthday. She notes that the photographer has a large house with “many rooms,” which seems so extraordinary to her child’s mind that the house seems utterly “mysterious.” As she reflects on this, she realizes that the house only had four rooms, yet that initial impression of awe and grandeur is significant to her developing sense of identity. In another meaningful moment, the narrator presses her face to her mother’s neck, soaking up the essence of her mother:

I placed my face against her neck and inhaled deeply a scent that I could not identify then (how could I, there was nothing to compare it to) and cannot now, because it is not of animal or place or thing, it was (and is) a scent unique to her, and it left a mark of such depth that it eventually became a part of my other senses, and even now (yes, now) that scent is also taste, touch, sight and sound.

This sense of physical and emotional closeness to her mother forms a foundational part of her consciousness. These identity-forming moments in the narrator’s childhood are set against her present-day investigations into that very identity. As the story progresses, she asks increasingly difficult questions about who she is ("And who was that girl really?") and how people influence each other ("How could someone who loved me inflict so much pain just in passing?").