Clothing and textiles


Clothing is an important part of a person’s identity and the clothes that people choose to wear usually indicate the role they occupy in life.

At the beginning of the narrative, Celie is humiliated by the fact that her clothing is stained by breast milk and she has nothing else to wear. This situation signifies the impoverishment of her life with Fonso, similar to the lives that slaves endured.

When she marries Albert, Celie still wears unattractive clothes and even when Shug Avery arrives and Albert’s sister Kate takes Celie to buy a new dress to watch Shug perform, Celie chooses a blue dress that represents her dowdy life rather than the red or purple one she would like to order to impress Shug.

Shug Avery wears clothing that is totally appropriate for her career and lifestyle, made of luxurious material and in colours that are symbolic of passion and lust. Paradoxically, her clothes are both attractive to her audience and repellent to respectable citizens of the local church.

Nettie is hampered by her clothing as a missionary. She is expected to wear conventional, restrictive Western dress that is unsuitable for the African climate and causes her considerable discomfort. Having very little clothing, she is given Corinne’s when Corinne dies. Wearing it maintains her outward appearance as a respectable Christian missionary’s wife.

In Letter 56 Nettie describes the clothing of the black inhabitants of Harlem in New York which is imitative of the white fashions of the time.


Trousers are a symbol of women’s emancipation and wearing them would have been both daring and unusual at the time in which the narrative is set. Celie designs and manufactures a unisex style of clothing which combines feminine appeal and materials in a traditional masculine garment. Her ‘Pants Unlimited’ tailoring business not only allows women to assert their independence but also to celebrate their femininity.

When Celie begins to make and wear trousers, she discovers a new creativity and freedom. Both Celie and Shug delight in the different textures, fabrics and colours that can be used and enjoy driving around the countryside wearing matching trouser outfits. Patterning trousers with blue flowers defies the convention that men are the only people allowed to ‘wear the trousers’. The theme of emancipation is developed as Celie’s hobby becomes a thriving business which guarantees her financial independence.



Making quilts has been a traditional female occupation in many countries for many centuries. A quilt is usually made by joining two or more layers of material together with some form of padding between the two layers. A design is then stitched through the layers and sometimes braiding or embroidery is added. They can either be made with large single pieces of material, or smaller shapes of different materials, sewn together to make the larger quilt. Quilts can be used to illustrate folktales, as wall-hangings and even as articles of clothing.

Quilting was a widespread tradition in Africa brought to North America during the period of slavery. (Nettie compares Senegalese costume to quilts.) Diamond and circle patterns symbolised the cycles of life. Members of the Underground Railroad would use quilts to send messages. Some quilts marked escape routes out of a plantation or an area, while others marked the stars that would act as a night-time map through the country to freedom.

The associations of quilting

Quilting is associated with female companionship and solidarity. The process of sewing different pieces of material together in order to make one single quilt physically links quilting with the idea of sisterhood or unity. It is also associated with laughter and relaxation, as when Sofia and Celie are united in sewing quilts at the end of Letter 21.

In Letter 27, quilt making provides a setting for Shug Avery to make her first tentative contact with Celie when she attempts to sew a square or two onto the quilt Celie is making with Sofia. Celie later gives this quilt to Sofia as a way of apologising for her collusion with Harpo’s brutality when Sofia moves back to live with her sister.

Making pieces from scraps of old material evokes the context in which that fabric was originally used, thus quilts can be a testament of a person’s history. Nettie is able to jog Corinne’s memory of Celie by discovering a quilt which contains the fabric Corinne bought the day she met her adoptive children’s birth mother.


As well as being the literal instruments used by women to sew clothing and quilts, needles are also the symbolic means by which women were able to provide warmth and protection for their families. The needle is also important as the means by which Celie achieves economic independence and through that, increased self-esteem and the reassurance of a stable future.

It is possible also to see the needle as a type of non-violent weapon because, as used by Celie and her fellow workers in Folkspants Unlimited, it becomes a means of protest against the dominance of men.

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