In The Virgin Suicides, clothes embody the claustrophobia felt by their wearers, the five Lisbon girls cooped up indoors.
Words by Julia Merican
Although better known for Sofia Coppola’s dreamy film rendition, wreathed in a sort of Petra-Collins haze, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides was, and still is, a very good book. A tender, stylistic exercise in the male gaze, the novel denotes the brief, lonely lives of the Lisbon sisters through the lens of the neighbourhood boys. Rereading it this quarantine, I’ve been thinking how poignantly apt it seems at this strange moment in time.
Therese (the sciencey one), Mary (the aspiring beauty queen), Bonnie (the celibate), Lux (her antithesis), and Cecilia (the ‘weirdo’) have little else to set them apart from each other, from the sparse interactions the boys have with them. Locked up as virtual prisoners in their home after thirteen-year-old Cecilia’s suicide, their neighbours become morbidly obsessed with the bitter romance of four girls, ripe and dusky with the daisy freshness of youth (just think of Kirsten Dunst’s sleepy, mischievous wink) wilting inside an increasingly dilapidated house. The basis of the novel are the boys’ collective memories of them — mostly glimpses packed with the seismic intensity that nostalgia lends to things —, replete with descriptions of their clothing.
Perhaps the most iconic, and iconoclastic, outfit is Cecilia’s ‘antique wedding dress with the shorn hem’. It becomes the defining garment of her eccentricity: she wears it while carving her initials in the dead bodies of fish flies on car windows; when she lies prone and ethereal on the stretcher after her first suicide attempt; even at the hospital, where she refuses to put on the hospital gown. The dress upholds her sunflower-eyed mythology, a raiment that aligns well with the incantatory nature of Eugenides’ prose. There’s a tragic subversion in this emblem of marriage, too, of a suburban fantasy she would never fulfil; a sobering prophecy in the ‘sequins on the bust that she didn’t quite fill out’, and never would.
Cecilia, the most unconventional sister, is the Lisbon girl we are least acquainted with. Her clothes come to signify all the glimpses into her short stint on Earth. They become symbols of her ephemeral idiosyncrasies — the boys remember peeking at her underwear, ‘dyed black with Rit’, when she stood up on her bicycle; of seeing her ‘immaculate high-tops’, metaphors for a childlike fastidiousness and tenacity.
Even fashion accessories acquire lofty significance, with bracelets Scotch-taped to wrists speaking of hidden suicide-attempt scars, of suffocating vigilance and a sense of entrapment: the rattling of her bracelets allowed her parents ‘to keep track of her movements, like an animal with a bell on its collar’. Mary’s portable mirror is a homage to what the boys perceive as a vain urge to primp and wax, but it also serves as a melancholy reminder of her entrapment at home. A switch in the mirror ‘allowed Mary to simulate various times and weathers’, and they describe her sitting before it, ‘watching her face swim through the alterations of counterfeit worlds’ she would never visit.
The mysterious accoutrements of girlhood obtain a redolent beauty in Eugenides’ novel, where hairpins, fuzzy combs, and blood-spotted tampons become imbued with nostalgia and adolescent longing, ‘like a modern painting or something’. The book is as much a eulogy for childhood as it is for suburbia, and for the girls.
Their personalities, cloistered and unknowable, are reduced to what they wear. Clothes attain a dramatic poignancy: pretty details like ‘bell-bottomed jeans with a heart embroidered on the seat’ or bracelets with ‘wooden cherries’ to spruce up an outfit become Mary’s telltale insignias, just as ‘protective goggles’ and ‘a white dress that looked like a lab-coat’ are attributed consistently to Therese. Bonnie’s wardrobe is loose-fitting, her clothes tinged with biblical austerity, like her ‘feathery smock’, her ‘tent-like’ school uniform, and the rosary she fingers ‘deep in the pocket of her corduroy skirt’. When they discover her limp body, the boys identify her first by the ‘brown-and-white husks’ of her unmistakable saddle shoes.
Lux’s garb is similarly reflective of her personality. Her attire is alluringly slapdash, always with some mark of nymphet-esque untidiness: ‘an untucked shirttail, a sock with a hole, a ripped seam showing underarm hair’. A particular halter top she wears when the boys last see her is already indelibly imprinted on their minds: “July, two years ago,” Joe Hill Conley says, recalling the last time they’d seen her wear it, ‘on a very hot day’, minutes before her mother sent her back inside to change. ‘Now the halter spoke of all the time in between, of everything that had happened,’ the boys narrate: Cecilia’s suicide, their removal from school, and incarceration at home. ‘Most of all, it said that the girls were leaving, that from now on they’d wear whatever they liked.’
It seems only fitting, then, that Lux wears the halter top on the night of her suicide, the ‘revealing thin straps’ hoisting one last middle finger to the smothering authority that dictated her lost teenage years.
Eugenides ascribes an almost occult sensibility to the sisters’ apparel in The Virgin Suicides. There are cloying, claustrophobic effects in all facets of their attire, from Cecilia’s bell-like bracelets to Bonnie’s fashion iterations of a nun’s habit; oracular signs in Mary’s preference for ‘suits that made her resemble the First Lady’ and her suicide regalia, ‘which reminded some people of Jackie Kennedy’s widow’s weeds’.
It’s no surprise, then, that the novel ends with an Asphyxiation-themed debutante party, an effort to contend with a spill that covered the neighbourhood lake with algae scum ‘like shag carpeting’: ‘guests arrived in tuxedos and gas masks, evening gowns and astronaut helmets’. This bleak, lyrical novel ends, much like its protagonists do, decked out to the nines in the apparel of soft brutality and dolled-up despair, its outfit a personification of its own oppressive themes.