In Nella Larsen’s 1928-set novel Quicksand, the main character, biracial Helga Crane, has a unique sense of fashion and style that is often considered protest by readers and analyzers of the novel. Many of these readers state that Helga’s fashion is used as only a form of protest against her current society’s racism and unfairness. However, I counter that Helga’s clothing is both a form of effective protest that takes the attention of the novel’s fictional faculty at Helga’s first job (at a school) and gives the clear message of protest, AND an ironic source of further oppression through loneliness, scorn, and being ignored for taking her stand. Both factors affect her life and community, along with the novel itself, to a significant degree. This signals that Nella Larsen feels art, especially art in the form of fashion, has a high social value (because of its capability to convey emotion, thoughts, feelings, and protest) in most societies, including Helga’s society in Quicksand.
At Helga’s first job in a Southern reform school for blacks, Naxos, the dress code is stifling and staunches creativity by enforcing a drab, black reformative fashion consisting of navy blues, browns, black, and grays. More exotic fashion and style only exist in Helga’s bedroom and in her clothing, as the code is so strictly enforced and has become the only allowable norm. Colorful clothing is considered despicable, and as one teacher says, “Bright colors are vulgar -- Black, gray, and brown are the most becoming colors for colored people. Dark-complected people shouldn’t wear yellow, green, or red” (Larsen, 16). Helga is extremely opposed to this controlling method, as she not only promotes creativity and loves elaborate clothing, but is opposed to the reformative methods pushed on Naxos students and poorer staff members and its military-like control. In protest, she dresses far outside the expected limits and gets her message across effectively. Teachers begin to notice her and...
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