How relevant is “The Hundred Dresses” today?

Relevance of "The Hundred Dresses"

Although written three-quarters of a century ago, the relevance of “The Hundred Dresses” has not subsided. Its relevance, in fact, has rather come to the fore in our Indian society. You know, the story is about bullying of a student from the poorest stratus of society by her classmates. Quite similarly, many poor kids are taking admission in public schools in our country in the wake of Right to Education Act, 2009. Similar reports of bullying, segregation and non-assimilation appear in newspapers all too often.

Moreover, the girl belongs to a migrant and minority community with ethnic-cultural differences. The story, however, is neither sociological nor cultural. It on the other hand deals with child psychology where the protagonist is a multi-layered character as we all are. And, the author believes in the essential goodness of a child’s heart. We all do.


Theme of “The Dresses”

Universal human reluctance towards taking stand against injustice to others is the theme here, and the consequential guilt consciousness, too. Yes, large majority of people are just passive onlookers and apathetic witnesses to injury and injustice to somebody else. Why? They are too scared to act, to differ, and to protest. At the top of all reasons lies our petty selfishness. So, how do they react? They prefer to look away. Unfortunately, an absence of protest and an uncanny silence are the general human norm. So, what’s the solution? As a solution, the education system needs to develop in the young minds a sense of courage and empathy, and a culture to question and not just acquiesce.

In the present story, through Maddie’s character, the author acknowledges the difficulty inherent in making oneself conspicuous by acting to stop an injustice however seemingly innocuous. Actually, there is the risk of one’s own self becoming the object of ridicule by standing up for another person. Like Peggy, we seek excuses as to why a victimized person deserves that ill-treatment and is hence unworthy of rescue. We all realize however, these are just excuses and not valid reasons.


Relevance of the Message

The fact is that there can be no reasons for complacency when others are being harmed. Excuses do not absolve one of complicity in the misery of another person or group. Agreed, it can be difficult or painful to stand up for the outcast or the minority; still it is necessary to take sides of justice. Don’t take any sides; just stay with truth and justice.

In fact, we human beings have obligations to one another. Protesting the wrong-doings of fellow beings is one such obligation. Sidestepping such obligations is unethical and immoral. Inaction in the face of wrong-doing is as wrong as perpetration of injustice itself. It is rather worse as Maddie realizes. Still, inaction is all too pervasive. Why? One reason is that we don’t want to lose being in the good books of the power that be. For example, Maddie was afraid of losing the friendship of Peggie. Well, Peggie possessed charming power of her own.

As such, it is the duty of literary writers to remind us all too often of these obligations. Therein lies the relevance of “The Hundred Dresses”. So, Khala of Premchand’s “Panch-Parmeshwar” reminded Algu in very simple words:

बेटा, क्या बिगाड़ के डर से ईमान की बात न कहोगे?

Similarly, here, at the end of “hardest ever thinking” by her, Maddie resolves to not be a “silent bystander”. She would take a just stand even at the risk of losing Peggy’s friendship.

She was never going to stand by and say nothing again.


Universal Appeal of “The Hundred Dresses”

In essence, this is the story of every school and every class. Often a weaker student is a victim of teasing or bullying in schools. This bullying takes the form of ragging in institutes of higher learning. Viewed in this perspective, the relatibility of the Dresses is conspicuous and its relevance continues unabated. We hope, the big students recall having themselves sympathized with Wanda and empathized with Maddie while they were in school. Thus, the book provides a springboard for discussions, teaching tolerance towards those who are different or who belong to “other” cultures.

The appeal of “The Hundred Dresses” is universal in the wake of evidently growing intolerance all round us in most of the nations including ours. Sadly, intolerance is strategically maneuvered and articulated for political gains. Social media has become an easy tool in the hands of the born intolerant. The story effortlessly shows that those apparently different from us also may have inherent values. They may also be likeable. They may be a better version of us in many aspects. We as society just need to develop empathy.


The Art of Story-telling

The story is written in seven short chapters and narrated in the third person. In fact, the students may learn story-telling from this one. And, even professional bloggers may learn how to write SEO-friendly posts. For instance, the opening two sentences introduce all three significant characters and the tone of the story is set in the opening paragraphs. Further, the narrative is not linear; it moves back and forth in time and retains reader’s interest even after climax. The author in fact makes the consequences of Peggy’s and Madeline’s behavior evident early in the story and then shows the evolution of Wanda’s estrangement through flashbacks.

On a comparative note, the tone of “The Hundred Dresses” is more somber than the author’s other novels like “The Moffats” (1941) or “Ginger Pye” (1951). The present story reinforces what we generally fail to acknowledgement. And, the moot point is: even children can perpetuate injustices on one another.  Moreover, the story makes a plea against racism and discrimination toward ethnically or financially different people.  Remarkably for the author, this concern was not that obvious in 1940’s. As it is, the relevance of The Dresses has increased today in the increasingly intolerant world.

Well, why don’t people speak out against injustice? That is the central concern. Hence, the narrative is through Maddie, not Wanda. Interestingly, Madeline is neither the victim of injustice nor its perpetrator. In substance, it is the story of atonement by someone who remains passive in the face of injustice to someone by some third person.


The Text of “The Dresses”

The story opens with a vivid description of the main characters with a focus on Wanda. How is Wanda different from others? Let’s list below quotes from the text itself.

  • “Her feet were usually caked with dry mud.”
  • “She lived in Boggin’s Heights “no place to live.”
  • “She always wore a faded dress that didn’t hang right.”
  • “It (her dress) was clean, but it looked as though it had never been ironed properly.”
  • “Wanda sometimes twisted her mouth in a crooked smile.”
  • “She didn’t have any friends but a lot of girls talked to her.”
  • “She was very quiet and rarely said anything at all”
  • Wanda sounds like she lies because she claims to have 100 dresses and sixty pairs of shoes “all lined up in her closet.”

Did Wanda tell a lie? If yes, why?

As answer to the query, we should remember that Wanda as a kid wanted to mingle with the group; to assimilate. We shouldn’t forget that she felt being an outcast. And on that bright blue day, everyone was talking of dresses. To quote the narrator,

Everyone was talking to everybody else. Nobody said anything to Wanda. … Nobody talked to Wanda, nobody even thought about her being there.

In our opinion, not necessarily she did tell a lie. Yes, as a sensitive child she might have never differentiated between real and imaginary world of her favourite dresses!


Full Text of “The Hundred Dresses”

The NCERT textbook story is an abridged one. They have removed at least one whole chapter. Not that the relevance of the chapter in the Dresses is any less. Only, the textbook editors had to keep a tab on the length. Consequently, Class 10 students never come to know why Wanda’s dress was never appropriately ironed. Well, read the full text and find out on your own. Elsewhere also, many cuts have been made by the textbook development committee.

So, for the discerning readers wanting to read the whole text, we are providing full and unabridged original text of “The Hundred Dresses”. The portions cut by NCERT have been highlighted – by changing the background colour to silver grey or by italicizing the typeface in bold – for you to feel the difference. And, those who want to go through the original book with eye-catching illustrations may very well borrow the book from school library or But that is next to the next. First, the next! Our young adult readers get below link to the next post having the full text. Enjoy reading!

Full Text of “The Hundred Dresses”

Post Script:

The illustrations by Louis Slobodkin vastly enhance the beauty of the narrative by Eleanor Rosenfeld Estes. Thankfully, the publication gives equal credit to both. The relevance of illustrations in “The Hundred Dresses” cannot be over-emphasized.

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