Essay The Filth issue

The White Dress

By Clarice Lispector

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa & Robin Patterson

image collaged from Untitled (woman in dress) by Paul Gittings, c. 1940 © Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum

I woke up at dawn wanting to own a white dress. Made of chiffon. It was an intense, lucid desire. I think it was my innocence that has never ceased to exist. I know some people find me dangerous, they’ve even said as much. But I am also innocent. The desire to wear white is what has always saved me. I know, and perhaps only I and a few others know this, that while I may contain danger, I also contain purity. And that purity is dangerous only to those who also contain danger. The purity I speak of is utterly limpid: I can accept even bad things. And it has about it the scent of a white chiffon dress. Perhaps I will never have such a dress, but it’s as if I did, because you learn to live with what you most need and lack. I also want a black dress because it will make me look paler and emphasize my purity. Is it really purity? Whatever is primitive is pure. Whatever is spontaneous is pure. Are bad things pure, too? I don’t know, I know only that sometimes at the root of something bad lies a purity that didn’t quite make the grade. I woke at dawn longing so intensely for a white chiffon dress that I flung open my closet. I found a white dress made of a thick fabric and with a round neck. Is thickness purity? One thing I do know: love, however violent, is. And suddenly, just now, I saw that I am not pure.

March 25, 1968 


Read alongside: The Kitchen Sink by Sheila Heti
Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. Fleeing anti-Semitic violence, the family emigrated to Brazil in 1922. She went on to study law. With her husband, who worked for the foreign service, she lived in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States, until they separated and she returned to Rio in 1959; she died there in 1977. Since her death, Lispector has earned universal recognition as Brazil’s greatest modern writer.