Before I was aware of Sylvia Plath as the writer and poet, whose troubled life created some of the most startlingly brutal and emotional poetry of the twentieth century, I knew her as the children’s author of one of my favourite bedtime stories, ‘The It Doesn’t Matter Suit’, written in 1959 but only published in 1996.
It tells the story of a young boy named Max Nix and his family of seven brothers in the little Mountain town of Winkelburg. In this fictional Germanic town everybody has a suit to fit their occupation or passion. From skiwear to business wear, the whole town is decked out in a suit apart from Max: ‘More than anything else in the world Max Nix wanted a suit of his own…He wanted a suit for All-Year-Round. He wanted a suit for doing Everything.’ One day a mysterious package arrives at the family home containing a ‘wonderful, woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow’ suit. Each male member of family tries on the suit, with Mama Nix snipping, stitching and sewing the suit to tailor it for each son, but each one realises the impracticalities and inappropriateness of a mustard yellow suit for their job or occupation. According to Papa Nix and his sons the suit is far too bright for skiing, hunting or fishing, and far too formal for the paper round and milking the cows. So eventually it passes down to the youngest, Max. He is delighted to finally have his own suit and proceeds to wear it for all occasions performing all the activities his brothers thought could not be done in a suit, because to Max ‘it doesn’t matter’. He can wear it rain or shine, outdoors and indoors, and it is even helpful in the activities of skiing, hunting and fishing. Indeed, the suit makes him the most admired person in Winkelburg, with even the cats mewing in appreciation.
For Max Nix – his name itself a pun on the German ‘macht nicht’, translated as ‘it doesn’t matter’ – the suit is precisely what he always wanted. Despite the humour derived from the unusual desire of a little boy, the story is interesting in broaching the idea of anxiety in dress, an emotion that even affects a young boy in a small town. This anxiety is the realisation that his absence of a uniform or unique style of his own deprives him of an identity in a town where every inhabitant is recognisable through their suit and mode of dress. The story also presents the notion of propriety of dress in relation to occupation and identity. It shows how society and fashion dictates what is or is not suitable for different activities and occupations, and the inherent fear of criticism. A mustard yellow suit is perceived as unsuitable by all of the older members of the family, which inhibits their confidence to wear it. Max’s self-assurance and confidence in the suit enables him to carry out all of the activities that his brothers considered unacceptable in a mustard yellow suit, and is successful in them all. The pride that Max has in his appearance whilst wearing the brand new suit in turn attracts admiration from the rest of the town: ‘There goes Maximilian in his wonderful suit.’ Plath’s subject matter for a children’s story is a curious choice and has a complex moral for young children, but ultimately it teaches us that ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ how you dress as long as you please yourself. Admiration comes from confidence and happiness, perhaps a lesson that we should all remember from time to time.
Sylvia Plath, The It Doesn’t Matter Suit, (Faber and Faber: London) 1996.