This post is a little different from my usual Fangirl Thursday ones, but sometimes you just have to go where the inspiration leads.
I love clothes. I love to shop for them, to look at them in magazines and on red carpets, and to talk about them. As such, dissecting a character’s costume choices is one of my favorite ways to analyze any piece of media. From the evolution of Kate Beckett’s hair to the bright colors worn by Mindy Lahiri, the outward appearance of a TV character gives us a lot of insight into exactly who they are.
Therefore, when a character shows up wearing something different from what we’ve come to expect, it’s important. It’s worth talking about.
This—Emma Swan in a soft pink dress with her hair pulled back, ready for her first real date with Hook—is worth talking about.
We’ve never seen Emma wear anything like this before, and that’s perfect. Because we’ve never seen Emma feel like this before.
The two most memorable instances of Emma wearing a dress were on “dates” in the pilot and in Season Three’s “New York City Serenade.” In both instances, Emma was dressing for work—in the pilot she was working a case and in “New York City Serenade,” she came to her date from work. (I watched that scene again to make sure, and she apologized for being late, prompting Walsh to assume she “caught the guy.”) And even if she went home to change before her date with Walsh, there’s another parallel to be found between that date and the one in the pilot: Emma wasn’t truly herself on either date. We have no idea how Emma Swan would really dress for a date because this is all new—for us as viewers and for Emma as a character.
Emma Swan has always been a guarded character, and her clothes have reflected that. Her leather jackets and her dark-colored clothes are her armor. Even the initial pilot script described her in her dress as “a Terminator in couture.” Emma’s first instinct is to protect, and for a long time, that meant protecting herself by projecting a “tough” image to cover up the fact that she’s always felt like “a lost little girl who didn’t matter and didn’t think she ever would.” Emma feared showing anyone even a shred of vulnerability; she hardened herself in response to her hard life, leaving no room for clothes that would make her look “soft” to people that could hurt her.
But this dress—with its delicate pink color and romantic style—is as soft as it gets. It’s a striking visual contrast to anything we’ve ever seen Emma wear before, and it’s supposed to be. This is Emma without her armor, putting it aside for at least one night with a man she’s come to trust with both her rough edges and her delicate heart. This is Emma embracing a quiet, happy moment where she can put aside her role as the savior and the sheriff and indulge in a little time to simply be Emma, a woman who is finally letting herself be loved for exactly who she is.
The Emma wearing this dress and smiling at Hook is a direct reflection of the Emma we saw at the end of “Rocky Road.” She let the last of her emotional armor fall away in that episode, completely exposing the soft, vulnerable heart that she tried to harden after losing so much. And she did that because—as she explicitly told Hook—she trusts him. That trust allowed her to be completely vulnerable with him, to let the last bit of her guard down. So she can wear a soft pink dress in front of him and smile without reservation now—because she feels safe to be completely herself with him, and that means letting him see the softer side of her personality that she felt scared to reveal to anyone after being hurt in the past.
Emma spent so long looking for a home, for a place where she could feel safe to be herself and loved for who she is. And now she has that. She has a mother who’s holding a camera as her daughter goes on a date and a father who looks protective and proud all at once. And she even has a friend who looks truly happy for her.
This is a moment for Emma and Hook, but it’s a moment for her parents, too. They never got to watch their little princess go to a ball or get courted by a suitor. And Emma never had parents waiting up for her after a date or taking pictures before prom. There’s a sense of innocence to this moment, and that’s reflected in Emma’s dress, too. Emma grew up too fast; she never got to experience an innocent moment like this one, and I’m so happy that both she and her parents are able to have this. And that innocence comes into play for Hook, too. He must feel at least a little bit like the young lieutenant he once was, who might have dreamed of courting a princess before losing his brother and starting down a darker path.
Because Emma is a princess, and in the Season Three finale we finally saw her embrace that part of herself. She danced at a ball with Hook, who called her “your highness,” and she seemed to truly enjoy living in a fairytale for at least that moment. This date is their chance to bring a little bit of the romance of that ball into Emma’s world. Her dress is ladylike because this is her chance to let herself feel like the princess she is. Once Upon a Time is Emma’s fairytale, and this date is her first real chance to have a fairytale moment in a world that felt like anything but a fairytale for too long.
Emma’s life has been filled with so much loss, and she carries that loss with her in many ways. Physically, Neal’s swan keychain/necklace and Graham’s shoelace have been common parts of her wardrobe, but they’re absent for her date. She is trying to move beyond the pain those things represented, trusting that this chance at love doesn’t have to end up like it did with Neal and Graham. This is an Emma Swan trying to let go of the painful losses that made her so afraid to open her heart to Hook. In her pink dress with her hair off her face and her light makeup, she is the living embodiment of the idea of a fresh start.
The Emma we see in this dress is a softer Emma than we’ve ever seen before, but she is by no means a weaker Emma. In fact, she’s stronger than she’s ever been. It takes an amazingly strong person to trust someone with the softest and most vulnerable parts of your heart after you’ve been hurt the way Emma has. It takes incredible bravery to let your guard down after a lifetime of having it up. Emma showed true courage when she fought dragons and witches, but she’s showing perhaps even more courage in this moment—trusting Hook with the softest parts of herself that she’s kept hidden out of fear of being hurt.
Emma Swan is such a great character because she’s layered and multifaceted, like real women are. Yes, she wears jeans and leather, but she can also wear pink dresses, using both of those wardrobe choices to highlight different kinds of strength. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive when you have a character with the depth we’ve seen in Emma. They simply reflect different facets of this multifaceted character.
There are so many different ways that women (and people in general) can be strong. Once Upon a Time celebrates the idea that true strength doesn’t always show itself in wielding a sword or taking down a monster. It often shows itself in opening yourself up to someone when life has given you every reason to fear vulnerability, and that’s what this date and this dress are all about.
The strongest people don’t always wear armor. Sometimes they wear pink dresses.