A couple of years ago, I did something so audacious that my friends still talk about it at parties. I bought a dress.
I don’t exactly know what came over me. I hadn’t worn a dress in two decades. I was at a garage sale and I can only suppose that I bought it because my girlfriends were so enthusiastic, crowing about how good I looked and giving me tips on how to wear it. Margaritas were also involved. The last time I had been coerced into buying a dress was twenty years ago and I had no choice. I was the bride.
I’ve never been good with clothes. In my twenties, I tried to create a personal style but each attempt became a cautionary tale. During my Fleetwood Mac period, I wore a mourning coat with tails that made me less like Stevie Nicks and more like a pickpocket from the streets of nineteenth century London. Later I moved onto flowing Indian tops and cheap flouncy skirts that dyed the rest of my laundry saffron yellow and made me look twice my actual size. After that, I adopted the braless ripped T-shirt look, but this proved dangerous. I was a D-cup and it was only a matter of time before someone lost an eye. Then I transitioned to underwear as outerwear. I once met my boyfriend at the Chicago airport wearing a bustier, short skirt, and a garter belt beneath a black raincoat. The impracticality of such a choice cannot be exaggerated. On the train, I pulled my raincoat tightly around me, shivering from the cold and shrinking from the real or imagined leers of old drunks. Alighting from the station, I wobbled on my heels and fell into a snow bank. The entire sexcapade cost me a wicked case of bronchitis that hung on until that spring.
By the time I turned thirty, I lost momentum and slid down the slippery slope to jeans and t-shirts. To dress up, I’d throw on a decent pair of pants and a crisp white shirt that I hoped made me look like Carolyn Herrera. When, in fact, I looked a more like a hotel bartender.
No matter. Over time, I all but forgot about clothes. Let me be judged by the content of my character, I thought. Let me be measured by my talents, accomplishments, and moral fiber. That, and a little nude lipstick.
After all, I had come by my sartorial challenges honestly. My mother hadn’t worn a dress or a skirt in half a century, even to weddings and funerals. My father haunted second hand stores and refused to buy a shirt that cost more than two dollars. Given my history, the purchase of a figure-skimming dress -- even a second hand one from a garage sale -- was a major character reversal. It flew in the face of my family’s down-to-earth, Midwestern pragmatism and my own quest for respect. Had I written the dress buying incident into a novel, readers would have cried foul.
What happened after the purchase of the dress, however, was even more remarkable. My husband, who had married me for my moral fiber and sense of humor, loved the dress. Pat might have been excited that the whole thing only cost ten dollars or thrilled that I didn’t look like a hotel bartender. Regardless, when I took the dress for a test run across the living room, Pat looked at me in a different way. Or more specifically, he looked at my legs in a different way. And I liked it.
I decided to unveil the dress and my legs at an annual fundraising gala for my son’s school. The year before, I had attended in velvet pants. I called my mother, giddy with anticipation.
“A dress?” she gasped, as if I had just announced that I moving to a space station.
“Yes, a real dress. It has a black and white pattern.”
“A pattern?” my mother asked, still absorbing the news. “A dress with a pattern. Hunh. What do you wear with a dress?”
“Shoes, I guess,” I said, not like I knew. “I have the heels I wore with the velvet pants.”
“I loved the velvet pants,” my mother enthused, sounding happy to be in familiar territory. “Those were great pants. Why don’t you wear them?”
“Because I have the dress, Mom. It looks really good.”
“Hmmm,” she mused, sounding unconvinced. “Does this mean you have to buy a purse?”
She had me there. I had been carrying a backpack for decades. I never understood purses. I always felt sorry for Victoria Beckham and other bag carriers who had to carry their bags uncomfortably crooked over one arm. Besides, purses seemed to cost as much as a down payment on a condo. Some were so valuable they had to be chained to their racks at Macy’s. Seriously, if a purse is that valuable it belongs in a vault not slung through a bent elbow, taunting thieves.
“Maybe I’ll just give Pat my stuff to carry in his pockets,” I said to my mother.
“You’re going to need a purse,” my mother said, like she knew. “Wearing a dress gets so complicated.”
I did, indeed, use Pat’s pockets as a purse the night of the gala. The whole evening was seminal. The response from my friends went beyond the simple surprise that I had ditched the velvet pants. I was greeted with laughter and hugs as if I had just won a Pulitzer. I felt giddy, young, and flirty. This, I realized, was what I had been missing all those years.
In the weeks to come, I bought shoes and a necklace for the dress. I lovingly put a plastic bag over the dress so she wouldn’t have to rub up against my white shirts.
In the months that followed, Pat would convey dinner invitations and I would say, “Of course we can go. I’ll wear the dress.” The dress started showing up photographs from events and dinners throughout the year. After awhile, it looked like I didn’t own anything else.
Then, I had a radical thought. I could buy another one.
This thought, however, filled me with anxiety. Could another dress possibly live up to the legacy of my black and white one? Would the black and white dress lose its magic if it sensed the presence of a rival? Or worse, would the black and white dress simply refuse to perform when threatened by a newcomer?
After awhile, I realized that I was anthropomorphizing the dress to a ridiculous degree. Moreover, I realized that friends and family hadn’t simply responded to the dress, but to how I felt when I wore it.
I felt pretty.
Emboldened by this discovery, I branched out. I bought shorts and paired them with heels. I wore color instead of my hotel staff whites, grays, and blacks. I even started a modest collection of dangly earrings.
Friends tell me that I look better than ever. This is partly because I set the bar so low for twenty years. But it is also because I’ve recently discovered my inner girl. It wasn’t simply that I lacked style in my twenties and thirties. It was that I wanted to be taken seriously and fashion and beauty didn’t strike me as serious preoccupations. With kids and an established career, I have less to prove. I can afford to be playful, and silly, and pretty.
The black and white dress has had to make room for a few colorful and frilly closet mates and, so far, I haven’t heard a complaint. My backpack, on the other hand, still has no rivals. I will never understand purses.
You never know, though. It’s not too late for a conversion.