In Praise of Terrible Dresses

Kai Heinrich / Flickr

Towards the end of my marriage, I ordered a dress from a company that sells ethically sourced clothing. When the dress arrived, my soon-to-be-ex-husband made fun of the dress, down to the brown paper and twine it came wrapped in. Sure, it was a little precious, but as soon as I put this garment on, I knew I had found the dress for the way I wanted life to be. He hated it. Oh well! Soon I was moving out, bringing only the clothes that sparked goddamn joy.

I’m wearing the dress right now. It’s not cute. I mean, I think it’s cute. I love it. It’s dowdy! It’s shapeless! It has brown and black stripes! And yes, it has pockets! It’s non-ironic-librarian-drab, screaming (or rather, whispering) to be worn with a cardigan and clogs, the shoe of choice for, as Lauren Mechling wrote in the New Yorker, a life that is comfortable both physically and spiritually, not “off the grid but grid-adjacent. It’s a fuzzy, fancy realm, littered with alpaca sweaters, Rachel Cusk novels, and trees that grow indoors, in charmingly primitive ceramic pots.” Sorry, but #goals.

No man on earth likes this dress, probably. It’s not a look for men. I know there are multitudes of dresses that are more flattering, more stylish, more sophisticated. But that’s just the joy of the terrible dress, I think, like the joys of bulky clogs and messy hair — the joy of a life lived on its own terms.

They say clothes make the woman but, more than that, that I think a dress can be your actual body, or anyway can shape the way your body exists in the world. “Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath,” wrote Virginia Woolf in the novel Orlando, in which the hero lives for 300 years and, magically, almost casually, changes gender along the way. “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

A woman’s life story can be told through her dresses — think of the dresses we save: first birthday, Bat Mitzvah, communion, graduation, wedding. But sometimes the really significant garments are more surprising. I think of a couple terrible dresses I’ve loved: like a long, gauzy, loose, tie-died-ish thing I obtained and wore constantly the summer between 8th grade and high school. It was not the kind of thing most 13-year-old girls in my Midwestern suburb wore, but I was afflicted with a body that was, to my mid-90s dismay, much more Kate Winslet than Kate Moss; it would be some time before I was emotionally prepared to deal with people’s (ok, men’s) reactions to anything remotely form-fitting. And wearing this dress established something to myself, about myself, even though (because?) it inspired dubious stares from classmates.

Then there was a drapey linen number I bought at a Benetton in Florence during a summer of independent travels. In Italy everyone wore drapey linen all summer, obviously so should I! I sashayed around my college town, feeling very continental amid my classmates in their short-shorts and University of Iowa t-shirts. Yes, other 20-year-olds choose to show off their collagen-filled skin and veinless legs. But you know how they say everyone has one true age? I really think I’ve always been a 60-year-old woman, and accordingly, I’ve always precociously wanted to dress like an Eileen Fisher catalogue. What can I say?

It would be some years later that I read, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Amerincanah, a description of, well, myself: a “smallish white woman in dark-framed oversized glasses” wearing dresses “with the slightly faded, slightly ill-fitting look of vintage shop finds. It was, in some ways, costume. They ticked the boxes of a certain kind of enlightened, educated middle-classness, the love of dresses that were more interesting than pretty, the love of the eclectic, the love of what they were supposed to love.” I mean, I get that she’s making fun of me but also yes, and it’s real (if defensive, and self-preserving): the desire to be more interesting than pretty.

In the book Women in Clothes, there is an entire section on clothes as protection. “I dress protectively,” writes one woman. “Fashion is a weapon,” notes another.

We all have those dresses that offer protection, that create our selves. In my novel Unseen City, I wrote about a girl impatiently on the cusp of adulthood, who wishes more than anything to have a dress of her own, a dress with a pocket (she is an orphan in the 19th century, it may help to note), and past that, she dreams of wearing the dresses of adulthood, the corsets and bone-splinted bodices ladies wear, the dresses that will mean she has become a woman. There is also in the book a woman on the cusp of middle age, who wishes to connect to her girlhood self, and who at one point squeezes into her old prom dress (whom among us, right?) just wanting to feel the shape of her former body. And there is a ghost in the book who wears a room like a dress, who needs her house to give her body a shape.

That, I guess, is what all these dresses are about. How you shape your body, how you give form to the formless stuff that makes up a person. We haunt our clothes like ghosts, trying to find the shape that will make us corporeal in the way we need to be. While we’re alive, let’s wear what we want to wear. Why on earth would we not?

Senior Editor, Forge @ Medium // Bylines: New York Times, Oprah, Slate // Latest novel: Unseen City https://bookshop.org/books/unseen-city-9781662028106/9781597

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