Dresses have been a sore subject for me for some years now. I swore off them one summer, and until just a few days ago, I regretted it every time I wore one.
This past weekend I flew to New York City to perform in a piece of mine, I’m a composer and I usually sing my own works. New York City has also been a sore subject for me, no connection to the dress thing, so my mom came with me as moral support and as an ample source of distraction. She is somehow both an inordinately experienced traveler and still inordinately bad at figuring out what the hell direction to walk in New York. On Saturday we had a laborious, people-infested, but delicious breakfast at the Le Pain Quotidien on Bryant Park (this is December, so the whole ice-skating thing was in full swing). Afterwards, we went to visit my best friend in her place of work: the Fifth Avenue Lord & Taylor Dress Gallery.
Anna has wanted for years for me to come and be styled by her in the designer gowns that she presides over. Not to suggest that I could afford anything in The Gallery, but I think she wanted me to feel the money on my skin, to see myself in and surrounded by haute couture, and for me to see her amongst the celebrities’ wives that she had become personal shoppers for.
But lo, Lord & Taylor has fallen. This fifth avenue store has been the flagship of the US’s oldest department store since 1914, and in order to avoid bankruptcy the company had to sell the location a few months ago. They have been in liquidation since October.
Anna was so disappointed when she found out. I mean, she’s always hated this job (because people are monsters, especially in dressing rooms), but she was proud of the fineness that she dealt in day to day. Anna always has an at least two-years-ahead sense of fashion, and while she is an artist and is pursuing larger dreams, this has been a temporary job that closely suits her natural (sometimes seemingly supernatural) abilities.
What a disaster that place has become. Anna described it as, “New York’s biggest thrift shop,” and it’s damn accurate. So many people, so many orphaned hangers, so few shits given. We found Anna on the fifth floor in the small inset that is, or was, The Gallery. A small clan of grandmas and grandpas were pitching camp in the central circle of modernist couches, an oasis shaded by dresses that are still thousands of dollars.
After the most satisfying hug I’ve had this year, Anna excitedly ushered my mom and I into a side room. “If it fits and you’re into it,” she starts, pulling with difficulty a short dress out of a tangle of garments she and her co-workers had been setting aside for themselves or special customers, “this can be your birthday present!”
As she was extracting it, I struggled to keep my smile on. I felt the physical distance between us since I moved out to Los Angeles transmute into personal distance, or at least threaten to. I don’t wear dresses anymore. I didn’t want to disappoint her, but I felt like she didn’t understand me now, or didn’t believe the strength of my aversion. I also didn’t want to cave and have her buy something for me I’d never wear. There were steep price reductions on the piece but the final ticket was still high.
The dress she picked out for me is a Marchesa-Notte from the Pre-Fall 2017 collection. It falls above the knee with a two-tiered skirt. The black sheer background fabric is filled up past the breast line with large embroidered blue flowers, the petals long and the blue shaded in a way that makes it both deep and bright. The sheer inch-wide shoulder straps are subtle, and past the cut-out shoulders there are arm cuffs made of the same blue flower fabric. Dark green leaves wend there way around the blooms, it isn’t realism, but I appreciated that these were not beheaded beauties. I like blue, and flowers. Very. Much.
I don’t wear dresses because I sense that the population at large reduces me to body parts when I do. I am just barely a woman, and while I revel in feminine looks and that sweet hot power, I have found it just too complicated to incorporate “the femme” into my presentation. I am young and white and just slightly past the prime BMI numbers, and it makes it just too easy for people to see only those parts of me that they want to see when I oblige them with the appropriate feminine clothing. I have hated the way people have looked at me when I wore dresses. It doesn’t matter what those shitheads see, or think they see, but the stress of feeling misread forced me to just give dresses up entirely. I stopped wearing makeup midway through college because I didn’t want to contribute to the fiction of the feminine face. It was horrible to realize that wearing dresses offered up my body to simplification in a similar way, so I tearfully gave that up too.
To give you an idea of the point I’ve reached, I shop for shirts now in the Target boys’ section. They are cheap but made sturdily, and most of all they are not made to accentuate my curves. I feel it forces people to see my body more as a shape, and less like a symbol.
Anna led my mom and I to a spacious dressing room, replete with pedestal and adjustable lighting. I closed the door and mumbled something about not wearing dresses to my mom and she hissed back that I should try it on for Anna and I hissed back that that was obviously what I was doing. Ah, I love you mom.
It was a group effort to get the zipper up, but even before the zipper reached its zenith, I knew this dress was right. I cautiously admitted this to myself. My mom correctly stated, “Wow – good job Anna.” I spent a long time examining the way the blue glowed in the dark texture of the fabric, the way that the straps and arm cuffs framed my shoulders. I looked like a fairy tale bramble in the frame of a finely tailored silhouette. This dress matched me, and I wasn’t afraid to be seen in it.
I’m a performer, and I have to account for my physical presentation on stage. I’ve always loved dressing up for shows, creating my character for the night, or just taking the opportunity to wear my absolutely favorite crazy clothes that I don’t want to sweat in on normal days. I put a lot of thought into it, an as I have grown up and have developed an increasingly embattled relationship with my gender, I can get bogged down knowing that it is hard to dress femininely and formally without it reading as cis-gendered and heterosexual.
I’ve gotten better at styling my weird self. I had a great top picked out for the show in New York, it’s a 70’s-ish green floral top that has a neckline that drops dangerously close to my bellybutton. Paired with my makeup-less face and unadorned neck and ears, I knew I could accomplish that “fuck you” brand of femininity that is my MO on stage recently. But here I was, matched so aptly by my best friend with this glowing garment. The smoky darks with the pop of the flowers and the neckline felt like precisely the right amount of melancholy and levity for the piece I was going to perform the next night.
I also wanted to perform in it to show Anna how much I loved it and her. I was brimming with thankful relief towards Anna. Though maybe from a lack of familiarity with my gender presentation struggles, she was able to reconnect me with a part of my aesthetic I had been trying to amputate. While we have always been distinct people, and have the unfortunate 3000 miles between us now, and have an embarrassingly bad phone call track record, we still read each other so well. Picking out this dress for me was a gift in more ways than one. Grinning, I turned a bit in the mirror and then asked my mom to go get Anna so I could show off her own brilliance to her.
And then I stepped on a quarter inch piece of glass. My heels have usefully thick calluses so it didn’t hurt that much, but I was bleeding and they had to call up two ladies from security to help get it out. Anna was mortified, and I was laughing. The glass had been disguised by all the assorted glitter on the floor, and for Anna it seemed like another cough towards the death of this once glamorous store.
I felt like Cinderella, wearing this fresh, dazzling dress with my bare foot propped up on this queer security lady’s knee, as she tenderly pulled out the glass shard. She did a very good job, I barely felt anything. When I told her as much, she said that she had to do this kind of thing for her blind mother all the time, which is both sad and a good indication of character. If only I had gotten her name…