Thinking that I’d be caught in a rut the next social function, my wardrobe ever inadequate to the demands, I went online. There I found a red dress that took up residence in my imagination. It was spring, not traditionally a red time of year, and I had not gone looking for a red dress. There’s not a single shade of red in my color palette, and I’d come to avoid it, though that hadn’t always been the case.
Early in my marriage, there were numerous social functions to get dolled up for, and I had a favorite red dress—velvety velour, long-sleeves dropped waist, gathered skirt. It was a comfortable and comforting dress, more security blanket than sexy number. This was back in the late 80’s, the Reagan years. I loved that dress, and it fit well. I wore it so much that my husband began to call it Big Red. He’d roll his eyes as I came down the stairs, not Big Red again.
Back then, with my introvert’s nature, I was almost always inclined to stay in; perhaps I needed the oomph provided by a red dress just to get out the door. I had not been raised in a gala/cocktail party milieu, but I’d married an extrovert who grew up in Washington, DC, and had cut his teeth on such to-dos. He hated to miss a single event.
I had a second signature outfit from that era—a navy blue velveteen jumpsuit with satin buttons and a thick matching belt. It didn’t get as much play as Big Red and never earned a name, though it survived many a-wardrobe-culling, even through the decades when both jumpsuits and velvet had fallen out of favor.
The on-line red dress was actually scarlet: Italian wool, hemmed just above the knee, with capped sleeves and a thin red patent leather belt. It was the dress of a confident, capable woman—think White House correspondent for the network news.
That dress bedeviled me–I was still thinking about it when I climbed in my car the following week, trying to decide if I should just pull the plug, break out of my gray and black rut. The radio, tuned to “The Bridge,” was playing that ‘80’s favorite, Lady in Red–dancing cheek to cheek, the way you look tonight—you will know the song.
I ‘d never liked it—too smoldering, too sentimental. I’d always been more Witchy Woman than lady in red–sparks flying from my fingertips and dressed, typically, in black. It occurred to me that the red dress was just a hook for my projections, even a red flag. Maybe this wasn’t about the red dress at all, but about some banished or closeted aspect of myself, some part that wanted to come out, to speak or to be heard. Maybe it was passion, or maybe rage, both traditionally symbolized by the color red. Or maybe it was something more wholesome—vitality or agency that had bled away slowly through the years. Maybe I was drawn to the dress as a way of jumpstarting stalled out energies, a stultified self.
While I did not end up getting that scarlet dress, I did go on wondering what it meant to a woman with silvering hair who would almost always rather stay home at night in her wooly robe, who would never in her right mind elect to wear red of any shade.
I often play the role of a self-pitying Cinderella, teary-eyed in my closet before social events, nothing to wear. At a Christmas party several years ago, I fell under the spell of a beautiful friend who bears a striking resemblance to our new First Lady-elect, Melania Trump. I’d always admired this friend, not so much for her impeccable taste, iconic figure, and fashion flair, but for her sense of humor. All that and so quick-witted, it was hardly fair.
That night she wore a sleeveless off-white cashmere sheath dress. She rose like cream above the crowd. I could not help but stare. Somehow she had a flawless tan, even on that darkest of winter days. We happened to leave the party at the same time. As I was shrugging on my old black wool coat, my beautiful friend’s husband was helping her slide into an off-white, fur-lined cape. Ensemble outerwear! I was stunned.
Outside it had started to snow. Large flakes caught on the fur-trimmed hood framing her face, magically transforming her into a princess from a Russian novel.
“Doesn’t she look gorgeous?” I gushed to my husband as we walked down the sidewalk through an inch of new snow, following slavishly upon the heels of our well-heeled neighbors.
My poor husband, worn down by thirty years of pre-party meltdowns and sudden onset viruses; or understanding, maybe, that this was somehow going to be his fault, had the good sense to ask for help at just that moment. Maybe she could help me figure out my wardrobe, he proposed. Maybe if I just had a couple of stock pieces, I wouldn’t fall to bits every time I had to go out.
The next day my beautiful friend generously sent an email saying the very dress she’d been wearing the night before was still available on-line. She even sent the link. Studying the dress on my computer screen, I saw that it wasn’t exactly the same, though quite close. I noted that this one had more seams and darts, and also that it was made of something called, mysteriously, cashmora. I brought this to her attention.
“I thought you said it was cashmere.”
“Oh,” she said. “It’s all just smoke and mirrors anyway.”
She became my unofficial secretary of the exterior if you will. My mentor. Once, in the parking lot at school on our way to a parent event, she pulled me into the front seat of her car. “Just a little blush,” she said, extracting a bulging makeup case from her enormous designer purse and closing in on my cheeks. ”I’ve been dying to do this.”
At her house for a visit a few weeks later, she pressed a compact into my hands. “Take it,” she said. “I can’t use this color. Just a dash on your cheekbones, that’s it.”
She helped me find a dress for a wedding and wondered what shoes I planned to wear with it. “Nothing dowdy, I hope?”
I was pretty sure I had a pair of black heels that would work.
“Leave nothing to chance,” she said and followed up with five or six links to pumps with the right heel.
It turns out I was an especially stubborn case, beyond the skill set of even one with an advanced degree in the feminine arts. I cannot report a successful overhaul, or even much of a transformation at all in the past two years, though Lord knows she tried.
Not long after she started helping me whip my wardrobe into shape, my cousin the organizer came to town to help me muck out the house.
We stood together in the cedar closet, enveloped by the smell of mothballs, passing judgment upon ancient articles of clothing. I argued for the utility of several long-held favorites, perfect for dress-up and costuming. Not so much for me, I explained–of course, they’d never fit, and I hate costume parties, but for the girls. I mean, if you have a cedar closet, why not?
At that moment she happened upon Big Red.
“Oh!” I cried, gazing upon my old friend. “I loved that dress!”
“I know,” she said, “Look, it’s frayed.” She pointed to a threadbare area around the neckline, where, like the Velveteen Rabbit, it had begun to lose its plush and get real. She pointed out some slight discoloration in the armpits and at the cuffs, perhaps from liberal dousings of Opium and Samskara back in the day. A few minutes later she came to the navy blue velveteen pantsuit. She held it, disdainfully, at arm’s length, waiting for the nod. I stammered something about dress-up, postponing the inevitable.
“Really?” she said. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Who could have known we were only months away from the return of the pantsuit?
Into the pile they both went.
I haven’t a clue what’s become of those old soldiers—maybe they found their way to the Johns Hopkins Better Dressed Sale or Value Village, or one of the second-hand stores in Hampden or Roland Park. I like to think they’ve been given a second life.
It’s not a stretch, even, to imagine Big Red at the Inaugural Ball in January. It wouldn’t be the grandest dress there by a long shot, but it would fit right in on the margins.
For that matter, the navy blue jumpsuit would have been exactly right if things had gone the other way. For once I might have had the perfect outfit. For once I might have wanted to go.