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Gurdon: Don't say yes to the dress

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"What do you think, dah-lings?"

I stepped from behind the dressing room curtain with a theatrical flourish. My daughters and I had stopped to investigate a vintage clothing store, and my eye had fallen on a thrillingly gaudy paisley number.

Half-kaftan, half-cocktail dress, it looked like something that Auntie Mame would wear. Being a vintage item from the early '60s, it was beautifully constructed and fit as if it had been made for me. I could almost feel the cool stem of a martini glass between my fingers.

Three of the girls smiled a little quizzically, but the look on the face of the fourth was one of frank horror. Tears actually leapt to her eyes.

"No! No! No!" she shrieked. "It's horrible! Take it off!"

I laughed and twirled, feeling the lurid lime-and-fuchsia fabric swooshing silkily around my legs. "Come on, don't you think it's rather fun?" I asked roguishly, with an eye on the full-length mirror.

"Uh, not really," said a tactful daughter.

"I suppose if you wore it ironically," said another.

"Yuck," said the youngest.

But the third daughter could not be consoled. "Take it off!" she cried. "It's terrible! You can't wear it! It should go in the garbage!"

"Wow, calm down," we said, and "Knock it off," and "For goodness' sake, it's just a dress."

"It's not just a dress," the child said darkly. "It's a monstrosity."

I couldn't see it; I simply couldn't see it. Over the child's protestations, I purchased the dress, and when we got home, I hung it in my closet. It glowed there like a piece of Kryptonite in a coal scuttle.

That evening, I showed it off to my husband. He would understand the ironic fun such a frock could provide. Maybe I could get a beehive hairdo; we could have a retro party!

To my surprise, he sided with the majority. "It's awful," he said firmly. "You can't possibly."

"But isn't it ... fun? You know, in an ironic way?"

"It won't look ironic, Meg," he said. "It will look as if you mean it."

And suddenly, in a flash, I understood. A memory surfaced of a woman I used to encounter in my Manhattan apartment building, years ago.

She had worn her jet-black-dyed hair in a high ponytail, like a cheerleader. Her makeup had been heavy and girlish, with taffy-pink blush on her cheeks, iridescent lip gloss, and lots of ingenue-blue eye shadow set off by black eyeliner and mascara. She'd favored vintage sweaters -- and was probably in her late 50s at the time.

The effect was startling, if you turned a corner and came across this memento mori unexpectedly. People would glance at one another when she passed.

When the woman looked in the mirror, she did not see what other people saw. I knew this because the only time I ever saw her smile, it was at herself, demurely, in a reflection, as she waited for the elevator.

Now, still holding the dress against me, I looked in my mirror and saw what my family saw: not so much mutton dressed as lamb, as mutton enfolded in a garish candy wrapper. Helplessly, I could only repeat what had come from the mouths of babes: "Yuck."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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