Here’s a little story about a red dress. It was written for submission to Elle magazine’s “The ____ That Changed My Life” contest, the blank being an item of clothing. Everything in this essay really happened; however, I confess that no item of clothing has ever profoundly changed my life. Regardless, please indulge me as I explore one dress that has been with me on a long journey…
The Red Dress That Changed My Life
While it is often said that women dress mainly for other women, there’s a red dress in my closet that reminds me, every time I see it, that I dress for men.
Visiting my godmother in Quebec City, ma tante Claudine, had always meant sartorial discovery. As a child, the first thing I would do when arriving at her apartment after an 8 hour train ride from my small East Coast city was explore her closet and her makeup drawer. Whereas my mother was always clean-faced and often in threadbare corduroys, her younger sister went in for platform shoes and glitter eyeshadow. This thrilled me to no end.
By the time we entered the little boutique of Quebec designer Marie Dooley in 1997, I was a 21 year-old university student given to wearing grungy thrift shop finds and black combat boots. But I hadn’t lost my intrinsic femininity and the red dress called out to me. Well constructed and fully lined in silky viscose, it was the exact shade of bright red that flattered my pale complexion and dark hair. And it fit me perfectly. The print was all red with little flecks of black and the style was classic 1940s day dress, which I thought timeless. The red dress cost almost $200, a fortune for me at the time. My aunt paid for half and, together, we purchased my very first designer item of clothing. It was by far the best thing in my closet.
I can’t say I fully enjoyed the red dress at first. I was still too young to comfortably inhabit my body. I also held the strange belief that I needed a special event in order to wear something nice. And I definitely hadn’t yet figured out how to accessorize; I never felt that my shoes, jewels, or jacket were quite right. While I did love the dress, there were several instances when I planned to wear it only to leave the house in all black instead, such was my insecurity.
There’s only one memory that remains from that period of an occasion for which I wore the dress proudly. My boyfriend and I worked for a chain of Canadian upscale hotels and we decided to have a weekend getaway at one of its seaside resorts a short drive away. Our package included a meal at the restaurant. No other item of clothing in my possession would have been even remotely appropriate in such a place. I had to wear the red dress and I was happy to own this very special frock. My companion, my first love, was pleased to see me looking so pretty.
I moved away shortly after that trip leaving the boyfriend behind and, eventually, ending up in Montreal. During years of struggle, first as a makeup artist, then as a graduate student, the red dress remained packed up in a box, unworn. A brief period of depression, and then the stress of chasing a new career, had caused weight gain and the dress no longer fit. Like many young women whose size fluctuates, I refused to believe the change was permanent and I hung on to my old clothes, including the red dress.
By age 34, I was onto a new chapter as a government employee in Ottawa. The pounds started to come off as soon as I settled into my newly stable life. And, as healthy habits set in, I found that I could once again fit into the clothes that I had lugged with me through times of upheaval. The biggest surprise for me was how little my personal style had changed. I gladly rediscovered my simple black clothes with bright feminine pieces breaking the monotony… And there was my lovely red dress!
This time around, I had no qualms about wearing the dress. All summer, I wore it. I wore it to work with heels and a cardigan, I wore it out to dinner with silver jewelry, and I wore it to stroll around my neighbourhood in flats on Saturday afternoons. I loved that old red dress; it was simple yet bold, the quality of it was still evident, plus it was easy and comfortable. Everyone notices a woman in a red dress and I got compliments everywhere I went. Co-workers commented on how much they liked it and hipster shop girls asked me where I’d gotten it. It felt great.
But one day, a male colleague who had turned into a good friend after a brief flirtation told me I shouldn’t wear the dress anymore. Normally, his comments about my appearance were very positive and so I was a little put off by his remark. He called it the “watermelon dress” because of its black seed-shaped flecks and he said it didn’t flatter my body. I ignored his advice and continued to wear the dress which I now couldn’t help but think of as being watermelon-like. I started to notice, though, that only women ever complimented me on it. Eventually, I stopped wearing it.
Last year, I decided to test the appeal of the red dress. I modeled it for my new boyfriend and asked his opinion on it. He hated it. A dress that women seemed to find charming, retro, and fun, men found matronly and unflattering. And that’s when I came to this realization: I primarily dress to be attractive to men. While I would not wear something I didn’t like or in which I was uncomfortable, I do enjoy being admired by the man in my life. His pleasure is ultimately mine too.
My attachment to the red dress remains strong and I can’t bring myself to give it away. But thirteen long and eventful years have gone by since I left that first love, the one who sat across from me in the red dress. It took all those years before I fell in love again and so, with apologies to the watermelon dress, I’m on the hunt for the exciting frisson of a new red dress.