The cafeteria lady loved my dress.
This is no small thing – first, because she is cool and beautiful and I want her approval and, second, because I was very nervous about wearing The Dress to begin with.
The garment in question is a 1940s rayon day dress. The fabric is dark, dusty blue with a yellow graphic pattern that reminds me a little of honeycombs. It has a collar and buttons leading to a pocketed peplum in the front. It gives the impression of a jacket-and-skirt combination, but the smooth line of the fabric in the back is all dress. It’s hardly tight, but it’s definitely fitted. As the dress gets older and the threads holding it together more brittle, I’m constantly finding loose seams I never knew existed. They are hidden and essential. They give the dress its subtle, perfect shape.
It used to belong to a friend of mine. I remember seeing her wear it in the nineties when grunge made second-hand cool again. She was a vintage girl from way back, all rolled hair and cat-eye glasses, but when she wore it with army boots, the dress looked chic and modern. A few years ago (and much to her dismay) the dress that had been one of her favourites just stopped fitting right, so she offered it to me and I gratefully accepted.
I haven’t worn it since.
The first thing that stops me is that it’s not as sturdy as I generally need my clothes to be. Though I like my dresses and I like my heels, I also like my bike. A couple of times every year I take the dress out of my closet and try it on. Then, inevitably, I find a loose seam, an unstitched stretch of hem, an open pleat that needs fixing. As I sit and mend, I wonder what I would do if I was riding my bike, or getting up from my desk at work, and felt the entire back of the dress give way. (I once wore 1930s vintage gown to a wedding and, upon leaving, looked down to find the whole side of the dress had opened up from ankle to thigh. It was very traumatic.) When I’m done sewing, I put the dress back in the closet.
But the second thing that gives me pause is the dress itself.
There was a time when it was absolutely normal that every dress (or blouse or jacket) in a girl’s wardrobe was a structured thing. Even pantyhose had a discernable leg shape, slips had proper bust lines. Hell, I have mid-century house-coats with more detail than the outfit I wore to my prom.
A sixties ad photo for a girdle with garters.
Suck it in, baby.
(Photographer: Frank Horvat)
This dress comes from that time, but I do not.
While style and trend are as desirable as ever, fashion priorities have changed to reflect the demand for function (can I wash it?), fabric (am I comfortable?), and affordability. The more internal structure in a garment, the more expensive it is to make and buy – and the less people a single size-run will fit when it’s done. It will probably need special care in cleaning and storage and, more than likely, it will dictate the movement of the wearer. The dress that started all this is a simple day dress, meant to be functional, but it brooks no slouching (even without heels, this dress makes me an inch and a half taller) and demands regular attention from a dry-cleaner and an iron.
Manufacturers embrace these new priorities, too. Stretchy clothes with minimal detail are easier to mass-produce and fit a larger number of consumers without having to provide customized sizing. Of course, they don’t fit anyone really well, but we’ve learned to expect that. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on tailored clothes, that’s what you get.
But the thing is, while it’s all nice to say we’re looking for comfort or we’re limited by cost, we’ve become incredibly aesthetically lazy. Even the people who can afford to dress better don’t. Celebrity gossip pages are full of pictures of the rich and stylish wearing tee shirts and jeans and leggings and Uggs.
And what a commotion when an actress wears a really structured gown on a red carpet! Then she is both classic and daring, and the designer a visionary. Funny to think all of that was normal, once.
A disheveled look used to be cool because it was rebellious – a statement of contempt for constricting mainstream expectation. For women, girdles and bras and high-collars were the binds of patriarchy, for men, neckties the noose of middle-class servitude. I guarantee most girls born after 1985 don’t even know what a girdle is. Most of the men in my office wear “dressy/casual” jeans (if there is any such thing) to work and no one bats an eye. So who are we rebelling against now?
Sixties icon Peggy Moffit
modelling the Rudi Gernrich “No Bra” bra.
Comfort is winning.
I look great in this dress – and I know it – but it’s easier to throw on a pair of leggings and a loose, jersey shift. I don’t have to think about it, and no one else does either. The silly thing is, between writing for Worn and editing and doing the odd bit of stylist work, I’m pretty much thinking about fashion for half of any given day. What the hell am I avoiding?
My shoulders slouch for a minute, but The Dress disagrees. Like wearing high heels, there is something about the fit that requires more formal stiffness. As soon as I sit down, and without any thought, I cross my legs (instead of sprawling them out under my desk the way I usually do). My arms stay at my sides and my hands rest gracefully on the keyboard. The Dress knows what’s best for me – and you can call me a masochist, but I like it. Freedom is nice, but it means nothing without a little taste of discipline.
Even if you’re not broke, I advise tightening your belt now and again.