The Dress that Changed Nothing Whatsoever

Nicole Wornette was insecure at 12, for all the years that followed, and also bought a vintage dress


There are some who believe formative self-loathing is instrumental to becoming a cool adult. This particular lemonade is made over and over again by those attempting to ascribe meaning to what they fear would otherwise be seen as self-indulgent ennui, and who are comforted by fellow-sufferers able to tell their lives like a self-worth rags-to-riches story. Happiness is without substance; misery makes art. I started from the bottom, now I’m here. But of course, here comes much later. First you have to dislike yourself.

And this was, for a long time, my personal gospel.

In my story, I made all the right moves. I hated myself. I was skilled in the art of turning absolutely anything into evidence of my failings. At 12 especially, I was deeply invested in changing the person that I was to be a different, better person. At this age, a girl is still new to self-loathing, so of course, she makes mistakes. I fell prey to the idea something like a haircut, a pair of shoes, or a new school year would alter my situation so dramatically I would find myself cured. So it was when the time came for my oldest cousin to get married. That was when my mother took me shopping for my first vintage dress.

Despite my initial objections to wearing used clothes, once in the shop, I was instantly able to appreciate how much more cinematic these dresses were than any I had seen at the mall. I have always had a soft spot for dresses that reach the floor and never apologize for how they get there. A tangle of chiffon, silk, and sequins, these were the garments of which stories were made.

Though I had resolved not to leave this shop with an old dress, I was delighted to be in that room. While my mother went over the preliminaries with the shopkeeper, I traced my hand along the racks, remembering something half-lost about what I’d wanted before all I wanted was to be somebody better than myself. Just as I was getting close to some fuzzy truth, my mother came up from behind me.

“Okay,” she sighed. “Let’s go to the mall.”

Um, what?

Despite my mother’s whimsical intentions, I was still a child and these dresses were all woman-sized. Stunned, we moved towards the shop door, until the shopkeeper’s memory jogged. “Well, it’s hardly appropriate for a wedding, being cream and all, but that one will fit her,” she said, pointing to a short dress hanging from a hook high up on the wall.

The dress wasn’t something you gasp at—it was just exactly right. Like it was already yours and you recognized it out in a crowd and thought, “What are you doing here? Let’s go home, you silly goose!” I’ve experienced this comfortable confirmation many times since: on finding the right apartment, the right university, jobs, friends, men, and of course, clothes. We never discussed the fact it was cream, since a gawky twelve year old is at virtually no risk of outshining a bride. Obviously, we bought the dress.

This was, indeed, the first time I’d been vintage shopping, the first time I’d recognized myself in a dress, and the first time I remember expecting something I bought to change me in some dramatic way. In the lead up to the wedding, I would take the dress out of my closet and stare at it thinking, “Now that I have this, the hard part’s over.”

When the day of the wedding arrived, I dressed simply. And while I wasn’t certain I enjoyed a day-long event where adults I had never met made inscrutable jokes into a microphone, my girl cousins slow-danced with each other to be all like, “We don’t need no men!” and I got far less attention than I was accustomed to, I was sure of the dress. In it, I was a changed woman.

I was sure of this right up until my mother got her film developed at the local one-hour photo and I saw the picture.

No person was ever more ungracefully 12 as I found myself in that picture. It was the most jarring thing, having my worst suspicions about myself confirmed. The girl in the photo wasn’t changed for the better. She was a ragamuffin with thick eyebrows and a body that seemed to be introducing itself to her at every moment. And god, that girl was so serious. Her self-doubt and torturous sensitivity registered plainly on her face. I was repulsed.

My only recourse was to bury the dress in the back of my closet, forget it ever happened and try harder. During the years that followed, I employed all manner of tactics to solve the problem of me once and for all. I really believed I could will myself into flawlessness. After that, I imagined life would be just a lot of eating in hip family-style restaurants and people photographing you mid-laugh but it’s, like, always really beautiful.

Instead of achieving this clumsy approximation of perfection, I got something else entirely when, at 24, my mother and I were unpacking boxes and arranging my possessions in a west-end basement studio, the first place I’d ever live alone. Buried in one of the many boxes was a packet of photos. Among them, of course, was the photo, which I have no memory of ever taking from my mother’s albums. And with so many years separating the girl in the photo from the girl holding it, perspective was easier to find.

Before, whenever I discussed who I had been, it was always with a tone of mild alienation. Not only was the present day version of myself the best one but, rather, the only one. Who I had been was inconsequential, irrelevant, and lampooned in my most defensive jokes. As a militant self-improver, it is difficult to resist this temptation.

But there was something exquisite in the deflating realization that despite all the effort and dramatic change, so much stayed exactly the same. I am still a self-conscious, serious girl. My eyebrows still feature prominently on my face. And goddammit, will I ever feel graceful in this body?

Naturally, I had grown into myself. A decade plus of time, experience, and extensive introspection will do that. But more significant was that, standing in my new apartment, holding the once-repulsive photo, not only was I able to recognize myself in it but also to appreciate its beauty. It was a lovely, vulnerable moment captured on film. Just a very young girl in a very special dress.

“Mom, whatever happened to that dress?” I asked, my eyes still fixed on the photo.

She thought for a moment and said, “I have no idea, Nic. Honestly, it probably got thrown out.”

It was a shame. That dress had been coded with so much adolescent disappointment, and now, with a little clarity, it would have been nice to wear it like a nice dress deserves to be worn.

That night I got an email from my dear sweet mother with the subject line, “LOOK WHAT I FOUND!!!!” The email body contained only an attached photo of the dress, a little rumpled and desperately in need of a dry cleaner’s love, but unmistakably my special cream dress.

I was in her house for perhaps only five minutes before excusing myself and slipping down the hall to what used to be my bedroom and now is the extended territory of an ageing cocker spaniel. Quickly I stripped down and pulled on the dress. It fit. The dress and I had been given our second act by whoever it was that decided that I should never develop breasts.

I no longer allow myself the delusion of a self-worth promised land. The top is a lie, though, so too is the bottom. My new thing, these days, is conscious continuity. With this, it is important to acknowledge the small victories, and doing right by my first vintage dress is certainly one.

What are you doing here? Let’s go home, you silly goose.

Karen Wornette

She travelled across the country to finish her practicum here with us

I’ve spent the past four years of my life immersed in the Human Ecology degree program at the University of Alberta. As a Clothing, Textiles, and Material Culture major, I’ve taken courses that consider the cultural, economic, social, and personal contexts that impact the ways in which we adorn our bodies and present ourselves to the world. When I discovered that WORN publishes creative, intelligent content about fashion’s many facets, I decided to move to Toronto for a couple months to complete my practicum… and become a wornette!

My relationship with clothing tends toward the historical, yet remains grounded in what’s practical. When I do have time to sew (I wish I could find more), I get on my mom’s sewing machine from the ’80s and stitch together vintage-inspired projects. Mostly, though, I mend the garments that I’ve worn through. My mom’s cousin gave me a floral dress that she wore to parties in the ’70s, and that I would wear on my first day of grade 12. I tore the armhole seams as I kept the dress in heavy rotation, and I ended up sewing and re-sewing the same curved lines. The thread unraveled and the fabric tore away, but that’s what happens to clothing when it’s worn—it’s not so terrible.

Working at WORN will bring me closer to the personal histories of dress that I so dearly enjoy. Through reading (WORN has a stunning collection of books on dress and culture/subculture), interviewing a few local artists and designers, and writing about “clothes” encounters, I’ll be able to further explore our dressed selves in context. To get my daily inspiration of personal interpretations on fashion, I’ll need to look no further than the decidedly individual wornettes.

Current Inspirations

Are Clothes Modern? Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About “Dress”
Swedish costume historian A. E. Funk documents what she’s been reading in books and around the net in a Tumblr-like format, only she appears to find her captions first and then adds the eye-catching images.

Brain Pickings
If you don’t have time to read all those books on your list, click over here for a well-curated selection of quotes from interesting authors and cultural icons on writing, reading, and the creative life, among other things.

Obakki’s Treana Peake speaks at Vancouver’s Creative Mornings
A designer with a conscience, Peake is refreshingly open about her internal struggle over her work in an industry that requires human hands to create the garments, but rarely pays attention to documenting their stories.

I recently re-discovered this Toronto-based master of the quirky interview. After watching him on MuchMusic growing up, I’ve enjoyed keeping up with him as he researches like mad and then surprises musical artists of all genres with his obscure questions and gifts.

Vogue Archive
An absolute must when doing fashion photographic research, this collection of Vogue from 1892 to the present has some real gems, including Anjelica Huston shot by Richard Avedon for a 1969 issue.

photography // Stephanie Chunoo and Tabitha Poeze

There’s Something About Millicent

Cherie Burns follows the life and fashion of Standard Oil heiress and muse to many, Millicent Rogers

As a child, Millicent Rogers probably had no idea how much influence she would have on fashion and style in the early 20th century. She was rather sickly, known for being shy, and spent most of her time reading books and trying to avoid falling ill—a rather mundane beginning for the glamorous flapper and woman-about-town that Rogers would later become. She seems to have lived the American Dream: her family was new money (her grandfather was a grocery clerk turned whaler turned American industrialist) and Rogers herself was an heiress it-girl, an American archetype as eternal as the cowboy. She came to represent quintessential American style before people even knew what that was, mixing high-fashion and traditional garments from around the world and wearing denim long before it was considered fashionable to do so. She would have looked right at home in a Ralph Lauren ad from the ’70s.

Cherie Burns’s book is a fairly standard biography—there are randomly dispersed facts chronicling the miniscule details of various parties, mansions, tours of Europe, mentions in Vogue, and all of her lovers and husbands (though all this information is not always presented in an organized fashion). And of course, the book covers all of the designers she wore and influenced–Schiaparelli, Charles James, and Rudolph Valentino, to name a few.

One of the more fascinating parts of the book is about Rogers’s war years, when she hosted events for the USO and other relief groups. At one point she worked for the State Department, which was chronicled in the pages of Vogue, like so much of her life. Rogers had no shortage of love affairs in Washington—while she was there she met both Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. She was really into Brits in uniform at the time. She worked incredibly hard during the war, and her connections and creativity served her well, but because she was an heiress she didn’t get paid (even though she actually didn’t have as much money as people thought).

I was intrigued by Rogers’s decision to move to Taos, New Mexico in the later part of her life, and her involvement in the Native community there. At the end of the ’40s, Rogers was introduced to the American southwest by artist friends and became obsessed with the place, particularly the sartorial culture of the Pueblo Indians. She quickly established herself as what may be called a Native rights advocate, and introduced their traditional jewelry and fashions to the outside world. In 1947 she left her palatial mansions on the coast to lead a simpler life closer to the Pueblo. She died in New Mexico in 1950, when her poor health finally caught up with her.

For me, Searching for Beauty raised a lot of interesting questions about fashion and appropriation, though that is not the book’s intent or something it addresses explicitly. Rogers was well known for appropriating the native dress of many of the countries and places she visited, starting with her European sojourn in her late teens/early twenties and ending with the Pueblo Indians. Rogers was a study in contradictions on this point—on the one hand, she often bought these items from the people who wore them, and understood their significance (she was known for going to the ceremonies of the Taos in proper ceremonial dress), but then she had them sent to European designers like Schiaparelli to be copied. The Millicent Rogers museum, which is made up of Rogers’s fantastic collection of Native American jewelry, art, and textiles, is known for preserving these artifacts. Still, she was one of the first people known to make appropriating clothes from other cultures fashionable, and I couldn’t help but think that Rogers, without intending to, contributed to the mainstreaming of First Nations dress. Did she have a hand in young white people wearing headdresses and major fast fashion corporations making offensive “Navajo” underwear? No one seems to have written a really great book about this, though the internet provides a couple of good options for those who want to know more: Native Appropriations and a Native fashion magazine, Native Max.

photography // Brianne Burnell