If you follow Skirt the Issue’s Instagram (do it!!), you may have noticed the #AllDressApril daily dress posts. There’s been a solid week of the month down, and it’s now Saturday, and I’m in my living room in pajamas, barely brushed hair and not a smear of makeup on my face. Sorry but I’m not going to spent an hour getting ready for the cats. There’s commitment and there’s burnout.
I started the week by wearing my favorite Bernie Dexter dress, followed by one of my Tatyana stand-bys. Then I reminded myself, oh wait. There’s a full 30 days of this (minus three upcoming days on hiatus in the internet-less woods). I need to pace myself with the top-shelf picks. It was time to dredge up some deep cuts. It was time to break into my Dress Barn back catalog.
Dress Barn is the best store with the worst name. Or at least, for a stretch between 2010 and 2014, it was. The last few times I’ve tried going in, they’ve replaced most of their actual dresses with capri pants, floral-patterned bohemian tops and those tragic long-sleeved tops that have the tips of the shoulders cut out that are going to scream I BOUGHT THIS IN 2017 if we all survive into the future.
But back in those early twenty-teens, they were a great place to find bright patterned sheath dresses that were outstandingly size-inclusive and affordable. I swallowed my pride from a lifetime of making fun of the terrible moniker (“yee HAWW getcherself down to the Dress Barn!”) and embraced the office-appropriate cuteness. It was the perfect bridge from my Ann Taylor Loft grays and blacks into the dizzy busy prints of my current life.
Many of these dresses have fallen victim to their cheap, shitty zippers, but a handful still hang in my closet. One of them is a color block blue and green sheath, but when I turned the hanger around, I found a suspicious rusty stain on the butt. We’ll see what my dry cleaner decides to do about that situation, but in the meantime I flicked over to another Dress Barn selection I bought in 2012 on accident.
I was spending my anniversary with my husband on the Oregon coast, and we had reservations at a nice place along the sea. In the rush to pack an overnight bag after work and get out the door, I forgot the dress I’d been planning to wear back at home. The Oregon Coast is not exactly a black tie destination, and I could have gotten away with wearing jeans and a Lincoln City sweatshirt like everyone else in town, but I wanted to be FANCY. There was a Dress Barn at the town outlet mall, and although their selection wasn’t fantastic, I found a cute black sheath with a saffron empire top and a “sassy!!” animal print belt.
It was more business lady than what I usually wear, but I did break it out again the next year to wear to Portland’s Wordstock writing festival to look like a Real Serious Literary Figure along with some fabulous Steve Madden shoes I justified purchasing with the dress in mind.
At the festival, I hovered around my dream publisher’s table, and the Fancy Editor made a comment about how much she loved “that dress…and those shoes…who are you, exactly?” I was no one, but I was thrilled and rattled off my fresh grad school credentials and mentioned that I was finishing up my book and would love to submit it.
“Send it to me,” she said, and handed me a card.
It was a breakthrough. I worked for three months straight to finish the book, held my breath and squinted my eyes shut, and pressed SEND.
And then she rejected it in maybe two sentences and I wanted to die.
Flash forward five years to #AllDressApril, when I took out the same dress and the same shoes and wore them to work.
Unlike the other days of the week, when I felt put together and stylish and confident and happy (or at least as happy as one can be penned into a cubicle under artificial light), I felt awkward and pinched. I didn’t feel right because I didn’t look right. Feeling uncomfortable in my clothes makes me physically anxious. My stomach flutters and I feel itchy and obsessed with the idea of going home and ripping the thing off and putting on something that’s right. Fits not only my body, but my mood and personality.
In hindsight, the solution seems obvious: toss that old dress on Donation Mountain and move on with your life. That’s the well-balanced and reasonable course of action. But the thought of purging a “perfectly good” cheapie dress that wasn’t coming apart at the seams or stained with Nickelodeon slime made me feel just as panicky as having to wear it. What if I had some black-and-saffron-themed party to attend? And hadn’t it made me feel like I could be somebody that one time before, even if that somebody turned out to be a delusion of grandeur? Couldn’t the trick work again?
I thought of the other things hanging in my closet that I hadn’t worn in years and always ignored: the lace shirt that only fit me that one winter years ago, the corduroy blazer that looked perennially terrible in any picture, the old skirts I wore to death in my first office job that were faded and exhausted. These were garments I’d moved across time zones and maintained for years that I didn’t even wear.
I begrudgingly took an #AllDressApril picture (because commitment) and clawed off the sheath, and the damn belt designed to slice ribs, but tenderly put the shoes back in the rack. I wore those shoes to see Beyonce. They still have her shared oxygen particles.
That first toss felt liberating. Goodbye, Fancy Editor and broken dreams and dead marlins! I pulled the strange, short tops and the worn-out skirts. I pulled the cheap Nordstrom Rack blazer jackets I only bought because my Marketing minor classes on college insisted that I should stock up on them. I pulled the ModCloth dress that I asked for for Christmas that never did look right, despite being made of nice fabric that I respected. The dresses with those broken zippers I had to accept were never, ever getting back together. The Lycra flowy tops that were so hot in 2007. The shopping bags stamped with the name of that which betrayed me.
I’m sad to see the broken dress I handed Cheryl Strayed a jar of homemade pickles in depart, and the badly fitting sundress I wore to the mall when my friend Christian visited and I still drove a minivan. This is a tangle of an early-to-mid-twenties self, who was in turns vibrant and clueless and self-assured and dowdy and gorgeous and ridiculous. Much like that whole decade of life, which folded into a new age that’s more precise. More sure of what I want and look like and what I will and will never be. A person who is slowly learning to accept that a wardrobe doesn’t need to be a catalog of every choice you’ve ever made. That the fabric can move on and out, but the memories they costumed aren’t going to vanish.
That no one is going to invite me to that black-and-saffron party.