On Sundresses, Womanhood, and Dating; or, the Tale of the Shirtwaist Dress

Almost every woman can name some kind of clothing that she wishes she could wear but can’t. For me, it’s the sundress. My curves don’t allow for them. Every summer, I see women in light, cool sundresses clearly enjoying the feel of summer breezes and kisses from the sun. In my mind, there’s nothing like a sundress. There is something both girlish and womanly about one, something that can’t be replicated by a skirt and summer shirt, even if the shirt is a tank top. Over the years, I’d mostly given up on sundresses, making do with other light, feminine summer clothing—linen skirts, t-shirts, and, occasionally, shorts, and a pair of green seersucker pants I bought at the Gap for seven dollars ten years ago.

And then, last month, while shopping for a dress for an August wedding that would take place at dusk at a vineyard, I found one. There it was, a fantasy sundress: white, light blue, and navy silk with sequins subtly sown over the darkest parts to give the dress a kind of glitter. It really was a shopping miracle. I’d found wonderful parking at the mall on a Saturday night, the dress was in the first store I visited, and it was marked down to $70 from $275. I slipped it on and it fit like a dream, flattering me in most of the right ways and confirming that I’d gone down a dress size from last summer. I wasn’t crazy about the length, but everything else about it was perfect. I would need to get a different bra than the one I had on, but I knew exactly where to go for one.

I really loved this sundress. The dress I’d worn to the last August wedding (the year before) fit well, but it was a bit more severe than I preferred. I’d just been so thrilled to find a dress that fit properly that I hadn’t given much attention to whether or not I actually liked the style. THIS was my fantasy dress. Before finding this dress, I told Will that I was hoping to find a long, shirtwaist dress, one that was boyish and feminine at the same time. But one look at this creation, this fantasy lined with satin and tulle to make it sit just right, made me forget the dress I described. Another shopper confirmed its perfection and that I would need a different bra, and in fewer than fifteen minutes I had my very own sundress and almost skipped out of the store.

I brought the dress home to Louisiana with me and tried it on for my parents. Twirling in front of my admiring mother and father, I felt girlish, a rare thing for me. Like so many black women, girlishness is not a quality I attach to myself. Clothes might be fun but they are rarely whimsical and completely useless. This dress was meant for a woman whose only job in life was to be pretty, eat cake, and drink champagne, which, as many of you know, is not the life of African-America women. Even if we get to the cake and champagne stage of life it’s because we’ve worked harder and smarter than other people, and the price we pay rarely allows us to hold on to whatever girlishness we might have once possessed.

Mom and I set out to find a bra for me. Seven hours and four stores later we came back defeated. My curves (and let’s call them what they are: ta-tas, boobs, my rack) didn’t fit with the architecture of the dress. I was devastated, and it took all of my mother’s admiral ability to be mother and woman at once, to gently prod me to look for another dress. I agreed because, well she’s my mom and when she’s gently persuasive she can get me to do almost anything. When we got to the department store, I could see the dress even from a distance—a sundress in green and white with a little bolero jacket. We rushed towards it. Again it was my size and on sale. I picked up another dress my mother was skeptical about, and I went into the dressing room.

A funny thing happened as I began to slip the sundress on. I wondered to myself why I was trying on a dress in the exact style that had recently broken my heart. It’s as if I wanted this sundress, lovely in its own right, to make up for all the sundresses I hadn’t been able to wear, and even as I slipped it on, I knew it wouldn’t fit properly.

Then, my mind turned, of its own accord, to dating. Even as I fiddled with the dress to get it to work, turning slowly around to determine how bad the “bra problem” might be, I thought of how I fell for my fantasy guy over and over again even though the fantasy was never a good fit. This has not been because there is anything wrong with the guys (though some of those guys should be on the factory reject rack) or there was anything wrong with me (which is not to suggest that I’m not without flaws). But standing there in a beautiful dress that was just slightly the wrong fit I totally embraced the idea that I shouldn’t need architectural feats to fit into a dress or a relationship.

My mother was so sympathetic. We both did all we could to get the green and white sundress to work. I was the one to call it and to slowly take it off. I turned to the back-up dress I’d taken in the dressing room with me, the one I’d picked up after only glancing at it. It turned out to be a long shirtwaist dress. It was boyish with brown and white stripes but had a crisp look I love, and just for the hell of it the bottom was trimmed in chocolate-brown tulle, as if to say, “I might look crisp and sporty, but I’m girly too.” It fit like a dream—showing off my waist and accentuating the shape of my face while allowing me to show only the “best” parts of my arms. Once she made some motherly adjustments, my mother could see the dress. I told her I loved it more than the fantasy sundress, which was the absolute truth, and she pointed out that I didn’t need any special bra, pins or extra buttons to make it work, which was the best truth of all.

The wedding was lovely; the dress was “me.”

A few weeks later, I find myself thinking a lot about where the fantasy dress and its symbol of ultimate femininity fits into my sense of myself as a woman and how that shapes, or misshapes, my dating choices. Why make a beeline for the same dress even when I already know trying to fit into it will require huge feats to reshape myself? Where is the line between the little adjustments we make when we are attracted to someone and altering the shape of ourselves just to get that ideal fit?

Don’t get me started on shoes and job hunting.

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On Sundresses, Womanhood, and Dating; or, the Tale of the Shirtwaist Dress

2 thoughts on “On Sundresses, Womanhood, and Dating; or, the Tale of the Shirtwaist Dress

  1. Kate says:

    Sigh… I feel the same way about sundresses. My dream “wardrobe” persona always has me dressing like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider – athletic, edgy. On my body, however, I just look butch when I try it.

    Then I remind myself that I can be whoever I want to be, even if I don’t look the part.

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