She knew something about fashion. After all, she had sat through The Devil Wears Prada three times when her kids were young and was witnessing what high-priced fashion could do for a real woman like Michelle Obama. Heck, she knew what an “after” was on “What Not to Wear.” So, when she saw the dress, in the tiny store that shown with sparkly fabrics and muted shades of pink, where you felt cozy as if in a big pale powder puff, where the smell of expensive perfume that she’d never wear enveloped you when you walked in, she was instantly mesmerized.
“Look at this one, Sally,” she called to her youngest child, their only child still living at home, when she saw it on the rack in the small boutique that she would never have entered but for Sally. It was a va-va-va-boom dress, a deep cobalt blue – a “saturated” color she had learned from her home magazines, that would be perfect with her very deep black hair with only hints of grey. It was clearly made for a woman her age – one who, despite working out five to six times a week and watching what she ate – except the ice cream that kept dragging her down – one who woke up one day with bones that ached and high blood pressure, who had borne three children and whose stomach wouldn’t let her forget it – to make that woman forget, for just a moment, that mortality was keeping its steady forward march.
It had tiny feathery pieces of fabric sown horizontally in half-inch repetition. It was “form-fitting” as they would say, and had multiple straps that repeated the pattern of the dress on the shoulders. She lifted it off the rack and felt its excessive weight. “Feel this,” she told Sally and watched as her daughter realized how heavy the thing was. “It must take a heck of a lot of elastic to keep fat in,” and she would have referenced a girdle, her grandmother suffering through the dog days of August in those stupid things so that her body would conform to the male idea of beauty – but it would take too long to explain to Sally.
“Wow,” was all Sally said, obviously impressed.
Regardless of its weight, the woman could see herself in that dress for a wedding perhaps – her older daughter did have a steady boyfriend –she had a image of herself walking down the aisle on her handsome son’s arm, or dancing in an elegant restaurant (they must exist somewhere) her husband glowing with affection as he held her and she, before she knew it, said to Sally, in a very cocky tone, “I’d look great in that dress.”
“How much is it?” Sally asked and fingered the multiple tags. In fact, her mother had already looked and couldn’t find a price, “It’s must be too expensive; they don’t tell you.” Her mother was proud she had taught her daughter to be frugal.
“No, here it is – it’s $295.00. Wow,” Sally said and walked away. The woman was surprised it wasn’t more. It would be a luxury to be purchased for a special event, but on the other hand, she did bring home a decent salary.
She couldn’t believe she was thinking these things.
The woman continued around the store, noting a t-shirt that was cute, but no cuter than the one she’d seen at Target for $9.99. This one was $59.99. She supposed it was an original design and had to admit that an artist should be compensated. She hadn’t forgotten Meryl Streeps’ drawl speech in the film where she charted the origins of fashion, supporting its role as art form. There was a very elegant-in-a-Morticia-Adams sort of way black silk jacket with a red lining that was on sale. She tried to picture herself in it – nope, too severe. Or, a green cardigan that she certainly would wear that was at least two steps up from the Lands End brand she usually wore – it had glass buttons, some kind of mohair in the fabric, and three-quarter length sleeves. A bit Audrey Hepburn, she supposed. It was lovely. Or, there were those wispy long cardigans with sort of wings coming off them that looked great on her friend Betsy who was tall, but would probably look foolish on her short frame. And there was a coat made of material that looked like newspaper, but felt like cotton. “If it doesn’t have a sports section, forget it,” commented a husband accompanied by his runway-ready wife to the saleswoman. All the nicely lacquered women around him tittered at the sentiment that any man in their own lives would have been thinking as well as this handsome young man, but this guy had the guts to enter their world and speak it directly. Plus, he was really cute.
She went back to the dress. She looked at the other two dresses next to it. Another cobalt blue with a criss-cross bodice and the other, a deep red with a square neckline, always flattering to her, she knew. Periodically, Sally entered her sphere to seek her opinion on variations of the $10.00 Vera Bradley wallet she was choosing. How did her daughter know about Vera Bradley? More to the point, why did she care about Vera Bradley? She had to stop that subscription to Seventeen, she thought and realized she was worrying for the tenth time that day about something she couldn’t control.
This was an issue she was working on in her yoga practice and her “midlife tune-up” as she referred to it. She’d been thinking a lot lately about the young woman she had been in her twenties – independent, cool, optimistic. She wasn’t sure where or when she’d changed into this somewhat compulsive control freak, but there’d definitely been a paradigm shift, as they liked to say at work. In fact, in her twenties, she hadn’t thought about material things or style at all. She wore jeans, got a great long wool jacket on sale at Goodwill, and lived in a run-down train-car apartment with wonderful woodwork, but absolutely nothing else. She ate green beans out of the can instead of cooking and once or twice a year, one friend or another would try to tame her thick dark mass of hair with thinning shears. She had had enough of the sixties in her to consciously seek equality for whatever group needed it. She walked in whatever walk was necessary to raise money for a cause she believed in. These forays into activism weren’t just hobbies, but true, reliable markers as to where her heart and soul had been – there had been no middle ground, simply good, bad, just, unjust. To say that she had been oblivious to style was an understatement. Things were a lot easier.
And then, one day, she blinked and her focus had switched from what kind of fool had voted for Reagan to making sure her home and children and meals coordinated. Just at the point in her life when she had seriously considered giving away everything she didn’t use, poof – there was the Ralph Lauren, Martha Stewart, Gymboree culture she’d never been aware of before. Had the scales been lifted or added to? Now, she wasn’t sure. She still recycled, even the cardboard that you had to haul to the dump yourself, sometimes rode her bike to run errands, and worked at the hunger center on occasion, but that yearning to make it all better had subsided. She cared in general, but lusted rarely. Was this what was meant by complacency? Once, she had felt that the things you crave defined you, and when you stopped lusting, craving, daydreaming, you were screwed because it was a sign that your spirit had died. She hoped she was wrong.
But now, she reminded herself, at least she had been telling herself, she lusted for a balanced spiritual life for chakra as the yogis said, for centering, for focus on what was important. Which was why she’d agreed to come with Sally. To spend time with her last child who’d be leaving for college soon who’d go off and “find herself.” She wasn’t sure where the relationships with your children fit into yoga. She wasn’t that far in her practice.
In any event, she wondered why she was walking back to the dress. Why was she picking it and its two sister dresses off the rack and asking the saleswoman if it was okay if she tried them on? She was out-of-body surprised at what she was doing.
But she was and she did and she found herself in the tastefully decorated dressing room in front of a full-length mirror, taking off her clothes. As much as she was trying to embrace her “new” body, the previously mentioned one with fat around the middle and high blood pressure, blah, blah, blah, she wasn’t very successful. So, she tried not to look at her own reflection, as if it were a separate person, and she was being mindful of its modesty, and, with her back to the mirror, she slipped on the first beautiful, heavy, cobalt blue dress. She panicked for a moment when she realized that she might have trouble getting the zipper up – a brief moment where she fantasized Cary Grant coming into the room and glibly, seductively saying, “Let me get that, dear” and finishing the job. In fact, the saleswoman was back at the door, “Everything all right in there?” as if she’d fallen down a toilet or broken a bone, or something.
The woman let Sally into the dressing room instead. The woman’s underpants made a line, so she adjusted them and pretended she was wearing a thong or whatever they do and stood on her toes, as if she were wearing heels. The dress certainly was form-fitting and she wished she had more curve, but the shoulders – always the last to go as some fashionista had said – were great in the multiple straps that could be pulled down a bit to hide the top flabby part of her arms. Her chest was flattened a bit, but otherwise… Sally said nothing. “Well, I guess it doesn’t really work,” her mother prodded.
“Are you kidding? You look great, Mom.” Sally’s brown eyes got wide in the way they did when she was excited. She was sincere. Her mother was so surprised, so touched by her daughter’s complement that she realized she was tearing up a bit and looked at herself again.
For a brief moment, she allowed herself to feel joy, even astonishment in her own image. Maybe if she sucked in her stomach and had makeup on, if, if… no. No ifs. She was fine the way she was. She could be the mother of the bride, or be the well-kept middle age wife, or the “after” on “What Not to Wear”…she could be…was… herself. The woman kept the dress on another minute or two, tried on the other two without the same success, and took the dresses to re-hang them on the rack.
“Did those work?” the saleswoman wondered as if she could sell all the dresses together, like adopting all the girls of one family.
“Well, yes,” she had to admit, “but I really don’t have anywhere to wear it.”
Too late she realized she was now the center of attention, that she was the “cause” on which the gaggle of women in the store was focused.
“But,” the saleswoman said,” If you don’t buy it now, you won’t have it when you do have someplace to wear it.”
And a dark, chubby woman somewhere in her forties, mischievously advised, “Or, you have to buy it and find someplace to wear it,” leaving out only the wink in her statement.
And for a brief moment, the woman went through her catalogue of fantasies, even going so far as to envision the dress hanging in her closet in its, she was sure, elegant packaging, where she could take it out periodically, try it on -a beacon to an alternate universe.
Two days later in her yoga class, the image of herself in the heavy, cobalt blue dress with the sexy neckline, reappeared. She choked on a small morsel of guilt that this was the extent of her spiritual self and yet, delighted in the focus and joy that that thought brought her.