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The Dress

June 17, 2011

I’ve written several times about my dysfunctional relationship with shoes, how I am as attracted as your average female to their strange, transformational power, their mystique, despite the tacit judgment they pass on my body each time I slide (wedge?) my foot into a pair with a heel higher than two inches.  I think it is no accident that Cinderella was known by her ability to fit into a shoe made of a substance so unforgiving, so unpliable as glass, her naked arch, toes, and heel visible to the prince. There are no blisters, no bloody toenails in Cinderella; she wins the prince not because of her humility and graciousness (which come to think of it, are not part of the Cinderella the prince sees), but because she effortlessly fits a rigid mold of feminine beauty.

High heels instantly change your walk, accenting hips and calves, making your stride roll, shorten, and slow down. The sound of heels clicking on a hard surface has always made me feel acutely female, and it’s not a feeling I’m entirely comfortable with, because it implies a very real vulnerability. Could I outrun anyone in heels? No way. Am I likely to fall on my face going down stairs while wearing them? Absolutely. But somehow they are still a badge to be earned, a test to be passed: you can do and be anything so long as you prove that you can walk in heels first. So many things about the female experience involve making the difficult and painful look effortless. Women are so, so much better at enduring physical pain without complaint than men. You will never convince me otherwise. Don’t even try.

But this is really not another lamentation about shoes. I’ve been thinking a lot about another highly charged feminine cultural object—the formal dress.

Most of the the major and minor female rites of passage I can think of (save childbirth) traditionally involve a dress: first communions and confirmations, quinceaneras, high school proms, debutante balls, weddings, and, finally, funeral viewings. Although casual dresses entered the mainstream in the 1970s and have never gone away, the formal dress still occupies a higher echelon, and I would argue that the choice of a formal dress is an expression not only of personality, but also of hope and aspiration. Which sounds strange, I know.

Even women (like myself) who generally shop for clothes alone (mostly via the Internet), often enlist the aid of other female friends and family in choosing a formal dress. It’s a bonding experience, and if you’ve got the right body it can be an affirming experience, but more often than not we bring our friends along to help console us when the dress we’ve fallen in love with doesn’t look right in that unforgiving three-way mirror in the dressing room. Friends have another one immediately ready to hand you in a different style, they somehow come up with the right thing to say on the spot to console you when long-buried physical anxieties erupt on the surface, and their patience is infinite, because they’ve been in the trenches themselves. Dresses judge you, but friends do not.

By the way, as a woman it’s no good to pretend you can just quietly pull out of the dress and shoes game altogether, scorning and rejecting the mythology. You might last for a while, but a combination of hubris and cultural expectations is usually right around the corner. Eventually you will go back to Neiman Marcus again, buoyant with confidence, convinced that this time will be different. Your dress is out there waiting to be discovered. Like love, we keep bouncing back for it, keep hoping, keep wandering with a drive intrepid and primal.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynne permalink
    June 18, 2011 11:24 am

    Being built like a peasant myself, and proud of it, in spite of being told by a rowdy boy that I had legs like a football player, I have managed to have a life. I try not to wear things that don’t look right on me. On the way to my present age, I made a lot of mistakes. Black tights can compliment many outfits, I’ve found.
    But, I’m not blind, so I suffer momentally as I watch women with completely different body builds than me, wear heels and above knee skirts. Luckily, I don’t brood over it. I’ve come too far for that.
    I know that I’m straight because when I look at women it’s to compare them to myself and notice the clothes they are wearing. When I look at men, there’s a more primal urge that surfaces.

    • Darcy permalink*
      June 18, 2011 5:55 pm

      I have never thought of you as anything but very stylish. All the Smith girls certainly had a great model in Grandma Anne as far as fashion and accessories go. Unfortunately I got the Smith butt and the Herman legs, so I am destined to be a fourth-string replacement for Markice Pouncey. I would like to say that age has made me less critical of myself, but I’m afraid it’s not the case. Maybe 50 will bring me the peace that 40 did not.

      Black tights rule.

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