one perfect dress

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It’s navy blue, a color you almost never wear. It’s made of thin, stretchy fabric — the label just says “cotton blend,” which could mean any number of things. It has a pattern, which is another thing you usually avoid. It’s floral but not obviously so — the flowers, which are velvet red (orchids? peonies?) are stylized enough that they draw attention away from their botanical origin and become almost gestural. They could belong on wallpaper or in an corner of an Impressionist painting — two or three brushstrokes, little passing caresses of color, not really flowers at all.

You examine it, tug on it a little, contemplate whether you should wash it or not, decide against it just to be safe. On the basis of this decision, a lot else gets decided: it’s not quite formalwear (you don’t really have any of that) but it’s also not for every situation. You make a mental note: keep it away from anything potentially dirty or messy, which means no dinner parties, walks by the river during this muddy time of year, nights out. You prefer to not wear dresses on nights out anyway — it’s an easy way to become too significant, too statement-y. You prefer to look — boyish isn’t the word, but it’s close, a kind of androgynous sheen with a minimum of signification (as if that was possible). You’ve been wearing a lot of black lately. You retweeted something a few weeks ago that said “navy is the coward’s black” or something like that, and here we are. Black is uncompromising; navy is gentler but still firm, serious, solid. You could get behind navy in some situations, you think, even if you mostly see this dress as a specific case. I’ll allow it, you think, but on some level you realize that you’ve been waiting for this without knowing.

It’s doubtlessly had a life before your friend had it. You try to picture this woman, or maybe women, who owned this dress before you. Would you get along with them? Somehow you doubt it — clothes mean things based on the bodies they live with (and vice versa) but you seem to be wearing this dress with a tinge of opposition to the meaning it suggests for its wearer. Or maybe you’re not.

It’s a gift from your friend, and you try to somehow convey to them in a text message the significance of what they’ve given you — something that fits so imperceptibly into everyday life that it’s hard to be superlative about it. It’s a functional garment, not a beautiful one. The superlative feelings you feel upon putting this dress on are mostly in how normal it is to be wearing a dress that no one would turn their head at. For the reason you avoid dresses is mostly because you are with varying levels of consciousness trying to be not That Kind Of Girl. Do clothes create their own contexts, or do we look for the context in the clothes? There’s something about a dress that usually signifies attachment to conservatism to you, in ideal if not in strict practice. The last woman you saw in a dress was clinging — literally, hands on shoulders, devotionally upturned face, all that — to her flanneled, apparently indifferent fiancé. Whether this impression is misplaced or not, it’s what you believe and hard to shake — and you suspect you’re not the only one with this impression, informed as it is by more or less of the normal amount of self-denial (later, you write and delete “self-hatred”) that women carry around with them everywhere they go, like a handbag that’s slightly too heavy.

Realistically, though, any new article of clothing is for you a chance to be self-conscious. The reason you wear the same clothes you wore last year and the year before (black and earth tones, notably, never really go out of style) is that a new article of clothing is a chance to scrutinize yourself, to be seen as a new thing. No matter what that new thing is, you feel its newness as a species of pain. This is doubly true for anything you find feminine, which (due to that same internalized misogyny) you view, essentially, as decoration that doesn’t track with the fake asceticism that passes for virtue, especially in overeducated places. That this false austerity is very often co-expressive with pretentiousness probably doesn’t bother you as much as it should.

But you put on this dress, look at yourself in it in your mirror, and you consider. Has something changed? Maybe you can be okay with femininity as such, without the endless hemming and hawing about it that your education (both the formal one and the informal, anecdotal one) encourages. Who is it really harming if you wear a dress and are happy in it in a quiet, almost secretive way? Because that’s the other thing — it truly doesn’t matter whether anyone else notices. That’s the magic of the perfect garment — you become the only context worth listening to. Here, in front of your mirror, you see the drape of the dress over your shoulders, how it hugs your waist below your ribcage, the fabric pleating and rippling just above your knees, and that’s enough to inspire confidence.

This confidence is such that you debut it to what you think is a date at the movies. You post something on Instagram beforehand: performing femininity a little more than usual for date night. That final phrase — slightly hackneyed and frumpy, conjuring your mother going to movies in the 80s with your father — seems suddenly appropriate in this dress. It’s an appropriation both ironic and not. You are earnest in your evocation of the 1990s evocation of the 1970s. See how recursive this reading becomes? In any event, were you to wear your usual greyscale ensemble, “date night” would come out of your mouth as a verbal gargoyle; here it has an ease and naturalness to it.

When you show up, the person who you thought was your date brings a partner. You resign yourself, settle into your seat, fold your legs over one another. You pay attention to the movie, but you are also picturing yourself, and in the process picturing other women. Free-associating, you picture Katherine Hepburn and Joan Didion in quick nonsensical succession — the lapidary seriousness living inside of deeply felt emotion is the common denominator, you think; realistically though you’re just rifling through a mental card catalog of images, your particular subset of the pop-cultural collective unconscious. Some part of you wishes you were smoking a cigarette in this movie theater, though this is impossible in this day and age.

You do that when you get back home, on your porch. You’re trying to quit before you get truly addicted, but one more wouldn’t hurt. A few days from this moment, you’ll throw out most of your remaining cigarettes in a dramatic gesture, but for now you relish the punctuation it offers for your life. This cigarette is a full stop to the evening. In the dim light of your porch, with the little ember a few inches from your face, you picture yourself again. It’s not in reference to something specific this time, but you see yourself as if from the outside. Pouting a little? Feeling jilted? There’s really only so much of that you can muster, but you feel as though you’re inhabiting (performing?) something unusual, something with a counterintuitive firmness to it. By the end of the cigarette your limbs are buzzy and imprecise. Pliable, as you said to the erstwhile lover who introduced you to the ugly habit. As you unlock your door and step inside, you’re sorry that you have made the dress smell like smoke and some part of you is still regretting that you have to take it off and get into bed, to sink into formless sleep and forget all this silliness.

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