by Tammy Tillotson
Women spend an exorbitant amount of time, energy, and money in search of the perfect dress for the perfect occasion. Racks of dresses are aimlessly cast aside because they fail to accentuate the desirable features of a woman’s physique.
The Perfect Dress
Dresses have the uncanny ability to make a woman look too skinny, too fat, too short, too tall, too sexy, not sexy enough, to show too much cleavage, or to show not enough cleavage. By stepping in and out of exquisite fabrics women assume identities that can be casually tossed in a hamper at the end of an evening.
If the occasion did not go as imagined, at least the dress was gorgeous. That same dress finds a cozy hanger in the closet where it limply waits among an array of others in anticipation of being worn again. However, the next event will require entirely different attire, and the dress will not be appropriate. A new search for perfection will ensue.
It is often said that the dress makes a woman. Within an extremely fashion-conscious culture that places physical appearance on an elevated pedestal, perhaps this is only true when the woman finds the dress she believes she has been seeking. There is a certain amount of deep satisfaction, intertwined with relief, in reaching the end of the tiresome ordeal of making a decision about what to wear. Achieving that end result of perfection can certainly be stressful and all consuming for anyone.
Whether it occurs by chance, coincidence, or fate, perfection can be achieved where a person least expects to find it attired. Sometimes it is possible for a dress to find the perfect woman. In the unlikely event, a dress unknowingly weaves its own taffeta of meaning into the remnants of a woman’s memories, while opening the closet of her heart.
The ivory colored box had been meticulously stored on the very top closet shelf. By using a chair from the kitchen to stand on, the box was gingerly lifted out of the closet. With much care, the box was laid on the guest bed.
The plain white exterior of the cardboard failed to hint at the contents, or of its interesting journey. It was obvious though, that the contents had been cherished as someone had ensured that the box was kept well protected – or more accurately, two someones.
The first someone had been a woman in search of the perfect dress for a perfect occasion. Her arduous search led to a magazine ad featuring her vision of a perfect dress. After taking a clipping of the ad to a local clothing boutique, the dress company was contacted, and it was arranged that the dress could be kept on layaway and paid for in installments. Since the occasion would not arrive for several months, there was plenty of time. The dress waited.
As the long anticipated day crept closer something unexpected happened. For some reason, the special event was canceled. The dress was professionally cleaned and stored in its special ivory box of acid-free lining and tissue papers. The perfect dress was hidden away in an attic where again it patiently waited.
Two years later, the woman began planning another special event with a different special person in her life – the right someone. The ivory box was remembered and taken out from its hidden attic nook. When she opened the box and gently ran her fingers over the fabric, she realized that she would not be wearing the dress, because it no longer felt as perfect as it had several years earlier.
She decided that the money from selling the dress would be put toward the expense of buying another one. As soon as the dress was sold, she would begin searching for another perfect dress.
At the same time the first woman was cleaning out the attic, a second woman was planning a special event of her own. A dress was the least of her concerns between balancing a full fall semester of college and a part-time job that amounted to what part of time was she not working. All she barely had time to do was thumb through a back issue of a bridal magazine, which she had rescued from the public library’s discard pile.
Upon close inspection of the advertisements’ fine print, the dollar prices were laughable if not approaching hysterical. Her budgeted price range for a dress was a mere fraction of a percent of that fine print. The Goodwills in four counties had already been searched only to arrive at the same starting point, still empty handed.
As it often happens in a very small town, a friend of a friend discretely mentioned that there was possibly a beneficial solution for both women. The two ladies just happened to be about the same size. A phone call was made, which resulted in the dress being tried on. The dress fit fine.
Some concern was briefly mentioned about it being unlucky to wear a dress that had been intended for another occasion, but this played little into the actual commerce exchange. Considering how beautiful the dress was, accompanied with the practicality of its reasonable sale price, superstitions were simply ridiculous to give a second thought.
The first woman had a few hundred dollars to put as a down payment on another dress, and the second woman had a dress to wear for her special event.
The ivory box on the guest bed beckoned to me, though I felt a little uneasy about opening it. I decided not to, and instead went downstairs to wait impatiently in the living room.
At exactly five o’clock the doorbell rang, and I greeted a couple of strangers who seemed more nervous than me.
First, was an African-American gentleman attired in a rich milk chocolate suit. His muscular build and straightened posture exuberated confidence, yet his friendly smile and warm handshake immediately relayed that my wariness was unwarranted. A step behind him stood a timid Asian woman. Her ebony hair was upswept with loose curls encircling her round face, and her beautiful brown eyes reflected a growing apprehension as she waited for an unspoken cue from her counterpart.
I introduced myself while ushering the two of them inside. I estimated that they both were in their late thirties or early forties, and even without speaking, they shared a private intimate communication that expressed loving conversation with each other.
He, being the obvious business negotiator, proceeded to ask me again the questions I had answered on the telephone a few hours earlier. I repeated that the Alfred Angelo was a size 6 with a full train, and though it had been professionally cleaned and stored for only a few months, I still thought having it professionally ironed again was an honest recommendation.
She was beginning to look a little flushed by his business tone, so I changed the subject and suggested that before worrying about details, perhaps she’d like to see the dress to decide if she was even interested in trying it on.
As I motioned toward the upstairs, and turned to lead her to the guestroom, he began to follow the two of us. She excitedly, yet insistently, told him to remain in the living room. It would be bad luck for him to see her in a dress ahead of time. For a second, I thought there would be some protest, yet he instead reached out and squeezed her hand. She smiled at him before releasing it.
Once inside the room, I was forced to open the box whether I was prepared to or not. When I lifted the cover and gently unfolded the tissue papers, I heard a small gasp escape the woman beside me. I didn’t hear what her quiet voice whispered, as I was too preoccupied with my own thoughts.
I slid the bodice off of its molded mannequin-like insert, and I told her if she’d like to try it on, I’d be happy to help. Her eyes momentarily questioned if it was okay too, so I undid a few pearl buttons and the back zipper. Without hesitation, she quickly stepped out of her elegant dark pantsuit and allowed me to give instructions about how putting the dress on over her head was the easiest way.
I redid the zipper and fastened the tiny pearl buttons and the sequined lace collar. She studied the intricate details of the front bodice while she waited for me to finish, and she was still trying not to appear too anxious or overly excited.
Since there was only a small mirror in the guestroom, I led her across the hall to my bedroom. The lighted vanity had a much larger mirror, and the angled side panels would allow her to see the front and back of the dress she was wearing.
I stood in the doorway and watched her delighted reaction. Despite her struggle to appear calm and reserved, she was enthralled by her own reflection.
The dress not only fit her perfectly; she looked perfect in it.
Where I had always felt like an awkwardly out of place marshmallow, she radiated with a love and happiness that had somehow evaded me.
I had not realized the tears in my eyes, until she remembered I was there and glanced back at me. With tears in her own eyes, she told me how absolutely beautiful the dress was, and she could not understand why anyone would ever want to sell something so wonderful. I bolstered a response about how it was shameful to keep something so beautiful stored nice and neat in a little box, and I did my best to sound sincere.
I couldn’t find the right words to express the overwhelming sadness in my heart. Letting go of a sentimental material object was easy. Admitting that its new owner had found something that I had not was incredibly difficult. If there were any jealous pangs in my heart, they were from realizing I had borrowed a short amount of time to play dress-up. The difference had nothing to do with the dress, yet everything to do with the loving heart of the woman.
An Interesting Bouquet
While I returned the dress to its ivory box, she reluctantly stepped back into the pantsuit. I was having some trouble readjusting the buttons, and there was a lull of silence that I quickly tried to fill with small talk. I asked how long the two of them had been dating and when they were getting married.
She explained that they had been dating for several years, and since they were both in their late thirties, they had nearly given up on the notion of a partner to share their lives with. Neither had ever been married, yet both believed they shared a relationship firmly rooted in love and understanding. The wedding was to be a small gathering of close family and friends, and would take place in a little less than two weeks.
I commented that she must not be overly fond of dress shopping, then immediately regretted my words, as I saw tears in her eyes again.
It seems that a dress had been decided on months ago, before the rest of the wedding was planned. A family relative had a very special one that had been passed from bride to bride for several generations. It was going to be an honor for her to wear it, despite its evident yellowing age and out-dated style. Since tradition was so important to her family, she had given up her own dreams for a dress until a few days earlier. A relative had taken the treasured possession to be dry cleaned, and the chemical solvents that were applied to the fabric ate gaping holes in the silk, lace, and lining. The dress was beyond repair, though the family was coping with the sentimental loss.
She giggled as she explained that though the old dress was actually hideous to begin with, she didn’t feel like there was any time left to shop for another one. She had been both frantic and devastated, and was beginning to think that it was a bad omen. The handful of dress shops she had visited entirely exceeded her budget also.
Her fiancé, after cleaning his apartment, had gathered a box of thrift store donations in anticipation of their moving in together. The box had been forgotten in the trunk of his car. For weeks she had been complaining that if he didn’t get rid of the box, there would not be any room for their luggage when they left on their honeymoon.
On his lunch break that day, a business errand caused him to take a route through a different section of town. He drove by a thrift store; he remembered the box, and he turned the car around. As he was leaving the thrift store he noticed the for sale ad with a picture of the dress. He pulled the last phone number tag off the bottom of the ad, and then persuaded the store clerk to let him use the telephone. He had first called her to tell her about the dress; then called me to make sure I hadn’t already sold it; and finally called her back to tell her to be ready as soon as he got off work.
She blinked more tears away through her laughter, as she concluded that not only did he have excellent taste in what might look good on her, she could not have dreamed of a more perfect dress. It would now be her honor to preserve and continue the tradition for her family’s future generations.
To Have and To Hold
The couple was so ecstatic that they stayed and visited for nearly an hour after deciding they would take the dress. I listened to intricate details of their courtship, upcoming wedding, and honeymoon plans. They finally pried themselves away to the door, because she wanted her family to see the dress before nightfall.
He carefully toted the ivory box to their car, and I walked them out and thanked them. He shook my hand again, and in a low voice so she would not overhear, insisted that he owed me more money, because he was aware what this type of dress cost.
I told him he would understand when he saw her wearing it that her love made the dress’s beauty pale in comparison. Seeing their happiness was payment beyond any monetary amount he could possibly have offered me. I was glad that the dress had finally found the right person to truly appreciate it.
He confidently smiled, and assured me that he knew exactly what I meant.
Throwing Bird Seed
I wished them both well, and waved as they drove away.
I realized this was the closure I needed to say good-bye to a box full of sad memories, and hello to an awaiting world of possibilities.
I almost did not see the brake lights at the end of the driveway. I laughed as I turned toward the front door, and I thought it must be great to make out like a couple of teenagers again!
On cozy hangers within the depths of my closet, dresses still patiently wait to be worn. Yet the dress that will always be most dear to my heart, is not to be found among them. It is somewhere in someone else’s closet, and that is exactly where I feel it belongs.
Occasionally, a bit of nostalgia will force me to dust off a small photo album. Tucked inside one of the folds is a certain creased magazine ad that was taped to a very flimsy piece of cardboard more than half a decade ago. Neither the model in the ad or the woman in the photos will ever look as beautiful in the dress as a certain Asian woman.
I could say that I no longer feel the jealous pangs when I recall these memories. I do.