My mother was recently honored at a gala at the Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island’s North Shore — a majestic setting right out of The Great Gatsby. Thirty-six years earlier, she had been chairman of the same gala, and had persuaded designer Lilly Pulitzer to create a special fabric for the occasion. Now she decided to wear the same long, yellow Lilly caftan she’d worn then. (Naturally, it was still in her closet.) But what was I supposed to wear?
I found myself thinking back to the fun I’d had dressing for dance parties as a teenager: colorful mini dresses, some made out of paper, with huge papier-mache earrings. The only party dresses I owned now were black, but this occasion called for color. I hadn’t shopped for a bright party dress in years. In fact, the thrill of wearing dresses had been lost for me; mix-and match separates worked better for the demands I placed on my wardrobe. But now, as an empty nester, I suddenly wanted to get back in touch with my inner girl. Slipping into a special-occasion dress might awaken her. My friend Beth says, "When I wear a dress, it seems like taxis halt and men stop me on the street." That’s what I wanted: a taxi-stopping, tire-screeching, festive dress that would float when I danced.
Dressing Up Your Changing Body
But then I went shopping. I tried on the most beautiful, feminine confections I could find, but few of them fit me. Dresses are much less forgiving than separates, because you can’t wear different sizes on top and bottom. I was reminded of what the late fashion doyenne Nan Kempner reportedly told the designer Valentino after one of his shows: "I don’t need a new dress, I need a new body!" My friend Lisa, the only woman I know who almost always wears dresses, advised, "The key to finding your style is to get into your closet and pay attention to what works on you — dress for the body you have now, not the one you remember." She’s right: We may lie to ourselves when we look in the mirror, but our clothes don’t.
Two weeks before the party, I still hadn’t found the dress. I was tempted by one, a floral chiffon dress that was more Carrie Bradshaw than me. I brought it home for a few days to get to know "us" — but "we" didn’t work. Fortunately, my mother had taught me never to remove tags from clothes before wearing them.
Finding the One
Then one night, I saw it on a mannequin in a store window: Its halter neckline would show off my toned arms and shoulders, while its cascading chiffon would detract from my thickening waist and tummy. The rich periwinkle color was deep enough to ease me comfortably out of black. My heart skipped a beat when I realized — even better — it was a two-piece dress. I immediately calculated the various ways I could wear each piece, which would also help me justify the price. (Cost ÷ by 2 pieces X the number of times I would wear each = green light to buy!)
The store was closed, so I had time for my litmus test: Would I wake up wanting to race back and try it on? I did. I knew this dress wasn’t about recapturing my inner girl but acknowledging the woman I had become. I was discovering that I like this woman and want to have more fun with her.
At the party, I danced to the hot disco beat with the same joy and abandon as I did on that long-ago night. And like my mother with her Lilly Pulitzer, I can’t wait to wear it again — even 36 years from now.
Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2005.