Thursday, August 19, 2010

All the Dresses in the World

I'm naked in an upscale clothing store in New York City.

My wealthy friend Thomas is buying a fancy Italian shirt. He buys clothing on a whim. We're going out tonight and he wants to wear something nice.

I browse the men's clothes with him, careful not to drift over to the women's section because I know it could strip me of my upbeat mood.

But soon the scent of new clothes for me draws me near. I spot one vintage-style floral dress with an orange sash around the middle. The material is feather-soft and heavenly, the colors bold and inviting. I find my way to the price tag, sigh and walk away.

I return to the men's section. Thomas has spotted several shirts of his liking. He asks me which one. I tell him the cobalt blue shirt brings out his eyes. He darts off to the dressing room.

Reluctantly, I’m pulled back over to the women's section again. My eyes now catch this form-flattering slate gray dress. I put it up to my body, envisioning me in it. I would be a new and improved woman in this dress. Contemporary, sleek. Magical things would simply have to happen to me in this dress. Pricetag, sigh.

Thomas walks out of the dressing room, looking dashing. Well-dressed men make me weak in the knees. I walk up to Thomas and smooth out his collar. He is a beautiful male doll I suddenly want to fuck.

Looking at the 3-way mirror nearby, I can’t help but notice how unpolished I look next to him. My outfit is nice enough but it's no slate grey dress.

Most of my clothes have been from secondhand stores. A widowed mother raising five children on a secretary's salary couldn't afford much more. I'd die a thousand deaths shopping at those musty-smelling, drab stores, hoping no one would see me.

After Christmas break, pangs of envy would stab at me, seeing my friends in their fancy, new Jordache jeans and Candies shoes. And me, possibly wearing one of their old sweaters from last year.

And it wasn't just secondhand clothing that I would get for Christmas; it was hideous secondhand clothing! Purple polyester pants, old frilly dresses made for a bootleg Shirley Temple and coats that looked like burlap sacks.

Years later as an adult, I would receive my annual birthday box in the mail from my mom down in Florida, full of the same kind of whacked clothing. My heart would softly break. She put so much time into finding "just the right thing" for me on a tight budget but was still miles and miles off. I'd return the clothes to the Goodwill so other misguided mothers could torment their daughters for generations to come.

A few months ago at a beachside bar, I met a well-established painter here at the Jersey shore. Like other visual artists I know, they often view you as a "work." By the end of a wine-tinged evening, he said, "You are a fine specimen, Ms. Mann. One of a kind. You need to be wearing clothes that suit you better."

That naked feeling again. I had dressed up that evening - a tight black knee-length skirt and a silky top. But somehow, I knew what he was talking about. Something was off. The Bowie Effect had escaped me once again.

The Bowie Effect is the ability to look good in just about anything. David Bowie just can't help his stylish self. (His millions of dollars don't hurt either.) But I bet if he shopped at my secondhand stores, he'd still look better than me.

Maybe I missed out on some feminine role modeling where Feminine Mom shows you how to walk in high heels and apply lipstick just so. My mother was too busy “raising you damn kids, damnit!"

Or maybe I missed out on that opportunity to parade in front of my adoring father, wearing my Sunday best. Maybe I missed out on the opportunity to "buy whatever you want, sweetie." “Thanks Daddy!”

As a fatherless child at 6, I was stripped of my role of a little princess. My imaginary gown was replaced with imaginary tatters. The world soon became a place full of well-dressed princesses with living prince fathers who bought them brightly bowed presents bursting with girlish gifts. And I felt terribly bare and wrong. All the dresses in the world couldn’t bring my prince back.

There was a long-distance boyfriend of mine who would say, "I want to take you on an all-day shopping spree and dress you up in the finest clothes then bring you home and take them slowly off."

That little girl in me longed to be a perfect princess dressed in the finest wear, shining, sparkling, twirling and alight with my eternal feminine beauty. I knew he'd never take me on a shopping spree. It was just part of a fantasy, a sad tease, though I'm sure he wasn't aware of it.

Thomas and I leave the department store and go out to a nice restaurant, where all eyes are on him. He relishes the attention. New York is the worst place to experience these Cinderella feelings. It’s a city that happily reinforces your worst fashion fears.

Thomas notices the faraway look in my eyes and pulls a “surprise” out of one of his many bags. It’s a blue silk scarf with white, sparkling stars all over it.

“It made me think of you. You are a star, Beth Mann. You don’t need clothes to prove it.”

Good friends….reading your mind once again.