Object Parade: Little Black Dress

Should you pack the dress? The little black dress? A sleeveless shift, darts at the bust, comes to just above the knee, meant to be worn with hose and heels, black on black, diamonds at the wrist, jewels dripping from the ears, lips lined in red, eyes lined in charcoal and heavily mascara-ed, the wand pulled through each lash real slow at the corners, the way you’ve been taught…

This dress — this is the dress that got you through – through and past and over the Opening, the Wrap, the Gala; that Christmas, that New Year’s, that Black Tie event; a parade of your own anniversaries and birthdays, and everybody else’s big one, besides. For this dress you bought a succession of pointy-toed pumps, pashminas, and push-up bras; it’s this dress that gave the old Ford its cool (and the Dodge, and the mini-van too in their day), that allowed you to descend from the passenger seat with a modicum of moxie, to give the Beast (you called it the Beast, big as it was, its ceiling rigged with popsicle sticks when it started to fall) to the valet at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel Air, the Four Seasons, and even outside that gated monstrosity in Hancock Park, the pink stucco affair with the gargoyles on either side of the wrought iron gates across the driveway.

How many times in this dress, have you swung your legs – swathed in sheer Lycra with a seam up the back — around like a diver, to step from the car, to rise to almost six feet, to tower over the guy in the bow tie and vest in your three inch heels, to look down at him, all demure, all murmured thanks, when he called you Miss; as if you looked like a Miss, and as if you were driving a shiny new Jag — you wish — but you didn’t look like you wished, not then, not yet.

O, you should be able to say when you bought this dress and what for… But you don’t remember… That’s the problem; the dress is that old — the seams beginning to loosen and disappear under the arms, the color fading there, too. Should you pack the dress? Should you ever wear the little black dress again? Should you?

You should buy a new dress, that’s what you should do. And you’ve been dutifully folding down the corners in your catalogues, surfing the net, dropping over to Nordstrom’s on weekday mornings, when the dressing rooms are empty, trying on dress after dress in three-way mirrors, under unforgiving fluorescent lights. Except. Except, this one has capped sleeves (unacceptable) and that one, an empire waist (flattering to whom?); not a garment can you find without lace at the hem (precious), a bow at the shoulder (puerile), gratuitous puckers, pleats, and pockets; all you want is a little black dress like the one you already have. Except, except…

When did it happen? When – how – did the lipstick get too dark, the eye-liner too severe? When, by the way, did people start telling you to color your hair? And when oh when did every occasion in the little black dress begin to feel just a little like Halloween?

So. Is it actually, finally time to retire the little black dress? You sit on the edge of the bed, the dress spread across your lap.

You remember a dinner party in Laurel Canyon. Back in the days when you needed a sitter. (That baby nearly grown now, has her own black dress, left it in the back of the closet when she went away to college this year; she didn’t need it.) A party in a house on stilts; a woman there – a guest like you – petite and pale, boneless, with eczema on the fleshy backs of her arms, and yellow teeth, and halitosis. Somehow even so, she commandeered the evening, excluded you, it seemed, from every conversation, gazed at something just over your shoulder when you did speak, though she cultivated a special intimacy with everyone else at the table, even your husband, whom, you remember (how can you forget?) she invited to poker night the following week. Small and rubbery as she was, she slithered up close to him; to everyone but you, men and women alike –  if they’d had awnings growing out of their eyebrows, she’d have been in the shade. You wondered, from exile, how they didn’t back away from her, since you could smell her breath from where you were, though she said nothing directly to you all evening, not a word.  Except. Except, “That’s quite a dress,” she hissed, not meeting your eye, as you passed each other in the hall, coming and going from the bathroom. You thanked her – you thanked her retreating back, that is – and she vaguely waved from over her shoulder.

You smooth the dress across your knees. You snap a thread hanging from the hem. Flick away a bit of lint near the neckline. You fold it in half lengthwise, lay it across the top of the suitcase, just so. You’ll wear trousers, no doubt, with a silk and cashmere blend button-down cardigan, very appropriate. But – just in case — you’re packing the little black dress.