Full disclosure: My little black dress is actually pretty big.
It’s been years since I bought or wore a dress. In fact, I can’t even remember when I last did. I’ve worn skirts, mostly in professional settings, and I’ve managed over the years to dress appropriately for both professional and personal occasions in pants or suits.
I’m from that generation that grew up wearing dresses throughout my school years. We didn’t have a choice; it was required. Some days I enjoyed dresses. In fact as an elementary school child, I’d argue relentlessly with my father when in winter he’d demand that I’d wear snow pants underneath my dress. Once or twice a year in high school we’d be able to wear pants near the end of the school term which always felt liberating. My attitude and behavior would instantly change. When I finally graduated from high school my wardrobe changed forever.
I’ve told this story before which exemplifies my relationship with clothes and comfort. On the first day of kindergarten I wore a brand new polka dot dress with matching bows in my hair and saddle shoes with lacy anklet socks. My mother curled and styled my long hair and took a series of photos with her Kodak Brownie Camera of me on my first day of school, waving good-bye.
When I returned home that day, I ran upstairs, slipped out of the dress, and slipped into my plaid corduroy pants with the elastic waist and deep pockets. I donned a short-sleeved t-shirt like my father’s with a left breast pocket, pulled the bows out of my hair, grabbed a rubber band and pulled my hair back into a ponytail. My mother called me downstairs. She wanted to shoot the last of the roll of film so she could have it developed. She was surprised that I had so quickly changed clothes. She shot a couple of photos of me, hands in pockets, looking like a tomboy.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like dresses, I rebelled against the notion that due to my gender it was expected that I dress for the pleasure of men or to present myself in an acceptable “ladylike” manner.
In fact as a young married woman in the early 1970s with a slim figure yet amply endowed breasts, I bought a purple mini dress and wore it to a trip to Chicago when my husband Frank and I stayed in the upscale Palmer House Hotel.
As I rode the elevator by myself returning to our room, a group of two or three businessmen joined me and not so subtly propositioned me, inquiring if I was a “working girl.” I broke eye contact and got off the elevator and ran to my room in platform shoes (which was a feat in and of itself). After that experience I became more conscious of dressing for safety and to avoid male gaze.
For a short time in the 1970s I continued to occasionally wear a dress. Mini dresses grew out of fashion and prairie dresses, long and covering most of the flesh, replaced them. I sometimes wore long skirts or gaucho pants with Frye boots. Big floppy hats, handmade leather accessories, beaded jewelry and large saddlebag purses completed the look. Interestingly, pickup a Sundance catalog today and I’d be back in fashion.
During the mid and late 1970s my clothing choices changed to match my politics as a second wave feminist and member and leader of consciousness-raising groups. It was pants and t-shirts — and no bra. The t-shirts often carried silk-screened messages. In fact, I regret not saving those shirts, some of which I designed and screen-printed myself.
When I came out as a lesbian, androgyny was de rigueur, though in later years butch or femme presentation became more common and acceptable again — and in some cases, a lot of fun. Some women dressed in leather motorcycle jackets, white athletic tees, and kick-ass boots. Femmes emulated Madonna’s “material girl” look or wore little black dresses, stockings, spiked heels and red lipstick. Of course these are stereotypes and a whole gamut of clothing choices and looks could be seen on women of all sexual preferences and identities.
I fell somewhere on the femme side of the butch-femme scale as outlined by JoAnn Loulan of Lesbian Passion fame. A favorite “parlor” game among my friends in the early 1990s and after was plotting and scoring each other on that scale and to see if our self-assessment matched the perception of our peers.
Over the years as I quit drinking and smoking, shifted from physical labor to desk jobs, and simply aged, I went from my fighting weight of 115 pounds to over 200-plus. My wardrobe preferences became tunic tops and pants with elastic waists. Except for a long black skirt that I could wear with my white or black dress shirts and accessorize with a dress jacket, there were no dresses in my closet.
History of the Little Black Dress
“In 1926 Gabrielle “Coco Chanel” published a picture of a short, simple black dress in American Vogue. It was calf-length, straight, and decorated only by a few diagonal lines. Vogue called it “Chanel’s Ford.” Like the Model T, the little black dress was simple and accessible for women of all social classes. Vogue also said that the LBD would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.” — Source: Wikipedia
As someone who follows fashion primarily for its visual art aesthetic, I’ve been aware of the culture of the little black dress, but I never felt compelled to own one. In fact the Little Black Dress phenomenon is prevalent enough to be capitalized and considered to be a basic mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe.
After Coco Channel’s declaration many credit Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with popularizing the Little Black Dress. Over the years designers like Karl Lagerfeld and stylists and celebrities further solidified the popularity and promoted the importance of having a Little Black Dress in one’s closet. A whole series of romantic novels under the Little Black Dress imprint further reinforce the sexy experience of wearing one. Workout programs were developed so women could lose weight, get fit, and slip into a Little Black Dress and live the stories they were reading about.
My (BIG) Little Black Dress Story
Two days ago I opened an email promotion from my favorite online clothing catalog, J. Jill. I’m a big girl and when I shop for clothes today, I strive to balance comfort with clothes that feel good on my skin, wash and wear easily, are suitable for work and play, and whose sizing I’m confident will fit. I also like discounts, so I often open the emails, peruse the catalog and invite the internet cookies to track my activity and send me a promotional code for my next order.
I saw a Little Black Dress available in a Woman’s size (a euphemism for plus-sized, which is also a euphemism for “fat-woman-size”). It was the first time in a long time that I saw a dress that I thought would look flattering on me and meet my clothes-buying criteria. Today, I practice not buying things on impulse and like to “sleep on it.” The next day, when I magically received my promotional code — a bonus for waiting a day — I decided to order it.
Now, this is where the story takes a slightly morbid turn, so beware! If death, dying and funerals are not something you choose to think or read about, stop reading here.
When I saw the dress, the first thing that came to mind is that it would be perfect to wear to funerals. I’m at that age where unfortunately this has become a more frequent social activity. The second thought was if I applied for another job, it would be a perfect outfit to make a powerful first impression. Lastly, as I envisioned myself doing a TED Talk and I accessorized it with some of my sister Tami’s Bohemian Bauble jewelry I would look stunning on stage and on YouTube.
When I shop online I sometimes like to read the reviews to gauge how other consumers rate the item they have purchased for quality and value and with clothes for fit. Needless to say, though it reinforced my decision to purchase, I was surprised to read that the first three reviewers sang the praises of how this was the perfect dress for wearing to a funeral, and one reviewer was particularly grateful that it arrived in time for her husband’s funeral. Oh my!
Readers of Mixed Metaphors, Oh My! stay tuned. When the dress arrives, I’ll slip it on with the black tights I ordered and take a selfie. You are invited to vote on whether it’s: Suitable for a funeral, makes a powerful first impression, and if I should wear it for my future imaginary TED Talk.