Secret Lives of Dresses Vol. 8


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There are lots of ways for a dress to die. The sudden, prime-of-life death: Somebody holding a cherry popsicle walks into you, and you're a goner. You get caught in the broken spoke of a bicycle wheel, feel that triangular tear; it's all over. Or you can die of old age: you get worn and worn and worn again and then one day you come out of the washer more fading and worn spots than good whole cloth, and you get torn up for rags.

Sometimes, though, you just go into a kind of limbo. A half-death. Somebody changed sizes, and it wasn't you, so you get pushed further and further back in the closet, so much so that you can't even really tell the difference between the door being open and the door being shut anymore, and you just … doze. Sometimes for a long time. Sometimes for years. Longer than you think you have, anyway.

And then (if your story is like mine), the door opens again, and not only does it open, you come out. Everything comes out! The dresses and the hats and the suits and the sweaters, and the moths in the sweaters, and the dust! Dust everywhere! You're glad you're not a dark dress, because the dark dresses' shoulders really show the dust.

It's hard, waking up again. Coming alive again. When you're being worn, being worn regularly, it's like the aliveness of the body you're on seeps into you, and keeps you going when you're on the hanger. But it can seep right out again, and after so long without being worn, the sparks of aliveness get further and further apart, like firefly flashes, there in the dark closet.

So there we all were, hauled out of the closet half-dead, and hanging on a rack in the middle of the room. Everything was laid out where it shoudn't have been — all her underthings, or at least the nicest slips, on the bed, with her gloves and her purses, and all her dressing table things on the bureau, laid out in rows, not like they would be on her dressing table at all (that was gone, I don't know where it went). All her shoes on the floor, lined up in rows like a class picture. The closet door was open and I could see it was empty; everything was out in the open. Everything looked so much duller than I remembered. Older.

There were women moving around, fussing and sorting and chatting. None of them were wearing dresses. They were wearing soft knit pants, and white tennis shoes, and long knit shirts that came down well past their hips. They all had short sleeves, and lots of them had things written on their shirts. I remember one said "COLORADO", but I didn't think that could be her name. Over the shirts some of them wore little half aprons, but they weren't real aprons. They were heavy canvas, and all one color — not pretty at all.

I'm not sure how long I was hanging there before I started noticing all this; it could have been a day, maybe longer, before things stopped being only light and color and sound and started being things I mostly recognized, however strange. I do know that when I finally started paying attention, it was early morning. Very early, with light coming in at that angle that means dawn wasn't so very long ago, but the women were energetic. They all had white paper cups, very large, with shiny white lids that they drank through. It smelled just like coffee, but the cups were huge.

Pretty soon, though, one of the women said "Oh, Lord, here they come!" and the other women gave that kind of groaning laugh when you're half-dreading, half-anticipating something. I remember I used to hear it when I was still being worn, and she had the girls over for bridge and there was just time to play one last hand before they had to meet the kids after school. That kind of laugh.

All of a sudden the house was full of people! Mostly women, but also men. The men were in white or black tennis shoes, but leather, not canvas, and shorts, and more T-shirts with things written on them. The women were mostly in pants or shorts, too. Dungaree shorts! And always, always sneakers, or those thong sandals that I'd only ever seen on the beach. And everybody was so big! Not just tall, but round, too. They were all picking up her things, and carrying them off. Armloads of them, sometimes. One man walked through the room with all her records, the Perry Como and the Rosemary Clooney and all the old 78s — just everything. He could barely carry them all. He just took a look around at all her underthings there on the bed, laid out like cold cuts, and asked one of the aprons, "Any tools?" What was he going to do to those records that he needed tools? I didn't hear the answer, though, because I got grabbed up.

She had me by the shoulders and was flipping me this way and that. I don't think there was an inch of me that didn't get touched, or pulled, or held up to the light. I barely got a glimpse of her, what with all the somersaults of being turned inside out and back right side out again, and then I was squished between a wool coat I didn't remember and that plaid day dress that always got put back in the closet because she pulled across the shoulders, and we were headed towards the front door.

Slam! One of the apron-ladies moved her big white paper cup aside just in time, and there we all were in a pile on a table, and the apron lady said, "Let me see … two dresses, a coat, five handkerchiefs, and four books — how about twenty-five?"

"Twenty-five if I can take that box of zippers and things over there, too …"

"Oh, sure, honey, I think we priced that whole kit and kaboodle at three dollars. I can give you that."

And then we were all bundled up together, the coat and the plaid dress and the zippers and the books and me, and went right out the door.

All this time, I hadn't seen her anywhere, I mean the other her, the one that used to wear me. I didn't really expect to, anyway, there was an emptiness around, despite her things being everywhere. In fact, all her things being there made her being gone more obvious, if you know what I mean.

Next thing I knew I was spread across a different bed.

"And look at this one! The pockets!" she was saying, to the man in the room. He looked a bit bored, and it took me a minute to realize that she was talking about me. No one had ever mentioned my pockets before, and certainly not to a man.

I think it got a bit too much for me then, and I don't remember much else until I felt the nice warm massage of the iron over me. I felt just-washed — I must have been just washed — and I was being ironed, which, truly, is just the best feeling. You can be all jangly and cross-grained and overwhelmed but the iron just makes it all go away, and there you are fresh and smooth again. It's better than anything.

Then she put me on. I was being worn again! It was different than I remembered; it's hard to explain because it ought to be the same, being worn, but of course even though anyone who can fit inside you ought to feel mostly the same, it's still different. The breathing is different and the moving is different, and the hands in the pockets are different hands, and so even though it is almost the same, it's just not quite.

Funnily enough, though, it was the wearing that was the most familiar, because everything else is so different! It's almost like a different planet. I've never seen her touch a vacuum cleaner, for instance, and there's a machine that washes the dishes, but
more than half the time the man feeds it, not her. She spends most of her days with this thing that looks like a teeny television attached to some kind of typewriter — hours and hours staring at it and typing, but the paper doesn't come out of it, but out of another box in a different place, and even then she does about ten times as much typing as ever shows up on paper, as far as I can tell. And she talks on two different phones, neither of which are connected to anything. Just floating out there in the air! She walks all over the place with them, and sometimes, she even answers one in the car, with a little earpiece, like a hearing aid, only smaller. And also in the car, she has a little shiny white box, and it connects to the radio, although I wish it wouldn't. I mean — it's just not music, that's all. And even though I think I understand the words "roller" and "boogie", they make no sense put together, and I certainly don't know why they have to be followed by a word I didn't think could be said on the radio! And weirdest of all, the television (which is color, by the way) has a bar-thing you can point at it, about the size of a hairbrush, and it changes the channels and even freezes it! And when you come back from getting ice cream you can make it start again. Of course, she's mostly watching firefighters use foul language and misbehave, which I don't understand at all. She doesn't use that language herself (or at least I haven't heard her) but the music and the television are full of words I barely knew existed, before.

It's odd being alive again, but I'm not upset about it. I like being worn, of course, and I'm sure I'll get used to that … language in time. The only sad thing is that it's getting harder and harder to remember how it felt to be worn by the other one, the one so long ago. I can't even remember her name. I think it was Elaine, but I can't be sure, and the coat and the plaid dress don't know. I think they weren't ever worn as much as me, so their memories are even fainter. We stopped talking about it.

Almost all the other dresses in her closet are like me, revived Rip Van Winkles. Some of them like to talk about her behind her back. They don't like that she doesn't wear gloves, or hats, and they hate being worn with sneakers. They talk about their old owners, but I think a lot of it is just lint — they can't all have been worn to balls and important luncheons of the Women's Club and so forth. I keep myself to myself, mostly. I'm quiet. I'm just happy to be awake again. I like seeing the closet door open. I don't even care about the sneakers.

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0 thoughts on “Secret Lives of Dresses Vol. 8

  1. This storys beautiful Erin, made me emotional and teary eyed tho.I luv your storys. Half my dresses are probably wondering what happend to me. I have gained weight and cant wear them. I’m not ready to part with them yet. To tell the truth I’m never ready to part with any thing. My son will be selling all my vintage patterns and clothes on E-bay when I go! Son will probably be upset with me and all the collecting I have done over the years. Oh well.

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  2. What a great story for anybody that doesn’t “get” what’s so great about vintage and wearing other people’s clothes! I’ve often wondered about the past lives of some of my aquisitions and what stories they could tell. The orange print is great too.

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  3. Erin, Honestly woman. You need a dress that is going to kick you in the ass and ask you why you are giving us these lovely stories for FREE! (Continuing in the vein of anthromorphizing dresses)They are a darn sight better than most of the drivel getting published nowadays (you know exactly what I mean), and as much as I love reading your stuff every day, you need to get published (in more than a dictionary).Right. Following on with other 50+ comments – definitely your best secret life yet.

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  4. You’re so talented and your love for dresses appear to be giving your talent focus. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this gift. I really really love your blog and check it everyday. Almost.

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  5. I loved it too! It reminds me of when the kids were little and we strolled door to door picking up alteration jobs from the neighbors. My favorite was little Mrs. Faga next door. She’d been wearing her circa ’40s housedresses ever since and they were beginning to fall apart despite her loving care. Over the years i probably picked each one completely apart to repair a hem, resew a loose seam, fix a tear, whatever. The fabric was so soft and worn and sacred feeling. No one could call this a job…

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  6. I have been saving this story for when I had time to sit and enjoy. And I did. Just loved it!! I think I had better be a bit kinder to my clothes from now on…no more throwing onto the floor….

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  7. who would have ever thought a story told by a dress could evoke such strong feelings from a human! This is excellent witing. Really really well done. I loved it. Guess Im not hip to new music though because I didn’t catch what song was on the radio.Mrs Meg Logan

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  8. This also struck such an emotional chord with me. I definitely teared up…but it felt good, sad, nostalgic…all that stuff. It made me wish for some of my old clothes that meant nothing to me at the time I got rid of them, but now would take me back in time so easily. My mother sewed so many of my clothes, then for a period of time I sewed them too…people always want you to clear things out. Now I realize why I want to hang onto things. They were part of my identity.

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  9. I discovered this Blog over the summer when I started my dream blog, and I just love this. I LOVE to wear dresses! I don’t know anyone else who loves it as I do, or even on a semi-regular basis… I was just saying the other day that a few of my most adorable summer dresses haven’t even seen the light of day this summer, due to me not going many places… haven’t been taken many places. Consequently the dresses are hidden away in the closet and I can only imagine how they must be feeling right now. The season is closing and they will soon be stored away for the next warm weather opportunity. Boo hoo.

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  10. Well gosh! This one hits me from THREE angles! I’m a vintage wearer… a vintage seller… and I also run estate sales!Great story, thanks! 🙂

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  11. I just went through and read all of your dress stories and I absolutely loved them – all amazing. I can’t wait to read more! (And I also can’t wait to fit back into vintage myself…)

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  12. Found your site yesterday – I’ve read through most of your posts. Your ‘Secret lives of dresses’ stories are just brilliant. You’re a gifted wordsmith. We demand many more!

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  13. Erin – I love your blog and your Secret Lives of Dresses – have you ever read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving? Part of the story involves the narrator’s deceased mother and this red dress in her closet which she never wears except in her secret life as a lounge singer… reminds me of your work!-Sara

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  14. I am on a hunt for dresses that I would describe as having a scoop neck with short sleeves. Jumpers, too. I remembered that my mother used to wear Swirl dresses around the house for as long as I can remember so I decided to see if they were still around and your site was among the search results.I enjoyed reading your well written story of a dress.My own dress story’s emotional response goes back to when I hit menopause and gained weight, uncontrollably and against my wishes, where before that hormonal change, I could easily lose the excess by just putting my mind to it.Thanks.

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  15. Thank you for reminding me of my “friends” in the closet. I haven’t spent much time with my beautiful vintage friends lately but will open the closet doors wide tonight, put on a Billie Holiday record, drink a glass of red wine and reminisce with them.

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  16. I really cant begin to describe how much im loving your stories. have you ever read raymond carver? your writing reminds me a lot of his short stories.. theres this air of mystery and intrigue. just a snippit of a life, told through the perspective of someone outside. and, a dress, no less! its brilliant, honestly. Im sure i wouldnt be the first to tell you that you should write a book of these stories. almost every single one has brought me to the verge of tears. its powerful writing that can do that. i adore that there is an accompanying photo of the dress… such a strong visual. its amazing how youve givin life to dresses. ive always been so interested in the past “life” of objects… the way you can sometimes feel the stories behind them. you’ve illustrated this secret life of dresses beautifully. i only wish there were more. im so happy to have happened upon your site. thank you so much for making something so great.

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  17. This really was a great story that mad me a little sad as well. My late husband’s closet is sitting full, waiting for me to clean it out — it;s been six months — and now I’m wondering what his clothes are thinking. Do they miss him as much as I do? Are they annoyed when the closet door finally opens, that’s it’s only “her,” usually crying, just grabbing one of them to hug or wear herself?

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  18. Beautiful writing. You really do have a gift I keep winding up on this site through referalls from other sites and although Im usually not at my computer to bookmark it, I always enjoy it. Kariann so sorry to hear of your loss. Your comment really struck me.

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