February 28, 1981 (or thereabouts), 12-2pm
Venue: 109 Westwood, Asheville, NC,
As a child, I was into dresses. I was into dresses in the way that other children are into sports or bullying or video games or salting slugs in the rose garden or all of the above (you know who you are). My mother tells me she spent hours with my aunts and grandmothers changing infant me into dress after dress after dress just because people kept showing up for more baby dresses and they were so cute, and you were so cute. It was as if whatever conversations my parents had in utero about my presumed boy-ness somehow steeled my resolve to come out woman and roaring about, like, sequins, feathers and tulle. My dresses were vindication, another emphatic Yea to the ever-strengthening familial matriarchy. I slept most soundly in the stroller, parked amid perfumed dress racks in department stores and boutiques while Mom and Nana tried on clothes. I looped out ball gowns as soon as I could hold a pencil. At two-ish, I told my mother the sunrise over the lake in front of our house looked like the sky was wearing twelve fancy dresses, which sounds apocryphal, but also absolutely like something I said yesterday. When I was about three years old, Nana told me that when Elizabeth I was queen, she never wore the same dress twice and I was like #goals.
My relative level of taste was an issue. This was to be expected from women for whom “tacky” was the very apogee of insults, the absolute nadir that a human being could be. I didn’t care much for the smocked pinafores, French sailor collars, white (and only white unless it was ballet) tights and tidy leather (never patent) Mary Janes the various taste mavens in my family tried to force me into. I wanted glitter, a universe of glitter, ideally with ruffles. I wanted a skirt that swooshed like the tide when I walked in it and I wanted to wear it with my favorite tights which I referred to as “hole tight” because they had holes in the knees.
Sometimes my mother and I would go to a children’s store in a shopping center just up the lake from my house. There she would buy my tights and sundresses while I gazed in earnest, covetous wonder at racks of garment bagged pageant dresses in a special section in the back, those sparking concoctions of frothy chiffon and crinolines and so much sparkle. I had, even then, no interest in being a beauty queen (that would require giving a fuck about hair and make-up and pretty and smiling, which I didn’t), but God, I wanted one of those dresses. I cried about it. I sulked. I think I once prayed for one. I begged to even be allowed to try one on. No dice. Sometimes I would watch in awe as big-haired little girls came in with their bigger haired mothers. They would assume the circular stage in surrounded by bagged tulle and rhinestone tiaras. I would near-drool with envy. My mother pretended to be oblivious, while she asked the sales clerk about where to find a blouse with navy blue piping to match the navy-blue monogram on my totally not sparkly sweater. Later in the car she would say, those dresses are tacky, Alison, you don’t want to be tacky do you? And I was like, yes, God, yes. Of course I do. From the depths of my soul! But instead I was left with a broken rattan trunk of dress-up clothes—my mother’s castoff cocktail dresses, slips and the minimalist tutus favored by my hippie ballet teacher, paper dolls and the bountiful delights of both Vogue and Modern Bride(for the bridesmaid dresses) in the supermarket checkout line.
I think the fancy dress party was a kind of olive branch. Mom dreamed it up, after I complained about having another party in the off-season 19th Hole Bar and Grill at the local country club, where our membership dues allowed rental of a space with astro-turf colored carpet and sticky naugahyde chairs the color of oatmeal that permanently reeked of cigarette smoke and gin and white privilege. Mom agreed that five was a red letter year. She suggested we have my friends over to wear fancy dresses and eat at fancy tables like fancy ladies. Like a tea party, but with better cake. She stressed girl friends, which I found befuddling, and tried to explain again that boys didn’t like fancy dresses.
This was news to me. I once begged my father to take in the bar next to the public library downtown because they had the most elaborate fancy dresses on mannequins in the windows. After a moment of hesitation, he kind of shrugged and obliged. That place was entirely full of men. Not another girl in sight. They were all very nice to me and delighted that I wanted to know more about the dresses. The bartender helped me climb up on a bar stool and made me a Shirley Temple and asked me if I’d ever seen “The Wizard of Oz.” I told him it was my favorite movie and he said it was his too and we sang a little of “Over the Rainbow” together. It was a marvelous afternoon, so marvelous that it took years for me to figure out why people were scandalized when I told them I’d been there. And of course, boys liked fancy dresses. How could anyone not like fancy dresses? It like mom was telling me there were a people in the world that didn’t like blueberries or cats or draping oneself in a feather boa and several of Nana’s cast off chiffon scarves and dancing passionately along to the Soul Train opening credits. Impossible!
The boys didn’t come though. Instead, I had about eight girls I liked, another two my mother thought I should like. Among the former were my best friends at the time (including one I still drink with to this day). Among the latter were rich people with limp hair bows. I picked out paper cups and plates from a local gift shop printed with pink paper dolls. Mom covered the kid sized table with a linen table cloth and ordered a cake with a bustled lady in a portrait hat iced on top. My friends came. We posed for pictures. I remember it was the first party where I thought, the anticipation for this event absolutely exceeded the event itself. I tried to get everyone to play Queen of England. No one would even try to follow protocol. I picked at my cake with white lace fingerless gloves. I turned five.
Surprise: None of my boy friends were disappointed that they weren’t invited.
Best Gift: Nana had a soft spot for me. She bought a cross-stitched pillow for my bed that said When Mother Says No, Ask Grandmother because she was a busy, professional woman and had no time for cross-stitching. I asked her for a pageant dress. Nana, with her Dior frames and wall of designer shoes, gave me a long, hard, sympathetic look before the honey, that’s tacky. But as a child of the Depression, she understood the ache of wanting. She knew the intoxicating allure of the ridiculous and sublime. She hired her occasional seamstress, a woman called Marguerite to make a dress-up dress to measure. It came, wrapped in brown paper, just days before my birthday. I unwrapped an organdy (polyester) gown with puffed sleeves and an ample neck ruff and billowy ruffled skirt. It wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, but still a completely badass present that took center stage through the next few years of my youth.
Also, my mother was four months (or so) pregnant) at the time of my fancy dress party. I didn’t ask for a little sister (and was, at that point, quite sure I didn’t want one), but that situation turned out to be more than okay. My fancy dress party would be the last birthday I spent as an only child.
 If you ask my mother or Aunt, they will recount hair-raising tales of Marguerite’ sartorial villainy during their teenaged years.
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