(In Honor of Spring Cleaning: Seven Days. Seven Dresses. This is Day Four. Day Three is here)
In the old days at Belk department store in the Asheville Mall, they had an all-Evening and Wedding gown department. It was oval-shaped the department, blocked off from the rest of the store with artificial, faux marbled columns and draped curtains. In the center, there was a tufted velour pouf under a chandelier, and a glass table strewn with issues of Modern Bride. Further back an enormous three way mirror and one of those raised platforms so ladies could try on things with wide skirts and trains.
I didn’t care much for weddings (always the most boring conclusion of an otherwise interesting story), but as a lifelong devotee of sequins, crinolines, chiffon, taffeta and tulle, the Belk formalwear department was basically my version of heaven. I’d find every possible reason to end up there, usually slipping away from wherever my mother was to partake of its myriad delights. I’d look at every gown, running my hands all over the shiny material, then I’d look at the gowns in the magazines, and stand on the platform in front of the mirror, imagining myself wearing one of the sparkling sequined gowns, performing to a vast audience of adoring fans as if I were Diana Ross. The saleswomen were both understanding and highly circumspect. I’d always attempt to try on dresses. They’d always tell me no. Sulking, I’d wait until their backs were turned and slide in through the racks of dresses, just to feel the fabric against my cheeks, nap under the diaphanous hems, and wait for older girls to come out and model on the platform. It took getting busted about a dozen times before I finally stopped
You’d think when I finally had a real reason to shop there, to actually try on gowns, it would feel like a some sort of glittery apotheosis. And that might have been true had it been for an event other than the 8th Grade Formal and had I thought for even a moment I might be able to find a half-fashionable dress that would. I was a rather fat thirteen-year-old. My complete failure to achieve anything close to puberty meant my curves were in all the wrong places. I told the saleswoman I was after something kind of like Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief.” She rolled her eyes and brought out the paltry selection of dresses that were appropriate for a flat-chested, size 14 fourteen year old and would, at my mother’s request, not break the bank. Pretty much all of them looked like something you’d wear to a mixer with your sister wives, but taffeta. The only differentiating factor was the location of the ubiquitous giant bow. When I tried on the one with the black velvet top and the peach taffeta skirt (giant bow located directly over the butt), my mother and the saleswoman cooed. It was very flattering, they told me. It makes you look very skinny, said my mother. And really cheats a bustline, said the saleswoman. I gave a wistful glance to the feathers and sequins and realized truly and for all time that no one would ever mistake me for Diana Ross.
After she rung us up, the saleswoman handed me the garment bag and smiled at my mother. This is such a good dress, she said. I’ve basically sold out of these this week. Which was the exact moment I realized there would be at least five identical copies of the same dress at the 8th Grade Cotillion worn by at least five of my classmates that looked better in it than I did.
Life is fucking full of disappointments.
Just before the Christmas holidays of my seventh grade year, Mom told I’d been invited to attend cotillion classes on Thursday evenings in the gym of my former elementary school. I expressed complete shock at this. For one thing, I was approaching the very nadir of my social life. It had been weeks since I’d been invited to anything. Also, it was 1988. I would probably never need to know the foxtrot unless I lost my soul or went into espionage work or both. I had a nagging suspicion that cotillion classes would be one more hour in a room full of people that hated me. But Mom, overtired from a sixty-hour work week, just kind of shrugged and was like, I think there’s a dance at the end of it. You’ll be sad if you don’t go to the dance. And the next thing I knew, I was being dropped off in front of my Elementary School.
My fellow students were a motley bunch. I don’t know how the list of participants was divined or which precise cadre or parents and/or dance enthusiasts figured out the invite list. I can tell you that we were, with very few exceptions, middle to upper middle class white people stymied at the most awkward point of hugely awkward adolescence. The girls, by and large, looked approximately twenty-five and were maybe evil. The boys were dirty, violent shitbags with bad haircuts, standing, on average, several inches shorter than their female peers.
Our instructor had an absurd Russian name (we were pretty sure she made it up) and an accent that ran a regular commuter line between Stage French and Queens. We called her Madame. She was a birdlike woman of indeterminate old age who styled her silver hair in a Marcel wave and wore desert-plate sized large tarnished brass pendants, which made her look way more like Flavor Flav, than she probably intended. She kept time with a metal tipped cane and considered The Hustle both distastefully modern and yet absolutely necessary. Sometimes she waxed nostalgic about dancing at the Rainbow Room. Sometimes she alluded to having been married to an actual aristocrat. Her cultural signifiers were stubbornly and hilariously dated.
At the beginning of each class, we were divided into two groups—Gentlemen on the left. Ladies on the right–and forced to draw names from a shabby top hat, thereby preventing anyone from being a wallflower (willingly or not) and keeping the passionately encoupled Music Biz and Preacher’s Daughter from rounding third base mid-mambo. Though three years away from arriving at my full adult height, I was reasonably tall by seventh grade standards, which virtually guaranteed that I would always draw some surly, sticky-fingered partner who called me lard-ass in the hallway but stood roughly eye-level with my non-existent tits, while Madame implored me to follow his lead. But how am I supposed to follow when he obviously doesn’t know where the hell he’s going? And she would thump her cane and tell us to Ladies, imagine you’re a princess and he looks like Liberace! And she’d do a little shaky pirouette, lost in nostalgia for a time when all ballrooms had bubble machines and the she didn’t have to issue time-outs every time Mall Bangs tried to knee The Fist in the groin and told him to Suck a dick, Fartface.
That Madame was so inclined toward reverie cancelled out the threat of the thumping cane. She might yell every now and then or threaten to call our parents if we didn’t stop disrupting the phonograph. But we all found ways to tune out the infinite replays of “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in order to maintain constant vigilance against boys trying to snap your bra strap (an activity they found never less than hilarious). Several of the boys took Madame’s laissez-faire attitude toward bathroom breaks to slip out for a smoke in the bushes on the kindergarten playground. And it wasn’t long before their pioneering influence left the gym mostly empty of the male-identified for increasingly long periods of time. And while this was, in some ways, a reprieve, shitty boys being shitty was the only reason why the girls of Cotillion weren’t being shitty to each other. In real life, at school, outside that gym, we did not speak. I might stand beside the Most Popular Girl on Thursday nights, commiserating over our bad partners, and gossiping in the bathroom about how Mall Bangs found condoms in some mother’s purse at The Fist’s Bar Mitzvah, I could be assured of her wrath if I dared eye contact in pre-Algebra on Friday morning.
The last day of class came without ceremony. The promised dance, we were told, would be held the spring of the following year. An Eighth Grade Formal! Madame looked overjoyed. The rest of us looked dubious. Who knew if we’d even survive until eighth grade, let alone want to dance about it.
Invitations to the 8th Grade Formal were distributed in much the same mysterious fashion as those for cotillion class. Though still just a splinter of my 450-person-ish eighth grade class, the cabal had opted to invite a larger portion of the student body to the dance, which essentially meant the handful of our classmates that were tracked into Honors Classes who were not middle-upper middle class mostly white kids from the north side of town were added to the guest list. Also, there was a football player, which surprised me because I didn’t know they had a football team at the Junior High School.
I’m sure this counted as diversity.
Mom curled my hair and helped me with my make up. I wore control top hose and a girdle under the dress, and high-heeled shoes, that I could not dance in.
I wondered on the way over if the other kids would be at a disadvantage, seeing as how they hadn’t suffered the instruction of Madame the previous spring. I mean, do they know a swing step? But when Mom dropped me off under the, I could already hear “Love Shack” playing inside and realized this was not that kind of party at all.
The 8th Grade Formal was held at the least restrictive country club in town in those days, which is to say, the one that didn’t limit access by means of race or religious preference. It was also, coincidentally, the one my parents (and most of the parents of my cotillion classmates) belonged to, during the not-yet-divorced, dual-income, pre-downsized salad days of my youth. I put this in the Assets column, because I knew plenty of places I could hide should Eighth Grade formal turn into the kind of unrestrained, Gates-of-Hell-thrown-open-bloodbath I suspected it would.
I ran into Ivy League at the coat check. I couldn’t figure out what she was doing there, because she was in seventh grade and technically not supposed to be there. But Ivy League was precocious in all things. I was thrilled to see her, because that meant I had at least one confirmed friend there. That changed everything. She directed me to the bathroom, which was one of those vast Ladies Lounge set-ups, where there was, like, a whole living room with sofas and easy chairs adjacent to the stalls. It was full of girls, at least three of whom wearing my dress, including Mall Bangs, who’d been whisked off to Catholic School for reasons too weird to discuss. Of course she wanted to discuss them, and held court for a while, as the rest of us hovered at the edges, applying lip gloss and AquaNet instead of facing the perils of the actual dance floor. All of us looked ridiculous anyway, save perhaps The Countess, who looked like a movie star, but we weren’t friends then, and wouldn’t be for an impossible two more years.
Eventually, Ivy League and I made it to the dance floor, which had been enlivened after everyone had bored of hiding from each other. We danced both the Electric Slide and the New Electric Slide (twice). Both of them we learned in gym class. We also danced The Limbo, which we learned at the Roller Rink. We danced the Foxtrot zero times.
The DJ was an off-duty actual radio DJ, so he talked too much. About three-quarters of the way through, he announced a dance contest with a real prize, a cassette single of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” Ivy League and this kid Tito won. They were actually great. Neither of them liked Warrant. I’m pretty sure they ended up giving the cassingle away.
Mom came to get me at 10 because I called and told her I was bored. I was bored. It was a few years before I learned that dances were always boring, just an excuse to get dressed up, make the scene, and then travel on to the real party elsewhere.
As to the dress, it was a relic within months. The eighties ended authoritatively and with them went the puff sleeves, the drop waists, the yards of taffeta and giant bows. A couple years later, Mom would ask if I wanted to wear it to another event and I remember feeling a wave of disgust, a I wouldn’t be caught dead in that trash.
It sold for a couple dollars at a yard sale, when my mother remarried and moved out of our house into their house, in Spring of 1996.
 They weren’t.