I was at a birthday party at a bar recently when a buddy turned to me and quietly lamented her outfit.
“God dammit,” she’d sighed, hiking up the waistband of her dress and twisting it into a more comfortable position. “This morning I couldn’t tell if I should wear sheer tights or thicker ones, and now I’m too cold.”
It was one of those specific spring evenings where the temperature drops twenty degrees as soon as the sun goes down, and every time someone new walked through the door we’d get hit with a blast of air.
“That’s why I don’t wear dresses,” I’d joked. “Too many variables.”
The next ten minutes at our table were an impromptu summit on dress preferences—when we wear them, what kinds we prefer, and (most importantly) how they make us feel. A couple of the ladies described deriving a sense of power from a dress-based outfit, a couple others felt it was a fun thing to throw into the mix for variety’s sake.
My own position is pretty boring: I only wear dresses for occasions I feel l’d be letting the host down if I didn’t. Weddings, mostly. Ceremonies. I know that a pair of halfway decent black pants solves most problems for me outfit-wise, but who am I to tell you what your ideal outdoor wedding looks like? If the invite says formal, I comply.
I’m not coming from a place of perceived superiority, it’s just that on my end, dresses have never been a natural extension of how I express myself in space and time. Wearing one is like continually inhabiting the pause between a wine connoisseur saying, “I’m picking up notes of….” and “oak”–you just know some bullshit is coming. Certainly, at some point, I will flash my ass. Certainly, at some point, a tit will fall out. There’s not even some traumatic pubescent memory I’m using to fuel these hypotheticals, just the fact that they could happen is enough.
Here is an incomplete list of things I find it difficult to do when wearing a dress: bend over, run, sit in my favorite positions, reach (upwards or outwards), get out of a car, get into a car, walk up stairs, walk down stairs, be near a subway grate, be near a fan, turn abruptly.
I think it’s an anxiety spiral I’ve wrapped in gender theory to trot out at parties like pigs in blankets. I’d “rather be focused on what’s happening in our conversation.” Where my coffee is. Whether or not you’ve ingested that media I recommended yet. In fashion as in the rest of my life, the sooner we can get me out of my own way, the better off we’ll be. When my nerd brain is distracted wholly by my own behavior—especially when it comes to something like femininity or fuckability—it’s not a brain I want to hang out with. I don’t care for her. She was not focused on your opinion about the movie, let’s not invite her out again.
My solution to this is pants.
I’m by no means alone in my quest to find things I like and then never think about clothes again. Fran Lebowitz has a uniform at this point in her career (though she doesn’t call it that). Coco Chanel famously instructed us all to look in the mirror before we walk out the door and remove one element from our outfits. We’re all overthinking it. What’s elegant to wear isn’t necessarily what’s elaborate, it’s what needs to be there in order for you to do the things you want to do. For some women, this is a full face of makeup and a gown with a train. For me, this happens to be shitty clothes.
Luckily, I have worked in TV and editorial my entire career, surrounded by journalists and comedy writers who also dress like 4th graders on picture day every day. The luxury is that I can typically do very little to modify my preferred state of being and still look appropriate. What I’ve never understood, though, is the proclivity among schlubs like me to scoff at the people who do dress better.
I say that because here’s what we’re secretly talking about when we’re talking about dresses: traditional femininity. Dresses are something your mother had an opinion on when she was raising you. In turn, your grandmother had an opinion on them with your mother, and on and on back through the ages until we’re at the beginning of gender, probably. Here is how to zip up the back when you’re getting dressed alone. Here is how to hold it while you’re sitting on a toilet. There’s a list of tips like prayers that none of us ever studied anywhere, but that we all know somehow. They were given to us by other women.
So when you’re talking about dresses you’re not just talking about the construct of femininity in a clinical sense, you’re also speaking to the active sisterhood that helps women survive in a culture that still consistently and aggressively marginalizes us. Things like a bobby pin from a stranger in a bar bathroom or tampons quietly passed at the office are acts of care in a culture that demands we look a certain way and then trivializes the experiences required to get there. Thinking about dresses can’t be as simple as accepting or rejecting them in your own wardrobe. No matter where we fall, we should still be there to see one another. To hold each other.
And that’s what the table of us did at the party that cold-ass night: We listened and we laughed. It was windy, her dress was a pain, and we all knew the feeling.