Red Dresses

I spent last week in Portland, Oregon, with my friend B, whom I have known since junior high. Although B has lived in Portland for over 20 years — and despite our frequent agreements we’d like to see each other more — I have never made a trip out before now.

B filled most of our evenings with places she wanted me to see, people she needed me to meet, or artwork she’s been waiting to show me. Long, slow mornings we spent conversing over coffee: three cups-worth of dissecting families, relationships, and our own creative processes, before tabling the discussion in time to get dressed for each day’s appointments.

During an early klatsch, I griped about a recent article on a site for professional writers and how it had struck me as yet another fluff piece of the “here’s what makes writers…writers” variety. Pushing against what most irritated me in the piece, I tried to refine my own, more affirmative takeaway.

“Language, memory — these are distinctively human skills,” I said. “We are — all of us — creatures that tell stories.”

“We are creatures that make meaning,” B suggested. (She herself is a visual artist, as well as a writer.) “We make symbolic systems. Language is just one of many.”

We went out for a late brunch in Montavilla shortly thereafter, followed by window browsing along SE Stark. We stopped in at Union Rose, a small artists’ boutique where B shopped for dresses. I liked the red one she tried on first, though I could see why she found the heavily cowled neckline cumbersome. She finally decided on a black shift that will certainly be easier to accessorize.

Later that day we returned to the topic of creativity. B brought up Twyla Tharp’s guideline: “Always find the spine in your work.”

“She first said it referring to dance, but it works for all artforms. Whether it’s a painting, or an assemblage, or something I’m writing — I always make sure I know what its spine is. As long as I know the spine is there…even if people don’t know what the piece means, they’ll make a sense of it.”

I nodded slowly, feeling for the shape of my own spine running along my back. 

*     *     *

Though she didn’t buy a red dress that day, B had ordered one online before I arrived, and UPS delivered it while I was in town. She modeled it for my opinion and to check for proper sizing. We both agreed it had a more workable neckline and that the ruching along both sides flattered her shape in a way she liked it flattered.

I was happy, in an oddly specific way, when B decided to keep the dress. Y’see, I have a thing for red dresses.

This, too, feels oddly specific.

*     *     *

I’ve been thinking about red dresses a lot lately. This began in October, with a picture of Jessica Rabbit and an angry Vaguebook post I made about wearing red to a funeral:

red dress_facebook screen grab

My inspiration at that moment had been Cher’s character in Moonstruck as she hurls insults across the breakfast table: “Someday you’ll drop dead and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!” In this clichéd form, the red dress symbolizes disrespect. A posthumous victory. She who laughs last… does so in blood-colored taffeta.

But my narrative with the red dress is more complicated.

(You must know this: I have two red dresses in my closet right now.)

My red dresses are both form-hugging, made of knit fabrics, and stop above the knee. One of them I wore once, over a decade ago, and the other I have never worn. This second one currently hangs on the back of my closet door. Every time I open the closet for shoes or a bathrobe, I see the dress displayed.

Both dresses are sized for a thin woman, which I was at the time I purchased each of them and which I am not now. The arrangement with the closet door evokes a “thinspiration” tableau, as if the dress were a bikini I planned to starve myself into. Having played this game of low-grade insanity before, I recognize the resemblance. I also recognize this is not that.

(You must understand: the fact that these two dresses are not the size of my current body is not why I am not wearing red.)

*     *     *

Two days before I left Portland, B and I finally made our pilgrimage to Powell’s, the enormous used-and-new bookstore whose fame stretches all the way to Philadelphia. We arranged to meet up in the ground-floor coffeeshop in an hour, perhaps two, before heading off to browse our individual interests.

I perused LGBT studies, scanned African-American history, and wound up in the feminism section facing two large bookcases marked “Feminism–General.” I skimmed the spines and titles. Having spent the last 15 years studying feminist theory both formally and informally, I recognized nearly everything on the shelves, whether by author or title or topic.

It felt bittersweet, standing in that aisle, witnessing the physicality of a scholarship I have approached — then danced away from — more times than I can count. As I have rebuilt my life following this most recent (and most complete) collapse, two things have become clear. First, only this total dissolution could have enabled my brokenest parts to heal. Second, the time has come to release a long-cherished dream of returning to academia. As close as I have thus far come…is as close as my new self need ever be.

While I stood there, facing Feminism–General and holding this sad but gentle goodbye in my mind, an unfamiliar title caught my attention.

I am a red dress.

I unwedged the thin volume from between two heftier books. I am a red dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother, and a Daughter, by Anna Camilleri. I flipped to the Prologue.

My mother often said, “When your grandfather dies, I’m going to the funeral in a red dress.” 

Books, like dresses, sometimes come into our lives for their own purpose. I skimmed another page. The space inside me, sad only a moment before, released its goodbye like hands opening to let loose a dove.

This story is a lexicon between my grandmother, my mother, and I–the stuff that mythology is made of–mother, maiden, and crone. Grandmother notices a red dress. Mother imagines wearing a red dress. Daughter becomes the red dress. The redress. 

Standing in the checkout line later, I thought: I’m happy to take home the work of a storyteller and performance poet. I’m happy to take home this memoir I have not heard of before, despite the slightly confusing back-cover description: why this distinction between ‘memoir’ and ‘storytelling’? I wonder. (But when I wonder, I read.) ‘Feminism–General’ will do fine without my patronage. 

After all, theory always outlives the theorist.

And I am seeking the spine of a dancer.

red dress_book jacket

*     *     *

These past two years of learning to “feel my feelings,” as the therapists would say, have taken their own distinctive toll upon my body. The fat I now carry, with its unfamiliar rolls and bulges, makes this an awkward body to dress but a comfortable state from which to observe. (Being observed is yet another matter. I do not recognize my own swollen face in photographs. In mirrors, I do not look beyond my eyes.)

Another cliché of the red dress declares it a thin woman’s game. An empowered woman’s game. A sexualized statement, like a red-lipsticked mouth or a turgid erection. Though I think, too, of the dress worn beneath a coat: a dress that reveals its carmine heart only when I open my arms wide and invite you in.

The scarlet color promises violence or vulnerability, depending on the intent of me who inhabits the body or the perspective of you who perceives it. Red dress again paralleling phallus.

A fat woman walking down the street is already dangerous and vulnerable. Wearing red only makes her more visible.

*     *     *

The fantasy of wearing red to this imagined funeral did not leave me after October. I have returned to it more than once. I have embellished it with staging and dialogue.

…Each person who shakes my hand and offers condolences seems unnerved by my costuming…I return the handshakes with a slight smile and warm thanks…

…The priest…or perhaps an old family friend…takes me aside to comment on my unseemly choice. Or perhaps to reassure me how deeply I was loved, as if they knew his truths and mine better than we did ourselves…

I mentioned this vision to B one afternoon, while holding a grocery sack with protruding baguette in my lap as we drove home from a Fred Meyer. I asked if she would be willing to attend his someday funeral with me. She has, after all, known my father almost as long as I have.

“You might be the only one there who would know — when I took off my black coat — that the dress I’m wearing isn’t about anger or disrespect, only grieving. I want to wear the true color of that grief, even if no one else understands what they are seeing.”

B promised she’d come, though she didn’t know if she actually understood either.

I get that it’s complicated.

*     *     *

Not until the last day of my visit did I realize the door next to the guest bedroom was not a closet.

“No no, it’s my sewing room! Where I keep my costumes,” B told me. “When we get home, you should check it out.” B has always thrown great costume parties.

Back at her house, I opened the door and poked my head into the dimly lit room. In the middle of the floor stood a dressmaker’s figure, headless and stuck with pins, wearing a red satin gown. The figure was adjusted to a low height — B is not quite 5’2″ — and the unhemmed crimson fabric swirled down to a shining heap around its base. B came in and stood beside me, head cocked to one side as she contemplated the draping of the neckline.

She told me several stories of this red dress. How it had startled a previous houseguest, who for a moment thought another person might be standing in the house. How she had bought it many years ago because of its glovelike fit and 20-buck sales price. How she had planned to wear it as a wedding dress, if she and a former lover had ever married, and how she might plan to wear it still, if she and a future lover ever wed. How she was going to get its halter-neck design altered to match its current pinned adjustments.

I thought: how many dresses contained, in this one length of red satin…

“C’mon downstairs. I wanna play you something.”

She plugged her iPod into a speaker dock. This was her favorite song, she told me, by a Portland-based indie musician who really deserved wider recognition: “You gotta listen to these lyrics.”

I listened. B lipsynced. Soon she began to dance — happy, beaming, grounded in her body and her home and this world she had made. Watching her, I felt myself aglow inside, though I knew my own smile was crooked and a few tears tracked down my cheek.

This moment — this here, this now — is a spine, I thought. All it needs is its own red dress to dance in. 


“Red Dresses” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.

Image source:

15 thoughts on “Red Dresses

  1. The title of this article caught my attention, and I enjoyed reading it! A few years ago, I started what I call a RAW exercise (Randomly Applied Word), with the word “Cardinal”; I thought through the various definitions – the colour, one of the ranks in the Catholic church; and I thought, what if, instead of a man it were a woman, and she always wore a red dress? She wore nothing but red… and thus she was known as “The Cardinal”. I began to explore why she word red, and decided that it was her people’s colour of mourning.

    The tale evolved into an epic fantasy of two parts, a tale of ancient Scotland, a mythological kingdom, Picts, elves, Norwegian Vikings, modern archaeology, and aliens; and trust me, it all makes perfect sense! The books were published last year (just search for “The Cardinal”, by Stephanie Huesler, on Amazon), and though as the author I’ve read through the manuscript a thousand times, it still catches my imagination as a reader. And all because of the red dress.


    1. Little black dresses get so much of the attention — I mean, they have their own acronym and everything! — but to my thinking, LBDs ain’t got nothing on a red dress, when it comes to potent symbolism.

      Thanks for the comment — and congrats on the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s a lot in a dress. Red means you don’t mind being looked at, on a shallow level – that applies if you’re fat or thin. It would be a good colour for someone glorying in their own shape, whatever that is. Black, on the other hand, that’s discreet and designed to make you look thinner, even if you don’t want to.


    1. I think your point about “even if you don’t want to” is so interesting and important. Regardless of what my sartorial choices mean to me personally, they get read by/read through cultural contexts I can’t control. I may not *want* to look thinner, if I wear black — and whether or not I indeed do look thinner is highly variable and debatable — but I am certainly going to be read by some people “as if” that’s what I was going for. Same thing with wearing red.


  3. Red is such an interesting symbolic color. The color of life and death. I heard that if you read mythology and someone is wearing red shoes, You just know something out of the ordinary is going to happen. Threshold stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alice,
    Why is it that your posts always resonate so with me…do I perhaps read too deeply-placing myself into passages designed to speak to and about your past, present, and future…do I perhaps see a sisterhood of conflict and emotion within your words…do I perhaps simply want to speak with the same masterful voice that emanates from your pages…
    I have lived in a world far removed from what you have experienced and are only beginning to tell, yet I see and hear my own emotion and pain in so many of your words. I want not to presume, nor do I have the right to place myself in your shoes, in your world, so I can only assume that it is the way you write, with such depth, such straightforward and often raw emotion, and with hidden meaning as well, that speaks so loudly in my ear and leaves me feeling both tearful and inspired each time I visit your blog.

    Thank you for allowing me to walk on this journey with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Deb, thank you. It is such a gift to have someone read as deeply as you do, and who then shares her own experience. You are welcome to walk with me anytime!


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