Though I’ve had a lot of clothes in my life, a few have stood out — not the most beautiful or most flattering, just pieces that, for one reason or another, at a certain moment in my life were invested with special powers — had the capacity to transform me every time I put them on.
The first was from Urban Outfitters. I bought it the August before my freshman year of college. It was a synthetic black party dress with a vaguely '70s cut, sweetheart neck, and Lycra underdress. The moment I put it on, I saw in the mirror the college woman I wanted to be. Not the nerdy, frowsy frump who’d been ignored by a high school crush and who shopped for clothes with her mom at the Salvation Army, but a sophisticated woman of the world with a curvaceous figure. I first wore the dress to an event for incoming students, and as I donned it, I donned my new persona: Confident and assured. I wore the dress every chance I got. I wore it to parties and lectures — whenever I needed to feel pretty or adult or confident. I’m convinced it netted me a boyfriend. Being cheap, the dress soon showed the effects of wear, and its sleek lines were marred by the lumpy proof of my inexpert repairs. But its magic, to me, remained undimmed. Then, when I was 21, I lost the dress somewhere in London. I was briefly bereft. But it was meant to be. The dress’s work was done. It had disappeared, never to be seen again.
It was three years before I found the dress’s heir. Dress 2 was a more sophisticated affair. In fact, it was the most expensive piece of clothing I’d ever owned. It was brown wool, severely tailored, with a tulip skirt that clung, then flared, and a high neckline saved from dowdiness by a keyhole, and a series of gold buttons at the neck and wrist. I coveted Dress 2 for months before saving up enough to buy it on sale. It entered my life around the time I took an office job, and seemed the perfect uniform for an efficient and asexual girl Friday. It became my trademark around the office, and lent itself to the slightly arcane, wisecracking patter I favored at the time. My boyfriend was out of the country that year, and I liked that the dress signaled that I was independent and unavailable. Dress 2, in short, made me feel like a million bucks. Then one day my boss showed up at work and, after casually saying, “I have a new dress,” removed her coat to reveal... Dress 2. Albeit on a taller and more stunning frame. I was dumbfounded and hurt. I retired Dress 2 and got another job. In due course, the dress also disappeared. In a move perhaps? Who knows. I combed my apartment for weeks hoping it might turn up, but its work, too, was done.
Photo: Courtesy of Blue Rider Press.
Dress 3 came into my life at a low point. I’d been nursing a badly broken heart, and was scrawny and ill-groomed. For my birthday, the owner of the clothing shop where I worked gave me a dress I had been coveting for months. Broke, I had been unable to do more than gaze at it longingly. When I opened the box and saw Dress 3 staring up at me, tears came to my eyes. It was the beginning of a new era. Dress 3 is the most utilitarian of the three. It’s a denim shirtwaist dress with a faint primary-colored check and a sash. It’s a sleeper: You don’t notice it, just the woman beneath. When I first got it, I wore it everywhere, at least three days a week. And when I finally started dating, I wore it for dates. I was wearing it when I ran into my ex and his new girlfriend. I was wearing it when I had my first kiss with the guy to whom I would later become engaged, and also when I first met his family. It never failed me.
That dress never disappeared. I know exactly where it is in my closet. It has hung there for more than two years, unworn. This past summer, I pulled it out. I was going on a date — the first I’d been on in seven years — and for a moment, I wondered if the ghostly old magic would assuage my nerves. It was slightly worn around the edges, but it still looked okay when I put it on — a flattering, nice dress. For a few moments I considered wearing it, then unbuttoned it and hung it back in the closet. I needed something new. But what? You can’t force magic.
Reprinted from WOMEN IN CLOTHES by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton with permission of Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2014 by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton.