The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

March 16, 2006

In my spare closet

I seem to have had quite a bit of free time this week. Work is slow; we’re between publishing cycles. I’ve organized all my paper files, cleaned out my email folders, caught up on invoices, and Googled interesting websites on ex-Mormons, men in black, real-life ghost sightings, houses for sale in Evanston and Skokie, and the latest spring shoe styles.

I haven’t had any freelancing work lately, either, so I’ve gone home and taken the dog for a long walk, then hit the gym, then cooked dinner and caught up on my New Yorkers. I’ve rewatched the season opener of The Sopranos (which is completely rewatchable). I’ve added more of my favorite Diary-X entries to this site. And I’ve delved into the bowels of our spare closet (its contents include summer clothes, Moose supplies, wrapping paper and ribbons, Christmas tree ornaments, extra pillows, two suitcases, and the vacuum cleaner) to retrieve my old formal dresses, with the intention of finally letting them go.

When I was growing up, my mother kept all her old prom dresses in a suitcase in our attic. Every once in awhile, I’d ask if I could try them on. We’d go upstairs to my grandma’s third-floor room, open her closet, gently push aside her clothes, and open the wooden hatch-like door that led to the attic. I was afraid to enter that musty, narrow space, but my mom would gladly retrieve the suitcase for me, and we’d spend an hour in front of the mirror, with her telling me the story of each dress… which dance she wore it to, who escorted her, what her corsage looked like. The dresses were late-sixties mod; they had empire waists, A-line skirts, wide satin sashes. They were pale yellow, dark-sage green, icy-blue white. They felt stiff and crinkly to the touch, and they smelled old, somehow… the same smell that clung to my dad’s old folk records and college yearbooks.

It seemed natural and right to me that my mother kept those dresses, tangible memories stored in a place where she could always access them, touch them, breathe them in. So I’ve done the same thing. We don’t have much storage space in our condo (I keep my voluminous wedding dress at my parents’ house), but all of my favorite prom and college formal dresses are bunched into our spare closet. I hardly ever look at them, and I won’t wear any of them again—but I like knowing they’re there, sleeping quietly in their plastic sheathes.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was browsing at an artsy store in Lincoln Park and came across a flyer for the Glass Slipper Project, which I’d vaguely heard of before but didn’t know much about. It’s an organization that provides gently used formalwear to disadvantaged teenage girls who otherwise couldn’t afford a dress for their high school prom. And this artsy store is a drop-off location. You just come in with your dresses and leave with a tax form and a good feeling. What could be easier?

So I thought about it, and I thought about it some more. And I decided that I should donate my dresses. They’re in good shape, they’re still somewhat stylish, and what good are they doing anyone, crammed into my spare closet? So, last night, I took them all out and laid them on the couch in our study. I took each one out of its bag. I tried some of them on (probably not the best idea, although I can still zip up almost all of them). I took pictures of them, even though I already have pictures from the dances where I wore them.

There’s the long red brocade dress, the one with the slit that my mother hated, that I wore to my senior prom. My boyfriend Josh wore tails and a red bow-tie. The dress had spaghetti straps and a heart-shaped neckline. I loved it.

There’s the short black sequined dress with the halter top and flowy chiffon skirt, the one I wore to my first sorority formal as a college freshman. I went to tanning booths in preparation and got drunk with Josh on Zimas on the night of the dance. So, so young and dumb.

There’s the long sleeveless brown dress with the empire waist that I wore to my junior and senior formals, both in Chicago. At one of them, I swallowed a live goldfish. Don’t ask.

Then there’s a short, kicky black sleeveless dress with a V-neckline and a print of red and white roses. I think at least five of my sorority sisters borrowed that dress. Everyone loved it—it was flattering; it made you feel sexy. I bought it at a Merry-Go-Round store for $40 and got three years of use from it. It is really hard to part with that dress. (And in fact, I haven't actually put it in the donation pile yet.)

But I probably will. I like the idea of my dresses creating even more magical nights for people. I like the idea of a girl looking at herself in the mirror, eyes round with wonder as she sees herself, for the first time, in something other than jeans and a sweater. Maybe she’ll donate it to yet another girl when she’s a little older. Or maybe she’ll keep it in a suitcase, in her attic, and pull it out when she’s feeling old or wistful or nostalgic. Either way, I’m glad to give her the opportunity.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think after you pass 45 or 50, age is irrelevant because I never feel this old, 58 going on 100! When you talk so lovingly about your parents - that was me! I don't have any of my old formal dresses any longer - too many moves later, they have all been discarded somehow, somewhere along the road of my life. I think you are incredibly generous to be donating them to the next generation. Good for you. Bex

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Mandy said...

I loved this entry! I could picture all your dresses and some of the crazy memories that go with them! Happy St. Patty's Day :)
love, Mandy

7:51 AM  
Blogger Hilary said...

I'd love to see the pictures... Are you going to publish them?
I still have all my old dresses from the end of school and other events, although sadly they don't fit me any more. I guess I should give them to the charity shop too.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Ooh, I'd do it if I had a scanner, Hilary, but I don't. :(

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Angie said...

Loved the description of all the dresses! It made me think of all the ones I wore in HS and college. What fun! Mine are hanging in my basement...and I have added quite a collection of bridesmaid gowns in the past 10 years, too. :)

3:11 PM  
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