A sundress. That was all I needed for a rare weeknight out on the town.
My fiance had won concert tickets on one of those call-in radio contests. Performing was an R&B; group whose sole hit is a jazzy number touting the beauty of a woman in a summer dress. The only caveat: I had to wear the kind of sheer, skimpy dress celebrated in the song.
This could be fun, I figured. I'm 46 and the mother of three, but--with the right kind of undergarments--maybe I wouldn't be out of my league.
The sundress. Even the fashion-impaired understand its allure ... something strappy and bare, so revealing it requires that you wear almost nothing underneath.
I still carry a 20-year-old mental image of me in a white cotton dress with blue flowers, a deep, square neck that showed off my tan, and skinny straps that crisscrossed my naked back. I bought that sundress my first summer in California, and slipping it on seemed to transform me into someone more daring than the shy Midwestern girl I knew I was.
"Every woman has one she can't forget," says my friend Carla, recalling "a pink cotton-knit sundress I had when I was 25. It represents something ... youth, beauty, romance maybe." Or simply summer's unlimited possibilities.
But it has been years since I viewed summer as anything more than a host of new responsibilities--juggling vacations and camps and sports and work, scrambling to keep my kids occupied. And it has been years since I have dared to don a dress that hinted at other possibilities.
A few trips to the fitting room reminded me why. Backless and strapless don't play quite the same at 46 as they do at 25. What was I doing here, I wondered, as my 12-year-old daughter banged on the door, her arms full of slinky dresses she'd love to wear and I hated to try.
Dresses that looked great on the rack seemed too tight on me in all the wrong places, and showed too much of what I've learned to hide. They must be making them differently these days, I thought, as I tugged over my hips the silk skirt of a dress that was supposed to slide. Are they cutting them with more room at the top, less material across the middle?
The dresses haven't changed, the middle-age saleswoman said. "But we have."
And, we're not used to seeing ourselves without protective layers. "The dresses are all so bare," she said. "They take away your options, because you can't cover up or hide."
You have to face the difference between the woman in the mirror and the image you carry in your mind.
Finally, I settled on one--a sheer lavender dress with purple flowers, spaghetti straps and a side split. And, at $22, I could wear it once with no further obligations.
My fiance liked it ... never mind that I couldn't exhale with it on. My 10-year-old daughter pronounced it pretty but too low cut and a little tight. And my teenager was mortified that I'd found it at a mall boutique popular among girls her age and size.
"I can't believe you were actually shopping in Forever 21," she said, her voice rising. "What do you think the name means? It's not for moms!"
It didn't matter that the store was full of women my age, buying tiny T-shirts and slinky dresses and low-cut jeans.
"My friends and I make fun of women like that, you know," she said, as she painted my toes lavender and dusted my back with her silver glitter.
She was even more embarrassed when she realized that the concert was being held at a club in West Hollywood popular among teenagers. It's not enough to have a mom shop in the juniors department, but she has to date and go clubbing as well?
"Just do me one favor," she said, as I stumbled out the door, my feet stuffed into the tiny sandals she had worn to her spring formal. "Try not to see anyone I know."
And I didn't. The club was full of middle-age folks like my date and I--men in silk shirts with diamond studs in their ears, and women wearing skimpy, pastel-colored dresses and strappy sandals that squeezed their feet.
In a line, we carefully navigated the stairs, holding tight to the metal handrails, and made our way to the dance floor and stage.
"NO STAGE DIVING," a sign posted on the back wall read. I'm not sure what "stage diving" is, but I couldn't imagine anyone in this crowd leaping through the air.
The music was great. All night the sundresses swayed while Coco Brown crooned "The soul of your femininity fits you just like that dress. Just about any color will do ... I just want to see the way it holds you."
The club was so crowded that most of us had to stand all night long. And by the time the concert ended, all around me were barefoot women who'd ditched their shoes to stretch their toes.
We had managed the fashions of our youth. But even in sundresses, we had to make peace with the aches of age.