Dress for distress

Author: Peggy Duffy

I dislike dresses. It’s not the garments themselves, it’s the stilted shoes that go with them, the pantyhose that bind at the waist and twist in your crotch. I own just one, a sleeveless summer frock I wear only when the temperature is high and my legs are tan, eliminating the need for hose.

So it is out of desperation that one Sunday afternoon I am in my favorite store making my way over to the dress rack. I’ve come in search of black silk slacks to go with the gold shirt I plan to wear to an upcoming gala, a museum opening in D.C. sponsored by a client. An earlier call to the sponsor’s assistant yielded two dreaded words: “cocktail attire.” What does that mean exactly? I had to look it up. “Dresses are advised,” I read. “Slacks are acceptable, but not in any fabric seen in the office. Never wear a business suit.” Alas, in September, as the trusted saleswoman informs me now, black silk slacks are not yet in stock.

“Try closer to Christmas,” she advises.

I don’t have “closer to Christmas.” I have only today. The gala is Thursday, and this is my only time to shop. Dozens of unsuitable slacks later (cotton, polyester, wool, poly/wool blends), I am standing in front of the dressing-room mirror in a short, black, gauzy dress. It’s the wrong size, the low-cut neckline falling loosely over my breasts. It’s also a petite, but since I’m tall the disproportion between the dress cut and my body shape somehow corrects the imbalance.

“What’s it for?” the saleswoman asks.

“A gala,” I say, without conviction. Studying the effect of my pale calves and bare feet on the overall look, I feel compelled to add, “cocktail attire,” as if my even considering such a purchase requires an explanation.

She lifts the dress at my shoulders, pinching the fabric, while I stare at the chipped polish on all 10 of my toenails. “It’s the last one, but it’ll be fine with some alterations.”


Her eyes drift from the large dressing-room area to the open door of the small room I’ve been changing in, pants, skirts, tops flung everywhere. She must have picked up on the anxiety in my voice. The dress is new enough territory for me to cross; alterations would throw me over the cliff. Not to mention the time element to make those alterations. She loosens her fingers and presses the thin material down with her hands. “It’ll be fine,” she assures me.

Minutes later I am walking through the mall, shopping bag in hand, in search of accessories—shoes, hose—to go with my new purchase. Although I bought the dress out of necessity, I find myself looking forward to wearing it with a rising level of excitement equal to the anticipation of the event itself. The shoes prove to be a less traumatic decision. I run into a department store with a large shoe section, pick out two pairs, ask a well-dressed woman which one she’d wear with my dress (which I pull out at her request and show her), and purchase her choice. I splurge on hose, buying the most expensive pair I can find.

Four nights later I step out in my high strappy shoes to the stunned stares of my daytime colleagues, most of whom have never seen my legs. Hundreds of people fill the room. There appears to be a nuance of dress code I fail to understand, a fine line between the weekday definition of “cocktail attire” and the weekend one. Or maybe the guidelines have changed or my co-worker and I are the only ones who have consulted them. While the men are sporting suits and ties, a lot of the women are clad in slacks, many of which are made of fabrics routinely seen in offices. The dresses in evidence are definitely of the cotton, wool or poly/wool variety. I even spot a few women wearing the ill-advised business suit.

My co-worker is decked out in black satin, a short skirt and tight-fitting top. We sip our wine and pick at the food we’ve gathered onto tiny gold-rimmed plates from the buffet tables, collecting admirable glances in our strolling wake, making small talk with the people standing around us, ignoring the cloud of discomfort hovering over us. While I’m content to function in this haze of social unease, outwardly oblivious to my fashion faux pas, my co-worker is not. She turns to me and says, “Let’s celebrate. I think this night calls for a shot.”

I haven’t done a shot in as long as I haven’t worn a dress.

Amid the business chatter, the clink of highball tumblers and wine goblets, we sashay arm-in-arm through the crowd across the room. Our request is met with confusion by the woman tending bar, whose English is limited and supply of shot glasses is nonexistent. I don’t get it either, I want to tell her. She lifts the bottle of bourbon we’ve selected, searching for an appropriate vessel into which to pour our drinks. She points to one of the highball glasses.

“Is okay?” she asks with uncertainty.

“It’ll be fine,” I tell her, without hesitation. While she pours the right drink into the wrong glass, I glance down to make sure everything’s still in the correct place. My freshly painted toenails, visible beneath the thin layer of silky sheer nylon, peek out from beneath my new shoes. The dress may hang, but it also clings. The hose don’t bind, they shimmer.

Peggy Duffy’s work (www.authorsden.com/peggyduffy:http://www.authorsden.com/peggyduffy) has appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as numerous anthologies and other publications. She lives in Virginia outside Washington D.C.