When I was in the second grade, we’d get a book read aloud to us every Friday, unless we were bad. We were bad all the time, but Mrs. Ellis didn’t really want to deprive us. She’d give a little tongue lashing to remind us that we didn’t deserve it, but she’d always read the book.
I realized pretty early on that the books she chose always had a tie-in to something that was happening in our school life. We got books about tolerance around MLK day, and books about the founding fathers around President’s Day. And so it went.
So when she read Eleanor Estes’ timeless classic about clothes and bullying, “The Hundred Dresses,” I sat and burned like a tiny flame the entire time.
She was reading it to them because of me.
“The Hundred Dresses” Is a beautiful and sad book for children about a kid who is the very poor child of Polish immigrants to the United States. She has only one dress: a faded, shabby blue number. She wears it every day. When the beribboned rich girls ask her why she does that, she puts on the brave face that most bullied children learn to adopt. She tells them it’s a choice. She has a hundred dresses at home, but they’re just for parties.
She says, “All silk. All colors. Velvet, too. A hundred dresses. All lined up in my closet.”
I knew with the deepening horror that happens at the top of a long fall down the stairs that this book was going to make my life worse. The story ends with the girl leaving the school, because the bullies made life so hard for her. The mean girls feel shame when they see her aspirational drawings of the dresses she dreamed about, because they were so mean to her. They decide they will never be that way again.
My bullies had no shame. They didn’t connect fiction to reality, or develop any empathy for me out of their exposure to that Newberry Award-winning classic. I wasn’t an immigrant and my father was never going to touch their hearts with his careful dignity in a short letter. I was just a poor, ugly, gap-toothed and freckled kid whom nobody loved. I was shaped wrong and I smelled wrong and moved wrong and always, always dressed wrong. I didn’t know how to comb my hair and I never had clothes someone else hadn’t worn first. Of course school was hell.
School was hell on a regular day, when the soles of my drugstore sneakers flopped loose from their tops, exposing my sockless feet to rain and cold. But school was a special hell on any day that I tried to do better. If I attracted too much attention by attempting to make a new hairstyle into a turning point, someone would throw gum in my kinky curls. When I wore my Goodwill church dress in an effort to look nice, a group of boys used the white lace front of it to wipe their hands after playing on the tire swing.
I thought about the girl with the hundred dresses all the time as elementary school hell wore on and on. Mostly, I thought about how her revenge was insufficient. I didn’t want a well-behaved appeal to pity. I didn’t want to draw my dreams into colorful pictures and gift them to my tormentors. I wanted the dresses to be real. I wanted the kind of revenge no one could deny: the kind with a three-foot train. I wanted to show up to school just once in some killer clothes.
I remember notable occasions on my sartorial calendar of misery. In third grade, I got a leather jacket for Christmas from a well-meaning relative. It was white, which I detested. It was not leather, which I learned the hard way. And it had a wide V of fringes from the shoulders out to the sleeves, like I was wearing the entire city of Branson on my back. It was monstrous and I was mocked mercilessly for wearing it.
An older sister sent me a new outfit around the beginning of my freshman year of high school. She had survived a similar upbringing and wanted to try and help make mine a little easier. I remember it exactly: a pair of light-blue straight-legged jeans and a velour t-shirt with stripes in deep jewel tones. I wore it over and over, the way a kid will wear her one good outfit, until it was not good anymore. The crotch gave out in the jeans and the colors faded from the shirt until the velour began to bald. It was nice while it lasted, but the snide comments had just shifted to the sorry fact that I did not have the only acceptable backpack at my school: a Jansport.
It was a reaction to this perpetual disappointment that pushed me toward a goth aesthetic. It was easy to outfit at a thrift store. I would never have the money or the eye for Victorian goth, but punk in black was easy enough. It would excuse my ragged edges and grungy personal hygiene as intentional, and part of a unassailable malaise of the soul.
But “The Hundred Dresses” did not leave me. As I searched the Salvation Army racks for anything benighted, I recall settling my hand on a black velvet sheath dress. It had three quarter sleeves and a pattern of slim, falling golden leaves. The memory is sharpened by the emotion the dress stirred in me: a combination of desire and fear. I wanted it, but I did not feel I was allowed to want it. I didn’t know how to wear it. I would not be permitted to wear it unmolested. I would put it on and everyone would know I was just pretending, that it was only a costume.
I bought the dress.
I put it on at the vanity of a beautiful goth girl, who styled me as avidly as though I were a doll instead of a confused little refugee of style. Terror mounted as she pinned up my hair and painted my face. I would not pass. I did not belong. I wasn’t girl enough to wear black velvet to school. I would be weighed in the balance and found wanting. They would see through the illusion to the sexless, shapeless thing within.
It is almost impossible to untangle girlhood from dresses. What is more quintessentially feminine? The dress is inextricably connected to female identity as it is projected and performed in America. I was assigned female at birth, but I always felt as if that had been a clerical error. I was born wrong. Those kids in elementary school had sensed it, and reacted to my weirdness the way pack animals always do. I was not a boy, not a girl. Just a thing that could never dress right and whom no one would ever want to look at. I was deeply, foundationally, unloved and confused. A dress is a small thing. A dress can be everything.
That velvet dress in black and gold shifted the balance of power within me, and I could feel the tide turning with every step I took. I wasn’t girl enough to wear that dress, because I was too much woman already. Girlhood was denied and gone, but I was allowed to be a woman. For the first time, I felt seen in a way I did not think was possible for me. I caught someone looking at my legs and instead of hiding, I knew in an instant that I wanted to pop up my heel and give them something to really look at. My sexuality was mine, because I finally knew what language it spoke.
My body speaks DRESS.
That was the gateway dress. I’ll never forget it.
I had thought of dresses as something that happened to me on picture day and holidays. They were always drag and made it more obvious than ever that I did not know how to belong in my body. I didn’t know how to wield a dress like a weapon yet. I didn’t understand their awesome power to unify my image into as sharp and as neat as a pin. A dress is a perfect thing: a single garment into which you can stitch an entire narrative. A shield and a sword. A statement and a silence.
The girl in the book understood, sketching out the fashions of her dreams. A dress is the ultimate revenge.
That black sheath opened a glittering door for me. On the other side was the brightness of white wedding dresses and the bombshell sexiness of full skirts and low necklines in red. Dresses could make me into a ceremonial object or the priestess who cut its throat. Anything was possible, even making people see me the way I wanted to be seen. Bullies could be silenced. I could escape my misery by shapeshifting in different dresses, putting on different armors of identity. Dresses are drag, but so is everything else. I could use them to tell my story, first to myself and then to the world.
I could project a demure yet subversive sexuality: a vintage cotton frock that nipped in my waist and paired coyly with a little cardigan. I could go full vamp in a scarlet dancing dress with princess seams to accentuate the movement of my hips. I could buy black dress after black dress after black dress, becoming widow and CEO and vampire and slayer and artist and slut and mother superior.
I went mad with power. I discovered a company with a huge online catalog of dresses in every style that would make them custom to my measurements and ship them to me. My dresses were made for my body, and I couldn’t keep up with the compliments. I bought and bought, using coupons and loyalty codes and every excuse to gather ever more finery.
A silver evening gown with a deep plunge that requires gaff tape in place of lingerie.
An emerald-green 1940s style day dress with an Empire waist and a fit-and-flare silhouette.
A column dress in black, white, and red that made tourists ask to take pictures with me as though I were a costumed cast member at a theme park.
A wine-red bell-sleeved short-skirted day dress to go with knee socks, boots, and a long vest to make sure people know how groovy I can be.
A purple cowl-neck number that I could picture wearing to court in order to seem trustworthy and truthful.
An asymmetrical dupioni formal with a pattern of huge roses to wear to weddings and dance like there’s no such thing as a hangover or sore ankles.
My custom-made red satin wedding gown, trimmed with roses and worn with perfect confidence and knowledge of who I am.
One day I realized I could no longer fit all my dresses into my closet. It was time to make hard decisions. I hung them up all over the room, trying to decide what was essential and what I could donate or give to similarly-sized friends.
As I looked around the room, I realized I had done it. I had bought enough real dresses to decorate my room with them the way the little Polish girl in the book had been able to achieve only with her drawings.
I was the living revenge of the girl in “The Hundred Dresses.” Silks in every color. Velvet, too. All lined up in my closet.
I can look back over my shoulder and see the rag-wearing kid I used to be, to the girl in “The Hundred Dresses” and the girl who had to endure its reading. I can reach across the closets of time and show them where we ended up. Who we became. What we get to wear. Bullies never go silent, but they do become irrelevant. I can remember every dress I’ve ever worn, but I can’t recall a single one of those kids’ names.
Dressing well is the best revenge.