When I first started wearing dresses again, it felt like coming home. I’ve always felt like a girl. Femme Feminine. Well, outside of the misinterpreted year that feminism encouraged me to question all assumptions. I stopped wearing skirts and dresses and threw out my Barbies. I stopped shaving my legs. And then, thank God, I found the garden path back to dresses.
There’s a photograph of me as an infant — a pistil in the center of petals shaped like dresses. But the first dress I remember is one my parents brought back from Hawaii for me. It was a sundress made of cotton, with a skirt that reached my pudgy toddler knees and a top that haltered and tied at the back of my neck. There are pictures of me in this blue, purple and pink dress. It’s very retro and completely back in fashion. My best friend Kim’s daughter, Lily, wore it at her first birthday party.
My family took a trip to Disneyland when I was five. It was an adventure that has carved a permanent niche in my brain. A vacation full of new sights, sounds, smells and experiences. I was thrilled to meet my hero, Mickey Mouse, suffered through a drive across the desert, was terrified by the fireworks, defended my mother’s purse at all costs from the train robber at Knott’s Berry Farm and survived a near death experience with a shark at Universal Studios.
I also got a new dress. It hangs in my second born’s closet now – 32 years later. It looks a bit like a memory. The linen cotton fabric with a light purple and pink floral print is thinned a bit with age and there is a small tear in the Alice-in-Wonderland sleeve. But the skirt is still full and the pleats still girlish. It is the second most important dress in my life.
When I was 18, I went to Europe with my parents. It was a three-week whirlwind trip that had us bouncing from the UK to Paris to Germany to Wales. I spent time with both of my parents and had a particularly delightful time with my father in Wales, where we visited my Aunt Jenny and Uncle Harold. They were Jack Sprat and his wife who could eat no lean.
Uncle Harold was a terrible driver — fast and unpredictable. Our road touring was more exciting than an amusement park ride and the stop-at-the-side-of-the-road tea breaks were a welcome, though odd, event. Before we left on this trip my Dad and I went for coffee at Heartland — a fabulous coffee house in Calgary. Heartland had a store that sold Cornell Trading dresses, candles, picture frames, knick knacks, books and music. I fell in love with another sun dress. It was light cotton, the fabric was Nepalese, and it buttoned at the back in a crossover fashion.
My Dad bought it for me. I wore it throughout our trip to Europe. I took it to Victoria with me when I started school at the University of Victoria and it finally wore out when I hiked in it through the Himalayas when I was 20.
My wedding dress is still the most important dress in my life. But perhaps its greatest significance is that it – like all my dresses — marks another stage in my life. And it is the most extravagant gesture in a long line of gestures from my loving parents.
In an attempt to find the dress, I took my posse of women to Shades of White bridal boutique. Despite my feminist critiques of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I wanted to feel like a princess. I left feeling like the ugly step sister. The sales associate was loud, cooing, judgmental and pushy. As is common in bridal shops, every dress I tried on did not fit correctly. I was either swimming in a sea of silk or pinched in the ribs by taffeta. When a dress is too small, they use bungy cord-like clips to keep it closed. When it is too big, they clothes-pin it tight, the result of which is a very unfortunate puckering effect in all the wrong places making it hard to determine if even the right fit would be flattering.
I was in the dressing room and had just stepped out of my clothes to try on one of the dresses. It was a lovely off-white one with burgundy embroidery. I fell in love with it – on the rack. I was indecently exposed when the sales associate popped into the dressing room and started tugging and pulling the dress over my head. My hair clip caught on the lacing at the back and my head yanked back. She kept tugging and I looked back to see a reflection of my nearly naked butt in the three-way mirror. Horrified and humiliated is an understatement. She finally got it over my head and proceeded to bungy cord me into it. I glanced behind me to see the unflattering criss cross of clips and elastic. I was simply busting out of this dress. Sales lady opened the curtain for my great reveal.
Exhausted from her exertions, she brushed her hair out of her eyes and exhaled sharply. She looked carefully from side to side, up and down. “It’s lovely,” she finally stated. She gestured towards my mid section “and very forgiving in the hip area.” My friends all commented on the colour and the fabric. I was wearing $15,000 of silk and felt like a sow’s ear.
However, I now had a sense of what worked for me and what didn’t. I had a sense of fabrics, colour and style. I knew that I was not a strapless girl and so many of the dresses were strapless. I took my business away from the haute couture strapless house of horrors and my maid of honour, Kim, and I drove to Brentwood Bay to talk to a dressmaker.
Alida was amazing. I didn’t have to get undressed. She didn’t tug or pull or pinch or judge. We simply talked about ideas, created a sketch, fingered a dozen types of fabric and looked at trim. I walked away with a folder containing fabric swatches, trim samples, a drawing of my princess dress and time to consider my options. I walked away with the feeling I had taken part in the vision of my dress.
The dress was made to fit me. It hugged all my curves and my hips did not need forgiving. I remember the expressions on many peoples’ faces when they first saw me in it, but I remember my Dad’s and my Grandad’s the most. (I couldn’t see Loch’s face when he first saw me, but I heard through the grapevine that he was impressed).
My Grandfather teared up and said, “My Christie, oh my Christie.” He hugged me and I begged for time to stand very still. My eyes welled up and I silently thanked Loréal for waterproof.
Weddings are fabulous and marriages are hard. From the moment I called him a ‘bastard’ during our wedding vows, I knew that we would keep it real. Loch and I are still living in our own version of happily ever after. It is a version that is perfectly imperfect. We have survived major house renovations, deaths in both of our families, the birth of two sons, employment uncertainty and four years of parenting.
It’s still early days. Neither of us knows what will happen next, but we take one step at a time and are committed to the journey rather than the destination.
I still have my wedding dress. It’s stored in tissue in a white box in an unbleached cotton drawstring bag. It was packaged with archival gloves so that when I want to take it out and touch it, I won’t ruin the fabric with the contaminating oils on my hands. It is stored and waiting patiently for the next occasion.
Honouring Frank Shaw, February 11, 1911 – February 26, 2010
My Grandfather, my friend, my hero.
“wedding dresses” killrbeez @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“White roses” The Gifted Photographer @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
“Grandad and Me” Courtesy of Christine Shaw Roome
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