The Dress



Neighborhood: All Over, Greenwich Village, SoHo, West Village

For thirty-five years its posture has been folded into a deep curtsy, dormant over a hanger, as if waiting for a curtain call. After that one moment in the spotlight, it’s never been worn again. Unless we consider fleeting fantasies of varying scenarios I’ve had over the decades that flash-forwarded to, well, the age I am now. Sixty.

I am referring to my wedding dress. Or to be precise, the dress I chose to get married in. A non-traditional creamy beige, in a style somehow managing to capture in the most flattering way possible (I realize in now bi-focaled hindsight) that most awful fashion era of all time–the mid-1970s.

Despite the 100% flammability factor and anti-wicking properties in fabric that never drew a breath in its life, I felt cool as a summer breeze as it flowed down my body from shoulders to toes: a Qiana waterfall. Bisecting the entire panorama of polyester was a triangular piece of matching fabric actually called a “fanny wrap.”

I am not rolling my eyes as I write this. No whiff of sarcasm can overwhelm the lavender moth sachet or sense of loss I feel, a postpartum for everything that this dress represented to me when I was twenty-four and about to cross the threshold into a role I had never envisioned for myself while still in high school, planning my escape to New York City: that of a married woman. My husband-to-be and I were young, modern, post-Woodstock. This wasn’t the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, being married and living in SoHo with a guy who complemented me as perfectly as Alvie Singer did Annie Hall. Yet eight years later we were the embodiment of one of the most memorable lines from that movie: “What we’ve got here is a dead shark.” Therapy informed me that I married too young, most likely. I hadn’t learned how to swim, and still needed a life jacket.

Nearly two decades after my wedding day, another engagement to another classic rescuer (how classic? FDNY!) did not quite result in our tying the knot, and again I bobbed in seas of uncertainty. Was I destined to be single until I got it right? Or was my natural state that of an unmarried woman? The resulting emotional trousseau accompanied the dress as I moved from the city to upstate New York at the start of the new millennium. I had bought a house, on my own, with plenty of storage. For the next twelve years I periodically unzipped a garment bag in a musty basement, stuck my head in, and sniffed. Touched. And wondered why I was still saving that dress.

Sentimentality and practicality often blur in my head and change personas. Still single and a size 2, and, being an artsy type, I continue to wear many of the vintage clothes collected when I lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In 1977, Larry proposed to me as we lay in bed with bagels and The New York Times. The question was popped in the middle of an Abbott and Costello movie in those pre-Cable TV days– Pardon My Sarong. On a cinemaphile’s Cloud 9, I began my dress quest, combing all my favorite vintage haunts: Stella Dallas, Screaming Mimi, Jezebel, and Reminiscence. No luck, but I did find the perfect shoes: brown grosgrain Capezio wedgies that would have been at home on Dorothy Lamour. I was now grounded, working from the bottom up.

My search relocated to Los Angeles, where we spent that summer. It was my very first trip to California, and we had packed matching Hawaiian shirts (from my favorite shop on MacDougal Street, Reminiscence–his blue and mine red) to hit Venice Beach. And Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the Farmers Market, and the Hollywood Hills. Back in New York, “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz was terrorizing outer borough parked-car lovers with a .44 caliber gun. Only vaguely aware, we were getting our shivers from the fake shark in Jaws and Hitchcock’s Psycho house on the Universal Tour.

Larry was trying on a career selling videos to motels (pre-HBO), and I got a job as a layout artist for Robinson’s department store. Fish out of water, we somehow navigated the freeway system that was so alien to our usual mode of public transportation. My job was okay, but Larry hated his. We watched mid-day “Leave It To Beaver” episodes while counting the homesick weeks until we’d be back in the fold of “The Honeymooners.” Then it would all be better–we’d be married. And home.

Meanwhile, we shopped. Larry bought a wedding suit at Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills, and our rings were simple gold bands from Tiffany & Co. on Rodeo Drive. After picking them up, we ate at The Palm to celebrate. But we’d have traded it all in a New York Minute for a plate of red, white, and blue blintzes at the Garden Cafeteria on East Broadway.

Every evening I hand-wrote our wedding invitations on wildly-swirled Indian stationery, and every weekend I trawled the boutiques of West Hollywood and Santa Monica, searching for an affordable frock that would jump out at me in a karmic embrace, while somehow managing to match those brown shoes. I tried not to panic as the October wedding date approached. Any pre-wedding jitters were centered not on choosing the wrong man, but rather, the wrong dress.

Cruising down Sunset Boulevard, I rubbernecked the strip malls that stitched the iconic street together near our apartment in West Hollywood. And there it was–My Dress–in the window of a shop (name long forgotten) that I had to circle several times to find the entrance for parking in the back. Once inside, I wriggled into the ring of elastic that served as the neckline, and shrugged the flouncy ruffle down over my shoulders. Then I secured my fanny wrap and peered into the 3-way mirror. And pirouetted. It was one of a kind, and made me feel that way too. With a sizzle of Carmen Miranda.

On October 16, 1977, my dress made its debut at the Hotel St. Moritz on Central Park South, along with my California tan and Farrah Fawcett ’do. We had agreed to walk down the aisle together, simply, with no pomp and circumstance, surrounded by family and friends. A rabbi would perform the non-denominational service. We were choosing our traditions. Eschewing a tie, Larry still stepped on the glass. I had something old (a purse from my mother-in-law) and something new (my dress!) but nothing borrowed or blue. What really mattered was that we were now back in New York, where we belonged. And we were married.

A change that one couldn’t pinpoint was in the air that summer we had spent in L.A. We bought bell bottoms in Westwood days before leaving, and by the time our plane landed in New York City, they were out of style. In July there had been a huge power blackout, and in August, “Son of Sam” was arrested. We happily honeymooned in our city as we reclaimed our turf.

Navigating the rest of the 70s and early 80s, Larry and I seemed perfectly in sync with each other and the era, choosing new wave over disco, film noir over mainstream, and pulp fiction over popular tastes. Yet we were homebodies, nick-naming ourselves “The Dullards.” Happy to watch old movies on TV, we didn’t go to clubs or indulge in the general decadence of the time. Not Sid and Nancy, we were more Ward and June. Ozzie and Harriet.

Unlike the Cleavers or the Nelsons, however, we didn’t last as a married couple. I still had some laps to do in the pool of “finding myself,” and maybe he did too. I divided the spices, the albums, and the cats, and moved to Brooklyn where I knew no one. My dress came with me; Larry kept the rings. I was the one who chose to take the leap off the diving board. The exhilaration of the jump nearly made up for the pain and guilt I felt over the dead shark in our marriage.

Almost immediately, we began to share another space, three times a week. I started training at the karate school Larry had recently joined after our separation, and before long we were bonding as fellow karateka, as we practiced our katas and kumite on the dojo floor. He helped me prepare for my black belt promotion and treated me to diner eggs when it was over. The setting felt much more comfortable than the St. Moritz, overlooking Central Park. So did our new roles with each other.

We are each still unmarried. Larry stayed in the apartment we had shared for nine years, and continues to live there with his two cats. I have moved twice, and haven’t ruled out another. I also have feline company. Unlike many of our divorced friends, we’ve remained close. I was the one he called first when a cat died. Or a parent. He was the one I called when I went into mortgage refinance meltdown. We navigated the events of 9/11 separately, but in some ways, together. We often send each other youtubes and links about New York City as we remember it: when we were newlyweds. If it was considered a cesspool back then, we cheerfully acknowledge the fact. Our life preservers kept us afloat, open to the ride, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. If our friends and family were first confused about our non-wedded relationship, we’ve maintained it as we always have, by choosing our traditions. And learning how to swim.

Yesterday I went into the basement and did my annual sniff test. Then I pulled the dress off the hanger to see how kind the years have been. Maybe it was time for Good Will, I thought. Wouldn’t a whirl around the dance floor at someone’s prom be fitting? I spread the ruffled flounce wide and felt the disintegration of ancient elastic under my fingers as the neckline stretched beyond its natural limits.

A sharp pang of dismay was followed just as quickly by a bounce-back of new resolve. I rolled my dress up into a final bundle and pushed it into the bag for textile recycling that was being collected in town that very day. I had already rounded up my old T-shirts, some dating back to that Summer of Sam, as well as sheets from our bridal registry, and karate gear. My wedding dress is the icing on the cake. Now it will not just be re-worn, it will be reborn.

I find that fitting.

Sharon Watts is finishing up a memoir of her art student days in early 1970s NYC: Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams.

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