By Ruth Johnston
Not too many years ago, I had a bee in my bonnet to go to a charity dinner or ball. I had a favorite charity, NARSAD, that had annual dinners, and I used to dream, what if? What if I could find the strength, opportunity and money to attend? What if I could meet someone I really admired, like Nina Volkow: head of NIDA, a scientist in English and poet in Spanish, Trotsky’s great-granddaughter and lover of Bach? (I had the event pretty well romanticized.) So when I moved to a large city, I began following the Monday morning reports about charity events over the weekend, just to see what they wore. You know, just in case. Gotta be prepared.
What I learned is that there’s an evening-gown uniform store hidden somewhere downtown. I hadn’t realized this, because I’d been misled by the media. I thought that the fashion shows of New York, Paris and Milan set the model for wearing something beautiful and daring. I certainly understood the upper class ladies of Pittsburgh not wanting to look heroin-chic or like Jennifer Lopez in that horrible Oscar gown held only by a bit of chewing gum at her navel. Some of those Fashion Week dresses are jaw-dropping, and not always in a good way.
And I certainly understood how they’d learn from the “Worst of the Oscars” spreads in People. Some A-list stars must choose their gowns while they’re on drugs. But I really never anticipated that charity balls would look precisely like the senior prom.
Evening gowns, as sold by Macy’s and the wedding-and-prom shops, are always shiny. They are bright or dark solid colors. They are always tight-fitting. They are usually strapless, and otherwise sleeveless. If they are street-length, they are tight like a little black dress. If they are floor-length, they are also tight, with a slit. Every single woman looks the same, even the one singled out for a full view with a tag line about where she bought her stunning gown. The only photo spreads that are truly flattering are of young girls in white, because really, how can you go wrong by dressing a 17-year-old in white? Why do middle-aged women with plenty of money have so little imagination? Why do they choose to look like tropical fish or the Little Mermaid? Did they grow up in school uniforms and come to expect uniformity?
My favorite childhood book was Douglas Gorsline’s What People Wore. Thousands of line drawings depicted fashion from Egypt to the Roaring Twenties. The pace of change really picked up after 1600, and it was clear to me, as a child trying to imagine who these people were and what they were like, that there were hundreds of ways to dress. It was equally clear that the way my mother dressed me for school was among the least imaginative, least beautiful of the ways to dress. I wanted a medieval gown, and I tried to figure out how to make one, but couldn’t.
When my mother offered to make me a special dress-up dress, I chose a Colonial American dress pattern that the makers had probably envisioned for a good Bicentennial Halloween. “Are you sure?” asked my practical mother. Yep, I was sure. Why do these women not follow, if not exactly my childish example, at least the example of the tasteful A-list stars who mine the vintage dresses of 1952? Why don’t they dress like Jackie Kennedy now and then? Why no Empire dresses? Why no flaring skirts, no draping, medieval bell sleeves? Why no trains, no My Fair Lady looks? Seriously, why the ugly uniforms?