It happened in Copenhagen. Hans Christian Andersen tells us that magic and imagination flourish on Danish soil, and the tourism industry builds on that proposal at every turn. My own frequent visits to Wonderful Copenhagen and its environs–for work and play–make me suspect there’s some truth in the idea.
One Friday, many summers ago, the Danish friend with whom I was staying told me about an upcoming weekend fair of vintage items (one of my fatal passions) and offered to drive me out there–god knows where, to hell and gone–in her zippy little white car. We took off the next morning, early, for the opening, so as not to miss a single treasure. Of course it was raining. It seems as if it’s always raining in Denmark, or has just rained, or is threatening to do so, or is expressing its melancholy indecision with a fine drizzle.
The fair was a pretty high-end deal, being annual and indoors. Typically, it featured articles for the home: china, silver, glass, mid-century modern furniture–for all of which Denmark is justly celebrated. Historically, however, dress has not been the culture’s forte. Until recent decades, dowdiness and dull convention were the norm, considered a virtue perhaps. Yet here it was, hanging high from the top of a door, askew on a wire hanger, the dress that made my heart leap up with Wordsworthian delight, the dress that seemed created for me though it was surely a product of the Thirties, the dress that ignited my usually feeble streak of greed so that all I could think was Mine! Mine! Mine!
It was made of heavy black crepe with a dull finish. The top, including the long sleeves, was encrusted with jet beading and scrolling embroidery boldly laid out in an elaborate design that conjured up leaf and blossom without portraying either literally. The proportions of this magnificent bodice suggested that the garment was intended for a mature lady in possession of a large mono-bosom. I am more delicately endowed. I imagined the original owner of the dress looking like my grandmother in full regalia: majestic and bulletproof.
The skirt was appropriately more reticent, but not without its own subtle dignity. A wide panel of pleats hung front and center. From the waist to the bottom of the pelvis, the pleats were sewn down; below, they flared free. The hemline, grown uneven with time, reached to what I guessed would be midway between the calf and ankle worn by a woman of average height.
Running down the back of the dress, as I was to discover, were twenty-six small buttons and complementary loops, all covered in the fabric of which the dress was made. This was what I’ve learned to call a “husband dress”–”Hon, would you do me up down the back?” Even if you’re very flexible, and I am, once the dress is on, you can only make the top half dozen and bottom half dozen closures, leaving a goodly number of your vertebrae naked to the gaze of society. Husbands and other sorts of housemates not always being around when you need them, I once, en route to one of those affairs requiring “festive dress,” had to ask a cab driver to do the job. But I’m getting ahead of my story, revealing that the dress became mine. Eventually. Let’s rewind.
Through the half open door from which the dress hung, I could see a tiny disheveled room occupied by a group of mostly unshaven guys of assorted ages in rumpled, none-too-clean work clothes. They were obviously taking a break over coffee, cigarettes, and shots of whatever relieves the pain of getting up at dawn to ferry wares to such a fair’s site.
A far more chic woman of a certain age, the epitome of Danish bourgeois style, emerged from a nearby booth offering mostly old porcelain and linens. Gently, she made it clear that she was the proprietress of the dress. “May I try it on?” I ventured. The look on her face suggested that no one had made such an outlandish request before. But she recovered her aplomb, along with the familiar Danish good manners, then scanned the scene and asked, “But where?”
I had shed my physical modesty years before, through quick changes in the wings of the Henry Street Playhouse, where we teenaged dance students performed. There I’d learned that the human body essentially comes in two types with typical variations on the theme, and that once you’ve viewed several of each genre, you’ve seen all there is to see.
The seller took alarm at my why-not-right-here? wave of the arm at the public space in which we stood and immediately shooed the men out of the coffee room, put me, the dress, and my friend inside, and firmly shut the door.
I shed my ramshackle flea-marketing outfit and tried the dress on. It was, of course, far too big for me, but it hung just right from the shoulders, and it felt as glorious as it looked. My friend and I emerged from our makeshift dressing room, sought out a full-length mirror (a grand-scale antique, also for sale, at a neighboring booth). Thus provided with a reflection, I turned swiftly and erratically from side to side to catch a glimpse of myself, as if caught unawares, in this foreign costume. Still I couldn’t say yes (or, for that matter, no). I adored the dress, but somehow the idea of buying it and actually wearing it seemed to be too much. As they say nowadays, I just couldn’t commit.
I managed to say a regretful, rather shame-faced no to the seller, who had the grace to remain expressionless. I apologized to my friend, who only shrugged, used to–indeed, indulgent toward–what she clearly thought of as my peculiar ways. We made a desultory tour of the balance of the market and headed home.
In the dead of night, I lay in bed, obsessing about the dress. It was not merely wonderful for its own physical self. It also harbored an uncanny evocative power. It made me think of Virginia Woolf. I was fully aware, from studying pictures of Woolf (I am a recovering fan of her work), that the dress was not really like her wardrobe at all. I simply knew that I would feel like Virginia Woolf when I wore it. God knows why. I have a man’s dressing gown (sumptuous maroon figured silk, floor-length on me) that makes me feel like Balzac. And I loathe Balzac’s novels. I just like the idea of him, writing away, at the epic Comédie humaine, to be sure, but, better yet, composing dozens of letters every day as well, longhand of course, fueled by the contents of his constantly refilled porcelain coffee pot, the creditors at the door.
Desire won out. I got up, walked down the hall, and knocked cautiously on my friend’s bedroom door. “Ja, hvad er det nu?” (Yes, what is it now?) replied a very sleepy voice. “I can’t get that dress out of my mind,” I began, standing hesitantly in the doorway. My friend sighed, as if she had known how it would be all along. Summoning up my courage, I went on, “Would you consider–I know it’s asking too much, but . . .”
So back we went the next morning, my patient, generous friend and I, in her gleaming white buggy. The excursion was again conducted in the perennial light rain that does wonders for the skin and, coupled with the all too few hours of daylight in the Scandinavian winter, plays havoc with the psyche, making depression many natives’ default mode. En route, the rain began to come down hard, indeed emphatically. Accompanying it, came my heart-hammering, belly-gnawing fear that the dress had been snapped up after I had abandoned it the day before. Which, I thought bleakly, would only have served me right. I deserved to be the victim of sartorial retribution.
The dress was still there, thank goodness. Can you believe I insisted on repeating the trying-on ritual, including shooing the men out of the coffee room? (This time ’round they seemed to have accepted the disruption as part of their generally unhappy fate or the very nature of life. The Danes are philosophical folk.) Can you believe I still took a long time to consider if the dress wasn’t too strange a costume for me, one of those mad errors that slips further and further toward the darkest recesses of one’s closet until an adolescent grandchild commandeers it for Hallowe’en. Then I began to wonder if I could really afford it, not merely as a statement of personal style but in terms of budget. I was a paradigm of indecision. Finally my friend, who may indulge fantasy life–she is, after all, a ballerina–unleashed her practical side and came to my rescue. “Buy the dress,” she said firmly, “and let’s go and have lunch.”
Once having made the decision, we did a little ritual bargaining about the price. (In Italy, I’m told, if you fail to haggle in such circumstances, the seller is disappointed.) I applied my limited Danish to the task, my friend chiming in, charming in her native tongue. The proprietress remained firm, however, and by now I’d realized that if I left a second time without possessing this garment, I’d have been criminally negligent–towards my desires and towards the magnificence of the dress.
I have since worn it for two decades on what I think of as Occasions of Elegance. It cost $60.
© 2008 Tobi Tobias