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The Dress: Personal Indulgences No. 6

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


  1. Carol Kyros says

    I loved the story of the flea market dress in Personal Indulgences and could picture you and your friend making the second trip to buy it, then hesitating, then haggling a little, then finally getting the your strong-minded companion push to take action. You must post a photo of yourself in that dress sometime. [Sent September 5, 2008. –Ed.]

  2. Lynne Schwartz says

    I just read the dress piece, which was beautiful. I loved your
    dithering about the dress, as well as the description, especially the
    buttons. [Sent April 8, 2008. –Ed.]

  3. Jean Paradise says

    I’m a fervent reader of your Personal Indulgences. They’re witty, nostalgic and sharp at the same time. [Sent April 3, 2008. –Ed.]

  4. Jeannette Andersen says

    I just LOVE this piece, not just because it takes place in my country, but also because it is wonderfully written. [Sent March 1, 2008. –Ed.]

  5. Jean Paradise says

    I just loved this piece. [Sent January 24, 2008. –Ed.]

  6. Charlotte Christensen says

    I have fond memories of a long black dress bought for the opera performances in the Sicilian opera houses (with the man of my life, no. 4, long since dead) and the parrucchiera in Messina, dressing up my at that time golden hair. Minderne har vi jo lov at ha’ [We have a right to our memories], as the song goes. [Sent January 17, 2008. –Ed.]

  7. Martha Ulllman West says

    I saved for my daughter a dress that I had when I was four or five, white, with an embroidered border of dolls around the hem, very charming. But she turned out to have such a porcelain skin that white made her look dead, so she never wore it. I have it still, however, just in case.
    I do love your “Personal Indulgences,” Tobi. By by all means write on! [Sent January 17, 2008. –Ed.]

  8. Christopher Caines says

    Like you, I love the fashions of the 20s, but the problem is, the women’s clothes from that period flatter only a minority of women, while the period from about 1928-1942 has clothes for both sexes that look great on most. I also love the 40s but the exaggerated, almost automotive silhouette–those upward-sloping shoulder pads in the women’s jackets!–of the later 40s again don’t work for many women. And after that, forget it! I do sometimes dress up for the theater, quite often actually. [Sent January 16, 2008. –Ed.]

  9. Emily Leider says

    You write divinely about clothes! [Sent January 15, 2008. –Ed.]

  10. Yung Wang says

    By God. I remember perfectly this dress in noir with these little buttons at the back. The occasion was at City Center and we saw Paul Taylor. [Sent January 15, 2008. –Ed.]

  11. Carol Schlacter says

    Enjoyed this piece much, but those 26 covered buttons with loop closings going down the back, really evoked many memories–of a most wonderful dress that I bought for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah when I was almost 19 and a perfect size 10.
    My mother and I dragged around for weeks, looking for the perfect dress for me until we remembered to try our little old standby, “Marnell’s Dress Shop,” in our home neighborhood of Kew Gardens. As the years passed, we came to recognize that it would always produce a unique, elegant, and outstanding find, well worth the “small bit extra” that the husband and wife owners, with a most critical eye and superb taste, would charge for their talents! Because of their quality and uniqueness, I learned to cherish and keep the many dresses I bought from them over the years.
    The wonderful dress was a silk, dull black crepe, like yours (fabulous feeling and looking material from the days before synthetics), with all those same looped-closing covered buttons down the back, but with a gap in the middle of all the covered buttons, between the softly draped back’s top ‘s several buttons and the several bottom ones, coming down to just below the waist, subtly revealing the middle of the back as you moved. This was a bit of daring on an otherwise conservative, but oh so chic, high-topped boatneck front, sleeveless fitted sheath, with only a light pink rose, green-leafed and stemmed, for color and enhancement, attached at the front to a wide grosgrain-ribboned waistband, which went up as it went around back, and crossed over the draped opening of space between all those buttons, thereby keeping the soft draping from revealing all! It was a marvel of construction, in all its simplicity, and required a separated hooking of the ribboned waistband to close it in front, under the rose, after it wrapped around the back–and after closing all those buttons! It was classic understated chic, with that little bit of daring punch, to make it appealing to a young single woman. I wore it several times, then cherished it so long as to save it up in my attic, knowing the value of the fabric and construction.
    Fast forward thirty years to when we were invited to a spring wedding, along with my married daughter and her husband. When my daughter complained about not being able to find a dress she liked after many weeks of searching, I suggested she try on the elegant little black dress from her uncle’s Bar Mitzvah. It was still bagged and protected up in the attic. I was still saving it and hoping, though I could no longer could fit it!
    At first my daughter was reluctant, not believing it would be “in style’! But it fit her perfectly and she recognized the quality which she was unused to in her own fashion time, of the look, feel, and construction. She wore it proudly and joyfully to the wedding, looking gorgeous, and drawing many compliments, to which she promptly responded with the history of the dress. It now hangs bagged and protected in her attic, awaiting her 12-year-old daughter Brianna’s almost coming into maturity.
    And so,Tobi, I wish you, too, many more years of enjoyment in the wearing of your wonderful, elegant black dress–and perhaps, too, passing it on to future generations! [Sent January 15, 2008. –Ed.]

  12. Christopher Caines says

    That’s a nice story, and what a bargain! The thirties was the apex of all human civilization for women’s frocks, in my view. Many of my works have been costumed in vintage ’30s/’40s dresses. This can entail durability and wardrobe maintenance issues, but the quality and imagination continue to astonish me. [Sent January 14, 2008. –Ed.)

  13. Elizabeth Keen says

    I loved the tale of the dress. [Sent January 14, 2008. –Ed.]

  14. Norma Fire says

    Thanks for this lovely dress tale. It evoked memories of my own trip to Denmark many years ago, but more to the point, several whatthehellbuyitalready purchases I made or regretted not making. [Sent January 14, 2008. –Ed.]

  15. Martha Ulllman West says

    From your description, I thought of Virginia Woolf before I arrived at your reference to her, but I am not a “recovering” fan; I will never recover. And have I ever yearned for such a dress, or bought such a dress, or worn such a dress? Well, yes.
    When my husband and I were first in Portland, we were invited to quite an elegant dinner party, and I said I needed a new dress, a “little black dress” as we called them once upon a time. And so we set out, sufficiently newly married for him to go with me. We hit every shop that sold size 5 dresses in Portland (this was a LONG time ago). There was an expensive shop downtown, one of those shops that makes you feel as if it charges admission, and when we had no luck anywhere else, Frank suggested we go there.
    And there it was, The Dress, black crepe, length just below the knee, a wide neck with a deep ruffle, no sleeves, a belted waist. I loved it. I wanted it. I knew it cost too much money without looking at the price tag. It had been designed by Mr. Mort: remember Mr. Mort?
    So, Frank said to try it on, and I resisted for about a minute, and then ducked into a well-appointed dressing room and indeed it was my dress, the perfect little black dinner dress. And it fit me perfectly. So Frank bought it for me and I wore it for the next ten years. It cost, oh dear lord, $35.00.
    Your story is better. I loved it as much as I loved my ruffled Mr. Mort dress. [Sent January 13. 2008. –Ed.]

  16. Brooke Goffstein says

    I’ve enjoyed your Indulgences, especially this last one.
    I hope you will write more. (Sent January 15, 2008. –Ed.)

  17. Mindy Aloff says

    This is thoroughly, totally, wonderful. [Sent January 13, 2008. –Ed.]

  18. Elizabeth Zimmer says

    Great! Thanks. [Sent January 13, 2008. –Ed.]

  19. Andrea Siegel says

    Wonderful piece. Thank you for writing it for me. It has everything: clothes, shopping, and friendship.
    I loved “I’d have been criminally negligent–towards my desires.” [Sent July 2, 2007. –Ed.]

  20. This was a delightful story to come upon today. I felt, in reading it, that I was on a short but wonderful holiday.

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