Content Warning: brief non-descriptive mention of child sexual assault, resulting impact on me
I grew up in a conservative Christian cult, but our clothes were hand-me-downs and we lived in Florida, so I spent most of my childhood in shorts and tank tops, with plastic jelly shoes. I only had to wear dresses on Wednesdays for chapel at my Christian school and on Sundays for church.
I didn’t always hate dresses. I remember the joy of shopping for my first new dress, a black dress with white polka dots and a little white petticoat underneath. It had a wide lacey collar with a little red rose in the center. I wore it proudly and loved everything about it. It was perfect.
The dress that made me hate dresses came a few years later. It was a Wednesday. I had gone to see my friend down the street after school. She wasn’t home, but her father let me in, and molested me. I was wearing a white dress with light blue pin stripes, a sort of sailor suit inspired dress clearly meant for a child.
After the state prosecutor failed to do anything with the testimony I gave him, my mom took a job out of state in part to move me away from him. She enrolled us in public school and I completely swore off dresses for the next three years. I wore brightly dyed jeans in purple, green, and hot pink instead. I also cut my hair short and started going by a boys’ version of my first name.
We mom took a different job three years later, and we moved back to Tampa, FL but to a different side of town.It was the mid-90s and I was ready to reinvent myself again. I got a maroon spaghetti strap dress to wear over a white cotton crop top shirt, with a denim jacket over everything. I paired it with stockings, which felt less exposed and safer than dresses on their own had.
After a couple years it was time to move once again, to an actual house after years and years of apartment rentals. I had a brown velvet dress with a lace up front, that I thought made me look like a femme Robin Hood. I wore it with boots and tights the day I learned my best friend and boyfriend had been making out in the choir room during practice for everyone to see. I couldn’t look at it anymore without thinking of that betrayal.
At seventeen I moved in with my dad for a few months of peak misbehavior. I found myself wearing a black and purple floor length velvet gown, lying on top of an air mattress on top of a water bed, while my boyfriend pet my stomach saying “you feel pretty” as we rolled. Memories of that dress still make me smile.
I’ve had other dresses, but not that many. Dresses are too fraught for me. They are too unique, and they stick in my mind in a way that pants and shirts and combinations don’t. They hurt. These days I don’t wear dresses. I feel safer with my legs covered, have since I was eight years old. I don’t know that there’s any great insight to be gained in this. I just felt a need to write it all down.