Sarah's party dress

It looked to me like the right dress. Calf length, shimmery enough for a party dress, big flowers splashed all over and a demure white collar and cuffs. It had the sort of full skirt that spun when an 8-year-old twirled around, always the deal maker for my daughter. The saleswoman offered to hold it until I picked up Sarah from school. I figured this whole dress issue would be retired before dinner.

Sarah does not care about event dressing; she would rather wear a favored old dress to her birthday, or out for New Year's, than break in a new one. With one exception. When she was 3, I published a book and she requested a "book party dress" to wear to the signing at a local bookstore. I picked out a pretty one, she wore it proudly, and proceeded to wear it for every subsequent special occasion. Then some not-so-special ones, days when she wanted to recall the feelings she had the first time she wore it.

By the time she grew out of it, one of the pin-on flowers on the collar was missing, and there was a gash of paint down the side. The stitching at the shoulders was stretched to the limit, testimony to the warp-speed growth of her shoulders. She refused to give it up. It hangs at the far end of the closet, waiting for Sarah's daughter to wear it.

As soon as my next book was in galleys, she asked whether she could have a new book party dress. Of course. I like the idea that she finds publication a good reason to celebrate. I like hunting for clothes for her--in part because it is a vicarious thrill for someone like me, who has been tailored since the third grade. Dressing Sarah is like traveling to a foreign country, say, Italy, a place drenched in happy colors.

Except this time I have a fellow traveler. Sarah is old enough to have her own taste. She considers the dress I have chosen with a weary look that I had hoped not to see for another six or seven years.

"Mom," she whispers, so as not to hurt the saleswoman's feelings, "this does not exactly look like a book party dress to me." She tries it on and shoots me a baleful stare. Bewildered, I hustle her out of the store and drive up the street to another shop.

As we turn into the parking lot I glance over at her and wonder, just for an instant: Is the kid going to go California on me?

For better or worse, I dress like a displaced New Yorker, and am often confused for one. Dark colors, tailored suits; my idea of sexy is a perfectly tailored gabardine seam that runs snug from the shoulder blade to the small of the back. I don't do bare, I rarely do short, and I think slip dresses are silly. Pastels confuse me. I married in kind, a man born to the necktie and the single-button Italian jacket. My friends tease that Sarah's adolescent rebellion will be to wear only Laura Ashley floral prints.

But what if the revolt comes early, and worse? We were in our local juiceteria getting a smoothie a few weeks back when three preteens walked in, wearing what I would call "Taxi Driver" chic. Kohl-rimmed eyes, iridescent lips, tank tops that might have almost fit before someone threw them in the dryer on high. Shorts about the size of a place mat and pastel platform jelly sandals. Their hair was lank, and not the color they were born with. They had perfected the sullen pout.

I cannot believe that this is what Bob Dylan had in mind when he wished, "May you stay forever young."

Then I noticed Sarah giving them the once-over. I recalled all the warnings about 7 or 8 being the age when kids start to cave in to peer pressure about what they wear, what they eat and how they act. For a moment I forget how to breathe. What if that's the kind of get-up she has in mind?

I considered various defenses. Mommy forgot her checkbook/wallet/credit cards. Mommy thinks that dress is lovely but poorly made, and the seams will come apart the first time you smile. Mommy has decided to cancel the book party and move the family somewhere cold, like Montana, where the weather requires a certain level of cover-up. Mommy is a prude and thinks an 8-year-old should look like an 8-year-old.

I rejected every one. I had to let her choose. This was my big chance to rewrite history.

For I remember standing in the girls' department at Chas. A. Stevens in downtown Chicago, circa 1964. Or maybe it was Saks; my mom and I replayed the same scene every fall when we made our back-to-school wardrobe pilgrimage. I walked past a row of clothes and pointed out the ones I yearned for. My mother then selected for practicality, wearability and a fashionable palette. Our choices rarely intersected.

I will never forget the sweater/skirt combos that were the bane of my adolescent existence. Colors I would not now wear on a dare--aqua, celery--and styles designed to repel any boy who got within 20 feet.

I had a total of two sartorial victories before I left home for college, each of which I recall as clearly as if I were staring at a photograph. At 13, I somehow strong-armed my mother--I may have threatened tears in the fitting room at Young Debs and Heirs--into the perfect party dress, a plain black velvet bodice over a full black-and-white checked taffeta skirt. Four years later I headed off to college with a deep-red wool foulard dress, sleeveless, no collar, and that absolutely perfect curve running from shoulder to hip.

It almost erases the memory of the traffic-cone orange cocktail dress she bought me. But not quite.

So I have vowed not to meddle. When Sarah and I get to the second store, the fancy dresses are lined up on a single rack, demure in their protective plastic coverings, all cream and lace. I feel lucky: There are at least a dozen dresses in her size, and some of them are lovely. Not a single crop-top among them.

She makes a beeline for the one dress I absolutely would not have bothered to take off the rack.

"This one," she says.

Sarah bends down behind the bagged dress so I can better see what she will look like, and suddenly I wish for a little verve. This one looks so plain, the antithesis of the trio at the smoothie shop; free choice can be rough in any direction. At my urging, she agrees to try on a couple of others--two that are slightly cheaper, two that don't require the services of a dry cleaner--and we squeeze into the fitting room.

The two washable ones are easy rejects: too cute, too tidy, too predictable. She looks like one of the twins in those videos I refuse to have in the house. Dress three would be nice for a kid three inches wider than Sarah, and I cannot figure out how to alter it. Dress four is the trendy one, a little ivory slip dress under a frothy, see-through concoction with a long skirt and a scoop neck. Peekaboo fashion, a coy hybrid of boudoir satin and chaste lace--not a look that has a lot of integrity. It looks silly on most grown-ups; it looks almost illegal on a child, kind of like Lolita's heart-shaped sunglasses.

Sarah struggles to get into the dress and then looks at herself in the mirror, her shoulders scrunched to keep the slip from sliding off.

"It's too much clothes," she says.

I help her into the dress of her dreams, all the while wondering what about it that attracted her. A plain, short-sleeved bodice with a wide neck and flat collar, a belt of gossamer peach, and a big skirt with a sewn-in petticoat. A row of buttons down the back. Very '50s, I think, and potentially very dowdy. As I button the buttons, I begin to wonder where we might go next.

It is impossible to get a good look at her in the cramped cubicle, so she opens the door and walks away from me.

When she turns, I catch my breath.

Sarah is right. I am wrong. It is the perfect dress for her--impractical, romantic, wise, straightforward. I don't know exactly what is going on behind those limpid gray eyes of hers; I'll never know, since it would seem an intrusion at this exact moment to ask her, like rousing someone from a gorgeous dream. She is somewhere else, having discovered early that the only clothes worth owning are the ones that make you feel like your best self. You make them beautiful--not the other way around.

I am merely a happy witness. Too soon, I think to myself, but there it is. Forget the fast lane of Southern California fashion. Sarah has a sense of herself that has nothing to do with the latest look, not an easy thing in the land of little dresses and big hair. Maybe I had one, too, a long time ago, but it quickly became shrouded in propriety and common sense.

Not this time.

"Wrap it up," I say.


© The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1998

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