'Dressing Up' by Susan Howe
You love the dress and it loves you right back. The colour of holidays and as soft and light as June skies, it falls from the hanger into your arms, promising to grant your wishes. Alone in your cubicle you inhale its newness as it slips over your freshly set hair. You wriggle it over your breasts, then ease it carefully over your hips and thighs. It was made for you.
Allowing yourself to be flattered by the deception of a skinny mirror, you gaze at your image, hardly daring to breathe. You swing round to try and catch your rear view unawares and the fabric swirls around your knees in a languid waltz. Clinging to your curves, it feels familiar but sexy; expensive but not flashy. Perfect for the office party tonight.
Lifted on a wave of euphoria you do something you have never done before. You draw the curtain aside and step into the communal changing area to solicit the approval of strangers. The room is full of chattering, semi-naked girls, their confidence disconcerting as they stand around in froths of lace, exposing firm flesh. Averting your eyes, you pick a path between glittering scraps of fashion strewn across the floor and head for the changing room exit, where a couple of middle-aged assistants are deep in whispered conversation. They’ll do.
You stand behind them for a few seconds wondering whether to interrupt but decide against. A stab of anxiety heralds the onset of a hot flush, which rapidly permeates your cheeks and spreads down your neck and arms. Burning, you start to back away but one of the assistants turns and raises her eyebrows.
‘Oh, sorry, madam. Did you want to try a larger size?’ she asks, pleasantly enough.
You swallow and open your mouth, shaking your head when nothing emerges.
Looking you up and down, the women smile, then turn away and resume their gossiping. Sight blurring, you shuffle back to your cubicle, trying to ignore the barely suppressed sniggers around you.
Closing the curtains, you stand in front of the mirror once again, your gaze on the floor. Slowly, painfully, it travels upwards, past your swollen ankles to the hem of the dress. There’s no need to look any further because now you can feel the bodice straining across your midriff and your fear mounts for the tiny pearl buttons. Gathering the skirt, you attempt to pull it up and over your shoulders. For a breathless, sweaty minute you are trapped; your head, chest and arms swaddled. You panic. Tug too hard. But at last you are free. And, above the hubbub outside, you alone detected the rasp of ripping fabric.
A faint twinge of satisfaction carries you past the giggling youngsters. You hang the dress on the rack of rejects.
‘Isn’t it any good?’ one of the assistants asks.
‘Not really,’ you reply.
And you’re almost smiling again as you leave the shop.