The dress. Oh, I could have sworn when I was a child that the dress was an artifact of the devil. I had to wear dresses when I went to church. I had to wear dresses when I went to my aunts’ weddings. I had to wear dresses when I visited my grandparents (because, my mother said, the sweaters Nanny made me “only look nice with a dress”). I didn’t understand why I had to wear dresses. They were not convenient in the slightest. I wanted to play. I wanted to run around. I wanted to slouch in my chair. I wanted to climb trees. While I wore the dress it was made clear that all of the activities I wanted to participate in were a big “no.”
Growing up, almost all of my friends were boys except for one. That one girl didn’t act much like a girl anyway, so I felt like I was just one of the guys. I would throw on a pair of cargo pants and a raggedy sweatshirt and playtime was a go. We would climb on top of the roof of my garage and throw balls off for the person on the ground to try to catch or hit with a bat. We made forts in the woods behind my house—visiting them even when it was raining, making believe that we were true wilderness folk who lived in the rough on a day-to-day basis. My friends never thought anything differently of me; I was never called a “girl” or told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Being different never affected me, unless I was in that dress.
The first time I ever realized I was different from the boys was at first communion. I had to wear an all-white dress and white shoes. I had to put my hair up nice and act like “a lady.” I didn’t know what acting like “a lady” meant at the time, but I quickly found out after the ceremony was complete. Every one of my peers and their families went outside after the procession. The boys tore off their suit jackets and started to run around on the playground, able to ignore the dirt that didn’t even show up on their blue or black pants. I went over to join in all the fun. I approached the group of boys and their laughter ceased.
“What are we playing?” I asked, excited to get involved in all the action.
“Uh,” said one boy, “I don’t think you should play with us.”
I thought about his statement for a minute, not sure what he meant by it. My thought process took just long enough for them to drift away from me and continue their play. I went back to my mother, upset that the boys wouldn’t let me play with them.
“Honey, your dress is so white and pretty and you just can’t get it dirty with those games the boys are playing. You can invite your friends over later for a play-date when you are out of the dress.”
Oh. The boys had noticed I was a “lady” and decided I would not be a good playmate. That was the precise moment when I realized what the dress meant. It meant I was a girl. Girls shouldn’t play in the mud or climb trees because then their dresses will get dirty—and if you aren’t wearing tights, people will see your panties!
Everything that had been taught to me before began to fall into place. My mother told me I had to wear a dress. The boys saw the dress and no longer considered me as a playmate. My dress was “pretty,” just like what my relatives told me I was. Girls are pretty and so they wear pretty dresses to make them more pretty. Boy games are dirty… and dirt would ruin my dress and make it less pretty and, in turn, make me less pretty. All at once I learned my “place”—and I did not like it one bit.
The sole problem does not rest on the restrictions of the dress itself. Girls are supposed to wear dresses and like to wear dresses. Because girls like to wear dresses, that means we knowingly give up the right to do anything besides sway our hips when we walk and cross our ankles when we sit.
Dresses are the historical garb of our sex’s ancestors. For centuries dresses have been specific to females. Because the dress is an article of clothing meant for the female, it has made its way into the definition of what it means to be a stereotypical female. The dress is feminine. The connotations that are attached to feminine include “graceful,” “dainty,” “nurturing.” So words such as “graceful” and “dainty” are, by the transitive property, attached to the dress. Societal standards have created ways women are expected to act, think and dress—and women are supposed to act graceful, be nurturing and wear dresses. Women have to like to wear dresses because that is what they are supposed to do… because they are women. If they do not like to wear dresses, then they are going against “what it means” to be a woman.
Don’t get me wrong. Now that I am older, I like to wear the occasional dress. The dress does make me feel pretty, but that is probably because the society I have been raised in tells me so. The problem with wearing a dress now is I am still always aware of its restrictions. When I walk and there is a slight breeze, I have to hold on tight to avoid giving the world a peep show. When I am sitting in class, I need to cross my ankles and sit up straight so everything is covered up.
The most recent time I despised the dress was at track practice of my senior year of high school. My team was large and, because the program was only four years old, we still had only one coach. So, being a founder, I tended to coach the sprint group. I was injured one day and knew I would not be practicing. Not thinking about after school, I decided to wear a dress. I was working with the junior varsity team that day. The agenda? Block starts. I looked down at my outfit and imagined showing the middle school team (mostly boys) how to start their race using blocks. First I crouch making my butt minimally visible. I then “set,” sticking my butt straight in the air—at this point my rear end is on full display. “Go!” and my dress flies up with the first power step. That day I had to turn the lesson over to my male counterpart. A thousand billion strikes to the dress.
When I don’t wear a dress now, I don’t feel so feminine, and the element of “pretty” seems harder to achieve in a pair of pants. I feel like as soon as I throw on a dress, people automatically tell me how “nice” I look. I like that feeling. Sometimes. I still feel like now, when trying to make friends with guys, the issue no longer lies in playing on the jungle gym, but rather, appearing as friend material as opposed to sex material. When I am in a dress and try to approach a male, their eyes look at me much differently than if I was in jeans and a tee shirt. I get the once over. The half, no-tooth smile. The eyebrow raise. I want none of that. Still, as an 18-year-old female, I need to avoid dresses in order to actually be friends with the men. If I want the head nod and a “’sup,” I need to throw on a pair of slacks and roll with it.
The dress made me a girl. The dress still restricts my actives. Yes, the dress is still the work of the devil.