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To All The Dresses I’ve Loved Before

Growing up, I was so envious of the girls who could wear dresses. The ones with the kind of slim, willowy figures you saw all the time in magazines but rarely in real life. I thought that was what you had to have in order to pull off a gown. They weren’t for people like me, with my broad hips, chunky legs and stomach that hasn’t been flat since I was about seven. I thought bodies like mine were better hidden beneath sporty clothes and other loose-fitting garments. Thankfully, those days are now long gone.

When I was nineteen years old, I went through a very messy, very hostile breakup. In the aftermath, I employed the classic coping method of buying new clothes, and lots of them. Among them were several dresses-the first wave of what would soon grow into a considerable collection. I still have most of them, even though some haven’t been worn in years and may never be worn again. I cannot bring myself to get rid of them, no matter how many threads come loose or how long it’s been since their last outing. They mean too much to me, for reasons I am about to explain.

To me, a dress is so much more than a piece of fabric. It is a mood you can put on. The right dress can provide an instant pick-me-up, a shot of raw confidence when you need it most. It can make you move differently, hold yourself differently, and crucially, it can make you view yourself differently too. This is precisely what those early dresses did for me, and for that, I am eternally grateful to them.

There is something undeniably special about dresses. They are often a hallmark of special occasions-of parties and weddings and nights out. They can turn a mundane, unremarkable day into a fabulous one, elevating everything from your mood to your gregariousness. Many of my favourite memories were made while wearing one of my many dresses. Each one comes with its own set of recollections: of times, people and places. That, more than anything, is the reason I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. This is an ode to all the dresses I’ve loved before and the ways in which they transformed me. They can do that. They are, after all, much more than just pieces of fabric.

A Dress Of Smoke And Gunpowder

She was my first: the slinky LBD from H&M. I bought her during my second year of university, when my boyfriend and I were on a break that would soon turn into a split. After much crying and moping, I managed to galvanise myself. A new slimline figure required new slimline clothes-clothes I could wear on the many social outings I was now going on. Among them was the little black dress.

She was very much an impulse buy. I wasn’t going to try her on initially, convinced as I was that she wouldn’t suit me. I had never tried on a dress like that before. Short and figure-hugging with spaghetti straps, she was made of black satin with ruching on the cups. As I was feeling brave, I decided to give her a go, and she was more flattering than I had ever dared to hope.

Whenever I see pictures of me in the dress, I cannot get over just how good it looked. It was so affirming, knowing I could look like that, knowing I didn’t have to hide my figure under boxy, shapeless dresses. The only other party dress I owned was a floaty red number I’d bought for my eighteenth birthday. It gave me no shape and had a very respectable hemline. This dress was different. This dress was smoke and gunpowder.

My ex thought so too. I showed him the dress via video call, back when we were still labouring under the impression that we would get back together. When he saw it his jaw hit the floor. It was the ultimate compliment, made even more satisfying by the fact he never got to see it in person. That dress became a symbol of my liberation, my newfound confidence, and my transformation into a more sociable, self-assured version of myself. An inaugural dress-one that paved the way for many others to come, and altered my perception of myself forever.

A Dress The Colour Of A June Sunset

Of all the dresses I ever owned, this one was my favourite. She was bright pink, but the classy kind. The kind that is hard to find, and nigh on impossible if you actively go searching for it. The colour of the streaks in a June sunset. I fell in love with her instantly. The moment I stepped into the shop she leapt out at me, and I made a beeline straight for her. She was short and strapless, made of ruched chiffon and decorated with silver rhinestones. The kind of dress you wear when you really want to be seen.

I still have her. She lives in a box in the wardrobe, along with all the other dresses I no longer wear or fit into but love too much to ever throw away. Her lifespan was brief; she had to be retired from active service just a couple of years after I bought her. Delicate dresses call for delicate treatment, and I can’t say that is what she received. I did my best to mend the split seams, but as I’ve never had much skill with a needle and thread, the result was rather messy. Still, if you are going to rip a dress, make sure you have fun in the process. And by God did I have fun. She doesn’t fit me now. I doubt she ever will again. But once upon a time, she looked so good on me I couldn’t quite get my head around it.

So what do you remind me of, Little Pink Dress? You remind me of Arena nightclub in Exeter, where I believe you had your first outing. You remind me of thumping baselines and music I should no longer like but totally still do. You remind me of the black patterned fishnet tights and cream satin heels I used to team you with. You remind me of my favourite perfume, which is all you ever smelled of. The scent lingered long after I took you off. You remind me of the compliments I received when I wore you, the admiring glances, the attention. Nights spent with a certain someone. Cocktails that tasted like liquefied desserts. All of these memories are woven into your fabric, as much a part of you as the rhinestones. And that, my old friend, is why I will never get rid of you.

A Dress Fit For A Panther

Another slinky black number, there was something decidedly feline about her. Short and covered in sequins, her one-shoulder design set her apart from all the other LBDs. She clung to me in all the right places and made me feel fierce, like a panther. I bought her after splitting from my ex, during my most prolific dress-buying phase. She reminds me of new beginnings, of reinvention, and I loved the version of me that I became when I wore her. She helped me see in a New Year in spectacular fashion, prompting my Dad to say that he’d never seen me so comfortable and relaxed.

There is a tinge of sadness about her though-this Little Sequinned Dress. A few months after my ex and I split, I started seeing a guy. It was short-lived, but I was wearing her on what we both knew would be out last night together. To anyone who hasn’t had one of those nights, trust me, they’re strange. I remember saying to him, ‘I don’t care what you have to tell me in the morning, let’s just enjoy tonight.’ What can I say? I’m a big believer in crossing bridges as and when you come to them, as opposed to aborting the mission because you know there’s a bridge up ahead. At the end of the night we slow-danced to Adele’s Someone Like You, a cliché if ever there was one. She reminds me of endings as well as beginnings. But mostly beginnings, and so I love her still.

Unlike other dresses, I’m glad to say she made it through unscathed. I still have her. She is another one I cannot bring myself to throw away, even though I haven’t worn her in years. The memories that surround her are simply too precious, and I’m hoping that one day I will be able to fit back into her without looking like a sack of potatoes. But we shall see. Only time will tell.

Bookended By Sequins

She was the older sister of the black one-shoulder sequinned dress. They were twins, bought from the same shop on the same day, but she was picked first. She was the more sensible of the two, though admittedly not by much. Her front was covered in gold sequins, while the back was made of black lace. She wasn’t as clingy as her sister, but she could still draw the eye, as I discovered the first time I wore her out.

It was my friend Emily’s birthday, and a group of us were going out. We started in Pitcher and Piano, where we kicked things off with cocktails and shots of B-52. Then on to Arena, where she caught the attention of one of Emily’s friends-the same friend I would later go on to have a fling with. We danced to Rihanna’s What’s My Name? on pretty much the same spot where we would later dance to Adele. Looking back, it seems both strange and fitting that our dalliance began on a night when I was wearing the gold dress, and ended on a night when I was wearing her twin. We were bookended by sequins. What a wonderful thing to be able to say.

I managed to lose you, Little Gold Dress. I think you must have got mixed up in a pile of clothes to go to charity, because I searched high and low for you and couldn’t find you anywhere. My best friend managed to track you down a couple of years later, buying me an exact replacement for my birthday. How she managed to find you I will never know-I myself had tried and failed several times. I guess her eBay game is just stronger than mine. You live in the same box as your sister now, along with the other precious dresses from my past. There you will remain, and I will never be so clumsy as to lose you again. That I can promise.

A Monochrome Alice in Wonderland

She was another one I knew I had to have: the black and white Jane Norman dress with the cut-out back and ruffled cap sleeves. Edgy and unique, she was like something from Alice in Wonderland. I don’t know what I’d have done if she hadn’t suited me. Luckily she did. With her tailored panels and cinched in waist, she was incredibly flattering-everyone said so. Like the pink dress, I am far too attached to it to ever throw her out, despite the stitching on the hem coming undone some years ago.

So what do you remind me of, Monochrome Dress? You remind me of dressing up as Cruella de Vil for a friend’s birthday in Exeter. You remind me of the Orangery at the Imperial where I drank Mojitos. You remind me of an unrepeatable compliment I received while wearing you, and which still makes me smile to this day. You remind me of Planet nightclub in Wolverhampton, a venue for which you were far too classy. You remind me of my first night in Windsor, when my soon-to-be-boyfriend and I were still dilly-dallying over whether we were a couple. That night I got so drunk I ended up being sick and had to be taken home early. But you remained classy even when my behaviour didn’t. One of us had to, I suppose.

An Explosion Of Fireworks Against The Night Sky

Another Jane Norman number, this one was short and black with buttons down the back and gold beading on the bodice. She was delicate and feminine, and it was a real wrench when I eventually got rid of her because the stitching on the back had come undone. All attempts at mending her had proved unsuccessful, and I was eventually forced to concede that the damage was beyond my skill to repair.

Being short and floaty meant she wasn’t the most robust of dresses. She was not a good one to wear when it was windy, as I discovered on one particularly gusty night in Exeter. I remember my friends howling with laughter as I staggered along, desperately tried to keep my skirt down. My Dad once said of it, ‘That’s a nice dress, Lozz, but it could do with being two feet longer.’

What else do you remind me of, Black And Gold Beaded Dress? You remind me my birthday in second year, when my housemates made me cupcakes and we all headed out for cocktails. You remind me of Pitcher and Piano, and the way the barman would smile slyly whenever I asked for a Screaming Orgasm. It makes me a little sad, knowing that neither you nor Pitcher and Piano are there anymore. You were the ultimate party dress, an explosion of fireworks against the night sky. That was what it felt like when I wore you. A beautiful feeling from a beautiful dress, and one that I miss to this day.

A Cascade Of Frothy Red Ruffles

I bought her from Select, back when Select was new and edgy instead of mainstream and generic. She was in the window, and I knew as soon as I saw her that I had to try her on. She was a size 10, albeit a very generous one, and no matter how much weight I put on over the coming years, she never became too tight or stopped fitting. I loved how unusual she was, with her frothy red ruffles and her one-shoulder design. I’d never seen a dress quite like her, and I haven’t seen one since. I used to cinch her in with a belt around the waist, sometimes teaming her with white jeans back when white jeans were still a thing. But I much preferred wearing her on her own, for that was when she garnered the most attention.

So what do you remind me of, Red Ruffled Dress? You remind me of the night we did karaoke at Mosaic, and my delight when the barman said I was the prettiest girl in the group. You remind me of my little sister’s tenth birthday, and the glitzy statement choker I used to team you with. You remind me of nights out in Nottingham during the early days of my Teacher Training. I believe those were your last outings, but you still had it even then. You were another good one to wear if I wanted people to take notice, and I miss you. Getting rid of you was hard, but you eventually lost your shape, and the belt marks around your middle simply wouldn’t wash out. But you live on in pictures as well as my memory, and who knows? I may find a replacement for you some day.

A Dress of Swirling Graphite

I bought her especially for my twenty-first birthday party. As I’d been in Russia for my actual birthday, we celebrated when I came home for Christmas a month later. She was not what I had in mind at all. I had envisioned something bright and sparkly, and she was neither of those things. She was the colour of graphite, the only embellishment the swirling pattern of the fabric itself. That’s always the way with dresses, I find. I know exactly what I want, but what I want doesn’t appear to exist, and so I end up with something entirely different to what I envisioned. It was my stepmom who suggested I try her on, and to my surprise, she really suited me. I wore her with a string of faux pearls and patterned tights, which gave her a decidedly vintage feel.

So what about you, Little Grey Dress? Well, you remind me of my party more than anything else. Of staying up until four in the morning playing party games, hours after my parents had gone to bed. You went down very well with my boyfriend at the time, and remained a firm favourite of mine throughout my fourth year of university. Unfortunately, you no longer fit me. I was much slimmer back then; nowadays you don’t even zip up. Still, I keep you with the others, in the hope that one day maybe-just maybe-I will be able to wear you once more.

*****

Some clothes are purely functional. I for one have never been attached to a pair of work trousers or a plain black T-shirt. Others are not only beautiful to look at, but come to hold enormous sentimental value. This is true for each of the dresses described in this piece, although it is by no means an exhaustive list. There have been others since then, but none have ever come close to rivalling that first wave as far as my affections are concerned. These dresses came to me at a crucial point in my life, when I was shaking off the limitations of adolescence and coming to terms with my newfound singledom. Collectively, they provided the biggest boost to my confidence that I have ever experienced. Without them, I doubt my transformation would have been half as dramatic as it ended up being.

So to anyone out there who wishes they could wear dresses but doesn’t think they have the physique, I say try it. Be brave. There are enough styles, cuts and designs out there for you to find your perfect gowns. All you have to do is look for them. Not every dress will suit you, but those that do may just have the power to transform you, and thereby transform your life. If that’s not a risk worth taking, then I don’t know what is.

Written by

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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