The Year of the Big Dress


My friends keep talking about the outfits they want to be buried in. (Hopefully not soon, but they are planners.) My answer has always been naked—why waste a good outfit in the ground?

The root of the question isn’t really about how you’d like to go out, but what you look like at your most you. The best version of you: the oil portrait you, the album cover you, the Sunset Boulevard billboard you, your memoir author pic: What are you wearing?

In any instance where I must be perceived, I like to be perceived in my tartan Chopova Lowena dress. Most people consider Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena’s leather belted kilts, fastened with dozens of carabiners anything but effortless. But to me they are as easy as being naked. I have never felt about any other garment the way I feel about their dramatically structured and tender clothes. I lose all rationality. I am overcome with a hot rush of desire. I must be in these wacky frocks or I simply will not be able to go on. It’s an addiction, just as expensive and thrilling as any of the illegal ones. Well, at least to me.

On February 16, 2020 I met my match in a tartan midi dress I had ordered from their spring 2020 collection. Between runway shows, I went to their studio in Deptford, London, to pick it up. Laura’s Boston Terrier Ida sat in my lap, and the three of us chatted, snacked, and held up double layer taffeta organza bows on a blouse and skirt. “Too many or not enough?” Emma asked. “Not enough!” I said, biting into a powdered croissant. That skirt became the one Harry Styles wears in the December issue of Vogue. I left with the dress I had ordered. It’s a maniacal garment: a pale blue plaid top with a pilgrim collar and balloon sleeves that is grommeted to a black leather belt from which six meters of pleated taffeta hangs. It’s like a funhouse version of my Catholic school pinafore, exaggerated and cinched in all the right places. I carried it back to my hotel in a massive box, shredding it open like Christmas morning, and performing a little secret ritual, fastening the silver buttons close to my stomach, just a little squeeze tight, as though they were structurally integral to my body. Later that night a colleague handed me a tiny bottle of Purell, saying I needed to be careful about this virus.

The giant taffeta frock got its first wear at the Erdem show in the National Portrait gallery a couple of days later. I remember the way the skirt, so voluminous and errant, brushed against the knees of people sitting in the row beside me. I wore it again in Paris to the LVMH Prize showroom, where the guest list had been whittled down from a splashy event to designers-and-reporters-and-buyers only. Masks were being handed out at shows earlier in the day. Emma and Laura were nominated as semifinalists and funnily enough, had brought the sample of the dress to be the flagship piece in their display. People kept asking me if I was the designer of Chopova Lowena or its model. “Just a fan!” I said.

Later that evening I missed an important appointment because of scheduling and traffic and I did the embarrassing and delirious thing of crying in the LVMH bathroom. I sniffled all the way across Paris to the arena in Bercy where the Off-White show was held, running in late and harried and smacking all my colleagues with my giant skirt as I shuffled into my chair. I could tell they were annoyed with me. I was annoyed with myself!

I shared a car back to the center of Paris with an acquaintance after that show, and in the dark I angled my knees towards the door, spilling a few more silent tears. The skirt brushed across the backseat onto their thighs. “Are you crying?” they asked, and offered a tissue. We ended up at some dive, faces in our hands, nothing two or three glasses of wine couldn’t solve.

It’s counterintuitive, but the big dress is not a warning to stay away but an invitation to come closer. I can’t walk past someone, sneak into a chair, or go down the crowded subway stairs without the pleats rustling, causing someone to look up from their phone or scooch over to make space. I remember the way my friend Lauren’s arm, as she swung over my shoulder, would make a crunching sound when it came up against the pouf sleeves. The way, if I wasn’t wearing tights, the carabiners would reveal just a little sliver of hip as someone leaned closer to examine the dog keyring clipped to the skirt. The way taking off the dress left a leather belt embossed on my skin.

The big dress was the last fashion item I acquired before the pandemic locked down New York. It has a way of never becoming wrinkled, always holding its form. All the other clothes in my life soon became virtual. No more visiting the Rick Owens showroom to see a boot that stands as tall as my shoulder. No more examining Thom Browne’s coterie of animal bags in a stately atelier in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. No more Area or Commission appointments on Canal Street or Grand Street or sitting in the Fondazione Prada waiting for the show to start clamoring with excitement. The only clothing that has been real to me for this entire year is my own.

So what else was I going to wear when I became stuck at home, on Zoom calls, living out a ChatRoulette of “Hi, Is that a jacquard? Interesting!”? How else could I look except like myself? I put on the big dress for a couple of meetings, and people kept saying things like, “Well, you’re dressed up!” It was simply an invitation to see me, to maybe remember what it would be like to be together.

When I saw many of my colleagues for the first time in October 2020, at the press preview of The Met’s About Time: Fashion and Duration exhibition, I wore the dress. The silhouette lent itself to the theme, a mash-up of 19th century shoulders and mid-20th century pleats, but also, it was what it always was: A delight we could share in. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu curator in charge of the Costume Institute, saw me in the hallway and examined the dress, touching the darting at the back. My friend Hunter helped me down the museum’s grand staircase, holding my hand as the skirt caught on my shoes.

What outfit will you get buried in? I don’t want to think about that, especially now when loss is everywhere. I would rather think about the clothing I will be alive in and the people I will share it with. There’s no better dress to give a hug in, a crush of taffeta between you both, wrinkling and creasing. When that happens I’ll be laughing, a big goofy smile, elated inside, feeling good to feel together again, at last.

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