The most beautiful item of clothing I’ve ever owned ended its life in pieces in a trash bag in the fall of 2014. For several years this bag had reproached me from the closet shelf, spilling forth diaphanous silk every time I went rummaging for a curling iron or a lost glove. The dress — it was a dress — was 13 years old when I finally found the resolve to put it into the garbage.
The dress made its debut at my senior prom, at an American boarding school I attended with children of the rich and super-rich. My parents were in the Foreign Service, and we benefited from the U.S. government’s generous subsidy of tuition fees for children with families in far-flung places. I had been in public school; I arrived at boarding school with a Nirvana poster and badly dyed hair. I wore Dr. Martens and novelty tees and gloomy frocks I’d purchased with the proceeds of my pet-sitting concern. Not only were these items incompatible with my new school’s dress code, they weren’t right for leisure time. My Adidas sweatsedo from Armenia struck a jarring note during cross-country practice.
The school’s dress code placed an outsize burden on girls. Boys wore khakis, a blue blazer, and a tie; girls enjoyed comparative — and comparatively expensive — liberty: skirts, dresses, pants with cardigan sets. A second set of outfits was required for sports; a third for the social period known as “nine-thirty-to-ten” — the half-hour, since abolished, when students were released from study hall to socialize in groups or creep off to an athletic field and rub against each other. On Wednesday nights we had sit-down dinner and chapel service; girls wore the cocktail dresses of adult women and boys wore what they wore the rest of the time. On Wednesday afternoons, packs of wet-haired dryads ran between corridors in their bras, stopping to rifle through the closets of peers who ranged from “close friend” to “still speaking for the sake of the beaded cardigan.”
My first summer home, I lay in my narrow bed in Yerevan and made lists of the things I had to have: One tight long black skirt with slit. One pair khakis. One pair black platform flip-flops — against dress code, but necessary. One pristine white button-up like Monica in Friends. One pair slim-fit boot-cut khakis. One tight, pink V-neck tee.
I didn’t thrive at this school. I hated waking up in the cold and signing into breakfast and going to sports practice and class on Saturday. I amassed demerits and was given trash cleanup. I had disciplinary-committee hearings and honor-committee hearings and threats of “nibbing” (being “not invited back”). I liked English class; I liked smoking cigarettes behind the squash court; I liked irredeemable humor; I liked making up dances with my friends and performing strange midnight rites and sleeping three to a pushed-together twin bed. I was coquettish and vain, scheming and loving and cruel.
My heart aches sweetly when I think about my friends, and the intensely close, vivid world we created for ourselves. But there were boys at the school too. As much as clothes equated status among the girls, the real, secret work of my wardrobe calculations was to be alluring for these boys.
Those boys! How I loved them; how I forgave them their every infelicity, their rough skin and their shaggy hair and their awful remarks. When I wasn’t in the presence of a boy I was thinking about one. I had short-lived boyfriends that no one knew about and secret hookups everyone knew about; I had friends who were boys, and boys who wanted to be more than friends. I made hushed late-night calls on the dorm payphone, and learned the art of running into someone right as study hall was over. The boys all lived together in one dorm, while the girls were distributed among outbuildings. A girl’s name turned to mud in moments, in that old hall full of boys.
At the very start of my senior year, one of the friends who kissed me became my first real boyfriend. We fell in love; he gave me his camp sweatshirt and mix tapes and weekends in New York with his lovely family. He also gave me the copy of House of Mirth I used to write my senior exhibition, a thesis-style paper all students undertook in their final year. Wharton’s novel, and her tragic heroine Lily Bart — also scheming and loving and cruel — made a huge impression on my overwrought teen mind.
The perfect blend of melodrama and cynicism, everything Wharton wrote about the arcane rituals of New York seemed to be borne out by my life at school. Lily Bart is not rich but raised among the rich; she is beautiful but makes herself unmarriageable through wilful, imprudent behavior. I saw myself through the eyes of Lawrence Selden, her male counterpart and the love of her short life: “It was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.” Selden chides Lily for her interest in society, only to despair of her virtue once she strays outside of it; he admires her for her presentation, but scorns the work that goes into its upkeep.
With a boyfriend I had achieved something like respectability, confirmation of Wharton’s observation that women are safe when they are paired off. Viewed in certain lights, was not my boyfriend himself, with his country house upstate, the attainment Lily Bart strove for but never reached? Students and teachers alike seemed to treat me with less suspicion and hostility.
Love curbed some of my impulses and allowed me to worry about other things, like my terrible grades. But I still felt that my contributions were ornamental. As Lily knew:
A woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like; they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop …
I never had the clothing arsenal that many of the girls at school had — they had different bins for winter and summer sweaters; a sports bra for every day of the week. But I excelled at the statement items — a fringed green skirt, a floor-length gown in pink beaded tulle. This accorded with the way I saw myself at the time: I couldn’t cope with mundane things like breakfast sign-in and chemistry lab, but I could make a lively spectacle in the dining hall. Like Lily Bart, I was a lonely, glittering exception in a sea of hostile social forces; like Lily I was cognizant only of the perceived privations of my situation, and not its insane privilege.
The pinnacle of my sartorial achievements was the dress I wore to my senior spring prom. I had just turned 17 when my parents bought it for me in a moment of fond, rash extravagance. They were still living overseas, and we went to Italy on a family vacation — our last together, it would happen. After standing dutifully in museums and basilicas, in Florence we entered the serene temple of Max Mara. A very specific kind of warmth, equal parts love and adrenaline, is generated when an unaccustomed amount of money is spent on something special. I was a senior in high school and an only child; the sun was shining and we were in one of the world’s great cities. Yes, I should have a dress from Max Mara.
The dress was from the Pianoforte eveningwear line. It was made entirely of silk, tea-length, with a sash and old-fashioned boning in its strapless bodice. Its color was incredible; a layer of iridescent teal chiffon over pale blue crepe de chine was green in some lights and blue in others, with flashes of dull gold in between. It was a shimmering mermaid of a dress, the only one around which my mother’s and my warring tastes would ever so closely align. That evening, in a hotel room filled with marmalade light, I took the dress out of its tissue paper and put it on, standing on the bed and bending my knees awkwardly to see more of myself in the small mirror.
This was the pinnacle of that Edith Wharton year — a magnificent dress purchased for a spoiled, troubled girl during a moment of illusory togetherness abroad. In this dress, I was unimpeachable. I wore it to the prom with that lovely boyfriend: Vows were exchanged, assurances made. We agreed that we would stay together in college. We wouldn’t; I didn’t know that no boy could quell that incessant humming of possibility and need, what Wharton called a “blind groping of the blood.”
In college with no supervision, I remained wayward. I wore the dress to a raucous party in the first semester and soiled it beyond belief. I got too fat — or too adult-size — to wear it, and for a while it followed me to different dorms and apartments, a very expensive symbol of my inability to care for my possessions and myself. When I was 23 and had a parasite and fit into it again, I wore it to another raucous party. I woke up and the dress was a ruin — I had put my heel through the overskirt. The material was too fine to repair; the seamstress’s efforts made a huge scar across the chiffon. The dress was too beautiful — had been too costly — to discard, so I carried it around with me like a hermit crab for the next eight years. When I got married, I cut it up and wore twisted pieces of it in my hair.
I dug out my prom pictures a while ago, and saw something I had forgotten, which was that the dress was actually difficult to pull off: the fabric showed any ripple and the color didn’t do me any favors. I was thin but not very narrow, which would have suited the dress better. I remember now that the boning was viciously uncomfortable. Its beauty was, perhaps, more notional and talismanic than practical. After the wedding, I couldn’t think of anything else to do with the scraps. My girlhood — with its blinding appetites, its fierce fragility, its desperate need to be loved — was gone. The dress was gone, too, and after holding on to its corpse for another year, I finally let it go.