I felt beautiful, romantic, and in love with the world in that dress. For me, the right red dress provided more warmth than the wrong man’s arms.
Buy a red dress. It had been on my list of things to do for a while. After a couple years, it became clear it wasn’t just any dress I was after. I was seeking perfection.
I’d pass a shop, see red in the window, and have to go in. Excited at the prospect of completing this long elusive mission, I’d rip off what I was wearing, pull on the garment, and turn to the mirror. No, not right either.
I developed into a seasoned red-dress shopper. December and February were the most active times of the year, due to Christmas and Valentine’s Day. With my five-foot-two frame, April and May were also good, leading up to prom.
If I stacked the red dresses I’ve tried on, the mound would be as tall as my head. Many different fabrics: polyester, satin, rayon, silk, chiffon, and even spandex. Varying shades: bright like sweet cherries in bloom, tart like a raspberry jolly rancher candy, or dark crimson like the heartbreak I felt after over so many lost loves; and lengths differed, too: swaying at the calf, just above the knee, high against the thigh, and occasionally down to the ankle.
The combination was tricky. Too tight and short, and I could be working a corner on Hollywood, rather than walking into the Ivy for an 8pm seating. Too bright and cheery, I might as well apply for a position as Santa’s helper. And forget about walking anywhere near an air vent in flowing red silk; I was no Kelly LaBrock wannabe.
And of course, the whole point of the red dress in my mind was to capture the right man’s attention. It would act as Cupid’s bow. Walking into a room dressed in red, I’d be the very embodiment of love. Men would run up to me. Give me roses or chocolates. Say, where have you been all my life?
Or there were love’s lesser minions, lust and passion, in which case the purpose of the dress was to end up a crumpled heap by the end of the night.
I bought a few dresses. Even as I walked out of the shop, I knew in my heart they weren’t quite right, just holdovers until the real McCoy came along, and there were uses for these stand-ins—Friday night at the club, fancy dinners with boyfriends who were also not “the one.” Donning the wrong red dress seemed in itself to explain my lackluster romance over the years.
Then one day it happened. I was dating a refined intellectual without a lot of inter-personal heat—we’ll call him Mr. Cool—so it seemed a good idea to stop for a cup of hot chocolate on the way to his place. That’s when I saw her in a Studio City boutique.
The dress was long, lower than the calf, but not quite at the ankle, and reminiscent of the red dress in “Pretty Woman.” Not quite a gown, but certainly nice enough to wear to any occasion I’d been invited to over the past five years.
With so many past letdowns, I had no notion of a fairy-tale fitting. I slogged back to the dressing room, figuring I should leave no stone unturned. To my wonder, the sleeves hugged my shoulders with a pretty frame for my round face. Around the hips and chest, the dress fit like a glove, not the latex dishwashing kind, which is purely utilitarian. No, this fit like a suede pair that at first feels a smidgeon too small, then beautifully right.
Standing in front of the mirror, my skin felt like a firecracker about to be lit; a habanero drawing sweat to a lover’s lips; and as soft as rose petals luring men to pluck the flower.
Then I looked at the price tag. We were in a recession. People I knew were collecting unemployment. I often spent much more on business suits, but those were practical purchases that earned their keep by making a good impression on clients.
The timing was unfortunate, not just because of the economy, but also because I assumed that if I found the right red dress, I’d have the perfect occasion to wear it to or the ideal man to wear it with. I had neither.
Mr. Cool found equalizing his bass to play Duke Ellington tracks on his new entertainment center more intriguing than me, sitting on his couch, thighs exposed in a mini skirt.
The right red dress had come at an ill-fated time. I bought it anyway.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” Mr. Cool exclaimed, when I donned the dress for what he assumed was a casual dinner date at a Moroccan restaurant. In response to my confident smile, he retreated back to his closet where he managed to fish out a cashmere sweater. Why shouldn’t his attire rise to my occasion?
Another month past and the dress sat in my closet, collecting dust on its plastic-protected shoulders. I whipped it out and donned it for movie night with the girls. “I thought we were going to see ‘We Bought a Zoo?’” one girlfriend asked, my dress an affront to her jeans and ponytail.
I felt beautiful, romantic, and in love with the world in that dress. My love for it enabled me to embrace the spirit and vitality of red, to take ownership over my wardrobe, not just as a creative outlet, but as an inspired experience as well.
Mr. Cool disapproved of my red dress and so many of the ways in which I chose to express myself. For me, the right red dress provided more warmth than the wrong man’s arms. After our break-up, I posted a profile on a dating site. Guess what I wore in my profile picture? Damn straight.
And so, I became the red dress in a virtual window, daring some amorous shopper to see if we’re a fit.
Tammy Delatorre is a writer in Los Angeles. She is the winner of the 2015 Payton Prize judged by Cheryl Strayed and was a winner of the River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Times, Salon, Cleaver Magazine, and Many Mountains Moving. She enjoys paddleboarding, photography, and culinary delights. In her previous lives, she’s worked for a Nobel-prize-winning biochemist; helped to design, build, and race a solar car that won the World Solar Challenge in Australia; and danced the hula despite being teased of stiff hips. More of her stories and essays can be found at www.tammydelatorre.com.