“Elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress,” said Coco Chanel, somewhat surprisingly.
She might approve of the artist Laura Schiff Bean, who renders nearly the same dress over and over again from canvas to canvas with exquisite results. I picked up a flier for her work when I visited rural Connecticut recently and find myself drawn to the images in her work.
Something about her paintings of glowing, disembodied gowns draws me. What do they speak of?
The mysteries of the wedding dress. I bucked fashion when I married and wore an ankle-length, ballerina-hem dress. I’ve kept the gown a quarter of a century, entombed in a long yellowed cardboard box, for what I don’t know, since it would never appeal to my daughter. But I can’t toss it out. I totally understand the wedding gown obsession of reality TV, I am chagrined to say.
Or the ball gown, calling me to the ball I’ve never been to, aside from in my imagination. Henry James described the life of New York’s fashionables in the gilded age: “The rooms were filling up and the spectacle had become brilliant. [The ball] borrowed its splendor chiefly from the shining shoulders and profuse jewels of the women, and from the voluminous elegance of their dresses.”
In Savage Girl, the new novel of mine that Viking will publish in a year or so, which takes place in 1875 Manhattan, you can trace the trajectory of the central figure’s development by her clothing, from rags and bare feet to a demure, plaid day dresse to trailing gowns in luscious tones of cherry red and tangerine, to a cream-colored, low-cut diamond-encrusted gown for her society debut. With a stubborn foray into thoroughly modern bloomers. She has to give society a little kick in the pants.
When I was little, I was required by my grandmother to take a nap in my petticoat on her bed on the afternoons I spent at her apartment. Floaty white underclothes, the archetype of innocence.
Coco Chanel again, cryptically: “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.” Probably because I am almost exclusively a woman of trousers, I don’t think this quite makes sense. What rings more true to me is Thoreau’s admonition in Walden to beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. I wear shirts twenty years.
But I do keep dresses, new dresses, in my closet. I’m a closet dress wearer. A lavender cocktail dress. A summery long red linen, in particular, which has never found exactly the proper occasion for its display. I need an urgent opportunity, like Anna Karenina.
Something else Laura Schiff Bean occasionally integrates into her work. Butterflies.
A tad sentimental, no doubt, considering most contemporary art, but I am perhaps no less sentimental, reaching an age when I know I will never again wear a flouncy, delicate white gown, and dreaming about them in stories and in art.
“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”