The Red Dress
I don’t like the color red. Not red shoes, not red cars, not red trucks, but most of all I don’t like red dresses. This dislike started during the summer when I was twelve years old. I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood full of kids in Geneva, Alabama. My friends, all girls around my age, and I were at that awkward age where we still liked war games, but we were also beginning to have crushes on boys and worry about our looks. “Do you think I’m pretty? Do you think Joey likes me? Am I fat?” were uttered along with whoops and cheers when we “killed” someone on the banks of the creek behind my house. It is a difficult time to be a girl, or a boy for that matter. Some of our best times however were spent in the attic of my friend Donna’s house, which to us was a magical place. She had one of those attics you read about in story books, huge and spacious, the same size as her five bedroom, three bathroom house. You pulled a rope down and a ladder tumbled down, so you could climb up into the attic. One window on each end provided the only natural light and two light fixtures hung from the ceiling, so it was dark and mysterious and smelled like moth balls. It was hot too, really hot in the summer, but we didn’t care. We would spend hours up there. The attic was full of paraphernalia and boxes for children to explore—dusty books, Christmas decorations, old upholstered chairs, tables, discarded toys, and best of all for a group of young girls dreaming of being pretty teenagers, wardrobes full of dresses.
Donna had two older sisters, Sadie and Katherine, who had recently graduated from high school. They were very popular and beautiful, and went to lots of parties and dances. It was the 1950’s. Girls dressed up then, not like now where girls wear jeans for most occasions and “dress up” an outfit by wearing high heels and jewelry. So the attic contained wardrobes filled with their discarded beautiful, eye-popping, party dresses—dresses with yards and yards of netting and taffeta and silk, with long, full skirts and layers of petticoats underneath. There were rows and rows of dresses in every color of the rainbow—blue, green, yellow, orange, aqua, teal, and, of course, red. Samantha, Donna, Rachel, and I would play dress up for hours, trying on all the dresses, pretending we were going on dates or dancing, laughing and squealing for hours. We felt beautiful.
At the end of the summer, I decided we should put on a talent show behind my house on our patio. I was always coming up with a creative scheme. We could charge our mothers and other people in the neighborhood and make money to go to the movies. Everyone took part. Samantha mimed “How Much is That Doggy in the Window” (sung by a man on the record) and Rachel did her acrobatic routine, which was mostly standing on her hands. The best part, the part I loved, was the grand finale which I called the Dance of the Butterflies. All of us girls wore our favorite dress from Donna’s attic. We all stood a few feet apart , spinning and spinning, while the full skirts of the dresses swung around us. Swam Lake played on my three-speed record player over and over. That was the whole dance-just twirling for three or four minutes, and then we all curtsied. Most people in the audience were our mothers and there were a few retired people who lived down the street. We charged 25 cents a person. Even the neighborhood boys, who did not want to pay, climbed trees in the back yard to get a bird’s eye view of our show. Everyone clapped and cheered as we all stood there beaming, very proud of ourselves. We thought we looked liked fairy princesses.
After the show all the mothers came inside my house and sat talking as they did almost every day, either in the morning or the afternoon. Mostly they gossiped about people they knew, which was just about everybody in town, or their husbands or their children. None of us kids really paid much attention. On this day however, Samantha did listen, I found out later. My friends and I were bursting with pride, laughing and giggling in my room, still wearing our fairy dresses, when Samantha came in. She looked at me in my red dress and said, “ I heard them talking, and your mother thinks that you should wear that red dress to your piano recital this year.” You see I took piano lessons and every year we had a recital and wore “formal” dresses, in my mind the best part of taking piano lessons. No more pink or blue pastel colored dresses for me this year. On that special night I would look radiant, grown-up and beautiful in my fantastic fire engine red dress.
I was thrilled. I felt beautiful, and others had thought so, too, even my mother. To a girl of twelve, unsure of her looks and everything else about herself, this was music to the ears. My self-esteem soared. What I did not realize at the time was that my red dress, as well as all the other party dresses in the attic, were made for mature young women, strapless, with built-in wire bras, to give the wearer a full bust and cleavage, not for skinny little twelve-year-old girls who had not blossomed yet. Feeling confident after my friend’s message, I walked into the living room up to my mother.
“Do you really think I could maybe wear this dress to my piano recital? I would love that. Please say yes. I would love to,” I exclaimed excitedly, my voice full of excitement. After Samantha’s message, I felt sure of a positive response.
My mother looked me up and down and in a voice as cold as ice said, “Don’t be ridiculous. This is a dress for a grown woman. You can’t wear that.”
And then…she laughed, loudly and heartily. And then all her friends laughed too, while I stood there in disbelief, hanging my head in shame, my heart beat pounding in my ears, blushing from head to toe, humiliated. It was like a pin pricking a balloon and slowly deflating. In a moment, I went from feeling joyful and happy to feeling small and insignificant. Then there was complete silence while everyone just stared at me for what seemed like a very long time.
I would like to say that one of the mothers came to my rescue and saved the day by uttering some positive comment about the talent show or the way I looked, but that is not what happened. I just stood there mortified and then crept quietly away to my room. Why did Samantha tell me her message in the first place? I really don’t know. Most likely she was repeating what she had overheard one of the mother’s say, probably in jest. The reason did not matter then, and does not matter now. All the joy of the day, the sense of accomplishment and delight at the event I had orchestrated, the sense of pride and delight about the way I looked in my party dress was replaced with a sinking, sick feeling that I was not now and never would be beautiful. And that is why I do not like the color red.
Patricia Thomas was born and raised in southern Alabama and attended Auburn University. She has been teaching writing for years, including Loyola Marymount University, the University of Southern California, and Texas A&M. While she has taught all levels of composition, including Legal Writing and Business Writing, her passion is creative writing. She currently teaches writing and literature at Fullerton College in California.