Better black dress

My closet is a testament to my contribution to fashion mediocrity. It is a "working" closet with items that vary from occasion to season, career to casual, and everything has a reason for being there. I can put on anything at a moment's notice, with some items still in cleaner's cellophane hanging at the readiness.

I have coordinated suits for winter, coordinated pants suits for summer, skirt sets, business casual pants with business casual shirts to match. There are items I received as Christmas gifts, but the majority are personal purchases "on sale". I don't know the phrase I love most: "on sale" or "machine washable".

Dresses range from the black-and-white linen sheath for luncheons, a burgundy Ann Taylor sleeveless for dressier occasions, and a sleeveless sundress that does a great job in covering up the bulges near my underarms (if you ever see a long-haired model with the ends over her shoulders covering her underarms, she has bulges, too). But for many years there was an evening dress and jacket set that had been in my closet that I never wore, yet reluctant to give away. I've moved it back and forth in the closet at least a hundred times. I couldn't wear it without being altered and never got around to doing it. This year I decided I would finally have the outfit altered or give it away.

My first encounter with the outfit was when I was 17 years old. I don't remember the details on how I got it. It belonged to my mother. I loved the material and the way it looked. Mom had had it in her closet for many years. Even though she went through child bearing and the ware of aging, she never got rid of the outfit. At this time I was at my skinniest -- 110 pounds. I was about six inches taller than my mother and she was petite in frame in her youth. I was able to slip the black satin sheath over my hips and could barely zip it up. I wasn't able to do cartwheels, but it fit well enough to where I could walk.

The matching jacket was almost as long as the dress (knee length), in the same black satin material, with a touch of black velvet at the collar. It seemed pristine, but upon opening the jacket, the pale yellow lining revealed a jagged rip. I wondered if that was the reason that she gave up wearing the dress initially. Don't want to wear the dress without the jacket; can't wear the jacket with the rip.

I probably kept it in my closet the same amount of years as Mom did in hers. I decided, of all days, this past Mardi Gras day, to try the dress on after the last trying on about 25 years ago. To my credit, even 25 pounds heavier and sporting pudgy hips, I was able to slip the dress over my hips. It was loose on top, but there was no way I could zip it. The heavy metal zipper wouldn't budge past the middle of my back. I could move, but it was an effort, like being wrapped in cling wrap and trying to tiptoe. No way I could wear it out in public, so my goal was to find a seamstress and find out what could be done.

I made inquiries of friends and found a seamstress on Behrman Hwy. Kim Xuan was a well-dressed, smiling lady. I explained what I wanted to do. She asked me to try the outfit on in a nearby dressing room and come out. I felt exposed in her tiny shop (we were alone), but I managed to tiptoe with the dress halfway on to the platform where a full-length mirror stood. She studied the dress and with a white piece of tailor's chalk marked areas to be altered. It was like being in pre-op before plastic surgery and the surgeon marks the areas to be cut or sucked with a black marker.

She asked if I had material to let out the dress. The dress went from seam to seam with no additional fabric to expand it. I didn't have any extra material and the dress' material is about 63 years old (won't find that on the shelf anywhere). Since there was ample material near the lining of the jacket, she decided to remove the extra material there and extend the pale yellow lining. She told me to call her in ten days.

Ten days later, she asked me to come in for a fitting. Colorful pins were placed on either side of the dress, so slipping it on was a challenge. She was embarrassed to say that the replacement zipper she used to replace the old toothy metal one had to be replaced. The fastener to pull the zipper up had broken. We used a safety pin in the interim. The dress felt roomier than before and the added material didn't disturb the ivy pattern in the design. I went back on the platform and she tugged at the back with the pins and studied how the dress draped on me.

Another week and I returned, tried on the dress and it took shape; however, there was one area that she said needed work and the jacket lining still needed to be repaired. I told her I'd return in another week. After all, I wasn't in a hurry -- outfit hadn't been worn in decades. One more week wouldn't matter.

Last Saturday I returned and tried everything on for a final fitting. It fit perfectly. I looked in the mirror and tried to picture Mom as a young adult in this dress. What was she like then? She had to have bought the dress on an excursion on Canal Street. Westbank women flocked to Canal Street for dresses, good shoes, and matching purses. The garment tag was missing, but I remember it was Molly-something from New York. Was this outfit for a special occasion or was this the Saturday night with friends' outfit she wore every Saturday? What happened for the inner lining of the jacket to rip? Why did she hang on to this one dress out, even years after she would never be able to alter it to fit her? I think now the dress has a happy ending. I'll wear it for as long as I can and will give it away once it becomes too small for me.

During this process, we never discussed the price. I was willing to pay what Kim Xuan wanted and I justified it this way: I don't see myself getting married, so no wedding gown in my future. I'm past the time of the prom. I won't be receiving any awards. I figured I could get a lot of use out of this outfit; the little black dress; the better black dress. I silently reasoned I will have to pay for what I want, and if that means rebuilding a dress practically from scratch with repairs on top of that, then it will be uniquely mine and worth it. After all, Kim designed the evolution after piecing fabric fragments together to fit my frame, and repaired it. Final cost for the work on the dress and jacket -- $65. Now that's true sticker shock.

I thanked her profusely and took her business card. I have a few things I can get altered and asked what she did in terms of work. She smiled and said, "Everything! I make new and I repair!" For those local, here's her information:

Kim - Xuan Tailor & Alterations

853 Behrman Hwy, Gretna, LA


Mon-Fri 10am - 6pm / Sat 10am - 4pm

I have not worn the dress for a specific occasion and not sure if there will be one on the horizon for it to be called to duty. I don't have a picture of me wearing the dress, but the following pictures are of the dress/jacket; jacket only; dress only; and close up of the ivy detail in the fabric:

I could have gone out and bought a brand new black evening dress, but I doubt I could have found both pieces for $65. I guess you can call it being enviromentally-friendly by recycling vintage clothing. Or thrifty that I altered a dress and jacket for under $100. In the rush of life and all the things we can spend money on, one of the last things I do is something selfish for myself. I believe all of us are worth some sort of indulgence or to break with the routine and do something that would serve nothing more than spending a pleasant afternoon or evening. It make take extra time and cash, but if you enjoy what you've purchased or done, isn't that profitable in a sense?

I'm a gym rat and there's no way I could have worked out or starved to fit in that dress. Had it been one size smaller, I may not have been able to wear it after being altered. My challenge to all who read this is go into your closet and find the dress or suit that you'll wear after losing twenty or fifty pounds or one day take somewhere to be altered to take it in and let it out. Examine it, try it on, get it altered, and take it out on the town. If you feel it's time to give it away, let it go without regret.