A woman, a certain kind of woman, loves a red dress. She seizes upon it; she is not afraid. She selects the dress from rack upon rack of dresses, takes it up in her hands, in her arms, tries it on and keeps that dress for her own.
This woman, this certain kind of woman, knows how the dress will change her when she wears it, and she feels the change now, as she tries it on; knows the dress already owns her, loves her, will take her out to places she may have never been or to places with which she is familiar but the dress makes it different for her to be there; now in the dress she’s the person she always believed herself to be.
The dress knows all this, of course, though doesn’t show it. She just hangs there on the rack while she’s waiting. She’s a dress. But, like the woman herself, the dress is capable of anything, everything, and the woman knows this when she sees herself in it for the first time, when she sees herself so fully…clothed.
“Yes…” she says to herself in the mirror then, in the privacy of the changing room when the sales assistant is not looking. “Yes” to the dress. “This…” she says, and she smoothes her hands down her front, across her belly, down her back, down her hips, her thighs. “And this…” She extends her neck, puts back her shoulders that she might put forward her breasts. “Oh, yes, ” she says again, as though speaking to herself in the mirror, as though speaking to the dress itself in the mirror’s glass.
“All this…” she says, into the glass.
“I’ll take it.”
And the shop assistant nods in answer. “Oh yes” she echoes, in a soft grey echo, a soft grey figure herself, in the reflection, in the glass.
And so the woman, this certain kind of living, breathing woman, takes up the dress now and wears it – for her lovers, for her friends, for men, for women, for all the old flames and the new… For all the girls and boys who may see her, all the old ladies and all the old men, the women and the gentlemen of the opera and the ballet, of the dinner parties and the salons and the cocktail bars and the balls… All who might ever see her out there, in the world, in the red dress. “This is me here before you” she seems to be saying to them, to them all, as she feels herself grow tall, elongated, balletic, under their accumulating gaze. “This dress, she is me…” she says, and she takes a young boy by the arm and makes him dance.
‘Oh yes” he says, like all the others, “Oh yes” they turn to her and sigh.
Years pass, the dress continues. She takes the woman up, takes her out – and now she wears her colour loud and now quiet , she’s high, now low, now rich and proud and glittering and now quite down and dirty, ragged in the rainy street; the dress always lovely, always just the same.
“Oh, this old thing’ the woman says says, as though she does not care. “I’ve had this old thing for years…” and brushes an imaginary mark from the shoulder of her dress, from the thin strap of the shoulder there.
“But still you look incredible,” they say, the people, all her friends.. “You look the same…As though you’ve never changed…”
“It’s the dress” she answers in says reply, spinning around to show the cut of it, the folds, to staunch their wonder at her camouflage, to hide their open gaze. “There s nothing I can do that might spoil it” she says. “Drunk on my wedding night I spilled things down its front and still it cleaned like new – see?” She spins and turns. “You see? she says. “It’s like that night had never happened, the dress just cleaned and it cleaned. The dress is capable of that,” she continues. “Regeneration, I suppose, reinvention, too. I’ve been tall, like a tartar, sometimes, in this dress, or I’ve been tiny as a child, like virgin or a little girl. I’ve lost weight and was ill and I was surly and yellow and still this dress held me, would hold me…So I ve always worn it, worn… Her: This old thing. In sickness or in health, unmarried, married, in love, in lust, unloved, and loved again. Worn, worn. I carried my daughter’s unborn body beneath this dress, had her sitting on my crimson knee; when she was an infant, she played amongst the pleats and fall of this dress as though it were a curtain on a stage. And when she was older, I remember –“
“Yes?” those around her ask her. “You remember?”
“I found her dressed up, one day, in this same dress, found her dressed up in my dress herself and standing there before the mirror…”
“ ‘Take that off now!’ I screamed. ‘It s not yours. It’s mine!’
” ‘But I am being you, mummy’ my daughter said. She was looking at herself, you see, admiring herself so wondrously, in the glass. My daughter, my little girl –”
“Oh yes” the people say, another echo of the endless confirmation always attracted by the dress, a red dress. “They do that, children, girls… ” the people say. “They want to be their mother. Wear their mother’s things. ‘Look, I am you’ is what the children say…”
“Oh no” says the woman.
“Oh yes” they reply.
So years go by the same and the dress still lives, yet less worn out these days, or in, less taken, chosen. The dress must wait, less used, she hangs, has hung. Not unloved and not forgotten, still…She doesn’t go out now, the woman, the mother, not like before, not like she used to…
Her daughter grows, is growing…Taller, stronger…
“Oh, this old thing…” the woman hears. Her own voice now and like an echo, hears it…. Her past self is speaking to herself as she stands before the mirror, holding before her the red dress, to see her past self in the distance there, someplace beyond the dress…Beyond the glasses of champagne, the mirror’s depths and frame…Past looks and glances, food and fingers, tongues and kisses…
“Oh that old thing…”
And the girl, her daughter, comes in to the room and finds her there, the red, red dress. To her mother says:
“Give it to me” and takes it then.
The mother spins – No! – “It s not yours! It s mine” remembers, screaming. She’s not screaming now. The mirror’s dark, gone empty – nothing there. Then – look! Look up! Look on! The girl stands fully in the centre now, and behind her…Yes, I see her other there. She holds the slip of silk before her daughter’s body like a rag, like a beautiful, beautiful rag, and she moves it, plays it, across her daughter’s body, the fall of it like paint, and water and like air, like breath and song and music and the dress, the dress…Comes live again, she leaps and turns, is live and vivid against the form of this young woman she has made.
And our woman, our certain kind of woman…
A sigh. She lets herself give out a sigh…
As she sees before her as though in a film or on a stage the dress that once was hers and all the dresses it has been – the balldresses and cocktail dresses, the dress for a wedding night and a golden morning, the dress that’s a hippy dress, a grand, grand dress, a party dress, slum dress…Red, red dress…
And in that moment, all moments of the dress become this one moment now, a carnival of turning spinning moments round and round of red, and red and red and red, and in the turn of such bright colour, colour’s slide, the mother opens up her arms and her daughter is inside her, in the circle of her arms, for the moment the two of them lit up in this same moment of the dress turning, becoming, before the mother with a kiss upon her daughter’s head releases herself from the dance, steps towards and then inside the mirror and for a second she is gone…
Before we see her turn, smiling, lovelier than ever now, to face the woman who sees herself reflected in her mother’s open gaze.
“You” the daughter says.
“No, you…” her mother replies, to her daughter, to the dress, “All you…It’s you. And you….”
And the dress? The dress smiles, shifts… She knows what she has done. She is a red dress. She has always known.