Defining Dresses

Imagine my delight at not only getting to go shopping with my granddaughter Amanda and her mom to pick out her prom dress, but also getting to see her in it before her senior prom last weekend! That she carried a gold evening purse that had been my mom’s was an added blessing.

Little does Amanda know how long that dress will stay in her memory…and what a defining dress it is. I subscribe to the theory that anything we don’t wear for a year needs to go to a consignment shop or charity bin–everything except those few defining dresses that we all have in the back of our closets. If, because of a move or a  housecleaning frenzy, such a dress isn’t there anymore, the memory of it occupies a familiar closet of our minds. It’s a defining dress not because of its expense or style, but because of who we were when we wore it.

We remember everything about such a dress: how it felt to pull it on over our heads; the sound of the zipper; the smell of the fabric; the feel of the sash. All are as real today as the day the dress first hung on the outside of the closet door waiting to be tried on just one more time.

A dress that is forever in my mind was not mine, but my older sister’s. I was ten when she was nominated for homecoming queen, and rode around the edge of the football field waving from the back of a white Thunderbird convertible. She was wearing what I thought was the most beautiful dress in the world. It was a long, strapless gown made of tiny rows of red netting forming a huge, hoop skirt and a heart-shaped, fitted bodice. To me, my sister was Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and the fairy godmother all rolled into one, and that red dress was the most gorgeous dress I’d ever seen.

Most of us will mention a prom dress or two when asked about our defining dresses. Mine was long and straight with an empire waistline. The top was yellow, the bottom was yellow and white, and an avocado green, velveteen ribbon separated the two fabrics. I can still remember dancing to the music of The Temptations in that dress, my fake cascade of curls bouncing up and down on my head as the 150 bobby pins I had used to attach the hairpiece poked into my scalp in a desperate attempt to hold on.

A cotton dress I’ve saved for 42 years has multi-colored alphabet letters scattered at random over a bright yellow background. You guessed it. It was a mini maternity dress in 1970, and I wore it to the hospital when my first son was born. Since he turned out OK, I decided to wear the same dress to the hospital three years later when my second son was born, but this time it was a maternity top.

Now the dresses I can’t seem to part with are all connected to one of our grown kids’ weddings. We all have so much more than we need. I’m prepared to simplify my life and my wardrobe as long as I get to keep the memories…and just a few defining dresses to keep them fresh.


  1. Thanks Nancy for the reminder of the soft and frilly things that linger in our minds if not our closets… things that mark the milestones of our lives. This Sunday my husband and I are renewing our wedding vows (43 happy years). No, I won’t be wearing the size seven gown from the first time. Nor will I be slipping into the peach chiffon and lace , floor length,Vanity Fair negligee which I chose for the first night of my honeymoon so very long ago. As I recall, my choice was scandalous to my sweet mother who couldn’t comprehend my wearing anything but white. I’m still hard-pressed to understand why she was surprised with my choice of negligee when my cake was iced in pink and was devil’s food inside. I was never a traditionalist when it came to color. Yet, there’s a tradition Mom and I always agreed on: shopping together for those special occasion garments and accessories. Now neatly tucked away on satin hangers and in silk-lined boxes, they will not be replaced for closet space. They are beautiful reminders of life’s best: love and joy … people who have left us and those dear ones who remain… treasures more precious than gold..

  2. Yes. I remember my senior prom dress vividly because I designed it. It was made from baby blue bridal satin… a deep scooped, neckline w/ a small V-notch… an empire waist topped the princess cut, floor length skirt… and puffed cap sleeves finished off the bodice. My prom date was David Nighbert who sang “Some Enchanted Evening” to me on the way to the prom…. and it was..

  3. Wonderful memories, Charlie. And happy renewing of the vows/happy anniversary to you! When my son and daughter-in-law did that a few years back, my little granddaughter got confused and asked them, “When are you removing your vowels again?” We had a good time with that as you can imagine! Enjoy your special day!

  4. This was such fun to read, Nancy. Your details had me cheering from the sidelines as your sister rode in the convertible, and had me sniffing happily at the maternity dress (that with the next baby was a maternity top) you used again because, as a typical young mother, you didn’t want to change a winning game.
    Some clothes are vanity. Others are memory keepers and tributes to the special times in our lives. Thank you for this delightful tribute and for sharing your lovely granddaughter’s prom dress search with us!

  5. Teal sequins, with beautiful crystal beads that hung down the back. I was blessed to go to my senior prom with the man who is now my husband. This post is beautiful Nancy. Thanks for sharing it.I’m sure Amanda will treasure that her grandmother wrote about her experiences too when she gets older.

  6. You are so blessed to have picked a winner so early in life! God is good.

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