The Pink Wrap Dress That Changed My Life
Pink, fitted, and four times as expensive as any item I’d ever bought, the Monah Li dress was everything my mother had raised me to resist.
I had to have it.
Although it would take me a good hour to talk myself into completing the purchase, the process of coming to want such a dress had been years in the making.
When I was eight years old, my mother declared herself a lesbian and became extremely serious about her version of feminism. She drank her coffee from a mug that read “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” and expressed disdain for all things ultra-feminine, sexy, or frivolous.
I’d been rebelling against her in various ways for as long as I can remember, but I was so highly influenced by her idea of what it means to be a self-defined woman that I believed her anti-femininity stance was the only authentic truth.
At age 11, I remember sitting with my great-aunt, who we called Aunt Toots, on the front porch of her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Toots, whose tailored dresses and smart heels were the antithesis of my mother’s Birkenstocks and free-flowing armpit hair, admonished me for not sitting “like a lady.”
“I don’t want to be a lady,” I responded. “I want to be a Woman. Like Mom.”
I believed that one chose a spot on the Lady-Woman Continuum and then stayed there. And because my mother believed that the right spot was at the far, far end where Woman reigns, I did too.
She called high heels “hooker shoes.”
This, I imagine, is one reason I fit in well at The Evergreen State College, a school in Olympia, Washington, where faculty evaluations replaced grades and the campus emptied when the Grateful Dead was playing anywhere within a 700-mile radius. I don’t know how it is at Evergreen today, but back in the ’90s, any female who shaved her armpits was considered lame. No one wore hooker shoes.
A week after graduation, I hitched a ride to New York City and spent a year or so hanging out with people who wore bones through their noses and held drum circles and potlucks in their Bowery warehouse lofts. I was more Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable than I was Jerry Garcia in my combat boots, dreadlocks, and long, satiny thrift-store skirts, but I felt at home among my new friends and at their Knitting Factory shows.
Eventually, through jobs, dance classes, and Central Park concerts, I befriended women who wore underwear and spritzed themselves with perfume rather than bathing in essential oils. Through them, over the years, I learned to embrace a world of femininity I’d previously resisted—the stuff of magazines: everything my mother despised.
Holly took me for my first-ever pedicure (at age 20) and informed me that if my lingerie didn’t match my outfit, it at least had to match itself. Maureen paid for my first brow wax. Melissa convinced me of the importance of a clean bikini line. And Shauna was with me when I hesitantly purchased my first pair of heels: brown boots that I took straight to a shoe repairman, asking him to whittle down the heels a touch because they felt strange to walk in.
Each of those firsts in my early years was a step toward becoming the woman I am today—a woman who lives all over the Lady-Woman Continuum. I have a closet full of heels and dresses (along with comparable numbers of jeans, flats, and boots); I keep my eyebrows (mostly) cleaned up; I match my lingerie (when I feel like it); and although I prefer to go barefoot too much to worry all the time about perfect feet, I do like to splurge on a good pedicure (with callus removal) every now and again.
But even after overcoming all those little resistances, the transformation was not complete until I slipped into the Monah Li for the first time. At that moment, I learned what it felt like to be a Lady smack in the power center of all her glory.
Maureen and I had been shopping at a boutique on Manhattan’s University Place for something special for her to wear on her birthday. I wasn’t planning to buy anything, certainly not when I saw the prices ($400, $500, $700 per dress), but when Maureen stepped out of the dressing room in a shimmery, beaded blue-green number, it occurred to me that I would look dumpy standing next to her at the party in a patchwork thrift-store dress. And because she’d asked me to perform a monologue I’d written, I wouldn’t be able to hide in the back by the punch bowl.
So I began to browse the racks for myself.
Less than two minutes into my search, a dress in salmon-pink silk jersey caught my eye. When I pulled it off the rack, I saw that it bore swatches of lighter pink velvet around the elbows, as well as thumbholes at the ends of its long sleeves. And on closer inspection, I could see that the shoulders were subtly adorned with small caps of lace netting, sparsely embroidered with tiny butterflies.
Everything about it suited me. The rich color looked stunning against my skin; the thumbholes and velvet and lace accents gave it a bit of whimsy.
But beyond the way it looked, there was the way it felt. Stepping into that dress was like a sexual awakening. Because of the tell-all material and fit, I had to remove both my bra and underwear in order to achieve a seamless look, and the silk jersey against my skin was the most sensuous experience I’d ever had outside of sex.
For the first time, I saw myself as deeply and truly sexy. It wasn’t a painted-on sexy or a politically oppressed sexy. It was personal and divine, and it radiated from my core.
It wasn’t that the dress made me, but that it confirmed me. It proved that I could exist wherever I wanted along that continuum.
In the end, I wore it (commando, with combat boots) to Maureen’s party, then later to my master’s degree graduation ceremony from New York University (with strappy heels), and to one or two awards dinners (again, with heels). My best friend also wore it to a red carpet event with her high-profile boyfriend.
Today, two decades later, having survived international and cross-country moves, as well as my frequent make-room-for-the-new clothing purges, the Monah Li hangs in my closet on a puffy satin hanger.
I take it out and put it on every now and again. In doing so, I am reminded of the night I first wore it out into the world. That night, I embraced and declared my own version of womanhood.
And in my version, sometimes that woman is a Lady.