I didn’t know then that it was called changeable silk; what I knew was that the skirt rustled when I walked, and spread out like a plate when I twirled. Irresistible. Probably homemade, I would have found it in a junk shop on South Broadway in St. Louis, or at the Veterans Village thrift store on Natural Bridge Road, a place white girls like me had to be careful (respectful) about going to.
Square neck, tight waist, full skirt, side zip: at one point, I was skinny enough to pull it over my head without opening the zipper, as long as I wiggled just right. The only time I clearly remember wearing the Green Taffeta Party Dress was to the KWUR Student Radio end-of-year party at the Women’s Building on the Washington University Campus. April or May of 1987, probably, though possibly 1986, before I went to Skowhegan on a summer scholarship.
My date was my on-and-off boyfriend, another sculpture major, working on his master’s if it was 1986, and newly graduated if it was 1987. He had a shambling walk, shuffling, a little hunched over, as if 6 feet were too tall for the spaces he occupied, though the city was large enough. Sneakers, jeans, an Army fatigue jacket, a smile waiting for reactions, waiting to deploy. Patrick was the son of a firefighter and a nurse, and I stole him from his college sweetheart.
The green of my dress was like the green of his car, dark and forest like. We made installations together, layering found objects and drawings in the small gallery in the studio building where we worked. We drifted into a relationship: his girlfriend visited every weekend, driving up from the smaller college town where they’d met. Red haired, pale-skinned, in burgundy beret, Roslyn sat on a stool and watched Patrick work. Across the wide wood shop, I watched her watching him, and smirked. Reader, I was unkind. My friend Jane and I played Raspberry Beret on repeat every time Rosyln visited, hard to do in the pre-CD era, but we managed.
My style icons at the time were Joe Strummer, the Beastie Boys, and Lydia Lunch and when we weren’t taunting Roslyn with Purple Beret, I was inflicting 8 Eyed Spy on my studio mates. Reader, I was a snob. Paddock boots and ankle-zip jeans; white high tops and baggy Marithe et Francois Girbaud trousers; and the occasional 1950s evening gowns comprised my idea of campus-appropriate dress. My wardrobe came from thrift stores, gifts from my mother and grandmother (the Girbaud trousers), and practical work wear I bought with money I earned in the summers (high tops and paddock boots). In winter, I had a ca. 1950 Army trench coat with a button-in lining, which I insisted upon wearing to a Fortnightly dance in Chicago my senior year of high school. It is amazing my mother lived through all this sartorial humiliation, and amazing, too, that I was harassed as little as I was on the streets of Chicago and Saint Louis.
The KWUR Prom was in May, though I think of that evening as summer, so I would have needed nothing over the dress. I wore it with a gartered corset, black fishnet stockings, and Johnson motorcycle boots styled like paratroopers boots, leather soles slick from walking, and good for dancing. By May of the year I met Patrick, he’d broken up with Roslyn. We started making art together on a dare, and in our rambles collecting window screens, broken chairs, old medicine cabinets and other detritus, we grew closer, stopped being adversarial and became friends, and then lovers, until we were not. I wonder about Roslyn sometimes, and what became of her; I know where Patrick is, though we have not spoken since 1991. I broke his heart, for a time, after he broke mine, and now he lives where I began.