The light shone brightly on my female form, as Fela Kuti’s “African Woman” pulsed through the room, altering its energy dramatically. Is it a cliché to say that the African rhythms sent this raconteur sailing through her imagination? Or was it the bias cut of a threadbare micro-printed dress that had her swinging ? No matter, I was in another stratosphere by now: I was thinking of the life once before lived in this dress, cut finely along the slight of a woman’s curve. A woman must have been courted in such a dress, her beau dabbing at the sweat beads that had surfaced along his brow and across his upper lip upon beholding her image.
Was it a country fair they would be attending that evening on their date, or was I assuming my female protagonist more homely than her sartorial tastes conveyed? Especially with that razor-sharp split, splicing her dress up the middle, she may raise a few eyebrows in such a familial setting.
Drinks it was. Drinks and dancing–lots of dancing, though her suitor had two left feet. He tried his hardest to keep up, but coerced through his ever shrinking pride and that nervous sweat of his, he sat himself down, urging her to continue. He would watch.
She laughed, grabbing at his wrist to pull him back to the dance floor, No, no, no, come on!, she pleads, but he bashfully swatted her away. Shrugging, she turned and slipped into the reverie of the tunes. He would watch, in turn, sipping on brown liquor. As she was pulled by the symphonic melody of the music (was that Ella or Billie or Sarah lulling her into state of rapture?), she felt as effervescent as the bubbles in her intoxicating gin and tonic (she promised herself that after two, she must be cut off), miles away from her mounting problems. Light as a souffle.
Jutting a hip, rolling a waist, she flirted for her beau’s eye. She was a professional flirt, a paradigmatic coquette. In her most private of moments, though, she was a thoughtful writer, or was it a poet? Or actress? Singer…well, she was creative, at least, labels aside. Those types of decisions, the decision of what she would do with her life, what she would finally identify as, scared her silly. Those types of thoughts dimmed bright moments like this, forcing her to order a third gin and tonic (against all logic).
Taking a rest from her jig, she leaned against the bar, too jittery to sit but too besotted to hold her footing firmly. She sipped leisurely on her cursed cocktail, taking a compulsory swig before telling her beau, the man who so desperately wanted her to calm down, settle, and choose to be his wife, that she had been writing again. Really good stuff, she assured him. His eyebrow arched. Mention of her creative endeavors threatened him immensely. Her impulse for them was clearly greater than any she felt towards him. Oh, can I read?, he asked, feigning interest in what he hoped would become a mere hobby she mentioned over bridge games with her friends years from now, his dinner simmering in the kitchen he built specifically for her.
She took a big swig, the tonic tickling her nose and the gin scorching her throat, and smiled mockingly: I don’t think it’s ready, detecting his cloaked disdain. Arms stretched wide, she collapsed onto a stool beside him and whispered, Take me home. He shook his head, his mouth full of brown liquor. I want to read what you’ve written, he insisted through hard swallows. This time she shook her head, and waved her hands in front of his face defiantly, I promise. When it’s finished. He fell silent, stroking his emptying glass. So secretive, he hissed. She crossed her legs and swiveled on her stool to meet his profile. A profile of hunched shoulders, disappointed brow, squinted eyes, and slightly matted hair from the pronounced heat of the night.
I tell you as much as you need to know. As the words escaped her mouth, she instantly knew that she played too rough with the egos of men and may have started a fight she didn’t need that evening. Your riddles and journal entries don’t make you deeper, y’know, he threw back, shoving his glass forward. Well, I– she started, her pulse rising at his gall, but he held up a solid palm. He wasn’t interested in her wry retort. He knew he had insulted her as he threw down money for their drinks and grabbed for his jacket. Where are you going?!, she exclaimed, her speech slightly impaired, but full of perceptible shock. A fear, she may be left alone in this watering hole or that her quick tongue had again ruined a perfectly fine match, rose up in her.
He stopped short and cocked his head, You said to take you home. His mouth hung open, amazed at the ease to which her moods swelled and dissipated. She let out an imperceptible sigh and the very edges of her pout curled into a weak smile. One more dance? she asked, grateful she hadn’t broken him completely. And before he could object, she quickly added, This time slow.
He shook his head and studied her long. You can’t refuse a woman a lot in a dress like this, so he unearthed a fist he had jammed into his trouser pocket and grabbed for hers.
They danced, two firm frames now soft and exhausted from this continual fight, this habitual torment of being together but fearful of being alone. And so he spun her, as he knew she loved to spin. The hem of her dress took flight and her calf muscles flared instinctually, as she rose off her toes. //
My fiction is rusty, but I was compelled to create a story that was inspired by the history this dress so clearly possessed. Obviously these are merely conjectures I wrote of in this installment, but I thought to look into the details of this piece to help me etch out the story.
Seeing as this piece was straight from the 1940’s, a period of war-time resolve and romance, a moment when fabrics were rationed but the female form was flaunted, I thought this dress belonged to a dreamer. Someone a bit reckless, who didn’t care about the opinions of others. I analyzed the pale, soft co lor, crinkled texture of a silk blend, and provocative slit of the style, and knew the woman was romantic.Hopelessly so–even if she didn’t like to admit it. And with the diaphanous hems, I figured she must be a dancer; a woman who loved to twirl, to be twirled. She was not afraid of the male gaze, but certainly fearful of not being understood by them. I could of course be painfully incorrect, but I have been revisiting a lot of author, Zadie Smith’s, work as of late, which has helped me be less tentative with my own writing. I have mostly been absorbed in her non-fiction, her essays, but no matter: she is still a master of language.
Witty, haughty, acerbic, all of her work has a sense of authority about it. I thought I should bring that same attitude to my own style journalism, to simply extend it to new heights. Of course, Ms. Smith is not above influences herself, and I was really struck (though not entirely surprised) by how, at fourteen, she reluctantly fell for the work of Harlem Renaissance novelist, Zora Neale Hurston. Priding herself a “neutral reader”, an individual who appreciated literature for literature’s sake without subsuming her own identity into the work, she found herself within the pages of Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Characters that looked just like her, those even sharing “ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.”
It was a feeling of “recognition” that was unparalleled. I guess just like I see myself in Zadie and Zora’s work, I recognized my own personality in the dress. But I assume, I am not unique in this: we all see ourselves in our clothes, don’t we? We pick them after all….
Dress, vintage circa 1940s + Cardigan, vintage circa 1950s + Booties by Alaiia
All photographs courtesy of Layonbone’s, Cleon Grey