The Little Black Dress

by Annette Fidler

“You can never go wrong with a little black dress,” declared my cousin Norma, the person I called for advice on what to wear to a party I had just been invited to. This wasn’t one of those dreary beer and pretzel events at House Plan, City College’s egalitarian answer to fraternities and sororities, which were banned on our campus. This was a gathering in David’s parents’ house in Great Neck for David’s fraternity brothers from Syracuse and their dates.

I had met David a few months before when he came to visit his aunt, who owned a summer camp where I worked as a counselor. David wasn’t particularly handsome or interesting, but he was a senior at Syracuse and he had singled me out of all the counselors. To a shy, unsophisticated sophomore at City College, this was big time.

Norma, six years older than I, was the family’s fashion arbiter. Tall and curvaceous, Norma wore her skirts short and her sweaters tight and tottered around on strappy high-heeled shoes. When asked what she did, she would reply, “I work in fashion,” and you can’t deny that being a receptionist and all-around go-fer at Missy Modes, a mid-level dress company located in the garment district, was indeed working “in fashion.”

“You’re in luck,” Norma continued. “Klein’s just placed a really big order this morning and Mr. Melnikoff is in a great mood. I’m sure there’ll be no problem getting you into the showroom tomorrow. And I know just the dress for you. “ “Don’t you love it?” Norma exclaimed the next day, as she pulled a black taffeta dress off the rack. “It’s our hottest number, a knock-off of a dress they’re selling at Saks for at least three times what this costs. “ Taffeta? Orange velvet trim dusted with rhinestones around the sweetheart neck? This wasn’t my idea of a simple little black dress. “Oh, don’t be so conservative. Break out a little,” said Norma, sensing my hesitation. Norma never had a problem breaking out. She had already met three of the goals she set for herself before she reached 21: finish high school, get a job, and save enough money to have her nose fixed. Moving out of her parents’ house, getting her own apartment, and marrying a man who would indulge her passion for shopping? Those goals were a little off schedule, although there was some gossip among the relatives about Norma providing Mr. Melnikoff with more than just secretarial services, and you never know where that could lead. I was disappointed when David came to pick me up on Saturday night. Not a word about how I looked. Was I over-dressed?

At the end of a long tree-lined lane, perched on a bluff overlooking the Sound, stood David’s house. Tara, I thought, noting the white columns that reached the roof. I could picture the door being opened by a dignified elderly black man who would greet us with “Good evening, Massah David”. Entering the house, I could hear music and the tinkling of ice, the buzz of conversation and someone laughing, and then a hush as David and I entered the living room. The eyes of six women dressed almost identically in pleated skirts, cashmere twin sweater sets and pearls, some sporting their boyfriends’ fraternity pins, were all on me.

I knew immediately that the little black dress was a major gaffe. It screamed in letters nine feet tall ”What are you doing here? You’re not one of us!” How was I going to get through the evening? David, oblivious to the smirks and stares, said “Hi guys, I want you to meet Annette. She’s a sophomore at City College.” From deep within one of the sofas where she was snuggled against her date, one of the women called out “Well, good for you, Annette!”

Did she mean “good for you” because you had to be smart to get into City College or “good for you” for mixing with all those lefties and taking the subway to school and living at home with your parents and not in a dorm?

I felt sick and humiliated. Even beer and pretzels at House Plan would have been better than this. At least the conversation would have been more interesting. Not this frat-boy “Syracuse is a shoo-in to beat Cornell next Saturday,” and “What do you think of Josh being suspended for cheating on his bio exam?” Where was the talk of Camus and Sartre, existentialism and Freud?

I smiled gamely through the evening, sneaking peeks at the antique grandfather clock in the hallway. Finally it was time to leave. So nice to meet you, hope to see you again, a ride back that seemed twice as long as the one out, a peck on the cheek, will call you, and David was gone.

I left the dress in a heap on the bedroom floor, burrowed deep into my down quilt and softly cried myself to sleep.

The ringing phone roused me early the next morning. “So, was I right? I bet you were the center of attention.”

“More than you can imagine, Norma,” I replied, “more than you can ever imagine.”

Annette Fidler: With thanks to the Memoir Writing Study Group, whose smiles, chuckles and laughs at The Little Black Dress encouraged me to share it with a wider audience.