Stealing Rainbows: A Fancy Dress Story

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I have a very clear memory of how my obsession with fancy started. I was about seven, and I decided to make a tapestry. It was to be a tapestry which depicted a star exploding, and from this star’s explosion would come a whole lot (Hundreds! Thousands! BILLIONS!) of little people in complex costumes, along with a rainbow and some witches. I was pretty sure that people would look at my tapestry and weep. It would be the Big Bang, but embroidered, beaded and glittered. Perhaps also feathered and painted. Maybe it would have mood lighting, and possibly, a dance sequence. It was a tapestry, but O, IT WAS THE FIRST OF ITS KIND.

I was, at this point (and fine, am still) the kind of fanatic who lost her shit when her motor skills weren’t those of a Renaissance master. Therefore, I lost my shit on the regular. My family had learned to pacify me with projects. Once they gave me a huge nest of knotted yarn to untangle. The detangling did not help the fact that I was apparently the reincarnation of Hieronymus Bosch. I was convinced that if people would only give me their most precious and beautiful bits of cloth, thread, and beads, not to mention paints, pigments, and brushes, man, I’d make some very important art. In this case, a creepy tapestry to rival those in the Cloisters. My family (sometimes some of us were antique dealers, sometimes just scavengers) had a subscription to a magazine called Connoisseur, which was full of antiques, art, and estate jewelry. I think I must have seen the Unicorn Tapestries there, and felt jealous of their maker.

I knew I could do better.

Never mind that I had no sewing skills. I pilfered my mother’s embroidery basket, which was full of all manner of desirable strands. I got out the safety scissors, and hacked myself a rectangle of pink silk nightgown (stolen), and then I got a marker and began to draw the wobbly outlines of the Big Bang. It would be fancy, oh yes, and those who saw it would wonder who’d made such a miraculous tapestry, a depiction of EVERYTHING ALL ALL ALLLLL AT ONCE.

Back up to say as a sidebar that my most beloved child-household possession was a German picture book called The Rainbow Goblins, by Ul de Rico. It was bought by my painter mother at some point in the late ’70s, and it is illustrated with gorgeous oil paintings on oak panels. It’s the story of seven color-obsessed goblins who hatch a plan to kidnap a rainbow and gobble it up.

I had similar plans.

I’d already stolen a wide selection of silk scarves at the Boise, Idaho Salvation Army, slinking them off their hangers and stuffing them down my pants. When I had them safely stolen, I’d deposit them behind my grandmother’s washing machine, where they’d swiftly be discovered. My grandparents, being antiquers, concluded that the mystery scarves had been part of some estate lot. They did not know my master plan. The scarves were always given back to me as a present. I’d calmly thank them, and then prance away, bedecked.

For a while, I stole the scarves one at a time, but as anyone who steals knows, at some point, you turn into a berserk Gollum. One day I stole an entire scarf display, one by one, sidling past and whipping scarves from their hangers. When it was time to go, I followed my mother from the store, cocky. Alas, the bulk of fifty stolen scarves overwhelmed my corduroys. I was busted in the parking lot, holding onto the ankles of my pants to keep the scarves in, an incriminating rainbow trail behind me.

I was forced to surrender my treasure piece by piece, pulling scarves from the waist of my pants like a bad magician, and passing them to my enemy. The clerk cringed. I looked darkly into space, gritting my teeth.

The scarves, I thought, were mine. All the scarves in the world.

And all the fancy too, for that matter. All of it.

A defeat such as that one would never happen again. That had been an error. Now I was a tapestry maker, famous in several kingdoms. I fought the needle, threading it only with grunting effort. Was the thread pea green instead of gold? It didn’t matter. I would embroider an exploding star. It would be full of light and glitter. I raised my needle as though raising a sword.

I took a break for a snack. The snack was chocolate pudding. Things occurred. I attempted to salvage the tapestry by sucking the chocolate out of it. The tapestry did not look at all the way it was meant to look. It looked like a piece of befouled pink nightie embroidered with a twisted pea green snarl. Raging and defeated, I took it to my mother.

She was merciful. For my next birthday, I got a small used sewing machine and a set of books from the ’70s: encyclopedias of crafts. In them were long articles on everything from how to smock a baby dress to how to make a leather butcher’s apron AND tan the hide you wanted to make it from. I read them like romances. The machine compensated for my lack of fine motor skills, and made it possible for me to stitch long and ferocious seams, snagging bits of the universe with my needle. I pressed my pedal to the metal.

Needless to say, I made fancy. Fancy this, fancy that, fancy lace bits and silk bits and tutus made of tinfoil. I dressed my younger sister in my first line of couture, dresses made of Salvation Army Hawaiian muumuus melded to rick-rack, coat-hanger boned bustles. Often the gowns I made were simply stitched onto her, and in the morning she’d wake up, crumpled, a princess in a dress made of shredded 1980s jacket sleeves, a ’60s psychedelic towel, and two triangles of purple panne velvet left over from a bikini my mom made in the ’70s. I went on this way through high school. The girl who makes her own prom dresses in an attempt to recreate haute couture runways? The one who repeatedly gets busted for skirts too short and too shiny, or too long, and too trained, in a country of cowboy boots and Wranglers? Yeah, I was wearing that Victorian mourning costume found in a feed store attic. Yes, those are my leiderhosen with a 1930s showgirl bandeau and a pair of ’50s crocodile $2 stilettos, who’s asking? I made board shorts for my dudes and embroidered them with lines from e.e. cummings. I adorned a pair of jeans for myself so epically that I looked like a walking miniature golf course. I dragged my nets through every Salvation Army in three states, and emerged with things which, though not ballgowns, had the potential to be ballgowns. That, to my eye, was enough.

Fancy. All the fancy was mine.

MariaDahvanaHeadley-dresses

I worked in the Idaho Shakespeare Festival costume shop. I grommeted leather tunics and mended boots. I made slender casings for corset bones. I cut velvet gowns on the bias and went shoulder deep in bathtubs full of acid dye. I fidgeted through bags of fancy scraps and emerged with gold lame and rainbow chiffon from some production of Midsummer. I stitched and seam-ripped until my fingers bled.

Somewhere in there, I ended up with a pretty deep working knowledge of fashion history, and also I ended up being a pretty okay, though not perfect seamstress. I’m not the person you come to when you want something perfect. I’m the one you come to when you want to look like a wheel of fire cinched with a hand-tanned embossed leather belt from the deer your grandma shot. Now, thirty plus years after that tapestry incident, I have a ballgown closet full of weird things from every decade of the past hundred and twenty or so years. I have an Edwardian tuxedo, and a ’70s shirt printed with strange scenes from Sherlock Holmes. I have a skirt with 3-D leopards made of felt, and a delicate ’50s ballgown from Marilyn Monroe’s favorite designer, Ceil Chapman. Some of my dresses are intricately beaded flapper gowns, and one of them is printed with a green-haired Little Red Riding Hood.

All of them tell stories, and that, I think, was my goal from the beginning. I had an idea that one could tell a three dimensional story with cloth and embroidery, that one might make a tapestry that would change the way everyone looked at everything. Fancy, of course, does the same thing. One can change one’s identity with a dress: shift from warrior to burlesque performer to something that is both at once. The feather fan covers the dagger, and the sequined bustier could as easily be made of discs of keenly polished metal. The corset might contain bones covered in scrimshawed love letters. The locket around the neck may contain the hair of someone not quite human, and there it all would be, right there before you for the touching, the taking, the feeling: the story, made in thread and stitches, a seized rainbow.

Everything, all at once, is what it’s always made me feel, the idea of dressing oneself in finery. It’s a slice of soul exposed, but one might be anything beneath it. You can hide a tail with a hoopskirt. You can hide your claws with opera gloves. And, too, you can wear all your identities out, and people will just think you look pretty, and that fashion is nothing fascinating.

I went to a picnic on Governor’s Island a couple days ago, a fancy dress Jazz Age Lawn Party, and I realized that my current haircut could go either to the male range of the ’20s – basically it’s a Peaky Blinder’s side-shaved mohawk, or to a certain corner of flapper girl glam. I went for femme—it was a first date, and maybe cosplaying Cillian Murphy on a first date is a little much—but still, I’ve got the full Peaky in my closet too. It’s a powerful thing, clothing. I could be a gangster or a goddess, and all it would take would be a simple shift of the threads to change the perception of everyone who met me, to revise my personal story as well as their own.

This, of course, has always been the deal, whether one is telling the story with words or with stitches. I think it’s all one tradition.

Over time, I’ve mostly hung up the huge tapestry projects. A few years ago, though, I designed my sister’s wedding dress, and made the first draft of it out of a pile of lace and scraps of silk, stitching it onto her in my living room as she and I both shrieked with the glee of wild-eyed inventors.

My own next project is to embroider the ceiling of Grand Central Station on the skirt of an azure silk ballgown. Exploding stars. Maybe a petticoat containing a little slice of rainbow and some lines about the Big Bang.

That fancy is all for me.

Top image: Cinderella (1950)

aerie-MDHMaria Dahvana Headley is a memoirist, novelist, and editor, most recently of the novel Queen of Kings; the New York Times bestselling anthology Unnatural Creatures (coeditor with Neil Gaiman); Magonia; and Magonia’s sequel, Aerie. As the author of the work of short fiction “The Traditional,” she has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. She lives in Brooklyn with a seven-foot stuffed crocodile and a collection of star charts from the 1700s.

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