It’s mid-January, and I’m shopping for a dress my daughter won’t need until June, even though she’ll probably grow three inches and gain 10 pounds before then. This, I’m told, is not a dumb idea. “Everyone” does it for eighth-grade graduation.
I have no idea if this is true, but Sophie, my eldest child, says it is. She’s 13, as tall as I am and wears shoes three sizes larger. I’d suggested that her father might want to take on this particular rite of passage, seeing as my opinion of dresses hasn’t changed a lot since June 1978, when my mother selected a white eyelet dress for my own eighth-grade graduation – a ruffled affair that was the antithesis of my jeans-loving sensibility. But my daughter wanted me.
Coming of age in the ’70s, against a backdrop of cultural debate about whether working women should feminize themselves with necktie blouses, I viewed fashion through the eyes of an emerging feminist. Dresses seemed frilly and silly; heels seemed like a symbol of oppression, and they were impossible to walk in. I carried these notions into motherhood, determined to raise girls fueled by their dreams, not their appearance. And I didn’t want those dreams to be about tulle and beading. Besides, shopping gives me a headache. Dress shopping might trigger worse.
We arrive at the store where “everyone” buys their dresses. Being contrarian, I had suggested that we try someplace else, to find something unique, something that “everyone” won’t be wearing.
That, I’m informed, is a dumb idea. The store — and my daughter — have this covered. Once a dress is selected, the store’s owner assures us, she’ll note which school Sophie attends. Then, if another girl from her school selects the same dress, she’ll be “discouraged” from buying it. The glint in the proprietor’s eye makes it clear that my daughter needn’t worry about copycats.
We enter a huge room with dresses from floor to ceiling. Sophie, who sprung from the womb loving all that I hate and hating all that I love, has kept Seventeen’s prom issue in her bedside table like a Gideons’ Bible. She knows exactly what she wants, having mentally tried on and discarded hundreds of dresses: It must be strapless, it must be black and white, it must have a tulle skirt, it must be short. Eighth-graders wear short, and high school grads wear long: This distinction, apparently, is another detail that everyone knows.
I take a look at the tag hanging from one of Sophie’s picks — $349 — and stifle a gasp. I bought my wedding dress, which was essentially a long silk T-shirt and lacked a single bead, for $300. I had agreed to pay $150 for Sophie’s graduation: dress, shoes, even hair and nails if she insisted on joining her friends in having them done professionally. My best friend in eighth grade showed up at our ceremony with a funky smell and her bangs singed off after leaning too close to light her family’s gas barbecue to cook the pre-ceremony hamburgers. We had laughed; the idea of professionally coiffed hair would have been even more laughable. I had washed mine. Wasn’t that enough? My daughter, however, has also dog-eared a magazine page with the perfect hairstyle.
Sophie selects two dresses from the white section. Then, high on fantasy and opportunity, she selects a pink. A purple. A red. Then a turquoise.
She steps from the change room in the first dress. She is gorgeous. Has always been. The dress — white skirt, black beaded bodice — lacks straps. She lacks curves. But no matter. Through some fashion magic, it stays up.
She tries on the others. Even after it’s clear that the first is “the” dress, she continues, requesting the green, the blue, the gold, ad nauseam. I’m hungry and my head hurts, but my eyes are, surprisingly, not rolling. She takes my breath away. I forget for the moment that I hate dresses.
My daughter was what is called in modern parlance a “spirited” kid, which used to be known as “difficult.” Even as a toddler, Sophie refused to wear the leggings or jeans I tried to put her in. It has never crossed her mind that she can’t do whatever she chooses, whether it’s running for office or wearing a ball gown. She would be baffled at the second-wave idea that bubble-gum-pink lipstick makes the words that emerge from her lips less important. My daughter’s feminism doesn’t come with a dress code. It’s a value system, not a wardrobe choice. And, not for the first time, I’m rethinking a few things about my own feminism.
I’ve grown to admire how straightforward my daughter is about what she thinks. Like the time she looked my mother in the eye and said what the rest of us had been thinking for decades: “You know, Nana, you’re really quite bossy.” She feels completely entitled to her views, as she should be. I, on the other hand, spent far too much of my life apologizing for taking up space. She’s shown me so much about what it means to have a voice and use it effectively.
And if having a choice is a feminist goal, can’t that choice include wearing a strapless beaded gown with a tulle skirt? Sure, I think, as I check my watch and wonder when we can leave.
After much deliberation, Sophie has decided on the white and black dress. The first dress. Hallelujah, I think, no longer caring what it costs. I head for the door.
But wait, I can’t go yet. Sophie must be measured to determine what size the store needs to order, taking into account at least some growth. Though “you’ll have to have it altered no matter what size you go with,” the sales clerk tells me. Not if I bought the dress closer to the event, I think. Still, nobody waits. Everyone knows that. I sigh.
We leave on a cold winter afternoon with nothing but a receipt for a down payment and the promise of a dress that will arrive in time to be altered for a June event. My 13-year-old is bouncing with happiness. Not even the prospect of having to earn the roughly 50 percent I’ve told her she’s paying has dampened her delight.
That evening, she thanks me for possibly the hundredth time. She finds the well-thumbed page in her magazine and shows me that the dress she selected is almost exactly what she had hoped for.
Four weeks later, the store calls to let me know that the dress has arrived early. The promise has taken shape and is available for pickup.
Now I need to find something to wear for my daughter’s graduation ceremony. Perhaps, I think, a dress.
Leslie Garrett is a journalist and author living in London, Canada.


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