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Woman in dress in field Photo: Christopher Sturman/Trunk Archive

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Prairie Dresses Help Me Feel Like Myself

They might seem anachronistic, but to me they fit just right.

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Last fall, I was gripped by the intense desire to look like I stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie (the ‘70s TV adaptation). For hours every night, I would scour vintage Etsy shops looking for the perfect Gunne Sax dress in my size: navy with long sleeves, floral with lace trimming.

When I finally found the dress, it was like how the movies depict meeting your soulmate; I immediately knew. It was handmade, not Gunne Sax, and had some slight sun damage on the right shoulder, but these simple quirks just made me love it all the more.

When it arrived in my mailbox, wrapped in a brown paper envelope, I speedily unwrapped it from its layer of filmy paper and zipped it up. It clung around my ribcage like a second skin.

Photo: Naomi Skwarna

At once, I felt like I had completely transformed from a work-from-home slob into a woman living in a historical fantasy world where women churn butter while wearing bonnets and men named “Abe” walk around wearing leather suspenders. My back snapped to attention — puffed sleeves tend to look better with perfect posture — and I walked with mincing steps, as if I’d only just stepped out of a long journey by horse and carriage. I loved the way it only looked quite right with brown leather shoes, synonymous with “folksy,” in stark opposition to my usual severe black footwear.

Not only did it feel like this magical dress had been psychically sewn in another decade for my exact body shape, something about donning a prairie dress in the year 2016 felt deliciously subversive. For the past five years or so, I’ve felt a bit like an extraterrestrial tasked with comprehending the apparent earthling uniform of baggy jeans paired with Adidas Stan Smiths, or sexless shift dresses and Nike Frees. Online shopping shifted from a thrilling bazaar to homogenous rectangles of clothing in shades called “biscuit.” There seemed to be an unspoken bylaw that no new brick-and-mortar clothing shop could open unless the walls were painted white and the windows dotted with macramé plant holders. The sparsely populated racks offered only a mix of ironically ill-fitting denim and boxy squares of fabric aimed at making the wearer look like a statuesque 20-year-old Marina Abramovic, a succulent by every cash register. None of the clothes seemed made to fit a person who is both small and short and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola; they always made me look like an escapee from a very chic prison.

The high necklines and ultra-feminine flounces of the prairie dress represent a natural pendulum swing from one trend to its diametric opposite. After years of the stark simplicity of Muji and Everlane, the folksy bohemian-romantic looks of the 1880s feel positively fresh. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with minimalism (though its self-imposed monotony is delightfully easy to skewer), athleisure, normcore, or whatever you want to call the fetishization of simplicity makes me feel like I’m wearing drag. The brand new, the clean, the fresh feels the absolute opposite on me. Plainness makes me feel like the ultimate poseur.

Vogue recently heralded the return of Gunne Sax dresses, charting their transition from “cliché to cool.” Six months earlier, W magazine published a similar piece about the return of Jessica McClintock’s romantic aesthetic, the populist designer behind Gunne Sax who had her own namesake line of florid graduation and prom dresses. Vogue attributes the desire for ever more outré forms of fashion escapism to the “annus horribilis” of 2016 and the disturbing rollercoaster of the Donald Trump presidency. Yet they fail to acknowledge that the time period these outfits conjure isn’t likely to translate as idyllic to anyone who isn’t white. (Let’s acknowledge for a moment that historical dressing is an embarrassingly white pastime to be into, and that most non-white people aren’t going to be clamoring to dress in garments reminiscent of a time when they were considered subservient.)

Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of dressing up in historical garb long past its fashion expiration date. In elementary school, I learned the definition of the word anachronism, “an error in chronology; or a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place; especially one from a former age that is incongruous in the present,” and with the comprehension of this simple noun, an entire world opened up.

In Grade Four, I went through a heavy Medieval phase, where I dreamed of wearing wimples and hennins to school every day. The best day of my life (let’s be real, probably to this day) was the “dress up” day, when everyone in my class was asked to come to school in an approximation of Medieval garb. One girl came to class wearing a pair of tearaway track pants thrown on top of a pylon as a hat. To this day, I am stunned by her creativity. My mother, a seamstress, lovingly stayed up all night to sew me a simple gray peasant’s dress, which I wore with the puffed-up pride of a wild turkey. Then came the Little Women phase, where I dreamed of Jane Austen braids and ice skating in a green felt cape, hands warmly ensconced in a rabbit fur muff.

Somewhere in this time-traveling clusterfuck of early childhood, my parents took me to visit Upper Canada Village, a pioneer historical reenactment site, where the modest dresses with an excess of buttons quickly became a source of fixation. Suddenly this was my calling, to card wool while dressed in a floral smock and bonnet, shouting “yoo-hoo” across the way to the handsome blacksmith.

It wasn’t a creepy Victorian thing, where I actually dreamt of living in the era — I vastly prefer the current day, where women and non-white folks actually have legal rights, though the Trump presidency is certainly threatening to turn that around — and yet I will guiltily admit to coveting the author’s wardrobe of prim dresses. Actually living the stiff, ascetic life of a Victorian holds no appeal for me, but period clothing still makes me faint of breath.

As I grew older, the fantasies started to lose their appeal as I began to live primarily in the real world and not my imagination. As my proximity from those memories grows further, I suspect that idealizing the uniform of the hardscrabble pioneer life was a way for me to come to terms with my own isolated rural existence. I grew up on a farm, miles away from even the nearest corner store, with only my immediate family and waving stalks of corn as company. If I couldn’t escape to an actual city, I could at least play-act that my apparent destiny was more interesting than it actually was. Eventually I turned 18, moved away from the farm, and began to construct a life I actually wanted to live, while the fantasies remained stored in a Rubbermaid container in my parents’s basement.

Lately I find myself returning to these fantasies, dwelling on them and trying to recapture them. Why do I find myself drawn to historical dressing again? It’s the nun-like primness of the neck and hemlines, the subversive form of sexuality where showing less skin is more likely to get you thrown into horny jail than a regular old mini skirt. For me, something about a tight-fitting high neck dress oozes the equivalent sexuality of a cleavage-bearing crop top. I choose to see the titillating possibilities in dressing the sartorial equivalent of sex-negative.

When I first wore the prairie dress outside, I expected people to look at me like I was an alien. After all, seeing a full-grown woman dress like a butter-churning homesteader downtown in North America’s fourth-largest city felt like a proposition so odd I was barely ready for it myself.

To my surprise, the responses I got from strangers were overwhelmingly positive. People of all genders offered me a kind nod and muttered “I like your dress” in my general direction; catcalls continued on their regular schedule. I secretly hoped that dressing like a historical re-enactor might drive away unwanted attention, yet it seems that males will waggle their unchecked libido at you no matter what decade it looks like you’ve stepped out of.

It’s unclear if prairie dresses will be a breakout trend of 2017, but while fingering the sale racks at Anthropologie, I recently stumbled upon Prairie Dress #2. It’s a floor-length purple floral number that fastens only with two snaps at the waist (risqué!), and is perhaps more Carly Simon than Laura Ingalls Wilder. But the sweeping motions of the generous sleeves portray an eternal glamour that is intoxicating. It draws me back to visions of the California desert in the 1970s, watching Joni Mitchell perform barefoot in a coffee house, or perhaps eating tempeh prepared by Father Yod at the Source Family restaurant. In it, I am exactly who I want to be.


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