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The only time I ever got sent home from school, I was 4 years old. On that day I was determined to play dress-up, but not in just anything. No, I would wear the most beautiful skirt in our preschool’s hand-me-down costume trunk: cream-colored with a floral pattern and a lacy trim, and — crucially, for a 4-year-old — an elastic waistband. Everyone wanted to wear it, but because my arch-enemy, Monica, always arrived to school before I did, she always claimed it before I could, and lorded it over the rest of us for three whole hours.
That day, I was the first one there. But as I hustled toward the trunk an evil force blew past me, shoving me off-course. I knew before I saw her: Monica. When she yanked the skirt up over her sneakers and leggings and twirled around, smiling, I grabbed a plastic tea kettle from the adjacent play kitchen and I hit her over the head with it.
Insofar as violence was concerned, lesson learned. (Monica was fine, gimlet-eyed, imperious.) My mom had to pick me up early and I was so ashamed I would have rather died than come back the next day. My covetous mania for dress-up, however, was undiminished. It seemed that the older I got, the more dress-up opportunities there were — at least until I was 25 or so, and then they started to dwindle. Now, at 30, they have all but disappeared. By the time you’ve safely cleared your young adulthood, there is mainly just the one big dress-up left: your wedding. Two, if you count your funeral, but who wants to keep a Pinterest board going for that?
Much of this, of course, is my own doing. I could go to more parties and put more effort into the outfits I wear to them. But it’s not the parties I miss, it’s the preparation. And getting ready at home alone, or with my partner, is not the same thing as getting ready communally, sharing a mirror and soliciting final outfit approval from friends. Dressing up for a party in college required planning and coordination — I’m not wearing a dress if you’re wearing jeans, wear my red heels if you’re wearing that skirt, I’ll do your smoky eye if you do mine. It is in these sorts of social situations that I shine. Without the mass frenzy to get ready beforehand, I rarely have the energy for the actual going out. Nor is there anyone I’m trying as hard to impress. I suppose this sort of self-actualization is one of the good things about getting older, but sometimes I miss that eagerness to be a cooler, wilder, sexier me. It resulted in so many more interesting outfits.
My dress-up opportunities these days are so few and far between, and my hopes for them so high, that they’re inevitably a letdown. The last time I dressed up for Halloween, I went as the Dana Scully to my girlfriend’s Fox Mulder. I spent ages drawing up FBI badges for the laminated ID holders I’d ordered online. Our party plans fell through, and we ended up going over to a friend’s apartment to watch scary movies. We stayed in costume, because by then it felt like a waste not to. But sitting on their couch, wearing suits (and not even authentically oversized ones), it felt like a waste anyway. In recent years I’ve spent ages agonizing over the perfect dress to wear to my employer’s Christmas parties only to hate the way they felt, or the way they looked in photographs. And sure, those unmet party expectations happened in college, too, but it didn’t matter so much with an $11 sequined dress from Forever 21. The dress-up stakes have gotten so much higher, and the payoff seems more and more fleeting.
For most of my adolescence, I wanted to get married in a ballgown with a skirt so big it would swallow me whole. If I don’t wear a gown like that on my wedding day, what other chance will I have? But I think what I really want is not to wear a gown like that for any real-life occasion, but for play. What I miss is putting on clothes that aren’t mine and imagining that I am living someone else’s life. What I miss is having a section of my closet cordoned off for my “going-out clothes.” It’s less about the specific polyester pull-over dresses I wore to parties in college and more about the way putting them on made me feel before I left my room: consciously and deliberately assembled, believing a single outfit might still change my whole life.