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It’s the faintly feral cut-to-there green Versace frock that Jennifer Lopez wore to the VMAs. It’s “that dress” worn by Elizabeth Hurley (also Versace, but black this time and sutured with safety pins). It’s the fragile goth fantasy spun by the nearly naked Rose McGowan. It’s Björk as a sublimely surreal Oscar swan, Michelle Williams in Oscar goddess saffron, and Lupita Nyong'o aloft in her icy Oscar froth. It’s Rihanna in almost every gown she wears, but it’s especially Rihanna resplendent in Guo Pei’s bath of silken gold at the 2015 Met Gala.
It’s the magic dress, and if you’ve identified as femme — at all, ever — you likely have wished for one. A distinctly feminized garment, a magic dress is bigger than the right bag or the good shoes. It is individualized femininity writ large and desirable, both to the self and to others. It can be as bold as the strapless silk sheath swaddling Rita Hayworth in Gilda or as understated as the geometric grace of Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (That said, a magic dress doesn’t even have to be fabric; look at Lady Gaga, who wore meat.) Regardless of whether it’s streamlined or floofy, long or short, chiffon or velvet, a magic dress must tell a compelling story, for narrative is what separates a magic dress from its quotidian sisters.
I first cottoned to the magic dress when I was working as a stripper. Strippers, like athletes, are a superstitious lot. As soon as I began my naked career I created mantras, makeup rites, and beliefs in a matrix of things. I constructed these superstitions to make money and to keep me safe. Two decades later, I realize that these rituals also made me believe in the myth of my own self-creation. When you work as a stripper, you need to create and sustain a fiction, a version of yourself that will convince customers to spend money on you. Sometimes just the way you look is enough, but even the way you look needs to transmit an erotic story. The magic dress cuts through the visual, audio, and emotional distortion of the strip club’s jangly disco beats and constant hustle. In short, if stripping is the selling of fantasy, then to work as a stripper is to be awash in the numinous — and sometimes to wear it.
My first truly magic stripper dress was a slit-to-the-hip lavender Lycra garment with a cut-out abdomen and a grape-sized gem dripping from the bodice. It flashed a thigh, framed my abs, and presented my breasts as if gift-wrapped. I paid about $100 for the gown that came to be known as the “magic tummy dress,” and I made back my money a hundred times. But there was also a microscopically brief silver frock, something I picked up on sale, and it was magic on weekends, when the crowd vibed to its Austin Powers ’60s groove. There was this prom-y sateen column, the pale green of an ancient iceberg, that was magic until it wasn’t. There was a plunge-backed chocolate frock that I thought would be magic. I was mistaken. I wore it twice and gave it away.
It’s not strange that I relied on the magic dress when I was a stripper. What’s strange is that I was a fully adult woman before I got one. Because if there’s one thing that culture teaches female children, it’s that the right dress can — and will — transform you.
To whom do we owe this debt of the magic dress? First and foremost, to Disney’s Cinderella, whose fairy godmother bibbity-bobbity-boos Cindy’s mouse-made Pepto-pink rags into a silvered-ballgown wonder. It is this dress — luminous layers of fabric suspended above a confection of petticoats, a gown that looks at once historical and timeless — that changes Cinderella’s life. It raises her from ashes, grants her access to the ball, and catches the prince’s eye. Without the magic dress, Cinderella is home alone on a Saturday night, watching Netflix with the forest creatures.
The idea that the magic dress is your ticket to living XXL is not lost on little girls — nor is it lost on big girls, big boys, or anyone in between. When you start looking for the magic dress, you see it everywhere. It’s the Pretty Woman red dress that makes an honest woman out of Julia Roberts’ “beck-and-call-girl” Vivian — and turns Richard Gere’s robber baron Edward into a white knight. Racist antebellum fantasy aside, Gone With the Wind is a paean to the magic dress, whether the green curtain gown Scarlett wears to fake it until she makes it or the arterial-spray red frock that Rhett makes Scarlet wear to shame her. It’s the osprey-epaulet white gown in which Gigi slays le monde of Paris. It’s the black-and-white froth that carries Grace Kelly into Jimmy Stewart’s claustrophobic apartment in Rear Window. It’s classic Cookie dripping with regal gems and bursting with texture, and it’s classic Carrie, sleek and possum-like in next to nothing. The magic dress, at its essence, is narrative shorthand for achieving superhuman femininity.
To the outside observer, the magic dress signals a dramatic turn in a feminized life. From My Fair Lady to Say Yes to the Dress, the very premise of the makeover leans heavily on the magic dress. Radiating female empowerment and desirability, the dress itself tells the story of that woman’s journey to desirability. Impossible things are happening every day, as Rodgers and Hammerstein reminds us in their Cinderella. Why not to you?
Let me be clear: I like me a magic dress. I appreciate a dress that lets me feel like me, that telegraphs my confidence, that allows people to reflect my confidence back at me like a bunch of walking, talking satellite dishes for my ego. But I am suspicious about anything my culture tries so hard to sell me, especially when it comes with a literal price tag. A magic dress — whether LBD, cocktail dress, statement gown, or day dress — is as much a capitalist construct as it is a gendered one as it is a sexualized one, and this heady brew of money, femininity, and power warrants a critique. I’m not saying you shouldn’t choose that magic dress; I’m suggesting you consider what you’re buying into when you purchase it.
Which is all to say that when it comes to being the heroine in my own life, I’m bypassing the magic dress. See, I’m getting married. It wasn’t something I expected. It wasn’t something I looked for. It was something I chose. (I proposed to my husband-to-be on the E train on New Year’s Day; he said yes.) I’m not going to rely on fickle magic to make it work. In choosing to marry, I realize I’ve got skin in the game, so when I walk down that aisle, I’ll be wearing a pair of leather pants, a silk top, and a repurposed vintage mink. Like altering your momma’s wedding gown, stories often fit better when they’re revised, and my story looks damn fine in a skintight pair of pants.