Maketh the Woman: The Agony of Dress Shopping

At the beginning of June, I am going to be one of the ‘bride’s helpers’ at my friend’s wedding. I’m a little old to be described as a bridesmaid and the bride thought we would prefer not to be referred to as a ‘matron’, even of ‘honour’. So ‘bride’s helper’ I am happy to be. Only I haven’t got a dress yet.

Mid July, my sixteen year old daughter is going to her prom. She hasn’t got a dress yet either.

We are both fussy, indecisive and vertically challenged. We also live in a small town with only one clothes shop. That’s not to say we haven’t got major towns within driving distance or the internet. We’ve just had other things to do than traumatise ourselves with clothes shopping.

My daughter would look good, frankly, wrapped in a duvet cover. I, on the other hand, can make a designer dress look as if it is a duvet cover with the duvet still inside. (NB my friend the bride, will now admonish me for being self-deprecating, but it’s true, honestly.)

We didn’t have proms back when I was sixteen. We had the fifth form Christmas disco (at which I found myself wearing the same outfit – long blue silky blouse with high collar and black pencil skirt – as my best friend). After O Levels, we had no kind of celebration whatsoever apart from taking off the old school tie and stuffing it in a drawer forever. After A Levels, we had a sort of impromptu party at which I decided to throw my natural sartorial inhibitions to the wind, got a perm and wore a bright pink dress with white polka dots and a ra-ra skirt. The next time I wore a fancy outfit was for our valedictory ball at college when I had a dark blue lace 1950s dress of my grandmother’s altered to fit, under which I wore an awful lot of corsetry.

Pretty much the last posh frock I had, I bought for my husband’s cousin’s wedding. I turned up at the venue and my aunt-in-law greeted me with ‘you look nicer in that dress than the other girl who’s wearing it’. ‘The other girl’ and I spent most of the rest of the day avoiding being anywhere near each other and I was glad that I’d bought the matching shoes, even though my feet were killing me. In my wardrobe is a nice dress I bought in a sale in the wrong (smaller) size in a bout of optimism about losing weight. ‘One day’ I tell myself, ‘one day, I’ll be able to get into it.’ At the rate I’m going, it’ll be back in fashion by the time I can.

So, yesterday, my daughter and I decided we’d finally brave the shops and buy a prom dress at the very least. We started with a small independent place seventeen miles away which sells wedding and prom clothes. Inside, there were four staff and no customers. One of the staff, for no apparent reason, was eating a ham salad at the sales desk. A very bored teenager (who I hope does not intend to go into sales, or if she does, gets a training course) wafted a hand at the prom dresses and ambled off. All of the dresses felt slightly sticky. It was hard not to imagine ham-salad-fingers arranging them. We made a polite but sharp exit.

Next stop the larger town a few miles further along the coast. In the first department store, we trawled two floors of ladies’ wear drawing a blank on anything that looked prom dressy. Eventually we tracked down an assistant.

‘Where is your bridesmaid and prom section please?’ I said.
‘Which one do you want?’ asked the assistant.
‘Either, both,’ I said, somewhat confused as they’re usually together.
‘For which one of you?’ asked the assistant glancing between me and my daughter.
I boggled a little, trying to imagine on what planet she thought I’d be going to a prom or indeed wearing a traditional bridesmaid’s outfit.
‘For my daughter,’ I answered.
‘Oh,’ said the assistant, ‘actually we don’t sell prom dresses or bridesmaid’s dresses. Try Debenhams.’

In the next department store, my daughter tried on a lovely etherial outfit in shell pink and grey,. She looked like Venus in an oyster shell and the style was lovely but they are not her colours. Then she tried on a dramatic skirt in black and white stripes. ‘I feel like a skunk,’ she said and she had a point. I had a surreptitious look round the non-bridesmaid/prom dresses for myself but mostly spent the time handing things in and out of the changing room and wondering how we ended up with two fewer hangers than we started.

In the third department store, Debenhams, we discovered there is no prom/bridesmaid dress section anymore. It’s in Southampton. In a last ditch attempt to show willing, my daughter picked out a possible alternative only to find it streaked with foundation and whiffing slightly of B.O.

By this time, any urge I had to seek out a dress for myself had gone. In any event, there are few things which can dent your self-confidence as badly as sharing a changing room with your teenage daughter who is at least four sizes smaller and hasn’t yet suffered the full force of gravity.

We gave up.

Today, we march forth again as it’s the last weekend we have free for a fortnight. My daughter is hoping the elusive dress (style and colour still undecided) will be somewhere in the emporia of Southampton. I am hoping the short, plump, middle-aged woman who tends to stand in front of me in changing room mirrors will have another engagement.

If we succeed, we can breathe a brief sigh of relief. Brief, because after we’ve found dresses, we have to buy shoes.

And that is a whole trauma in itself.


Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

3 thoughts on “Maketh the Woman: The Agony of Dress Shopping

  1. I am going through it all in my mind with you as I read this! Sympathies & hope you get something you like!

  2. I’ve only just got round to reading this. Self-deprecating to the point of negativity. Yep. Consider this a verbal slap on the wrist. You looked amazing and beautiful. The dress was perfect. The end.

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