When I was 18, I made a very bad decision. 18 is absolutely the time TO make bad decisions, and fortunately this one was innocent enough to have no consequences beyond a memory burned into my brain forever. No regrettable words, no fast cars, no alcohol in excess. Just the very real humiliation of showing up at a party in a dress that was so completely wrong that I suffered every minute I was wearing it. Oddly enough, this is exactly the dress I am going to tell you that you need… the Slip Dress. But let me explain.
The year is 1980 and I am on a boat on the Potomac, at an Episcopal High School graduation party. I know no one except the boy who has invited me, a friend I had met the summer before at Camp Kooch-i-Ching. This was an all-boys camp in Northern Minnesota on the border of Canada, where my girlfriend Cal and I had the incredible summer jobs of “staff bakers”. We had no clue what we were doing, no commercial kitchen experience to speak of, but multiplying the Toll House cookie recipe by 50 seemed easy enough. There were lots of boys there to befriend, and while this one was not a romantic interest (I chose someone else for that,) he was kind and funny and dear enough that he thought it might make sense to fly me in as a date for his graduation. No problem. I was happy to show up. I just didn’t completely think through the question of what I should show up IN. Within a second of walking into the party, I knew I had misjudged the occasion. Every single girl at the party was in Lilly Pulitzer – floral shifts as far as the eye could see – and I was in a simple ivory silk slip dress, slinky and sexy and totally 70s.
This dress was so, so off. It was very… disco. There I was out on this boat, with no place to hide. Maybe I could have jumped ship? The water wasn’t moving enough to credibly feign seasickness (it is just a river…) I truly knew no one except this young guy, and even our friendship was from the summer before. The girls were not exactly classmates – I imagine most were from Madeira, the sister school of Episcopal, which is now co-ed but was all boys at the time. I was this random older college girl that no one knew, dressed like I was going to a disco rather than the country club. The Official Preppy Handbook would not be published for another few months — no one had told me about the boarding school dress code! So I just had to suffer out there on this boat, totally exposed among all these girls with their own young bodies covered in their very unsexy floral cotton. And it wasn’t even my dress in the first place. Cal, my baking partner, had been the one to lend it to me, mailing it straight to my dorm in Boulder in a manila envelope – foreshadowing online shopping? – and while I must have at least tried it on beforehand, I didn’t even know enough to think twice. I would have paid any one of those Madeira girls to trade dresses with me in the bathroom – that is, if I had even been able to muster up the courage to strike up a conversation. Unbelievably, I don’t remember feeling any boys’ eyes on me. Just the girls and their silent judgment. I was oblivious to the thing I should have been worried about – painfully aware of the thing I should have cared less about. Isn’t that always how it goes?
Bottom line – I was wildly out of place. There is no worse feeling. I am sure I looked pretty enough in the dress – you can get away with a lot when you are 18 – but I felt terrible. So terrible that I haven’t touched a slip dress since. Which brings us to today, where I am closing the loop on this decades-old humiliation. This spring, we have this dress on the line that is fantastic enough to right that wrong. It feels like a more elegant, elevated version of the same idea… a slip of a dress. This is one I can wear now, and I think you can too… for two reasons.
The first is shapewear… I don’t need to tell you that the invention of this new category has totally changed the way we show up. A pair of Spanx wouldn’t have changed the fact that I woefully misjudged the boarding school vibe on the boat… but it would have made me, even then, feel a bit more confident in the slinky silk. This new slip dress is made of this amazingly weighty charmeuse that is actually super forgiving. You don’t actually need anything crazy or industrial-strength underneath… that said, I often like the extra smoothing action of a pair of little bike shorts - a trick I picked up from my daughters who layered volleyball shorts under their Atlanta Girls’ School skirts. Mine are from Uniqlo but I am sure Spanx makes eight different versions of this that would be great. And then up top, the bodice has this wonderful half lining so that even my very old, standard-issue strapless bra works just beautifully. Bottom line: this is a slip dress that’s easier to pull off than you think.
The second reason that you just may need this: LAYERS. I love the minimal look of this shape on its own - think 90s Gwyneth Paltrow – but it is such an awesome base piece. It has been fairly chilly in Atlanta, and the women in the shop here have been wearing this dress for weeks with the most creative styling. All sorts of things can be perfect over this dress if the weather calls for it or just prefer a bit more coverage. Boyfriend shirts tied at the waist… big, oversized sweaters in air conditioning… trim cotton sweaters in the summer… trim, ladylike cardigan jackets… you get the idea. A tiny, jewel-neck cardigan would have changed EVERYTHING about that night on the boat. I think a safari-style jacket would be the perfect juxtaposition with the silky material. Sexy on the inside, more covered and cool on the outside. It can be a chameleon four seasons a year.
So that is the story. I may have slipped up with the slip dress so many years ago… but I am loving it now, even late to the party at 61. Grab a pair of bike shorts and maybe a sweater and give it a try.