Lesson #72: The Tale of the Too-Tight Dress

by Rachel on March 16, 2011

There were several reasons I didn’t buy the dress I wore to the SXSW party until Sunday night.

Actually, on Sunday, I already had an outfit. I had gone back to Anthropologie a week prior and bought a totally different skirt — not one of the three original looks. It was cute, fun, nearly perfect in every way.

I wanted to just wear that to the party with the Beckinfield T-shirt, but to do that, I definitely needed a good belt. But…I never got around to going shopping for a belt. So at that point, I decided I’d just scrap the whole thing and wear the Beckinfield T-shirt with jeans, heels, and a cute blazer.

Then, last Thursday, one of my bosses invited me to a dinner after the party. The dinner had been planned for a while, but it was a private, exclusive dinner for a lot of internet VIPs, so I didn’t think much of it. Until I was suddenly going. And once I was suddenly going, I started thinking a lot of it — and thinking that maybe I should wear something a bit fancier than jeans and my Beckinfield T-shirt.

So I headed back to Anthropologie on Sunday night and tried on a bunch more outfits, along with Dress #2, which was my favorite of those three looks. And I liked everything, including the dress, but I just wasn’t sure.

I needed something good for the party and the dinner…that I had shoes and accessories to match…that didn’t need to be tailored…that would work rain or shine (but really in the rain, as that is what they were predicting).

I ended up staying until they closed because I couldn’t make a decision. Eventually, though, I had to make a decision, and so I chose Dress #2. Of all my options at that point, it was just the most special.

(Caitlin — our party photographer! — and me at the party.)

The only minor hiccup was that because I had procrastinated for so long, they no longer had Dress #2 in a size six. This could have made my decision even easier, but when I tried on the size four…it fit! So when I decided to buy the dress, I bought the four. I didn’t really think much of it.

On Monday, the day of the party, I got dressed in my hotel room and headed to the car for our drive into Austin. And it was there I realized that the size difference between the four and the six? Was in the belt. That area was a little bit smaller in the four. This slightly-smaller belt went around my ribs and lungs. And it was crushing them.

I tried to inhale. I couldn’t.

And this was an event where, given my increasing stress level, I really needed to be able to take deep breaths.

My boss told me he thought the dress was perfect and ladylike. And, you know, I felt like a lady. A Victorian lady who was about to get “the vapors” from her too-tight corset and faint.

This actually wasn’t the first time I’d worn a great dress that was secretly a lung crusher. The same thing happened to me senior year of college at Greek Gala, when I gained a few pounds in the two months after I bought the fabulous red dress and before I wore it to the event. Apparently, those two pounds went right to my ribs and I sat there sucking down vodka, alternating between hoping I won an award and hoping I didn’t have to try to move in the dress. I was afraid my big moment would be the exact moment when my lungs said, “Fuck it.”

Now, more than three years later, things felt pretty similar to that night. I was going to be hot. I was going to have cocktails. I was going to be nervous. And now I’d just pretty much turned over the rights to my lungs all because my vanity and indecisiveness kept me from buying a dress until the last minute.

I started to panic. Was I going to pass out at the party? Did I need to go home and change into my jeans/T-shirt/heels/blazer? It wouldn’t look as good, but at least then I wouldn’t have to worry about an embarrassing fainting incident. But there was no time to go back to the hotel. I imagined telling my bosses that I had to leave during the crucial party setup time to go back and change out of my too-small dress. But even if I could have braved that conversation, the plan wouldn’t work anyway — there wasn’t time, nor was there going to be parking when I got back to the Copa, where our party was.

I slouched low in the car, trying to move the belt up off my ribs in the process. But how was this going to work during dinner? Slouching was not ladylike.

I looked at the clock and realized I had about eight hours to go in this dress before I’d be able to take it off and use my lungs again. Eight hours is a long time to go without breathing. And I really like breathing during big events. It just helps, you know?

I continued to let my anxiety build, which, of course, was the worst thing I could do. Now I didn’t just feel lightheaded; I also had a sick feeling in my stomach, like I wanted to throw up. Great. So my options were pass out or throw up. Both options would ruin my night, my chance at going to the dinner, and, really, my career. And Option #2 had the potential to ruin my dress as well. Not that I was really sure I’d be wearing it again anyway, given the way it had turned on me.

We were at the venue early, giving me an extra 40 minutes to pace and stress. But then I had an idea. I had brought my blazer in case it got cold during the dinner. So I put it on…and then unzipped my dress as far as I possibly could, about five inches. I figured I could stay like that until the guests started arriving at the party, and I could pull this trick again at the dinner if necessary. I couldn’t go without breathing for eight hours, but I could handle it for three hours.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it definitely helped. Once the event coordinators and the caterer and the manager of the Copa showed up, they had lots of questions for me, so I was distracted from my dress problems. And before I knew it, it was time to ditch my flats for my heels, shed the blazer, and zip up my dress.

And, oddly, my dress was no longer a problem. Maybe it was because from there on out, everything felt really surreal and I was so focused on my job — network, find VIPs, introduce, circulate, sparkle — that I wasn’t even trying to breathe. Maybe it was because I was standing the whole time, or perhaps putting on my heels and standing a little taller made the dress fit better. I don’t really know. But it wasn’t a problem during the party or even during the dinner when I was sitting down.

And when one of the CEOs at the dinner walked past me and genuinely and just out of the blue told me he liked my dress, it wasn’t a problem at all. Actually, even if I had been gasping for air and turning blue at that point, that would have justified it.

The lesson: Don’t procrastinate on buying a dress for a big event. Seriously.