I was first conceived as a tribute to status; fabric beyond fabric, with sleeves that defied gravity. A spine of tiny covered buttons ran the length of my bodice from neck to hips. My overlay, a confection of fine embroidery and beading, was testament to the skill of my creator. A rustling, tinkling sound heralded my movement. I was a sensory feast, but not for Miss Euphemia Stauton, my wearer; comfort was not a consideration in my creation. Like my much-maligned companion, the shoe, my design was about the shallowest of goals. Euphemia stood ramrod-straight, her shoulders and hips carrying the equivalent of a small child in extra weight; while her feet screamed in silent agony, trapped in buckled silk cages. And strangely, for all the expense and hours of labour that birthed me, my value was summed up in gasps of appreciation and envy that echoed for but a few minutes among the vaulted caverns of the cathedral ceiling, the appreciative gaze of the groom who waited at the end of a seemingly endless walk, and the sigh of relief from Euphemia as crochet hooks were employed to release the iron grip of the buttons around her tiny rib cage.
After years of darkness, I stood again in the light. The hands that held me marvelled at my intricacy and quality, while scoffing at my excess; the face that hovered above was a stranger, but with familiar eyes. Another pair of hands caressed me and I recognised the nature of the touch. Here was someone who understood the fundamentals of my construction; who carefully turned me inside out to examine my lining, who noticed the box pleats and the hip padding, who appreciated the pieced lace and satin stitching. This was the touch of a couturier, and I collapsed into his arms as one rescued falls into those of her saviour. I was laid out carefully and measured in every conceivable way. Then began my rebirth.
I was deconstructed down to my most basic components, those expert hands unravelling me stitch by stitch. My sleeves, once floating on the shoulders like foam on the sea, were streamlined into a closer, less elaborate shadow of the arms they covered. Underlayers of skirt were removed and my silhouette became softer; more natural, less angular. The glorious, rustling, tinkling overlay became a veil and headpiece. However, on the spine of tiny buttons, the couturier would not be moved. They must absolutely stay, he said; they were a testament to the quality of the dress and the knowledge and experience of its original creator. To remove them would be sartorial sacrilege.
Thus reborn, I found myself again fawned over as whispers of appreciation swirled around me, in a smaller and more intimate version of my first outing. While the guests delighted over my construction and reconstruction, I could not help but notice the stitching in some parts of my bodice strained in a way it had not during the fittings. The same could be said for the stitching that held the bride and groom together. It was a guest who gathered me gently and held me to one side as the bride was violently ill. It should have been the groom; after all, the bride muttered, he was as much at fault as she.
More years passed in hibernation. Then another strange face, but again something familiar in the eyes. This one was almost reverent, gently extracting me from my cardboard prison. Her companion was doubtful; but my liberator saw me, and yet saw something more. Like the couturier all those years ago, she transformed me in her head even as she ran her hands carefully over me. She hesitated, unsure it could be done, a third birth for a single dress. Then she swept her doubts aside and me up into her arms, and I felt the strength of her resolution.
By the end I was unrecognisable, utterly alien to my original self. The twice-invented sleeves were gone, and the voluminous skirt now skimmed the hips and dropped in a graceful column with no hint of box pleats or hip padding. The embroidered, beaded veil was returned to me, not as an overlay but as part of the bodice, forming a sheer back. The enduring covered buttons were fawned upon once more, restitched with painstaking precision to take pride of place in my third incarnation. A dart here, a gather there. A whole new world.
The groom wasn’t waiting in a church. He met us at the bottom of the stairs, and so for the first time I heard his whispers of admiration before anyone else’s. We journeyed together to a place outside, lit by sunlight instead of candles, and the murmurs of joy and admiration spiralled up through trees rather than church ceilings. While much was different, much remained the same, and at the end I still returned to rest in darkness.
It felt too soon, yet the lid opened and I was brought forth. The light seemed too bright, but at the same time the room felt dim and heavy. The faces I saw were the same, not derivatives as they usually were; but they wore no masks of joy or wonder. Despair was a shroud that covered the room. And one face was missing.
I saw it again soon enough. The gentle hands of a stranger eased me over a familiar frame, cold and lifeless, void of the vibrancy she had worn along with me the last time. The myriad tiny buttons were invisible as hands lay her and I into a fabric-lined box and arranged us carefully. The line of faces again, only it was moving instead of us.
And the last face I saw after all those faces was the groom, he who’d been first before. His face a mosaic of love and sadness, he caressed us one more time, then reached up and gently brought the lid down with a soft but final thud.
Amanda McLeod is an Australian author and artist, whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Furtive Dalliance, Brave Voices, Rhythm & Bones, and other places. She is slightly embarrassed by the size of her TBR