I wore a dress once, but only once. It was an exercise in feminist theory, the idea that walking a mile in someone else’s patent leather shoes can somehow help you to understand that person’s daily struggles and accomplishments. But I’ll start at the beginning. The year was 1995 and I was bald. Yes, that’s where I’ll begin.
So I wasn’t actually bald, I guess. I was in the head shaving phase back then, so my head gleamed more often than not. Luckily my head doesn’t have an awkward shape to it so it didn’t look too bad. It was the beginning of my third semester in college, but I hadn’t done much in the way of actually going to school those first two semesters, so you could say I was just starting my college career. Such an auspicious beginning would be guaranteed if I took two courses that screamed, “SURVIVE ME AND YOU’LL SURVIVE COLLEGE.” I think I wanted to challenge myself. Either that or I wanted an excuse to drop out before I had really even begun.
The first course I signed up for was “Geography of South and Southeast Asia,” and the second was accurately titled “Feminist Theory.” I knew one would be incredibly boring, so I hoped the other would rescue my semester, but I secretly thought both would kick my ass from here to New Jersey. My first Feminist Theory class was a revelation as I was one of only two males in a class of 25, and the only sophomore in a class full of seniors. The hill was definitely going to be steep, and I started worrying.
As the semester went along, however, I found myself looking forward to Wednesdays, in a complicated way, because the class challenged me while at the same time inspiring me. Virginia Woolf taught me about a room of one’s own with her thick, layered prose that made me drag out the dusty dictionary in order to almost comprehend it. Simone de Beauvoir gave me a deeper perspective about the second sex, even in the translation, but she made me wish I could read it in French to get the fuller picture. Then there was Gloria Steinem, and Edith Wharton, and several others whose works I would have never read otherwise, in a staggered procession that left me breathless.
Then I had to catch my breath because the professor announced that in order to truly understand the female experience, especially when these women were writing, and she gave us a date when we would make it a reality. I looked around the room then and saw a bevy of jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, and I realized that the idea of femininity has changed a lot over the years, with the stockings, garters, and smart blouses replaced by comfort clothing. The makeup was also minimal. It was college after all.
She kept talking as I looked around, giving us a date and a dress code. We were to wear dresses, or smart blouses with skirts, stockings or pantyhose, makeup, and — here’s the kicker — we would have to stay in our outfits and makeup for the entire day. The ladies in the class groaned while I looked at the other fellow and we smiled. It would be interesting, to say the least, and I had already started thinking about a trip to the Salvation Army to find feminine clothing that would fit a full-framed guy like myself.
Fast forward to the morning of the experiment and I was nervous. I got on the dress without much hassle, but it was a bit short (I have ridiculously long legs), and there was a slit up the side that would make it difficult to sit without flashing anyone nearby. The stockings were the real pain, though, because I didn’t shave my legs, and I believe I said a few choice words as I tugged them on. Then it was time for my bright red makeup, matching lipstick and nail polish, some ballet flats because I couldn’t find heels in a men’s size 15, and a last quick trip to the bathroom because I didn’t want to face the difficulty of going in the little boys’ room on campus.
I wore that dress like it was going out of style, to my two morning classes, to my job at the campus library, and back and forth across Temple’s campus to a wave of eyes in swiveling heads to watch me as I passed. It was as if they had never seen a large black man in a little black dress before. My two morning professors didn’t even look in my direction the entire class periods. I guess they were either embarrassed for me or they were embarrassed for themselves, that I was even there in their classes. Some of my classmates did ask what was going on, and I explained the Feminist Theory angle, so they got it, but on the whole most didn’t ask, preferring to stare from afar instead.
The outfit was not comfortable either, not to mention my pantyhose kept tugging on my leg hair and making me wince. And I had to use the bathroom after all at one point, and pulling up my dress at the urinal was the most priceless moment of the day. I realize now how lucky I was that this was before cell phones with cameras because there would have been a million photos of me hiking up my dress populating the internet superhighway before I finished peeing. By the time the day ended and I had endured more than my fair share of attention it was evident to me why women for the most part have eschewed the old dress code, and replaced it with comfort clothing.
I sat down on my bed that night with the nail polish remover thinking about what the day really meant in the grand scheme of things, thinking about how different life would be if women were forced by societal pressures to still wear that getup all day every day. And I’m glad things have changed, that they can also be comfortable, because it makes me feel less like a slob when I wear clothing that doesn’t restrict my blood flow. I slipped out of the dress and finally let out the breath I had been holding in all day, climbing into my pajamas, ready for the day to be over and for night to take me in its warm embrace.
Then I licked my lips and remembered I still had on my bright red lipstick.