The secondhand dress was sixty dollars—half-price but still expensive for me at the time. I was twenty; the dress was fifties. The lady who sold it to me explained about the zip. Back then, she said, they used butter.
Butter was the colour, too, lemon butter. It was both ideal and idiotic to wear to a wedding: the waist was so tight you couldn’t eat anything, but by god, you could dance. Twirling becomes mandatory in such a dress.
The top layer is stiff and gauzy and there are white flowers, small as hummingbirds, all over it. The bottom layer is a slip I could never zip up. Not even when I was twenty, not even with butter.
A small corsage is sewn in sweetly just above the heart.
I wore it to a slew of weddings during the first few years; it was my wedding dress. At one of them—my sister’s—my brother had an anaphylactic fit during the crustaceous wedding feast and almost died. I accompanied him in the ambulance and my boyfriend followed on a bike he borrowed from the hotel. I sat there in the tiny village hospital holding both their hands until my brother’s eyes gradually unpuffed and his breathing normalised. We missed most of the wedding and my boyfriend and I broke up when we got home.
After that, I only wore the dress one more time, not to a wedding but to a birthday party. In the early morning someone dragged me to the dunnies to make out and I didn’t notice the ancient fabric of the dress tearing—faultlines originating at the clavicle cut across the heart.
Your nipple is showing, one of girls waiting to pee told me when we emerged, unimpressed. It was the last time I wore it.
The dress had been hanging forlornly in a wardrobe at my parents’ house since then. Mum always said she would fix the tear so I could wear it again, but she hadn’t got around to doing it until I asked her to send it down to me for this project.
It arrived the day before the shoot with the tear carefully mended and my dad’s neat, no-nonsense handwriting on the brown paper package.
This story originally appeared as part of an exhibition by Melbourne artist Tai Snaith called ‘The Best Things in Life Aren’t Things’, at Helen Gory Gallery, Prahran, from 29 June to 23 July 2011. This version has been amended slightly.