A Girl’s First Little Black Dress

Every woman is entitled to the perfect little black dress. GIULIA VALTIERI recalls the evening she found the perfect LBD.

Giulia Valtieri's Little Black Dress

The author in her treasured little black dress.

The first time I set foot in a vintage clothing store, I was fifteen years old. It was a cold December day in New York City and my parents and I were on our annual holiday trip to the Big Apple. We were walking to our car when I saw the biggest, most ornate store window that wasn’t a department or a costume store. There, right in front of us, on a barely lit street was the word “VINTAGE” in bold red capital letters.

My mother’s stories of how the Goodwill is a fun place to shop always bored me, but this place was different. Not any less full of clothing, or any less intimidating to peruse through than the Goodwill, this store had the whole package. The tanned wallpaper made me feel like I had just walked onto the set of an old Hollywood movie. But this was better. This was in color. And wonderful colors they were.

Every fur-trimmed lampshade told a story. Every section kept to its theme. Every shade of fuchsia, turquoise and gold shined throughout the store. Not knowing what to expect, I browsed. And browsed and questioned and browsed some more.

I finally came across what I hadn’t known I was even looking for: the little black dress. Every woman owns one. Every woman has a story behind her favorite in the closet. And there was my first. There amongst the crinkling and swooshing of all the taffeta and tulle, the saleswoman picked the dress out of the rack, which was packed to the gills, and insisted I go to the dressing room with it. “Honey, this dress was made for you,” she said. “You must try it on it. It would look absolutely adorable and wouldn’t fit on anyone else but you!” My father was the least thrilled being that we were ten minutes away from going home. But a consensus of all the women involved told me that I had to try it on.

I went into the dressing room through thick red velvet curtains. My pale, wintry-dry skin made me timid to step out of the room in front of the saleswoman. But I powered through and unzipped the dress. Size 8? How could I possibly fit my puny, not boyish but not yet curvy body into this? Again, I powered through and slipped into the dress. I stepped out, with my long, then brown hair covering the sweetheart neckline of the dress. My feet, covered in white cotton socks, arched as if I was prancing around in a pair of Louboutins at a cocktail party.

The saleswoman zipped me up, and I actually had to suck it in. I inquired why a size 8 women’s was so small on me and she revealed how the old sizes in the 1950s or so were different. We joked about how today’s sizes make women feel like Tinkerbell. “Nobody can be live up to the expectations of a size 1! What does that even mean anyway? Guess I’m a 25!” the saleswoman squealed. So I squeezed into my small size 8 (today’s size 2) little black dress and everyone stared in awe in the mirror at my dress and my smile.

The dress fit like a glove. It had a corset inside the taffeta material at the top and a stretchy gathering in the back to fit any woman perfectly. The knee-length dress had layers of material bunched up at the bottom. The voluminous bottom was in stark contrast to the tight bodice. There was a small rose made of the same material folded together so elegantly and placed, as though it were its birthright, on my right hip. The material was not only noisy, but had muted tones in some places and shiny silken shades in others.

While discussing how I would style it for my first high school dance, my mother pulled my hair up out of my face, revealing the sweetheart neckline and my womanly figure blossoming to life, just as that rose blossomed on my right hip. I was never so beautiful and knew the dress was meant for me, but I suddenly felt a pang of doubt.  Could I fit in at my dance amidst the skintight dresses made of stretchy material usually in bright pinks and fire reds — me, in this poufy black vintage number, which at the time, I felt was so different and daring?

Going against everyone’s wishes — my mother’s, my father’s, the saleswoman’s – and even one side of myself, I sadly left the store and apologized. I handed the dress back to the saleswoman, who placed the sixty-eight dollar dress back on the rack amongst the other dated masterpieces.

We were walking to the car when a feeling of regret washed over me. We had already gotten in the car and were too far to walk back, but my complaining was too much for my parents to handle. My mother and I tried to relocate the store on foot while my father drove around aimlessly, confused about a woman’s right to her first little black dress.

When I entered the store again, I didn’t have to say anything before the saleswoman brought my dress up to the register.

The rest is history. I had the greatest time at my first dance and although it is a small accomplishment to the fashion world, it was my first step to understanding my unique style and eye for vintage clothing. I love the fact that nobody will ever be wearing anything I have on at a party. I have that one moment to thank for my entire style identity and I am so glad I accidentally found that treasure chest in the darkness of Manhattan on a cold winter’s night.

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