The Hundred Dresses is a children’s book about a little girl who is teased by her classmates for being poor. She comes to school each day in the same plain blue dress and responds to the jeers by claiming that she owns one hundred dresses. Of course, her classmates don’t believe her and only later discover that the girl did own a hundred dresses: they discovered a hundred beautiful drawings of gowns in her house after she moved away.
When I was a kid, I lived in surburban Orange County at time when the cool kids wore big hair and big brand name clothes. The 80s were precisely the wrong time to have long black hair, so straight it couldn’t hold a perm for more than three days, and to show up at school in lacy, frilly dresses purchased in Taiwan.
My parents were relatively recent immigrants. They were not poor, but they were not about to send me to the Brea Mall to blow $100 on blue jeans and tshirts just so I could wear something that prominently bore the name of Gap, Guess or Espirit. Money was meant to be saved for important things, like an education or educational activities, and it was enough that I had a clean, nearly new wardrobe pieced together from items purchased for me in Taiwan, items passed along by relatives, knockoffs from the street market, and the occasional random accessory with a brand name on it. By accessory, I mean socks: I owned a few pairs of Guess socks.
Whenever they weren’t in the laundry, I wore those socks proudly to school, Guess label turned out, along with my sole Guess tshirt, until the day my classmates mocked my tshirt, which turned out to be a knockoff, and then derided me for wearing socks that I was apparently not cool enough to wear. “You don’t even deserve to wear those socks,” they said. “You should take them off and give them to Jody.” (Jody was a popular kid who showed up at school in designer denim, probably purchased out of guilt by her divorced father.)
Like the girl in The Hundred Dresses, I liked to draw and spent my recess hours alone at a picnic table with art supplies. For the most part, I liked making sketches with a black ink pen and drew countless pictures of elegant ladies wearing the kinds of clothes that I could never hope to wear: everything from jeans to peacoats to ballgowns. Sometimes I would try to recreate these outfits in miniature for my Barbie doll, but my hand-sewing skills were pretty limited so I mostly stuck to drawings of ladies in dresses.
During and after those difficult years, I threw myself into schoolwork and mostly stopped caring about what I wore. When I look at photos from high school, I see myself in baggy pants, loose tshirts and plaid menswear dress shirts. It was as if I were trying to hide myself from the world. It was a relief to leave Southern California and start over in college at Rice, where I promised myself during freshman year that I would never wear a baggy shirt again. I started wearing fitted tshirts, skirts and dresses — so many dresses. I could never wear enough dresses, and to this day, rarely show up to a party in just jeans and a tshirt. There is nothing I love to wear more than a lovely new frock.
A friend taught me how to knit two years ago, and since then I have spent a lot of time learning about clothing construction through garment knitting and getting to know other people who are passionate about fashion as an art form. I recently took my first a machine sewing class Root Division and immediately went home to fashion a top, a skirt and then my very first dress, designed and sewn by yours truly and pictured here:
I’m not a professional fashion designer trying to launch a line, but I would like to make a hundred dresses. It’s partly because I’d like to learn more about sewing, and it’s partly because I’d like turn those childhood sketches into pretty clothes that, as it turns out, I do deserve to wear.