A broad archway of fake sunflowers and fall foliage stood at the head of a long runway of bright green Astroturf. Dozens of women milled around, filling the room with gossipy chatter. No, this wasn’t Michael’s at the beginning of the fall holiday season. Instead of a seasonal sweater, each woman wore her formal best. And she left her shopping list at home, dragging instead her date in a tuxedo and all the family members she could muster.
Debutante Ball in Jackson, Mississippi. At first, the event appeared benign – unbearable, but benign. As I floated around in a bright blue monstrosity, forced upon me in a moment of weakness by a shop-owner-and-mother tag-team, I smirked as each deb appeared beneath the tacky, faux-autumnal arch to take her turn on the runway. As I mocked these girls, I did not feel any particular sense of personal horror. That would come later, when I realized that nothing – not even breaking both my legs, getting an extremely large and visible tattoo, or dying my hair neon green – would get me out of taking the same trip down the Astroturf-ed aisle.
My grandmother would never allow such a thing: an inability to walk would only allow her to wheel me along down the walkway; a tattoo would only result in painful laser removal and an unpleasant scar. And bright green hair? Well that would lead to a strapped-to-the-chair dye job, one that wouldn’t quite match my original color, and that would inevitably show roots. To be perfectly honest, the only thing that might have stopped this proud matriarch from presenting me to Jackson’s finest would have been an untimely bout of morning sickness accompanied by a tell-tale lump, a sin to which my Bible Belt upbringing simply wouldn’t allow me to stoop. This is all to say: in a year’s time, I would be trying my best not to break an ankle while parading along plastic grass in three-inch heels and a long white gown.
That time has almost come. Tradition holds that each Jackson Debutante Presentation and Ball be held the day following Thanksgiving, a ploy designed to ensure that no deb touches any part of the previous day’s feast. With that day so fast approaching, my fall break became filled with appointments and errands involving deb preparation. Most important among these was, of course, my multiple dress fittings.
For her debut, a genteel Jacksonian wears white. (I, of course, managed to instead find just the right off-white, pinkish shade.) The search for the perfect dress must take place months prior to the actual event. For one thing, a debutante dress is actually a wedding dress. For another, while thousands of styles abound, designs that flatter the college sophomore’s taste and figure do not. With the end of the first official debutante meeting, the race begins, and dress numbers are frantically phoned in to the almighty Dress List Keeper to ensure that no other girl has already snatched up the same one-in-a-million championship frock.
In my case, things only got more complicated as fully three generations of women had to agree upon the dress. As is my obstinate nature, I went into the process hating all wedding-type gowns for their unimaginative uniformity and my own complicity in the dreaded event. My grandmother adored anything that made me look like a human cupcake. My mother watched us both and disagreed whole-heartedly with everything, although she occasionally cast her vote for something particularly lacy. After a few tries, we had exhausted the entire dress supply of the immediate Jackson area. It was time for a mini-road trip, so off we went, into the somewhat frightening region known as small-town Mississippi.
There, my mother and I entered a Mecca among bridal stores: a warehouse filled with rows of gowns, elderly assistants, and white gloves – worn by both worker and customer when handling (or even approaching) the dresses. With such an abundance of delightful frocks, we couldn’t help but find at least a few that warranted calling in the big guns: the grandparents. My grandfather, never one to be left behind, came along this time.
After a delicious (or disgusting) lunch of fried chicken livers at the local blue plate, we made our way back to the store, ready for round two. Somehow, the dresses seemed to have changed in our absence. Or maybe I had just eaten too much cornbread in avoiding the chicken livers. Either way, none of them were quite as thrilling as my mother and I had previously imagined, and so we returned to the racks and dove back in.
Then, like magic, the planets aligned, God smiled down on us, and everything came together as my grandmother and I both landed upon the same dress at the same time. Unconventional, flattering…well, perfect…it was everything I expected her not to pick. Then I was poked, prodded, and measured (Depressing? Of course) and the dress order was placed.
Months later, my dress and I both found ourselves in Jackson, on our way to the seamstress. Not two hours off the plane, I was expected to strip down for a total stranger, pull myself through layers of white netting and suck in, as if to pretend that I’d actually followed through on my self-promises to lose just four or five of those stubborn freshman fifteen.
After being greeted at the door by a very friendly older man clad in sweats that were white in a previous life, we were warned not to let the clawless cats out and then shown through to a room that quickly raised my eyebrows. Toys – new and old – surrounded my mother and me, covering every obscure trend from the fifties to the nineties. Here, a porcelain doll, a train set, strange pastel vase; there, a Minnie Mouse, a huge collection of childhood trophies, an Oriental lamp. Randomly placed mirrors threw our bemused and slightly concerned expressions back at us; after all, we were about to entrust an extremely expensive dress to the hands of these objects’ owner.
The next room, however, seemed more promising. Still cluttered and filled to the brim, at least this time the assortment centered around instruments and products of sewing. The woman herself soon entered, escorted by a massive, bright orange cat with eerie orange eyes to match. The seamstress introduced herself, and we got down to business: dress on, pins out. For the next five minutes, I was able to contribute an opinion here and there. For the following three hours, post-arrival of my grandmother, I found myself playing with random hairstyles and making stranger and stranger faces in the mirror as I, from bust to toes, was discussed.
Two follow-up visits and plenty of “Now don’t worry, I’m not gettin’ friendly” comments later and I was sure I had never been more talked about – without ever getting a word in edgewise. My diminished self-esteem aside, the dress had begun to give me a reason to look forward to the fateful day. It had been taken in at all the right places, working wonders for my “almost-A,” freshman-fifteen figure. Two weeks and change and I’ll be Astroturf-swaying my way into eligibility…I sure hope Daddy’s ready for all those phone calls requesting my hand.