The Perfect Prom Dress

Gabriela and paintings 2

Try to find a prom dress for an 18 year-old who uses a wheelchair, needs access to the feeding tube protruding from her abdomen, and wears a Girls size 7. That’s right — a child’s size 7. Several labels, like Juicy Couture, Abercrombie and the GAP, design jeans, sweats and leggings for children similar in style to their adult counterparts. If you avoid the juvenile t-shirts with sequins and appliques of butterflies, you can dress like someone graduating from high school.

Cocktail dresses present a real challenge. There are none. Dresses for girls, size 7, are so sweet, they drip with syrup. Can you imagine showing up at your senior prom dressed like a Disney princess? Those were the offerings when my daughter went shopping for her prom dress. Actually, most dresses are a problem when you sit down. They bunch in the middle and rise up at the thigh. If you’ve ever shifted and tugged the bottom of your skirt when you sat down, try to imagine what this is like if you are always sitting and can’t really adjust yourself. Then there was the problem with the tube. With skirts and pants, the tube could peak from the waistband. But with a dress, where does it go?

The quest for Ariela’s prom dress took days. After searching local stores, we drove to San Francisco. One of Ariela’s friends came along. We hunted Children’s and Prom Dress Departments in every store around Union Square. Finally, Ariela’s friend spotted a dress in Macy’s Bridal Department. The bottom was perfect – silky bright coral petals shaped like camellias covered the entire skirt. But the top was all wrong – a strapless, sweetheart bodice, complete with stays. Ariela’s eyes widened. A smile spread over her face. She wanted that dress. I shook my head knowing it would never fit.

Eleven years after Ariela’s senior prom, I was delighted to read in last Sunday’s New York Times: “Designs That Do More Than Meets the Eye, Students at Parsons create clothing for those with disabilities.” Parsons Open Style Lab, a nonprofit organization, designs and creates functional and fashionable clothing for people with needs like Ariela. Of course, no one has needs like Ariela. Everyone’s situation is different. There is no one size fits all.

Students, not motivated by profit and mass production, can devote the time to custom tailoring. Parsons Lab is not a moneymaking venture. But I’d like to believe someday, with the help of technology, these students might take the skills and prototypes and “inclusive vocabulary” they developed in their Lab and create beautiful garments for people of all abilities. They will need more than fabric and thread and sewing machines. They will need imagination, sensitivity, patience, and artistry to design clothing with the perfect fit.

Back in Macy’s dressing room, we slipped the dress over Ariela’s small frame. “Cut off the top,” her friend said, her voice rising with excitement. “Ariela, you liked that knit camisole and matching shrug with pearl buttons you saw at Forever 21.” She spoke without taking a breath. “There’s your top!” They grinned at each other as if they had just invented satin corsets.

So, we bought the bottom from one store and the top from another. A seamstress helped with the alterations, adding an elastic waistband to the skirt. Ariela loved her prom dress. And her creative friend got the sweetheart bodice. A perfect fit.

American Royalty: It’s Not What You Think








KEHINDE WILEY The Two Sisters, 2012. Oil on linen.


I’m insecure about art. I don’t know enough to be an art snob. But I don’t want to be thought of as someone who doesn’t know kitsch when it’s staring at her. So I wasn’t sure what to think of Kehinde Wiley. His paintings are meant to startle, in his own words “go for the jugular.” His colors and patterns are bold. His subject’s postures and expressions are intense. His realistic paintings are larger than life.

When I saw his show at the Seattle Art Museum, I was captivated. His subjects, all people of color, gaze out at the viewer. “Look at me,” they demand. “Don’t accept what white society says about us.” They’re not screaming, but they’re not subtle either.

Wiley stops people he finds walking on city streets. He casts them in paintings derived from the great portraiture of the 15th through early 20th centuries. The originals, created by artists like Gainsborough, Singer Sargent, and Chassériau, depicted royalty, aristocrats, people of great power, wealth and prestige.

Most of his models are men. For his grouping “Economy of Grace,” Wiley focused on black women he had recruited in Harlem. He dresses his models in long flowing gowns by Givenchy. Their hair is styled in up-dos that suggest elaborate crowns. He positions them to mimic the poses of the originals. Maybe because of Wiley’s naturalistic style, they look better, more real, than the originals. They are self-possessed and regal, but at the same time, Wiley doesn’t hide their vulnerability and humanity.

For a moment in time, he takes his subjects out of the reality of their lives and elevates them from the ordinary to the majestic, from people with no power to people of nobility, from anonymous to celebrated. It’s not just the clothing, it’s their inner beauty that Wiley captures. We don’t normally think of his subjects as royalty. But in their newfound settings, on the imposing large-scale canvases, they command our respect and admiration.

Does changing the context of a person change the way we view them? How we treat them? We make assumptions about people by the way they look, the clothes they wear, their backgrounds. We take our preconceived notions and marginalize “the others” – be it people of color, or people from another country, or people with disabilities.

My daughter, Ariela, used a wheelchair. Her hands waved and her head bobbed. I know that people judged her by the way she looked, whatever they knew about disability forming their opinions. “Poor dear”, they’d say, giving her a narrative that wasn’t hers. We don’t normally think of people with disabilities as royalty, but that’s how she thought of herself.

I can’t dismiss Wiley’s work. He has too much to say about how we think of each other. He challenges our preconceptions about identity and art. With his reimagined light and landscapes, his subjects come alive and deserve our thoughtful attention.