The vintage dress made a statement I didn’t like
The dress I bought for an awards ceremony was tailored for a woman from many years ago, almost definitely before the advent of takeaway pizzas
Hilary Fannin, right, at the Irish Book Awards. Photograph: Patrick Bolger
I was recently shortlisted for an Irish Book Award for Hopscotch, a memoir I wrote this year about growing up in suburban Dublin in the 1960s. My parents may have strayed a little beyond the more conventional societal mores of the era. I enjoyed writing it, although the deadline was tight and I’d never written a book before, and every now and again my gut clenched with anxiety when I thought about scattering the details of my family’s early life around like hardened sliced-pan crusts for hungry gulls.
Ultimately, however, the memoir got written and my family displayed remarkable and spirited generosity about its publication. In so far as one can ever really know other people, I think they are all genuinely okay with it. Hopefully, whichever one of them gets to pull the wishbone this year won’t be asking that I get electrocuted by the fairy lights.
Hopscotch was on a shortlist of six, all by female authors, in the newcomer category. I didn’t win, although being called a newcomer while gracing my sixth decade was a win enough for me. The night was all very splendid, and dinner was served at big round tables dressed in starched, white tablecloths.
Afterwards, the bar was convivial, and I stayed there, fairly upright, for as long as my boot heels would hold me. Then I got into a taxi and fell asleep on the way home. When I limped through the front door at about 2am, my eldest son was still up and there was a leftover pizza slice in a box on the living-room floor, and I took off my very high boots and dangly earrings and nuked the pizza slice and ate it. And then I went to bed.
Dread red wine
A couple of hours later, reaching for the paracetamol box (red wine is not my friend, no matter how gracefully she sidles up and whispers “drink me” into my shell-likes), it occurred to me that the reason my “vintage” dress (which I had bought specially for the occasion) had had to remain in the wardrobe for the evening, while I went out in something more accommodating, was because it was tailored for a woman from many years ago, almost definitely before the advent of takeaway pizzas and the like.
We had gone into town the previous week, my sister and I, to buy an “awards” dress. I’m not a great shopper, I don’t normally wear dresses, and I have an angry, venomous woman living just under my ribcage who wants to spit fire at my reflection and topple shop assistants who use the word “fabulous”.
Anyway, my sister is patient and fairly sane, and she did the legwork, rustling among the glistening racks while I crumpled in the corner of various dressingrooms in my supermarket hosiery and tried to guess my body-mass index.
In one particular shop, which sold breezy little dresses that cost more than I make in a month, I was offered some structural support. Underwear was produced, a kind of reinforced armour that looked gruesomely, almost enchantingly, surgical. Essentially it amounted to a flesh- coloured tube with thin straps that you pull up over your thighs and stomach. The garment cuts off under one’s bosom, and the effect is to smooth you into the shape of a boned and rolled turkey. Trussed and malleable, I felt like I should have been basted in butter and slipped in to a hot oven with a tinfoil wrap.
Eventually, after the gobsmacking experience of being offered, in yet another establishment, a silky sheath and a piece of “statement” jewellery, a bondage-like cuff (the price of which made me feel nauseous), we found a second-hand shop where I bought the reconditioned dress for €70. I also purchased some statement-free second-hand earrings.
“It’s okay,” said the assistant, “we sterilise” – although it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.
There was a full moon on awards night, and my body must have decided to imitate the lemony orb. The lovely old dress, which had fitted like a glove the week before, shook her head politely but discouragingly when I tried to zip her up. “Not tonight, Josephine,” she whispered.
I have no regrets. I’m glad I bought it. I’m just sorry for all the pizza boxes I’ve plundered and the rivers of red wine I have paddled in.
“It’s a statement piece,” the awfully nice assistant had said, slipping the cuff on to my wrist.
I’m sure it is. It’s a hell of a statement; I just didn’t like the tone of its voice.