Throwback Thursday - “The Dress,” by Naomi Kimbell

by Holly Sneeringer

So, we’ll be looking back into our archives every Thursday (or every other, or a few here and there) to highlight a piece from one of our previous issues. We’ll be letting you know our thoughts, reading it now—and letting these stories and poems and essays live on a bit longer.

What I noticed about “The Dress” by Naomi Kimbell was how accessible it was—that first simple declarative sentence takes us in, and we stay even though the topic is a difficult one. And it’s not a writerly trick; the essay is honest and brave, uses language and specificity and a controlled voice to do what all good creative nonfiction does—take us into an unprotected life and turn it into art. It reaches beyond the personal:  We all wear clothes, we all want to be protected, we all fall down and try to get back up.  A few weeks ago I participated in an “Out of the Darkness” walk in memory of a family member. This essay reminded me again of literature's ability to cast a light on all that makes us human.

"The Dress"

Naomi Kimbell

From Fall 2012 Issue


This is my favorite dress. It’s made of light, nubby wool and it’s the color of fresh black figs. It has straps and a v-neck that looks like a wrap. I can wear it year-round and do because it’s loose and doesn’t care whether or not I’m overweight. I bought it on eBay.

I’ve had the dress for about two years and it’s proven to be a somber character. I cut my wrists in this dress and bled on it. I took an overdose of sleeping pills in it and landed in the ICU. I wore it when my mother died, at her memorial and when my husband and I scattered her ashes. At the Mt. Carmel cemetery in Anaconda I lay on a grave and looked up to see what I’d see through preserved eyes.

This dress has tried to end its own life, gradually, rather than the instant gratification of speed. I’ve mended more holes than seems reasonable considering the cost of it; soon, I think, there will be more mends than fabric but I’ll still wear it. I love this dress. It will always be my favorite.

After my most recent suicide attempt (I can talk about this glibly because bipolar disorder has a suicide rate of 20%) I asked my husband to bring it to the inpatient facility and I put it on immediately. There were little blue pills stuck to it that the nurses didn’t notice on inspection. I picked them off and turned them in because I’m a model patient. It’s easy to be good when surrounded by people who ask you how you’re feeling every half hour or so, people who’ve taken your shoes and watch you through cameras.

The other people in the hospital didn’t remark on the quality of my dress, the beauty of its cut or the hand of the fabric; those are subtleties noticed only by the wearer. The others hadn’t earned back their clothes yet and still wore purple scrubs. I’d been given those at first and after the second day’s wearing a nurse suggested I take a shower and get fresh ones. I’d stayed at the hospital five times before and had never been told to clean up. I guess I must have been a wreck. I didn’t even have underwear.

I have another dress I like. It’s black linen. It has an empire waist and it’s lined. I also bought this one on eBay and it was also expensive. The first time I wore it was when I read from my manuscript of essays after graduating from the creative writing program. Now I wear it to parties and when I feel light and happy, but I don’t feel fully myself on these occasions so it will never take the place of the other although it seems to have the luck of better outcomes.

In general, I think people wear clothes to trick themselves into believing they’re something they’re not. In my therapist’s office women come in with tight smiles and pastel skirts. They’re not happy but their clothes put on a show. Some women wear power suits and frown to look serious. To me, they look miserable and the clothes make certain of it. The trousers march the wearer down the hall and tell them how to sit or stand and what to eat for lunch so as not to pop the button. When they get home they strip into sweats and eat ice cream from the carton.

I’ve noticed that my favorite dress telegraphs simplicity, turned soil, the trunk of an old tree. It reeks of empathy. It’s approachable. People hug me because they assume they can. People talk to me about alcoholism, drug addiction and meth labs they’ve run. In the hospital I recognized a homeless man I’d often talked to: Greg who called himself Red. He showed me the lightning tattoos on his arms and said he’d had power in prison. He told me that if he ever saw anyone speaking to me disrespectfully, he’d be there to sort it out. He used to catch alligators in the swamps and could pull catfish from their holes with his hands. He was from Houston and Alabama and Arkansas and Florida and I loved him in a way congruent with the morals of my clothing: agape. I loved him. I hugged him and said, go to Billings and work on a ranch and don’t come back. He promised.

In winter the dress warms; in summer it cools. Its alchemy changes smoke to clouds. I can see clearly to the bottom of the river; I see fish hiding from osprey, turning into rocks as I stare. In March, cedar waxwings swarm the mountain ash and the dress catches their pure berry shit. It smells of spring impending. Sharp. Human mothers tell children not to eat the berries. Only birds can swallow their poison.

On my third hospital stay, I didn’t own the dress and I met a man who believed his bones were made of gold. He asked the nutritionist what supplements he should take but there was nothing she could recommend. I loved this man, too. He said he’d like to be my friend but that would put me in danger because the government was responsible for the condition of his skeletal structure and wanted him back for experimentation. When I was discharged, I said goodbye to him and the other patients and the nurses. I believed I was cured from an incurable disease. I went back to work too soon and was recommitted before a week had passed. I could have used the somber qualities of the dress then. I would have understood that I would always relapse and with that knowledge, I might have been more careful and have lasted longer on the outside.

My husband says I should smudge the dress with sage and sweet grass but I don’t want to. I’m not ready to let go of its ghosts. I still need to remember where we’ve been. It’s easy to forget a suicide or a loved one or love. Faces sometimes mingle with other faces; hazel eyes turn blue. Drunks become sober. The ill become strong. The dress is my familiar and helps me see what I’ve seen without embellishment. It helps me remember what it was like to sit on the floor and then to wake up in intensive care and to imagine the intervening moments with a precision I know must be true. There was no white light but my husband says I wasn’t dead.

The dress and I can no longer say with confidence that we believe in God. I find no comfort in that, no epiphany, only certainty. There is a great darkness out there and when I attempt a death I know what I’m walking toward and want to get it over with. It’s hard to live a lifetime believing that nothing waits. My husband thinks I’m connected to eternity because he can’t imagine that anyone isn’t; he wants to ease my fears. But my dread is mine. I accept that I will never see my mother again even when my dad sees her standing by his bed.

My mother is scattered and gone but I dream about her. Her back is turned and I’m ordering her to look at me but she walks up the stairs and doesn’t turn back. These stairs are not a metaphor. I’m not in the underworld, she’s not Lot and I will not become a pillar of salt. She is not leading me toward a life of meadows, Jesus and honey. She’s just dead. My dress watches my dreams and sees my trauma. It urges me to take the whole bottle so that I won’t be jealous of those who are certain she lives. She isn’t with me and the dress doesn’t want me to suffer; it loves me. It’s the bearer of my grief.

I’ve burned many things in ceremony. My mother saved all her elementary school papers and drawings because school was where she kept her good memories. After she died, I found them and couldn’t throw them away with bad food and wrappers so we lit a fire in the fire pit and burned them all; back to the ether where she isn’t.

I imagine the dress on a pyre. I stack furniture in the yard; it makes a mountain. I use lighter fluid because mattresses and chairs are now made to be fire repellent and I want them to ignite. On top of the bed frame and dining table, I lay the dress. It beats its chest and curses me as Dido cursed Aeneas before she burned. I throw a match into the cushions and wood. The soft, woolen fabric blackens at the edges and lifts in the wind of flames. I think maybe I’ll be free of trauma when it’s gone but I quickly realize I’ve lost my only comfort. The dress moves me to darkness but it’s also part of light because I’ve never died while wearing it.

The fire becomes inferno and in its last gasps, the dress sings: row row row your boat gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily, death is not a dream. And too late I realize I will never have another friend like this. It may appear in dreams, ragged and damaged with holes that can’t be mended. It may call me with a siren’s tongue and lead me to a rocky shore from which I won’t be saved. I beg it back with wailing: my shroud; my shawl; my crone’s habit. There is no archaeology here. No Cuneiaform to tell its story. Only oral tradition can keep it alive and kindle a memory. But why remember and how, when I’m the only one who knows it and who knows how it died; I’ll be telling stories to myself, mumbling like an old woman waiting for the bus.

When the fire wanes I look for ashes and feel it with me for a moment as I would the ghost of a hat around my head. It caresses me, my thighs and breasts then disappears into temporal brevity leaving only the negative image of its despair. It had never seen the ocean. I’d never really taken it anywhere. It was too young to die.