4 girls, 1 mom, hundreds of dresses

Published May 13, 2007

If you told my mother that this is the year of The Dress, she would laugh.

She has four daughters and 27 years' worth of dresses.

That count doesn't include the dresses from her life before children. But she would tell you she hasn't had much time to think about her own dresses since her girls came along.

Her fate brought us on a recent afternoon to a sea of prom dresses in the juniors section of a department store. The baby of the family, now 18, needed The Perfect Dress for her senior prom. We always seem to be looking for The Perfect Dress in our family.

Three First Communion dresses. (One fit two daughters.) Four Confirmation dresses. One bridal gown worn in two weddings. Six bridesmaid dresses for those weddings.

Dresses for piano recitals, graduations, awards dinners, Easter and Christmas. Dresses that needed taking in or letting out. Dresses that had to be a certain color or style for one event but wouldn't work for anything else.

And so here we were. The corner of the department store resembled a gumball machine. Bold-colored fabrics drenched the racks: tangerine, lime, fuchsia, aqua and yellow so bright it looked as if the sun had exploded.

My sister's mood was high as we carried her selections to the dressing room. She was already fancying herself in a satin watermelon gown.

But the gown puckered in places it shouldn't. And the straps didn't fit right.

A bright blue number wouldn't zip. A mint green gown washed her out. She dismissed a soft black dress with a sparkly neckline as too similar to last year's dress: the one she loved then but hates now.

Her mood plummeted in a way only an 18-year-old's can.

Deja vu hit Mom. She counted to herself on her fingers. She already had bought nine dresses for proms and winter dances over the years.

"This makes 10," she whispered outside my sister's dressing room.

My sister opened the door to model another possibility. She was not smiling. Wise from experience, Mom remained upbeat.

There was a time when she didn't have to feign enthusiasm, when she could just drape us in inexpensive cotton sundresses for church or play and everyone was happy.

Then our bodies changed and our opinions emerged. The first daughter was tall and medium-sized, the next one reed-thin. The third was short and strong. The youngest was not at all interested in hand-me-downs.

We trekked to malls across the state for those special occasion dresses, a particular hell for a woman who finds stock charts far more interesting than stockrooms.

During one desperate search, Mom brought home what seemed like 20 holiday dresses for me to try on. But usually, we all shopped together. Five females - and our headstrong clothing convictions - filled up a dressing room fast. The catalog of dresses in our closets grew thick.

In store No. 3 on our latest shopping excursion, we spied a satin beauty the color of shallow water in the tropics. Our ritual held: Euphoria replaced frustration. Mom opened her wallet for a prom dress one last time.

We did not grieve the end of this era. We still need dresses for the high school graduation.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.