I was lucky enough to have three of my four grandparents in my life well into adulthood, and when my grandfather died at the age of 98, I was almost 30. I’d been to funerals before — a friend’s dad, a high-school teacher, a college classmate — but these sad events had somehow seemed like outliers in my life. I don’t remember what I wore to those other services, although I imagine I cobbled together some different black pieces that probably wouldn’t have matched too well under strong lights. It hadn’t mattered, of course; the point was to be there.
But that didn’t seem right, now. I wanted to represent the family properly. And besides, I was a grown-up. Sort of.
A shopping trip for mourning clothes is not fun; it’s easy to see why the Victorians just dyed everything. You’re sad; you’re drained; you’re often physically exhausted. You’re often pressed for time; many religions hold funerals almost immediately. Purpose-driven shopping, a chore at the best of times, becomes an ordeal.
Besides, what are you even looking for? I had a vague idea that I needed a high-necked, black sheath dress, such as people sport in TV funerals. The kind of thing that a lawyer might own (I imagined), somber and classic and asexual. For all their hype, there are very few “little black dresses” that are really all-purpose.
I had no idea where one found such a thing. I went to Ann Taylor and J.Crew, and realized that you have to order those basics from a warehouse — I didn’t have time. I schlepped dolefully through Soho, ping-ponging between officewear stores and high-end designers full of cunning lines and high price tags. No one had what I wanted; everything felt too sexy, or too ugly, and in theory, like the proverbial bridesmaid’s dress; I wanted something I could wear again.
After a lot of bumping into tourists, I wandered into the Diane von Furstenberg store on Wooster Street. I wasn’t a DVF habitué, although I had a vintage wrap dress in leopard print. I asked if they had a plain black wrap dress, and they did. And it was perfect.
There are, of course, plenty of good wrap dresses. The DVF is classic for a reason: The knits have just the right degree of stretch and cling; the ties are long enough that — if you pull the interior sash tight and flat, which is the trick — you really can control the neckline with some precision. The dress I bought, a classic long-sleeved, matte jersey wrap, was not too short, but didn’t make me feel like I was in grown-up drag, either.
So, yes, I bought and wore the dress to my grandfather’s funeral, and have gone on to wear it to many others. But that’s not the whole story. It’s become the funeral go-to for a whole bunch of my friends: a sort of macabre traveling-pants that manages to work on a bunch of bodies. Taller friends have worn it with a lower heel; one of them wore a black slip for extra modesty. It looked nice and appropriate on everyone. But the best part is, no one needed to think about it. The dress was just sitting there, waiting, if we needed it. Each time someone borrowed it, she had it dry-cleaned; it was always ready for the next occasion. One friend has bought her own, but only because we were attending the same funeral.
I’m not suggesting you necessarily lay down money for a funeral wardrobe (although, yes, this dress does work in other contexts). But I will say, in times of great sadness, knowing you have one less thing to worry about is a small comfort.
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