I was only a week into a seven-week-long trek around the Black Sea when I got tickets to see a night of modern ballet at the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. It makes no pretense about its fancy dress code, declaring on its website, “Please dress up.” On an evening there this past July, women paraded through the gilded hallways in dresses that wouldn’t be out of place at a black-tie-optional wedding. But I was determined not to miss the show just because I hadn’t packed a cocktail dress. What I did pack was my black Cala Dress from Arc’teryx.
It’s a “travel dress” made of smart fabric, like workout gear, but designed so you don’t look like an American trekking through a foreign city in spandex. Before leaving for my trip, I tried on several of these travel dresses, only to find fault with each one. They were either too heavy or too long, looked too much like workout gear, or didn’t cover my shoulders, which is key in more conservative countries like Turkey. The exception was the Cala dress (though it took a few rounds of playing dress-up and trying it with various accessories for me to initially like it).
But I saw just how versatile it was when I pulled it out of my carry-on suitcase in Odessa. The Cala dress was unwrinkled, so I paired it with a braided leather belt, black sandals, and a necklace before heading to the ballet. I was gratefully not turned away at the door — and felt dressy enough for an obligatory photo of myself on the opera house’s grand stairs.
For the rest of my trip around the Black Sea, the Cala dress became a uniform I actually enjoyed wearing and the perennial answer to the morning question, What should I wear today? I snapped up the neckline to cover any cleavage at Orthodox churches, and I wore it on a particularly successful date in Plovdiv, Bulgaria; to an outdoor jazz concert in a first-century Roman theater; to markets and museums; and with bike shorts on days when I walked over eight miles.
The dress also has UPF 50+, the clothing equivalent of SPF, and cinches at the natural waist in the back — making it flattering on lots of body shapes — and it somehow manages to repel wrinkles and bad scents. There were stretches in Istanbul’s and Tbilisi’s punishing heat when I wore the dress on back-to-back days, airing it out or rinsing it in a sink with detergent before going to sleep and putting it on the next day.
When I originally packed it, I imagined it would be a perfunctory garment, something to get me through a long trip without adding weight to my bag. (At 4.8 ounces, it’s barely heavier than my now-vintage iPhone 6, which, coincidentally, fits comfortably along with a passport in the dress’s pockets.) But as I settled back into life in Brooklyn, I quickly realized I didn’t want to part with the dress. I’ve worn it to teach at food-writing classes that I bike to in Greenpoint and paired it with a denim jacket for a day date on a recent fall weekend.
The black version of this dress is starting to sell out, but there are lots of sizes still available in this khaki option.
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