I Took Fashion Advice From Louisa May Alcott

The writer dressed like her favorite lit heroines until her younger sister gave her a Meg March–like makeover, and brought some va-va-voom to her life.

The dress I was planning to wear was long and flowing, perfect for my wedding anniversary, I thought. With its old-fashioned floral print and mother-of-pearl buttons, I could imagine what it might look like in the warm sepia tones of an old photo. That’s what I liked about it.

My sister took one look and shook her head. “You’re not celebrating 15 years of marriage in that.”

Before I could protest, she swooped me upstairs to her bedroom. “I’ve been wanting to do this for years,” she said, opening her closet door with a flourish, to reveal a full wardrobe of dresses I would never consider wearing.

My fashion sense was shaped early on by the literature I loved as a kid. To a young, impressionable suburban girl, lectures by Louisa May Alcott on maidenly decorum proved oddly absorbing, and I savored the descriptions of long, hand-stitched calico dresses in Laura Ingalls Wilders’s “Little House” books. Later, I spent three years in the Peace Corps, adhering to the modest norms of a traditional Muslim neighborhood in Morocco. The upshot: I’m not a flashy dresser. And I avoid low-cut and clinging clothes.

My younger sister doesn’t share my aesthetic. Her style is more sophisticated, retro glamour—it has more, what used to be called, “va-va-voom.” And she’s made it her mission in life to “de-frumpify” me. I was giving her an opportunity now—my kids were away at summer camp, and my husband and I were visiting her in the city. She was more than ready. I wasn’t so sure that I was.

“Come on,” she said, pulling dresses from the closet. “Live a little.”

I regarded the pile dubiously. These were slinky clothes. Short, figure-hugging. “You know me,” I protested. “Those are too skimpy.”

“I know you’ve got great legs,” she said, eyeing the portion of mine visible below my skirt. “Show ’em off now, before they’re old and wrinkled.”

I looked at the black lace cocktail dress she was holding, wondering how that plunging neckline would look on me. “Fine, fine,” I said, weakening.

Devotees of Little Women (you know who you are) will recognize this scenario as a modern take on the chapter where poor but pretty Meg visits rich friends in Boston. Embarrassed by her shabby party dress, Meg is persuaded into a makeover, allowing one of the older girls to lace her into a low-cut gown, crimp her hair, and even redden her lips.

I wasn’t as eager for a makeover as Meg. But as my sister brought out more outfits, I couldn’t help enjoying the novelty of these flashy get-ups. After all, it wasn’t as if I was actually going to wear any of them.

Cannily, my sister saved the green dress for last. It was a thrifting score, she confided, designed by Jerry Seinfeld’s ex-girlfriend Shoshanna Lonstein. Seeing as I live under a rock, this endorsement meant nothing to me, but I pulled on the dress and faced the mirror. 

“Huh,” I said.

“You see?” said my sister.

The dress was sleeveless and deceptively simple, its only ornamentation a knot of contrasting fabric at the breast. It outlined my figure, emphasizing my waist and hips before stopping just above the knee. I peered into the mirror, astonished by the unstudied elegance of my reflection. My bare arms and legs, which had looked awkward in those other dresses, now felt natural, coolly sensual. In an alternate universe, one where I flirted at cocktail parties and air-kissed the glitterati, this dress and I were made for each other.

When he saw me come downstairs, my husband’s eyes widened. “Whoa!,” he said appreciatively. I looked at my sister. She did know me, better than I’d thought. She knew I was content to look like what I was: an unassuming, fortysomething mother. Like Meg March, I’d need convincing to shed my sensible persona. But my sister also understood that the best gifts are the ones you never knew you needed. And for this anniversary, she’d given me one I’d embrace, if only for an evening. A little va-va-voom.


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