17 June 2018

Twirling Purple Dervish: Memories of a Favorite Dress

A memory: the smell of cypress and eucalyptus in the fogs in Golden Gate Park, mixed with the seaweedy funk of ocean breath from the west. From Ocean Beach, where I almost drowned once and where I dropped acid when I was little, now overlooked by the Camera Obscura and now and back then the Cliff House, a touristy restaurant that was great for the occasional special brunch gathering  during my college years when we were spending our evenings at Grateful Dead shows and our days eating to store up and make up for the many-hour stints of waiting “on line” as our East-Coast Deadhead pals said, holding space for revelers who had to come late, dancing for hours to a set or more often multiple sets of songs. The sets sometimes seemed to have a logic and resonance all their own, or just fit a pattern we’d gotten used to hearing to the point that we could name the song the band’s noodling hinted about within a couple of notes (like in the 1970s TV game show Name That Tune? “Eliot, can you name that tune in two notes?” “Yes, I can name that tune in two notes!” “Eliot, NAME THAT TUNE!” [Doot, doot,] “That tune is ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ by the Grateful Dead!” [DING-DING-DING-DING!] “Yes, Eliot! It IS ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ by the Grateful Dead! You’re a winner!”).
I remember my purple Indian fabric dress, an armload of nearly sheer, deep purple cotton gathered into a bodice that tied at each shoulder.
The dark purple fabric was spotted, as if someone had tied little strings or rubberbands in tie-dye fashion before dyeing the fabric, or maybe it was printed to look that way. The dress had a lower edge of two contrasting stripes of trim accented by piping that further set off the trim. I wore this garment as a dress for years. If I was feeling shy, I wore a T-shirt or camisole under it. If I wasn’t, or often partway through a show when I was hot from dancing, I would go to the restroom and remove the undershirt. For a few years after that, I wore it as a skirt, usually with a multicolored tie-dye or colorful T-shirt on top. 
I loved it best as a skirt because it made a marvelous twirling garment, flaring out in a great swirl of purple. I would spin and move my feet and arms in little bits of choreography I invented on the spot with all the creative movers and shakers all around who along with the music set me free.

Someone brought the dress to me from their travels years before I felt I could wear it with confidence (it was given to me at the beginning of my preppy phase). I remember my delight at rediscovering it in my closet in my early twenties. It was a similar feeling to realizing I've never heard anyone but me tell a story about being four years old and sitting on Janis Joplin's bandmate's piano while she performed in San Francisco in 1967.
It’s the kind of dress you might see and think, "Oooh, that's going to stink of patchouli oil," but I liked vanilla, not patchouli. I would hang the dress on the line after washing it by hand and squeezing it from one end to the other to extract the rinse water, letting it dry until it smelled like sheets in the sun before twisting it into a big knot and putting it on a high shelf until I was ready to wear it again. Until I stopped wearing it because the fabric had become so fragile, but not too fragile for the young bohemian-looking woman who looked quietly thrilled to hand me two dollars for it at a yard sale a decade ago. 
I wondered whether I would regret letting it go; I do and don’t. There is a photo of me with my Deadhead friends wearing that dress, or maybe it is just from the weekend I have the strongest memory of wearing that dress (when we saw the Grateful Dead at the Frost Amphitheater, on the Stanford University campus). That’s enough. Since then, I've also visited India, so I also know a dress just like that exists somewhere now, or could exist again for the asking in the future.