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Sartorial Sublimation: The Art of the Reframe

Hello everyone! My name is Lissa, and I am highly honored to be a Clothes Stories guest blogger. I am a student and practitioner of Expressive Arts therapy, and one of my favorite techniques in expressive arts is the reframe. Sometimes this takes the form of literally re-framing a piece of art to emphasize a new aspect of your work. Other times, it is writing out an old story from a new, and liberating, perspective. This is the Clothes Story of how I did an expressive arts reframe of my relationships through the transformation of my wedding dress.

At the age of 25, I married my kung fu instructor, and although he had many positive qualities as a kung fu instructor, they did not translate well into marriage. It all ended in a severe case of learned helplessness and a devastating three-year custody battle.

Photograph from my wedding at 25.

Even though the dress I married in was purchased for only 63 dollars in the garment district of Los Angeles, it was a rather lovely floor length confection of white lace with an empire waist and flowery straps. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it, although I felt my stomach drop every time I encountered the thing in the back of my closet.

After the divorce, I went into a downward spiral of rage, grief, and powerlessness in the face of my custody battle.

I took up with a man who was both incredibly charming and highly unstable. When I finally broke it off and moved to North Carolina to start my masters degree, this man—we’ll call him ‘Dorian’—pleaded with me to come see him, even sending me a ticket so that we could meet one last time for forgiveness and closure. I ignored the ticket. I knew how he cycled between loving attentiveness and physical/emotional abuse.

Fast forward two years, and I was happily ensconced in graduate school in the mountains of NC when my friend Briana invited me to her wedding. Briana’s pleasure group had been instrumental in my survival of the terrible divorce years, and I was thrilled that she had found such happiness. Her wedding was to be a flapper-style 1920’s era speakeasy affair, and although I loved the aesthetic and wanted to dive in, I was a single mother and a self-employed graduate student. There was no way I would be able to afford the flight to California, let alone buy new clothes for the occasion!

But I am persistent, and I am resourceful, and I REALLY wanted to be there. As I cudgeled my brain to think of a way to get to California, I remembered Dorian’s ticket to Los Angeles. I quickly called up the airline and found that it was still valid, but would  expire the day after Briana’s wedding! I took this as a sign and booked my trip.

Now the flight was taken care of, but what would I wear?

I rifled through my closet. Nothing I owned had even the vaguest 1920’s aesthetic. And then, at the far back, I encountered my wedding dress. My heart began to beat faster. What better way to reclaim that dress than by wearing it to the wedding of a woman who had helped me through my divorce?

I took it off the hanger and assessed the situation. The sleeves would need to change. It would need to be shortened and given a drop waist. The lace already had a fringe effect….this was going to work!

I cut it off with my shears and dumped the whole thing into a vat of strong tea and mango peels to give it a vintage sepia color. With ribbon, I created a drop waist at the hip line and sewed on a large flower “given” to me by Michael’s (I found it orphaned on the floor!). Voila! The dress was utterly transformed. In the same way I had rebuilt my life with resourcefulness and creativity, this dress had gone from a generic, innocent lace gown to a sexy, original piece that felt like it had history and maturity. I felt like Cinderella. 


But the story isn’t over yet.

When I arrived at the airport, ready to visit friends and celebrate the wedding, Dorian was waiting for me. My heart dropped to my shoes. I hadn’t taken the time to consider that because he had originally paid for the ticket, my full itinerary would be emailed to him!

There followed a strange and surreal time of fear, ceremony, and closure. I was amazed to discover how much more powerful I had become as a person. I set firm boundaries and I spoke my truth. I refused to be intimidated by Dorian’s verbal abuse, and I ended things with him for once and for all.

And I made a mistake.

You see, in North Carolina, I had met someone. I had met a man who genuinely loved me, a man so full of creativity and intelligence and support and patience that I almost couldn’t believe he was real. I didn’t want him to know that I had ever been involved with someone like Dorian. So I hid that truth from him. I didn’t tell him about my years with Dorian. I didn’t tell him where my ticket to Los Angeles came from. I returned from Briana’s beautiful and soulful wedding and told my beloved all about it, but I did not tell him I had seen Dorian.

Photo “booth” at Briana’s wedding.

Well… As we all know, truth has a way of emerging into the light. And as it turned out, something in me really wanted honesty and full disclosure with the man I love.  One night, as I was sleeping, I confessed the whole story by TALKING IN MY SLEEP.  (Note to self: don’t try to keep any more secrets.)

When  I woke, he was crying. We had a long, painful and deeply vulnerable conversation, and we braved it out. We kept talking, we kept processing, we kept listening, and we kept our hearts open. He never gave up on me.  In the months that followed, he proposed.

Now we live together in the mountains of Asheville. Last week, I set up a date for us at a 1920’s style mystery theater, with my friend Briana, who has since moved to North Carolina. Full circle!

My beloved.

My beloved saw the dress laid out on the bed and quailed. He told me he still associates it with Dorian and that terrible sleep-talking conversation. But he is a brave and patient man, and after we had discussed it for a while, he asked me to wear it anyway.

We walked through the streets of downtown Asheville,  past the beautiful art-deco buildings, arm in arm and excited for the sense of history we felt. We laughed and talked and dined and were serenaded by live piano in an old saloon. And we reclaimed that dress once again–for ourselves, and for our love.

We are getting married in September. That is a whole other Clothes Story, but in the meantime, it is wonderful to know that with tea, scissors, flowers, intention, and communication, an outfit that once represented pain, difficulty, and betrayal can be transformed and reframed into a vehicle of love–not once, but twice.

Dress, unknown brand, LA garment district, tea-dyed and altered. Shoes, Chelsea Crew, vintage store find. Necklace, handmade, acquired in a handmade gift exchange in Malibu. Slip, vintage, thrift store find.

Read more about Lissa here, and enjoy her blog, True Beauty Always… it’s radiant, like her!  xoLaura

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