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What my favorite vintage dress taught me about feminism

Back buttons on women’s clothes were no different. Think about it: Women’s clothing was designed with the expectation that they would not dress themselves. They were treated like children, or dolls, expected to rely on others for even the most basic of tasks. When you think about it this way, the phrase ‘slave to fashion’ takes on new meaning.

That’s not to say the notion of a Marilyn Monroe type, pulling her hair to one side and telling some swarthy gentlemen, to “do me up” isn’t romantic. But it does tell you something about the changes that have taken place since Monroe was a leading lady.

Even Marilyn needs a hand.

Aside from button-down shirts, contemporary clothes are all side zippers, or easily pliable back zippers, or front buttons. They’re designed for women who can and must dress themselves.

And there are plenty of us.

Today, women are getting married later than ever —the average age, 27, is the oldest on record. Since 1952, the marriage rate has dropped, the divorce rate has spiked, and one-person households have grown over 27 percent. That means I’m not the only one leaving the house with one back button unfastened.

I am at odds with my button theory. At once it suggests that life was rich with company and generally easier in the days of back buttons. But it also suggests a reliance on others, instituted at the most basic level. I covet my independence, I have cultivated an ability to do everything from bill paying to hanging curtains and drilling door locks without relying on others. I have come to realize, through the process of living alone, that I’m surprisingly self-reliant. Maybe that’s why not being able to do something as simple as button a dress frustrates me so completely.

Another thing that happens when you wear vintage clothing: you tend to make it your own. Maybe you shorten it, you take the sleeves in, you add a necklace — you offset the old with something new. For me, that open button is my present-day stamp on a dress that once belonged to someone else. When I reach around like The Exorcist to fasten up, I think of the dress’s original owner pushing her hair to the side and saying, “do me up.” And then I think about my independence, and how being a woman has changed so much it’s impossible to wear something from our collective past without altering it in some way. And I think about how later on, when I’m out in the world wearing my dress, long after I’ve forgotten about the breeze on my back, someone, maybe another woman who lives alone, will notice my open button, and gently fasten it without saying a word. And how nice that will be.

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