For these three women, as well as many others—a young model fresh from Alabama, a Hollywood star making her Broadway debut, an unemployed Brown grad who’s been faking a fabulous life on social media—everything is about to change . . . and all thanks to the power of one perfect little black dress.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Sally Ann Fennely
Age: Just 18
“Pin It!” The dressers were all riled up.
“Pin what?” I thought. “Ow!” There was my answer: pin me.
It was madness. I had been measured at least five times at casting. I thought that would have been the worst part, fifty eager models lined up in black slips, dreaming of cheeseburgers. It was a different kind of cattle call from what I was used to back home in Alabama.
I barely uttered my first words of the day, “It’s big on me. Maybe you should put it on a bigger girl.”
“There are no bigger girls,” the pin-happy dresser mumbled under his breath.
I looked around—he was right. Last week I was skinny, skinniest girl south of the Mason-Dixon line. They called me String Bean Sally; asked if I had to dance around in the shower to get wet. Now I’m the big girl.
“Get in line!” he yelled. I got in line.
I concentrated on the mantra in my head: breathe, breathe, one foot, the other. Breathe. Breathe. The girl behind me broke my concentration with the strongest New Yawk accent I’d ever heard.
“I think you may have on the dress,” she said. It sounded more like a warning then a statement.
“The dress?” I didn’t understand what she was talking about. I was having a hard time just breathing. We were getting closer to the runway. She continued.
“Every year there’s one dress. The front row people out there, they choose it. See ‘em?” She pointed to where two cavernous curtains met. As they rippled and settled I got a quick glimpse of the crowd. I wished I hadn’t.
She continued, “Come fall, those front row people are gonna plaster the dress on the covers of magazines, red carpets and store windows. And it’s usually little and black—like yours.”
Her voice near ‘bout erased her beauty. She was like one of those silent film stars my Grandma used to go on about who went bust the day talkies came out. She sounded so foreign to me. I reckon if I spoke with my Southern drawl she would feel the same way about me. I’d hardly spoken since I’d been in New York for that very reason. When I do speak it’s real short and careful. I can fake my way through a sentence or two but it’s not easy. I try and triple my usual talking speed or people look like they want to wring the words out of me like I’m a wet rag. And my thinking has to keep up with my speaking, which ain’t easy either. It’s clear that they don’t understand me just as much as I don’t understand them. You would think that would make us all equal, but it doesn’t. Not here.
It’s not just talking the talk that throws me, walking the walk is equally hopeless. On my first day here I made the mistake of stopping mid-stride to look up at a building when BOOM, a man crashed right into me. He yelled, “You crazy Mama?” Like I had slammed dead on my brakes in the middle of Interstate 10. I pictured the domino effect—a whole city toppling over on account of little old me.
The next day it rained. The city was hard enough to navigate dry, let alone in a downpour. I was so intimidated by the natives dodging puddles and raising and lowering their umbrellas in perfect synchronicity that I never made it past the overhang of my building. It was as if everyone but me had been taught the day’s choreography in advance. I stayed put till the sun came out.
The girl with the voice was still going on about the dress. There were about a dozen girls between the runway and us.
“There was another possibility from a show yesterday that my friend Adeline wore. That may have been the dress. Adeline said the flashbulbs went crazy, especially when she was at the end of the runway. She’s hoping it’s hers. I want to be the kind of friend that hopes it’s hers too. But I’m not. Honestly, I couldn’t bear seeing her on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. The dress is always on the cover of Woman’s Wear Daily. Right before it embarks on a sort of whirlwind tour of who wore what where. The dress can actually become famous, and it’s model too. I heard the girl from two years ago got a part in a Woody Allen movie. That girl was a brand new face too, like you. You know, you only get to be a brand new face once. They usually put the dress on either a brand new face or a famous face. Now Woody Allen made her brand new face famous! Do you think he’s a pedophile? I don’t like to think that.”
She didn’t seem concerned at all with breathing while that was all I could think about. Now there were just eight girls between the runway and us.
Still she kept going, “Some things I wish I didn’t have to think about. Like last week someone told me those lemon wedges they put on your water glass are deadly. Covered in germs, even poop—that’s what the girl said, on account of the waiters not washing their hands. Literally, that lemon wedge in my water is the closest I have gotten to a slice of cake in three years. Now what am I supposed to do? I feel like no matter when I die my last words are gonna be, I’m still hungry. I just wish I could un-hear that thing about the lemons and Woody Allen.”
A lemon, I thought. All I had seen any of these girls have for dessert was a cigarette. They were all exactly the same, birds of a feather we’d call ‘em back home. They all walked the same, in a light, airy kind of way. I was sure they would flutter across the runway, while I imagined I would resemble a schoolgirl wearing mud kickers. And they all spoke the same language. They added words to their sentences that made no sense to me at all. Like seriously and literally and honestly. Honestly this and honestly that. It made you wonder if everything else that came out of their mouths was a lie. Also, many of their stories began with “Don’t judge me.” As if it were a get out of jail free card. “Don’t judge me, I slept with your boyfriend,” or “Don’t judge me, I ate an entire pecan pie last night.” Honestly, the second one would literally never happen. Seriously, it’s literally catching.
Six girls in front of me. I don’t even know how I got here. Well, that’s not really true. I got here on a Greyhound bus. When you’re born with a face like mine and legs that keep going and going like mine you stop considering any other way out. I used to do well in school, but there was almost no point. When my barely younger sister Carly and I would bring home our report cards, my mother would study hers and barely look at mine. My sister is short, like my mother’s side of the family. An early bloomer, she was the tallest one in elementary school and the shortest by high school. She is ok smart, not a genius or anything. I’m just as smart as she is. But my mama barely looked at my report cards. “With legs like that” she’d say, “You just need to find a rich man to wrap them around. Carly has to learn to fend for herself.” It was somewhere around then that I stopped trying.
It wasn’t just my legs. I had the face, the skin, the hair, the whole package. That kind of beautiful that makes people stop and stare as if they’re looking at a painting. A very tall painting. I was flawless. On the outside that is. On the inside I was jealous of Carly. She would speak, and people would like her or not. Not me, I just needed to walk into a room and the boys all liked me. Never heard a word I said. It was so lonely that I finally left and came to New York where I could stand in a line of perfect specimens like me and be ordinary. That part had felt wonderful—until now. Just four girls ahead of me, all with the face, the skin, and the legs… Wait, three. I pressed my hands against my sides to stop them from shaking.
Her nasal voice briefly broke my nervous trance.
“It’s not just lemons you know. Those mints in the bowls at the register—those have been tested too and…”
I hoped this wasn’t the dress. It seemed so simple. I would think the dress would be something spectacular and loud like the girl who was talking my ear off. The dress I was wearing was quiet. Not that I know diddlysquat about fashion. I know nothing more that what I’ve seen in the fashion magazines, and I only ever looked at those the few times that my mom drove Carly and me into Batesville to get mani-pedis. That’s in fact how I ended up coming to New York. There was an article in one of the magazines—Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Runway Model? I went down the list: Height 5’9 to 5’11. Check. Bust 31-34”. Check. Waist 22-24”. Check. Hips 31-35”. Check. They measured me right there at the salon. In the time it took for two coats of “Cherry on Top” nail polish to dry my fate was sealed. There was only enough money saved for one of us to go to college anyway, and “Carly had the brains.”
“Go!” With a push I was gone. It was like skydiving. Not that I know diddlysquat about skydiving either. As I stepped out onto the runway, bulbs flashed like mad, just like the girl had said they would. I near ‘bout fainted right there. Honestly, literally and seriously.
Reading Group Guide
1. On the boat to America, Max Hammer tells Morris Siegel that he know he wanted to marry his wife, Dorothy, since he saw her at age twelve. Do you know childhood sweethearts who are still married today? What do you think is different about their relationship?
2. What did you think about the scenes between Jeremy and his publicist and agent? Did you think it was accurate to in terms of how celebrity images are manipulated in the media?
3. Discuss the role that Bloomingdales plays in the novel. What's your go-to store for occasions when only "the dress" will do?
4. Sometimes fate needs a helping hand and a "buttinski" like Tomás can be a godsend. Do you agree or disagree?
5. The portrayal of New York City is filled with affection. Would it have been possible for this novel to be set anywhere else?
6. In Chapter 10 we learn how Arthur wound up dating the much-younger Sherri. Did it offer a new perspective on how older men wind up with much younger women?
7. Andie's 100th client has not been entirely truthful with her. Were you surprised when Caroline reveals her real reason for retaining Andie's services?
8. In Nine Women, One Dress, people find love in very unusual but very satisfying ways. Who was your favorite couple and why?
9. Sophie's use of Instagram to portray a glamorous life she really doesn't lead is not so far from the truth. Do you feel pressure to portray yourself a certain way on social media?
10. "The right dress makes an ordinary woman feel extraordinary," says Morris Siegel at the end of the novel. Why do women have a more complicated and intimate relationship with clothing than men?
11. Do you have a dress like "the dress" in the novel?