Building a Spine in a Backless Dress

Here we are at the last installment of my Journey of a Thousand Dresses. I want to thank you all for joining me every step of the way.

Going into this journey I thought it would be easy. Just throw on a dress each day, add some shoes, and be done. But this little adventure dug deep into old notions about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be safe, and what it means to express my personal style as a woman in her forties.

This last part of the series was perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Backless and Vulnerable

For the first time in my life I wore a backless casual dress–without a jacket or scarf to drape around my shoulders and cover up my body. The voices in my head, so used to keeping me in line, warned me that running around town with my back exposed was suggestive and dangerous. These voices from my past are powerful. They don’t pull any punches:

  • Who do you think you are? You think you have perfect enough skin to walk around like that? 
  • Do you know what happens to women who dress like that?
  • You want people to think you’re a slut?
  • Don’t you know how old you are? A woman your age shouldn’t wear that.

I Did It Anyway

The first day I wore this casual halter dress out in public was one of the first really sunny Saturdays in Seattle. Hubby wanted to get some plants to put in the containers on our balcony.

Standing on a balcony wearing a halter dress, a sun hat, sunglasses, and sandals, surrounded by flowers.
The flowers you see behind me were just tiny sprouts when Hubby first planted them. Now look at them!

The dress isn’t fancy at all. It’s blue-gray and made of a stretchy knit, like a t-shirt. The embellishment is pretty. Bunches of flowers are painted and embroidered in different places on the top and skirt.

The dress was purchased on Thredup. Similar thrifted styles can be found here.

Days before we set out to the nursery, I told myself I was going to wear this outfit. As the day grew near, though, so did my anxiety.

On the day of, I nearly chickened out.

I stood in front of my closet and felt the pressure from my past washing over me. I was this close to wearing something else. And then I heard another voice. It was the voice of adulthood, the one that is more rational and in line with who I am at my core. It has the capacity to empathize and encourage rather than belittle or shame.

The voice asked, “If not now, when?”

I listened to that voice and was reminded that lots of ladies wear halter dresses in the summer and I don’t assume horrible things about who they are, what they might be in for, or grump about the appropriateness based on their age. Instead, I see women I admire. Women who look comfortable in a cute dress. Nothing more dramatic than that.

So it was with a tight chest and thumping heart I pulled the dress from my closet. I took a deep breath and put the dress on. And then I went to the nursery.

Comfort and Ease Becomes Her

At first, I felt on display, in full view. I felt so vulnerable. I was afraid someone might come along and confirm all my fears.

But they didn’t. No one blinked an eye. No one chastised me or even seemed to notice the middle-aged woman walking around in a halter dress. It was normal. I was normal.

In addition, I was so comfortable. My exposed back felt the mix of warm sun and cool breezes. It was refreshing and delightful! The longer I stood in that public space, the stronger I felt. At some point I relaxed, forgot I was supposed to be afraid, and enjoyed myself.

The hat is Goorin Bros. Similar style can be purchased here.
Sunglasses from Walgreens. (Yes, Walgreens!) Similar styles here.
My necklaces are old gifts from Hubby and my parents.

A Journey and a Celebration

In celebration of this newfound freedom and joy I bought another backless dress from my good friend and favorite vintage reseller, Suzanne Carillo!

To see what other dresses Suzanne has in stock, click here!

This dress is fancier than the halter dress above, but we are celebrating so it needs to be a little fancier. I paired it with some metallic sandals and an obi belt to dress it up even more. If I change out the footwear I can make it more casual for walking around Seattle.

The straps are just a little bit long so, for now, they’re pinned in the back. But soon I will use my newfound confidence in sewing to stitch them down permanently.

See more about my sewing adventures on my Instagram feed!

Necklace from my friend and loyal reader, Jude.
Shoes are Clarks. I bought them last year on Amazon. Available here.
Belt is vintage Eileen Fisher. Similar styles available here.

And So It Continues

Although I have won this battle, my war against these messages isn’t over. Well-meaning people continue to warn me about what can happen if I show too much of my body.

Most recently I was advised by a woman to tuck my shirt in at yoga class so it didn’t ride up and show my belly when I bent over. Her concern was about what I might be revealing to the men in the class.

She is a nice lady and I know she was just trying to protect me but her words shamed me instead. Her advice suggested that, even in an athletic-type setting I am not respected as a human being. My body is but an object to be desired and potentially stolen or damaged, no matter what I do.

The worst of it, though, is that she chose to give advice to me but not to my fellow male students. Her words, directed to me, do not teach them to respect me as a fellow athlete and human. Her ideas suggest that I if I keep my shirt untucked, whatever they do isn’t their fault. It’s mine.

The Journey Ahead

In spite of the challenges from my past and present, I continue to wear dresses with and without backs. I suppose this journey will never completely end as I continue to challenge my preconceived notions, my fears, and the well-meaning but misdirected advice from others.

I’m grateful for your presence and readership along the way.


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  • That’s so interesting about that lady in your yoga class! I just saw a similar idea on FB about girls and the dress code at school.
    And I think both “backless” dresses are fabulous! Neither are inappropriate and they both fit and look perfect!
    It’s funny how we get into our own heads sometimes about our clothing choices!!
    XOXO
    Jodie
    http://www.jtouchofstyle.com

    • Thank you, Nancy! The yoga lady really is a nice person. She has always been funny and sarcastic in class–always making me laugh. So it came as a double surprise when she was the one who delivered that advice.

  • Wow, you look super cute in this dress! My sister has one that she made like that, and how perfect it is for traveling. I’m just so surprised at how you have embraced this dress thing! Enjoyed so much. Love your blogs. Thank you,

  • You are absolutely right about the sexist, social, burden of responsibility women bear regarding their clothing choices. You are stylish and comfy in your back baring dresses and yet a sniping shamer is lurking to make you wonder, ponder hopefully and feel unreasonably anxious about overstepping the too sexy and provocative rule.
    Fly free you darling , charming, and stylish woman!! You look wonderful!

  • You go!
    I guess the sundress I passed along to you joins this “revealing” category. And, double trouble, it also requires some sewing skills. Eeeek! I suggest making some new straps with grosgrain ribbon (you can practice on this dress before attempting alterations on the one you got from Suzanne). As an alternative to sewing (and getting the fit correct), the “safety pin method” works really well. I’ve run around in skirts-turned-into-dresses-with-safety-pinned-straps a lot! No one knows except you.

    It was so much fun having our brief meetup. I want more, and I’m determined to get up there in October!
    xxox

    • Yes! The dress you passed along to me fits in this category. I love the idea of using grosgrain ribbon for straps and the idea of safety pinning straps to skirts to make a dress! Such great ideas!!

      I hope you are able to make it in October! I’d love to see you again!

      Hugs,
      Sherry

  • I love the title of this post. Heh. Yes, you do look smashing in your backless dresses. Congratulations on getting over that hurdle. I have a backless top that used to only wear under a robe, but for the first time this summer I wore it without the robe. Like you, now I wonder why it took so long. I LOVE the dress you got from Suzanne too. Doesn’t she have the best stuff?
    And the woman’s advice, yeah, well. It’s too bad she has this outlook and shared it with you. I suspect she would not wear a backless dress!

  • This was such an interesting post. We all have negative inner voices and I was so happy to read that you managed to conquer yours and wear the dress. It looks darn cute!

    As I told my sister and nieces before they left, you can wear anything you like as long as you have confidence.

    I’m delighted with that other dress you bought from Vintage by Suzanne. I knew you’d rock it! I love it belted too.

    I’m very sorry to read about that woman in your yoga class. Good grief. I cannot believe she said that. It’s an EXERCISE class! Some people are just backwards. There is no changing them. Undoubtably I’d have had a few choice words for her.

    bisous
    Suzanne