Eileen Cunniffe has been writing nonfiction for 30 years—but the first 25 of those were without bylines, as a medical writer, corporate communications manager and executive speechwriter. Her essays have appeared (or soon will) in Wild River Review, Philadelphia Stories, ShortMemoir.com, SNReview, Prime Number Magazine, Hippocampus, and Ascent, and in the anthologies “A Woman's World Again” and “Prompted.” Her prose poems have appeared in The Prose-Poem Project and 5x5. She is a program director at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia.
con·sign ( kən-sīn' ) v. —signed, -signing, -signs — tr. 1. To give over to the care of another; entrust. 2. To turn over permanently to another's charge or to a lasting condition; commit irrevocably. 3. To deliver (merchandise, for example) for custody or sale. 4. To set apart, as for special use or purpose; assign.
—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition
One fine day last spring, I assigned myself the task of making my peace, once and for all, with the little red dress. I set apart time to spend with the dress, to see it for what it is: a mere few yards of polyester, lined with a few more yards of polyester; purchased for a not-too-considerable sum after more-than-considerable window shopping and dressing-room angst; worn once, ten summers ago, for one unenchanted evening at the end of what had seemed a promising week; then consigned to a closet, an attic and finally—or so I thought—a second-hand shop.
For most of its life, the little red dress has been consigned to languish in the attic of my little white house. It's been there almost since arriving in the United States from its country of origin, Indonesia, then travelling with me briefly across the U.S. border, deep into the Canadian Rockies and home again to Pennsylvania.
On that rare day of liberation last spring, I removed the dress from its plastic garment bag. I suspended it from my office door so I could inspect it at close range, describe its simple but classic lines to you, convince you there is nothing wrong with it, no reason why someone shouldn't have purchased it, new or gently (ever-so-gently) used.
No doubt I expected too much of the little red dress from the beginning. Not the dress, perhaps, but the occasion for which it was purchased. Or not the occasion exactly, but the man associated with it. I mistakenly set this dear little dress aside for special use, imbued it with qualities he—I mean it—simply did not possess, and inadvertently set off a chain of events I later came to regret. In the end, the occasion turned out to be oh-so-ordinary and the man a complete and utter disappointment, despite all the care I had taken in making my selection.
This is not about that man. Or it is about him, but only to the extent that our fleeting dalliance made me doubt, for some time after, my own judgment, my taste, my discernment—and not just in clothing. I did try him on, I admit it. I even took him home, briefly. But I never took the tags off, although I might have if he'd hung around. Never mind that I later realized what a colossal mistake that would have been. And a man is the not kind of thing you can drop off at the local consignment shop once buyer's remorse sets in.
So being left with only the little red dress was not the worst possible outcome of that sorry episode in my history, a history in which the man himself has now been set apart, consigned to the status of a mere footnote. I do apologize if I've aroused your curiosity, but I have nothing else to say about the man. Not one moment of the time we spent together is worth recounting. All the best bits took place in my imagination, I'm sorry to say. I trust you've had a similar experience somewhere along the way.
Still, for an entire decade I was unable to separate the objective appeal of that little red dress from the unhappy associations formed on the one and only time I wore it. Which is not to say I spent ten years carrying those thoughts around with me, day after day, month after month. The little red dress only ever crossed my mind if I went to the attic looking for something else. On those rare occasions, the old associations would flit through my mind, along with mild pangs of regret—not about my failed relationship with the man, but about my failed relationship with the little red dress.
I did wear that dress well, if I do say so myself. I've never been a little-black-dress kind of a girl; I've always been partial to colors, and the deep cherry hue looked fine against my pale skin and my reddish-brown hair. Its tailored lines hugged me gently, without being too clingy. I liked how I looked when I tried it on, and I liked how I felt when I wore it that one time. Still, I decided long ago I had no further use for the dress. Yet I cannot seem to wash my hands of it, try as I might. Lady Macbeth springs to mind, no doubt because of the blood-red hue of the synthetically soft fabric.
I assure you, though, this is more comedy than tragedy. There are no stains, of any type, on my little red dress.
For years I'd walked and driven past the consignment shop without so much as a second-hand thought. When clothes no longer fit my body or my taste but were still fit to be worn, I donated them to one of the charities that called periodically and offered to take them off my hands. Or I dropped them off at a hospital thrift shop, feeling satisfied that my unused but usable clothing might generate a few dollars for a worthy cause.
My first pass at consigning clothes was mostly a symbolic gesture. I had recently made my escape from the business world and had the luxury of time between jobs to rethink my relationship to work-and indirectly, my relationship to clothes, since I no longer had to put myself into the world on a daily basis looking “professional.” I was, in fact, so-very-in-between-jobs that I had no idea what I would do next for employment. But I knew it wouldn't be more of the same, and I felt confident I could let go of the trappings of that old life, beginning with suits and blouses, skirts and dresses, especially those that had a corporate whiff about them. And while I hadn't reached a stage of being unemployed where I was overly concerned about my finances, I liked the idea of picking up a little extra cash by recycling my old business attire.
So one day while I was out running errands, I dropped by the local consignment shop to observe what was on the racks and to inquire about the process for selling clothes there. I browsed through the merchandise and left with a printed page of rules tucked into my purse. Within a few weeks I returned with an inaugural basketful of clothes to offer to the shopkeepers.
The little red dress—already five years old—was not among the items I brought with me that first time. I don't know why. Perhaps at that point I had perceived only the possibility of redeeming my unwanted apparel for pin money. It had not yet occurred to me that other types of redemption might be available through the consignment shop.
I stood and watched as the twenty-something girl behind the counter sifted through my basket, spending no more than two or three seconds on each item before consigning it to one of two piles. I'd studied the guidelines and brought only items I felt had a chance to be taken, although I confess several were well beyond the no-more-than-two-years-old rule. To my great satisfaction, some of those older pieces landed in the “yes” pile. The girl had encouraged me to wander around the shop while she went through my things, but I had demurred, opting instead to watch as she made her snap decisions. I felt a little thrill each time she placed an item into the good pile, and an oddly personal sense of rejection each time she discarded an item—even though I had already rejected each of those items myself, for one reason or another.
Some time later, after I'd become an experienced consigner, I dropped into the shop on a quiet Sunday afternoon and asked the manager, Sarah, to educate me about her business. I learned that many customers do take rejections personally and try to debate the merits of their offered items. But to no avail: overall guidelines are handed down by a corporate office that manages six consignment shops, and each member of the staff not only knows the guidelines, but is intimately familiar with what's already on the floor, what's in the back waiting to be processed, what's currently selling-and what is not. Quick decisions are essential because on any given day thousands of items may be delivered for consideration, and hundreds likely will be accepted. There is only so much space in the back, there are only so many weeks in each season and there are only so many customers interested in used turtlenecks or high-end designer shoes. Still, about 80% of accepted items do sell, so the snap decision makers apparently know their stuff.
A few days after my first items were accepted, a contract was slipped through my mail slot, indicating the terms of consignment: 60 days in the shop, at the end of which I could either reclaim any unsold items or abandon them for good; a 40% commission on items sold, to be paid by check a few weeks after the claim date; and no responsibility on the part of management for any items that inadvertently went missing on their watch.
On Day 59, I returned to the shop, contract in hand, and learned to my delight that several items had sold. The counter girl du jour highlighted a printout for me so I could see what had not sold and could collect those items myself from the racks, using the coding system on the labels.
Net proceeds of my first foray into consigning: about $40, minus $5 or so for gas and parking meters. Not much, but I wasn't really in it for the money. I'd discovered I liked the game. Emboldened by my modest beginner's success, I determined to fill another basket in time for the autumn wave of consignments.
One of the many things my little red dress has going for it is that it is a dress for all seasons, despite being a sleeveless sheath. The rich red color makes it perfect for the winter holidays, yet it's lightweight enough for, say, a dinner in early August in a far northern clime, perhaps with a chic wrap thrown around one's shoulders to protect against a sudden downward shift in temperature (or mood).
And oh, how that dress travels. I had tucked it into my suitcase between layers of tissue paper and managed to keep it sequestered for days from hiking boots and ever-increasing piles of dirty clothes. Only one night on the trip called for cocktail attire, and when at last I extracted my little red dress from its tissue, it looked as good as it had in the dressing room; not so much as the whisper of a wrinkle betrayed the rough company it had been keeping. The hemline just caressed the tops of my knees. The wrap was a perfect compliment, its muted print in red and gold and grey. Flat black shoes dialed down the look just a notch to match the setting-the upscale dining room of a well-appointed mountain resort.
The next time I delivered clothes to the consignment shop I filled two laundry baskets, requiring separate trips to the parking lot. As I returned with the second load-which contained the little red dress, casually mixed in with its attic-mates, sans tissue paper-the girl behind the counter asked: “Have you consigned with us before?” I replied that I had, once, and she offered a compliment: “You really seem to have a good feel for what we're looking for.” The reject pile from the first load was quite small.
I watched as the salesgirl dipped into my second basket of clothes, her hands and eyes simultaneously making their quick assessments, deciding what was likely to sell, weighing each item against the inventory already crammed into overflowing racks; accepting, rejecting, accepting. I waited eagerly for her to discover my little red dress. My breath caught for a split second as she plucked it from the basket. Was it my imagination, or did her fingers linger admiringly on the well-made darts for just a moment longer than it took her to decide?
In an instant the deed was done. The little red dress—and the miscalculations and missteps it had come to represent—was placed on top of the “yes” pile. My selection, my judgment, my taste regarding this particular garment had been validated. The dress had been consigned, irrevocably committed, permanently removed from my possession. As I left the shop with my receipt and my nearly empty laundry baskets, I stifled the urge to pump a fist in the air. The little red dress, my little red albatross, was no longer my concern. A burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
Day 58. I couldn't stand the suspense. I had to know that someone else had taken possession of my little red dress. I had entrusted it to a bevy of part-time caretakers who stood behind that counter for more than eight weeks; who steam-cleaned, catalogued and rotated merchandise to keep it moving; who made room in the 2,000-square-foot store for a never-ending influx of used clothing, second thoughts, overly optimistic sizes and poorly chosen gifts; who surfed daily the tidal wave of fleeting styles, passing fancies, imagined scenes that never transpired, choices made, poses struck, once-in-a-lifetime outfits and too many garments to count still sheepishly trailing telltale original labels from their sleeves or waistbands.
As the printer spat out the updated list of my consignments, I glanced toward the elevated rack on the far wall, the one with dresses, suits and gowns, hoping not to see a flash of red. I didn't. But as the girl highlighted the page for me, even upside down I could see she'd made a thick yellow streak right through the hieroglyphic that read WDR 12 RED JCHAUS POLY SL LG $18.00, indicating my little red dress (women's size 12, from Josephine Chaus) had not been sold. How was that possible? It was (is) the perfect little red dress, in perfect condition, perfectly suited to someone else's wardrobe (life), the readiest ready-to-wear little red dress you ever could imagine.
And yet there it was, mixed in with the other dress-up clothes-unpurchased, unchosen, rejected by two whole months' worth of customers-and once again on its way to being consigned to my drafty attic. Oh why hadn't someone else bought my little red dress before I'd had to reclaim it?
I began to wonder if the dress gave off bad vibes. I began to wonder if there could be such a thing as a cautionary dress, destined to remain in my possession for the rest of my days, urging me to think twice before making another bold move in the direction of romance, a move like the one that had left me holding only a garment bag full of crimson polyester.
As I reached for the hanger, I thought I detected the faint outline of a smirk where once I had seen only a jewel neckline. With a sinking feeling, I gathered the red dress and my few other unsold items into my arms, presented them at the counter to be cross-checked against the list and headed back to the car, despondent. I'd cleared nearly $80 on my second round of consignments. But I still hadn't unloaded the little red dress.
After just a few months as a consigner, I'd developed a system. Whatever sold, sold, and whatever didn't was donated to the next charity that asked for used clothing. With one exception, of course. I couldn't bring myself to simply give away the little red dress, and not only because it wasn't the kind of thing you offered to someone in need. I wanted, no needed, for someone else to choose it, to take it home.
Sarah told me most of her consigners do not reclaim their unsold items, but instead allow the shop to give them directly to charities or sell them in flea markets, the proceeds of which are then donated to good causes. Consignment shops are, I have learned, very “green”—they throw away almost nothing and see themselves as straddling two industries—recycling and retailing. They do toss small personal effects they sometimes find in pockets or purses—business cards, pills and pens, mostly.
Back in my attic, I slipped the garment bag over the little red dress. I tucked it between other clothes I no longer wear, but don't want to part with or can't give away because they are so terribly out of date. For months at a time I forget the little red dress was even there.
I kept consigning, even after I found a new job and had to carve time out of my weekends to shuttle clothes back and forth to the shop. Consigning has taught me to resist impulse clothing purchases, to consider how many times I might have to schlep an item up and down the stairs as seasons change, or over to the consignment shop if I change my mind. Still, my backlog of extraneous clothes is seemingly undepletable, and once or twice a year I still scrape together the minimum number of consignable items (ten), with generally good results—except when I reach too far back into the past and forget about the no-shoulder-pads rule.
Two more times in the intervening years I have slipped that little red dress into a bundle of clothes, confident it would be rescued from the rack on its second trip through the shop, or surely its third. Each time whichever girl was behind the counter looked at the dress approvingly, leading me to feel certain I would not only be validated, but vindicated, at last.
I had, you must understand, nothing to lose by trying again and so much more to gain than the $7.20 the dress would fetch for me if it sold.
Three times now my little red dress has been readily accepted for consignment. Three times I have found it waiting for me, emitting the merest hint of smugness—or is it resignation?—as I lift it from the rack, reclaiming it, rechoosing it, unable to abandon it.
I asked Sarah if she had any way to know if a customer—a hypothetical customer, that is—brought the same item in more than once. She surprised me by saying that sometimes she actually encourages a customer to try again, especially with high-end or classic items. When I confessed to having brought the same classic little red dress into her shop on three separate occasions, she smiled and admitted that if an item doesn't sell the first time, it probably never will. But she doesn't mind if someone keeps trying. The only thing that annoys her is when someone brings in items that are blatantly damaged.
It's been months now since I moved the dress from my attic down to the second floor, for what I thought was an afternoon visit. Mostly I've left it hanging—free of its white plastic bag—in a closet with the few dresses and suits I still wear in a life that is decidedly more casual than it used to be. More than once I've taken the dress out and draped it over the door again, essaying to discern what I might from those few yards of fabric. Only once during those months have I offered a new round of clothes for consignment, and the little red dress was not among them.
One crisp fall day, on a whim, I decided to try on the little red dress again, just to see what might happen. I slipped out of shapeless black sweat pants and a green corduroy shirt. I unzipped the little red dress and let it slide over my neck and settle on my shoulders. The cool lining slinked along my torso until it reached my hips, where a bit more coaxing was required than what I remembered from ten years earlier. I stepped out into the hallway and faced the mirror. Not bad, I thought, even if it is a little snug. Not bad at all.
I only kept it on for a minute or two, but in that brief time I began to understand what my little red dress had been trying to tell me ever since that first trip to the consignment shop: we belong together, we have a future, it's not too late. Other occasions are just waiting for us to show up, arm in sleeve. I blushed with shame to think how I'd let a mere man come between me and my little red dress, quite nearly for keeps.
As I reached behind me to undo the zipper, the plastic tab from the consignment shop label scratched a soft spot just below my left armpit. I ought to take that tag off, I suppose. So my little red dress will be ready the next time I need it. It is not going back to the consignment shop. In fact it's not going anywhere ever again without me inside it—ideally, me minus about six or seven pounds.
What was I thinking, trying to consign my little red dress to someone else's life? As if she—I mean it—could go out into the world for me, in search of acceptance, redemption, adventure, maybe even love.
I am no longer sure if the little red dress has been entrusted to me, or if I've been entrusted to it. But we seem to be stuck with each other, consigned to each other's care.