Writer’s hunt for Oscar dress goes from panicked to perfect

Published February 25, 2005 in The Seattle Times

“What are you wearing?” It’s one of the top three questions people ask when I tell them I’m going to the Oscars.

(The other two, “Why do you get to go?” and “Do you need a date?” are much easier to answer: My dad is the executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and, I’m afraid not.)

I’m aware that complaining about finding an Oscar dress is akin to lamenting the lack of wine storage on your luxury yacht, but the couture query is troubling for me. Acquiring an appropriate dress is inevitably a triple-feature of negative body image, sticker shock and sweaty desperation.

This year I pretty much bailed on finding something cool. My schedule and budget allowed only a couple of hours of sale-rack shuffling at The Bon and Nordstrom, after which I gave up.

Upon revisiting my previously worn dresses, however, I was instantly reminded of their flaws. One had a weird way of tenting in the shoulders, another became obscene whenever I sat down, and a third rained sequins every time I stood up.

In the face of this closet full of wardrobe malfunctions I asked myself (as I do on so many occasions), “What would Scarlett O’Hara do?” I began eyeing the draperies.

Barbara Zappas of Portland agreed to lend the gown she’s wearing to Brangien Davis for Davis’ big night at the Oscars.

And then, as if scripted, the phone rang. It was Dana, my weight-lifting-class teacher from the gym. As we’d never before spoken on the phone, I was a little surprised by his call, but I was even more surprised when he said, “You’re going to think this is crazy, but I think I have a dress for you.”

Let me reiterate that Dana and I are not what you’d call close friends. We chat before and after class (which is how he knew I hadn’t yet found a dress), and I laugh at the goofy names he gives our exercises (“OK, people, Lobster Claws!” “Now, Angels in Ballard!”). But here he was, playing a fairy godmother in spandex and sweatbands.

He explained that while in Portland recently he attended a cocktail hour for the American Heart Association’s Red Party. A woman at the event, Barbara Zappas, was wearing a particularly lovely dress, which Dana noticed. He told her he thought it was red-carpet worthy and added, somewhat jokingly, that he had a friend in need of an Oscar dress. To which she replied, “Well, why don’t I loan it to her for the show?”

Indeed, why not loan your exquisite gown to a random stranger in another city?

So Dana brought the dress back to Seattle and was calling to say I should come over and try it on. I experienced a moment of hesitation before getting into the car. (Would this be funny-weird or just weird-weird? Can I trust a guy who’s always commanding me to do something he calls the “Hammerhead Shark”?) But I soon decided, “What the hell.” It had to be better than swaddling myself in curtains.

And guess what? The dress fit. In the kind of freakishly perfect way that only happens in the movies.

Standing amid Dana’s collection of vintage vacuum cleaners, I couldn’t believe it. Thanks to a happy combo of coincidence and generosity, I finally had a simple answer to the question, “What are you wearing?” A red silk dress my gym teacher borrowed from a woman at a party in Portland.

“This dress needs a name,” Dana said, as I left his house. I’m thinking Scarlett.

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