I was born naked, but I got dressed up as soon as I could. Mom teased me about that when I was a kid. When I chose a fringed flapper dress for my first day of school, she rolled her eyes at my Miss Priss personality. She was a single mother, just starting out in the practice of law, had put herself through law school. And she didn’t work for some fancy-pants law firm. She was a public defender, so she didn’t have time or money for frills.
Mom worked all the time, so she had to have a sitter for me. That’s how my lifelong relationship with Miss Luella got started. They had grown up together in the foothills town of Shelby, North Carolina, so Miss Luella could be trusted. Mom called her “Miz Luella.” But Miss Luella told me to call her Miss because she wasn’t married. I think it was because she had been crowned “Miss North Carolina” in 1959, and that title never did wear off.
After law school, my mom moved to Charlotte, where I was born in 1962, and Miss Luella was starting her own business out of her apartment on Queens Road East. She was a sorceress of satin and sequins. Miss Luella and her mother made all her pageant gowns, so Charlotte society ladies lined up for her to do their gowns and wedding dresses. While I sprawled on the floor drawing princesses with big curlicues of hair, her manicured hands fluttered over yards of lace. I was enthralled by her perfect pink lips, gently pressed together as she extended her yellow measuring tape around the width of debutante hips.
Her apartment was on the first floor of a genteel old building with dusty chandeliers in the entrance and parquet wood floors that creaked and buckled in the summer humidity. In the second bedroom, “The Pageant Room,” her contest gowns hung in beige canvas garment bags, like dull cocoons waiting to unzip so the crinolines and jeweled skirts in every rainbow color could emerge. She had two rolling racks full, each bag carefully labeled: “Sweetheart Neckline Aqua,” “Ruby Strapless, 1957,” “Midnight Mermaid, 1960.” The shorter bags had the upholstered swimsuits she sashayed down the runways. Next to the garment racks was a monumental dresser topped with trophies, each drawer containing heart-thumping treasure. One drawer had twinkly tiaras nestled on blue velvet pillows. Another had long, satin gloves in almost as many colors as her gowns.
And the most wonderful thing of all was the tall three-way mirror she used for fittings. At our apartment, we only had one mirror, besides the bathroom mirror, and it stood on top of a dingy dresser next to Mom’s bed. If I wanted to see how I looked, I had to balance on the far edge of the bed, and then my head would be cut off. I couldn’t wear shoes while standing on the bedspread, so I never got to see an entire outfit. My mom didn’t care about any of that, of course. She was happy to throw on her scuffed loafers waiting beside the front door. They went with everything in her closet.
But at Miss Luella’s, while she was at her sewing machine under the windows in the Pageant Room (“the PR” we called it), I could model tiaras and gloves in front of the mirror and see my whole self, plus a million more of me trailing off in every sparkly direction.
The other wonder of the PR was a makeup vanity with a row of lights on each side of the mirror. It was all white (not the best color for lipstick smears) and had a white velvet chair where Miss Luella let me sit and experiment with lipsticks in tarnished metal tubes and crumbling eye shadows in tortoiseshell compacts that closed with satisfying clicks.
When I was ten, Miss Luella sat me down at that white throne and made me up herself. When Mom came to pick me up—in my beehive reeking of Aqua Net, with peacock eyes and candy apple lips—I could read her usual poker face. A little twitch of her chapped lips and narrowing of her eyes gave it away. She didn’t say anything to Miss Luella, but when we got to the car, she was spitting mad. She pulled a tissue out of her purse and demanded that I wipe it all off. “Juliana, You aren’t stepping out of this car looking like a hooker!” And when the made-to-last-twenty-four-hour pigments didn’t budge, she made me spit on the tissue and rub till my skin was raw.
But Mom didn’t want me home alone too much, so Miss Luella’s was where I stayed after school and whenever she went to ERA rallies or civil rights marches or worked late on a case. I think they had some kind of agreement because I had to do chores before I could enter the PR. I don’t think Miss Luella charged Mom anything by that time. And besides, I would have paid Miss Luella out of my allowance to spend my afternoons with her.
Miss Luella wore her chestnut hair in a Mary Tyler Moore flip, and sometimes she’d do mine just like hers. Her customers thought I was her daughter. When Mom bought my pants too long so I could grow into them, Miss Luella expertly shortened them. She showed me how to embroider mushrooms and frogs on my jean jackets. She even helped me embroider a jacket for Mom, with a pink peace sign on the back and “ERA Now” inside a rainbow on the front pocket.
And then there were the final fittings. Whenever a lady arrived for a final fitting, I’d stop whatever I was doing and sit near the three-way mirror. Miss Luella would have a glass of champagne waiting on a silver tray, and then she presided over the moment when every satin fold and ripple of crinoline came together as one. Her carefully lined doe eyes would crinkle as she gazed over her creation, and we would swoon. Miss Luella would twirl around and curtsy, ending with one graceful hand on her hip. If we were lucky, she’d have time to give us a lesson on how to stand and walk in a gown—where to put our hands, how to strike the best pose for photos. She would glide around the PR while we tried to match her moves, ducklings waddling after a swan.
When I was fourteen, I got myself a job on Saturdays at a beauty parlor, mostly sweeping up clumps of mousy hair. Mom liked that I was making my own money, she was all about that. I saved up, and the first thing I wanted to buy was a full-length mirror for the back of my bedroom door. There was no mistaking the look on her face when I asked her to drive me to Sears so we could pick up a mirror.
“A mirror! Can’t you think of anything better to spend your money on?”
“No. I need a full-length mirror. Miss Luella says. . .” I stopped mid-sentence because I could feel the steam building up and see the murderous set of her jaw.
“You can go to Luella’s any time you want to primp! Spend your money on you, not on your appearance.”
I turned and flounced to my room, slamming the door behind me. An hour later Mom tapped on my door. She was standing in the hall with one hand propping up a dusty full-length mirror.
“I had this in the back of my closet. You can have it. Spend your money on something else.”
The other thing that happened when I was fourteen: I started to fit into Miss Luella’s pageant gowns. With a little padding added. One day, when I was trying on a sapphire gown, the swirling satin aloft with crinolines disguising my skinny butt, Miss Luella clapped her hands. She had me stand at the mirror as she stood close behind, her powdery lavender perfume wafting as she gazed over my shoulder, her delicate chin tilted, and her pink lips puckered in an almost kiss. She tucked the shoulder straps in, securing them with pins, and then she declared “This gown is Yours, honey.” She said it could be my prom dress in a few years! We took a Polaroid, with the gloves and “mink” stole that went with the gown—"Miss Harvest Queen, 1956.”
I hid that picture of me in the Harvest Queen from my mom for several months. At that time, I thought she must have been envious of Luella when Miss Luella was on national TV in the Miss America Pageant—all of Shelby glued to the screen—and Mom toiled away in boring wool suits. While Miss Luella toured and had a dozen photo albums of her pageant days, Mom had just one photo album from that time. And she made sure I knew that the gown she was proudest of was the ugly one she wore for her law school graduation. Yeah, I really thought she was envious, and that was why she was such a witch about me taking more after Miss Luella.
When I finally showed her the Polaroid of me in the Harvest Queen, she arched her eyebrows, but she didn’t argue about it. She gave all her extra money to support women candidates for political office. She was happy not to shell out money for a ridiculous prom dress.
I started working every day after school at the beauty parlor when I was sixteen and didn’t spend as much time at Miss Luella’s. But I’d visit when I could, and we would dress me up regularly in the Harvest Queen and talk potential hairstyles and makeup.
As I got older and had more friends my own age, I began to notice that Miss Luella’s beauty ministrations were a bit out of date. Lip liner encircling three coats of lipstick, each coat finished off by a tissue squeezed between the lips. My friends had little tubes of fruit-smelling gloss that they slid on their lips and smacked. Life was speeding up. Modern girls had no time for fuss.
Still, I loved Miss Luella, and I never tired of the PR, but I didn’t share its aesthetic with my friends. For school I wore jeans and crop tops. I shopped at Casual Corner for plaid pant suits and wore clunky Dr. Scholl’s platforms. We all had floppy wings of bangs and leather bags with flowers tooled on the side.
When I started 11th grade, Miss Luella said it was time to do the final fitting for my prom dress. We made an appointment on a Saturday, and I arrived on that September afternoon in cutoffs and a sweaty T-shirt. Miss Luella, in her cool linen sheath, sniffed and sent me to her pink-tiled bathroom to sponge my underarms with warm water and Yardley soap. Then she presented me with a champagne glass of Cheerwine while she readied my dress, like a lady-in-waiting. She slipped the dress over my shoulders, zipped up the back and patted my waist. She slid the sapphire satin gloves up my arms and held my hand as I ascended the step to the platform in front of the mirrors. The late afternoon sun dazzled through the high windows, making the satin glow and our eyes blaze like jewels. She gathered the straps up a bit with two straight pins, and then we both pronounced it perfect. A week later, I went to her apartment to pick up the gown in its beige garment bag, with the Harvest Queen label still attached.
After I got home, I showed Mom the Harvest Queen and all its accoutrements—gloves, rhinestone earrings, the “mink” and dyed-to-match shoes that Miss Luella had packed in a Montaldo’s box. Mom stood open-mouthed for a long time. I waited for the frown, but then she smiled and hugged me. We hung the Harvest Queen in my bedroom closet, making sure the zipper of the bag was closed completely so no dust could get in.
The next day, I showed it to my friends and the first thing they did was snicker. “Crinolines? No one wears crinolines and long gloves anymore!”
My heart thudded as I saw the Harvest Queen through their eyes. I thought proms were the same as beauty pageants, where glamour and perfection reigned outside of time and fashion. The Harvest Queen was timeless, but I wanted to fit in now, so I tagged along when my friends went shopping for prom dresses.
The prom dresses on display were either skimpy halters in lime green and tangerine, or they looked like prairie wedding gowns with puffy shoulders that narrowed to mutton sleeves, the cuffs covered in lace. They were all made of polyester—it was the polyester decade—and when I tried them on, they didn’t slide down my body in the silk-slinky way that Luella’s dress did. Their zippers were cranky, or they had no zippers at all, just wrapped and tied on. But my friends persuaded me to buy a baby blue wrap dress with spaghetti straps that crisscrossed in back. Simple, nothing to it. They said it looked divine. We each came away with our purchases folded over hangers inside plastic bags.
When I got home, Mom asked me what was in the bag.
“My prom dress.”
“But what about the Harvest Queen?”
I hung my head and explained that it was too old-fashioned.
“You have to wear the Harvest Queen! You don’t know how many hours Luella and her mother worked on that gown.”
“I don’t have to wear it.”
“Yes, you do,” she said, and she stood there with a hard look.
“But,” a smile growing on her stony face, “you don’t have to wear it to the prom. We can dress you up for pictures with your date, and then you can change into the other dress before you leave.” Mom had a workaround for everything.
So, when prom night arrived, she helped me dress. She even did my hair! I asked her how she could do hair since she never did anything with hers except a part-down-the-center ponytail.
“Well,” she said after a long pause, “I did Luella’s hair for some of her early pageants.”
When my date arrived, I explained to him that the dress I was wearing was just for some pictures. “A friend of my mom’s made this dress a long time ago.” He stared at my cleavage and said, “but, it’s a really nice dress.” We took pictures by his car, a ‘65 Mustang coupe. There we were, representing three decades. I was the fifties in sapphire blue, his car the sixties in tropical turquoise, and he was in a powder blue seventies polyester tux, with piped lapels, and platform shoes.
I rustled back to my bedroom to change into the polyester wrap dress. When I held it up, the limp blue material and feeble straps looked wilted. Everything in me said “wear the Harvest Queen, you’ll be fine.” So, I marched back out and declared, “Changed my mind!”
Mom clapped and hugged her shoulders, “That’s my favorite gown of all.”
A couple weeks later, we took a dozen prom pictures and a dozen roses to Miss Luella, to thank her for all her work. She beamed and whispered, “My, you look just as beautiful as your mother.”
When my brows knitted, Luella looked at Mom. “Why don’t you tell her, Doris.”
“Tell me what?”
Luella looked at me and said, “Juliana, that was your mother’s gown, not mine.”
Mom was very quiet and then she shook her head. “Yes, Luella and I started out doing the pageant circuit together. She wanted the prize money to start a business, and I wanted a scholarship and money for books.”
“When your mother went off to law school and got into women’s lib, she quit all the pageant stuff,” Luella added.
Then Mom said, “You supported women’s lib, too, Luella. Who looked after our little princess here while I was at precinct meetings and marches?”
Luella smiled and pulled out a photo album I’d never noticed from the bookshelf in her living room—Mom’s pageant album. There she was, unrecognizable except for the chiseled jaw, in beehives and bouffant flips, and makeup! And we did look alike.
“Why did you hide your album here, Mom?”
“I didn’t want to encourage you.”
“So, there are other things in the Pageant Room that you wore?”
Luella grabbed her hand, and they both pealed with laughter, bursting out in unison “Miss Perfect Posture, 1957!”
Then we ran to the PR. Luella pulled out the swimsuit that Mom wore when she was crowned “Miss Perfect Posture, NC”— she went on to the national competition in Chicago—and they showed me the picture where she stood on stage, in the swimsuit and heels, beside an x-ray of her own spine. It was a marketing thing for chiropractors.
“Put it on, Doris,” Luella urged.
Luella squeezed into her Miss North Carolina gown. Mom even put on some lipstick, and they both put on crowns.
I stood with them on either side of me, gazing into the three-way mirror. We smiled into each other’s eyes, and for the first time, I could see, straight through the suit and the gown, into their naked hearts.