Hemlines Becoming an “It Girl” in the Las Vegas Body-con Dress
The back was nothing but a web of elastic straps, and the front wasn’t low-cut as much as it was nonexistent.
This is “Hemlines, ” a column by Tabitha Blankenbiller on dresses, identity, and how fashion reflects who we are—and who we might become.
“What do you think?” asked Vanessa, my sister’s best friend, as we entered the women’s dress department of the Macy’s at Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas. The rest of the bridesmaids were back in our double suite at the Venetian, sleeping off a lunch of vodka sodas that had magically run endless and free from the bars wedged into every crevice of The Strip—the same bars that had charged me eighteen dollars for a boozy smoothie every other time I’d visited, when I was minus an entourage that resembled the stock-photo search results for “young attractive woman.” Vanessa knew an emergency when she saw one. Tonight was Club Night, and I had nothing to wear.
I’d tried my best to pack for my sister Emma’s bachelorette party. I’d combed through my huge collection of dresses, mostly vintage-inspired circle skirts with whimsical prints, and sent her pictures of the lowest-cut, shortest options. Those are really cute, she wrote back, b ut do you have anything, like, skankier?
Emma was three years younger than me—a negligible difference now that we’d both breached thirty, but an insurmountable gulf growing up in a small Washington State logging town. I was the Model United Nations delegate who ran with the drama club kids. Emma was in varsity cheer and sat with the prom queen contenders. I spent those years hiding my confounding, unruly body in graphic tees and Old Navy pullovers, watching the smaller girls flit it and out of stores like Mariposa and Wet Seal wearing tiny scraps that wouldn’t fit over a single one of my thighs.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted to Vanessa, just as my eyes lifted from the overwhelming rows of racks and up to the wall display. They came to rest on an understated, matte black dress with strappy shoulders and a deeply-cut neckline. Something you might actually find stocked outside of Nevada. “What about that one?”
“That’s freaking hot,” she said, plucking my size and hustling me into the dressing room. Until I started wrestling the clingy fabric over my hips, I didn’t realize that it was a body-con dress—one that was secretly super-complicated. The back was nothing but a web of elastic straps, and the front wasn’t low-cut as much as it was nonexistent.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” I said, cracking the door slightly open—enough of an invitation for Vanessa to sweep in.
“Why not? You look fucking amazing. Look at your boobs.”
“I can’t wear a bra with this. There’s no way I could make it work.” With my double-D cup size, I couldn’t even turn to the mirror without feeling like I’d fall out of this contradiction, which managed to be both inescapably tight and mostly absent.
“That’s what tape is for. Don’t worry, we’ll totally take care of it.”
The truth—that this was my only option and night was on its way—got me to reluctantly surrender my credit card. Maybe the club would be too dark to see the tags still on it, and I could take it back later.
At the Macy’s counter, Vanessa told the sales associate that “there has to be a coupon. I know you’ve got to have something good going on, right?” I was about to point out that it was a Calvin Klein dress, one of the designers that the store always excluded from coupons in the obnoxiously long fine print, when, in a Jedi mind-trick trance, the associate ten-keyed a magical twenty percent off. “See?” Vanessa said, grinning at my obvious shock. “All you’ve gotta do is ask.”
Three months before our flights departed, I was Googling “am I too fat to get into Las Vegas clubs” in a panic. My club-hopping knowledge was exclusively sourced from watching Sex and the City six times, a show in which no one over a sample size ever seemed to get in with SJP. I hated myself for asking such a reductive, cruel question—one that went against all of the progressive, body positive, intersectional feminism I claimed to champion on every other day. But every other day, I wasn’t spearheading a bachelorette party for my sister and her ethereal friends.
“My sister’s bridesmaids are gorgeous,” I’d tell people in my everyday life. They’d smile and nod and equate this to the real world, in which I pass as fashionable and put-together. “Let me show you a picture,” I’d say, pulling out my phone and zooming in on the unnaturally photogenic cluster.
“How does that even happen?” They wanted to know. I’ve never had an answer, just a narrative old and retold enough times to qualify as truth. I distill our lives as family into a snippet: she’s the popular one, I’m the artsy one. Daria and Quinn Morgendorffer. I’ve worn the story down into a familiar trench. It was much easier to reconcile my jealousy for everything I imagined she had when I held her life at arm’s length. While I spent weekends watching indie films and comedy specials in my best friend’s basement, I rolled my eyes at what I imagined her weekends were made of: football-game applause, fabulous parties, an adorable boyfriend. It would take decades before I learned about the ruthless cruelty of the cheer coach, the harsh dangers of the parties, the addictions of the shitty boyfriend.
I distill our lives as family into a snippet: she’s the popular one, I’m the artsy one.
But when Emma said that the most important, non-negotiable pre-wedding festivity had to be a bachelorette party in Las Vegas, every shitty story about myself I thought I’d grown past believing mushroomed straight back.
How did you get into the club? Was there a membership process? Did we need reservations? Applications? These were the questions keeping me up at night.
“You don’t need to do anything, I promise,” Emma told me over and over. “They’ll let us in when we get there. You don’t buy anything when you’re a group of girls.”
“Emma thinks we can just go to Vegas and ‘not buy anything’ because we’re girls,” I told my husband Matt, as we continued to chip away at the credit card balance we’d amassed on our last trip together to Vegas. We had paid for every sip, every bite, every glance around the Strip. Our only asset to admission was the plastic tethered to our bank accounts. We only stayed for an extended weekend because we literally couldn’t afford another minute of hundred-dollar lunches and five-dollar water bottles.
That trip, two months before Emma’s party, had been my birthday present from Matt. No clubs, just fancy dinner reservations and concert tickets. I’d spent a week in my work cubicle daydreaming about the outfits I’d put together. I carefully rolled up my red lace sheath for our special steak dinner at a now-disgraced chef’s flagship, and folded a vintage-inspired circle dress into a tidy square. I made an appointment at the luxe Bellagio hair salon for a blowout, and had a MAC makeup artist fleck my eyelids with gold glitter and a Betty-Draper-in-Italy cat-eye. In the lobby of the Venetian, Matt snapped a picture of me in front of the golden globe statue, my arms stretched above me, caressing the shimmering world in the background. I felt like a goddess.
The next morning, I played slots at the base of the Paris Las Vegas’s faux Eiffel Tower in my pinup dress, my second-day salon hair still coiffed and ready for another day of shopping—which would also involve a surprise selfie with Gordon Ramsay. One man, wearing a suit that possibly cost as much as my car, emerged from between the walls and lingered next to my machine.
“You look so put-together,” he said. “No one dresses up like that in this town, you know?”
It was the same thing I heard at home, and away, and from strangers on the internet: You are so cute! So fashionable! So fun! This was the niche I culled for my thirties, after all the teenage and young adulthood years I spent flailing around for an identity. My style emerged from the office-job necessity of Ann Taylor Loft, the aspirational tableaux of Anthropologie windows, and seasons of Mad Men—fun and bright, but restrained enough to give me the illusion of control. Nothing visible that made me feel insecure or vulnerable. Pretty and composed was my sexy.
He did not offer me dinner.
In my intensive club research for my next trip to the city, I looked for proof of Emma’s girls-fly-free theory. I read insider blogs on why you simply must pony up for a table (for security and space) and how bottle service works (pay hundreds of dollars for Smirnoff and juice). I analyzed the politics of the line (the more men there are, the longer you’re going to wait) and the necessity of arriving before midnight. I learned about the fluctuations of cover prices depending on whether the DJ was a name you’d recognize as having been romantically linked to Katy Perry. I noted the vaguely threatening warnings about tipping the doorman, the bouncers, the cocktail waitresses, the bartenders, and anyone else who glanced in your direction. “The only way to VIP is generosity,” they emphasized. I imagined twenty-dollar bills unfurling from my palms in Bellagio fountain fronds, and flying back home to give my husband the bad news. “You didn’t actually like living in a house, right?”
The deeper I dove into the Secret Travel Tips and Top Lists, the clearer the picture became: I was going to be on the hook for hundreds of dollars per night in a hot, crowded box where it would be too loud to hear anyone speak and too crowded to get a drink, and I still didn’t know if I was bangable enough to be allowed through the doors.
They appeared out of nowhere, in each lobby where we paused, any casino floor where we were caught lingering. Men in impeccably tailored suits with stories of basketball players holding birthday parties, needing guests. Just give me your number, we’ll work out a nice time for all of you. You like sushi, right?
Later that night, as our whole Real Housewives party walked down Las Vegas Boulevard, the men’s text messages would not stop.
What are you ladies planning tonight?
We’ve got a table saved for you, just let me know when you get here.
You’re still coming to Tao tonight, right?
“What do I say?” I asked the herd, batting away more men with flyers and clipboards and drink coupons as they begged us to stop, just for a moment.
“You don’t need to say anything,” said Leanna, Emma’s roommate and friend since high school. She had the kind of legs studios took our million-dollar insurance policies on.
This was my first ticket into the buffet. I wanted to gorge.
“I feel bad though,” I said, closing out the hopeful word bubbles clouding my phone screen. I wanted to answer them all, walk past every winding Splash Mountain-like line, climb every secret staircase, drink all the free vodka with muddled lemons. This was my first ticket into the buffet. I wanted to gorge.
“You’re so sweet!” Katie, the bartender, called from two paces back.
“People ditch out on promoters all the time,” Vanessa assured me. “It’s part of their whole job.”
“I’ve gone from being ignored to being stalked,” I said, sidestepping another boy with a fistful of Lil Jon at LIGHT postcards, tuning out his pleas for “just one sec.”
Where were these men the dozens of times before when I’d stood under these same chandeliers, hair styled and eyeliner wings on point, feeling amazing but clandestinely unworthy? “It’s because you were there as a couple,” Emma assured me. “We’re only getting this attention because we’re all traveling in a pack.”
It all sounded so cut and dried, when you moved through the world looking exactly the way they wanted you to. It opened a gate I didn’t even know existed and ferried you over to the opulent underground.
As we approached the line for TAO Nightclub, I glanced down at my chest for what felt like the twentieth time. I couldn’t believe these were my boobs, defying gravity and physics by turning up toward the stars, creating perfect hills and valleys. Once again, I pretended to straighten out my necklace so the back of my hand could brush against them and affirm once more that no, they were not moving save for the softest, slightest tremor that betrayed that yes, they were real flesh.
While we were all getting ready to leave, Emma had brought out a black roll of body tape from her suitcase, as naturally as I’d unpack a toothbrush. “I just watched Khloe Kardashian do this on Snapchat yesterday,” she said, having me lift my bare breasts to the sky while she constructed a seismically sound foundation around my rib cage. When I reluctantly let go, they remained in place, better than with any Very Sexy Push-Up that Victoria’s Secret had ever sold me.
“How is that even possible?”
“It’s the tape,” she shrugged. “It’s magic.”
I had witnessed her coven before in my periphery, gathering at our house before football games. I had rolled my eyes and called up my own friends, the ones I thought were so much truer and more authentic. I didn’t go to her games; I wouldn’t even agree to drive them to school with me. I didn’t give them the chance to reject me before I wrote them off myself. Now their open arms, the instantaneous and unquestioning way they folded me into their decades-old crew, were generosities I did not deserve. But it was also a reconciliation for a one-sided battle. How many times do we get to tear down our high school prejudices and embrace the people we all became? Those years and roles were far back in their past, and finally, I felt them slip into mine.
I barely had time to take a selfie with Emma outside the entrance before we were all being hustled inside by henchman-looking dudes with black suits, lineman shoulders, sunglasses, and headsets. We were seated in a dining room so dark I couldn’t tell what was being plated in front of us—chicken? Edamame? But in the dim red light, I could make out other clusters of girls seated around neighboring tables. It was like a bachelorette-party holding pen, with those text-happy suit guys creeping in and out of the corners to trade notes with the bouncers. I still had half a glass of complimentary champagne in my hand when we were ushered up the stone Buddha-crowned stairs to the club above.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I breathed into the chaos when we arrived at our booth. Right on the dance floor in front of the DJ, with only a heavily guarded rope separating our party from the giant mass of humanity jumping, drinking, and waving their phones. As I’d read on vegasprimer.com, this spot started at $3,000 a night.
I wasn’t just in. I was in the throne.
The only problem was, I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to do. Emma and Vanessa were instantly up on the balcony, singing and dancing along with every track. Katie and Leanna went to track down the smokers’ balcony. I wanted to get a drink, but the crushing weight of people was too thick to hunt for the bar. So I sat in my guarded, cushioned bubble, and I marveled. I marveled at the magnums of champagne with their mounted sparklers, elevated through the crowd like Cleopatra’s barge. I marveled at the girls in golden bathtubs, covered in rose petals.
Like everything in this desert mirage of a city, the scene wasn’t without its ugly contradiction, lurking just underneath a thin veneer. The gold and marble columns, the Chihuly glass installations, were footsteps from the boulevard sidewalks littered with escort cards and cigarette butts. Those powerful enough to know luck spent generously from the top of each tower as the houseless clamored for refuge below. That same inequality held court in this champagne hideout, where the “correct” combination of fabric, heels and company made the difference between being whisked to a dance floor or continuing past to the escalator, down to the casino buffet. Palaces glowed in the dark, and each night Lake Mead drained further. Weeks from now, after the party and the wedding had dimmed, the dress would go in a Glad bag with old sweaters and ugly winter hats to Goodwill—unforgettable for a night, but not something I could justify keeping any longer.
Would I have been able to make it up here without the cheer team? Maybe not. This was a strange, once-in-a-lifetime trip down a rabbit hole of privilege. But the only one doubting my ability to be sexy, to fit in, was me. Too scared of what I couldn’t hide in a dress tailored like skin.
Without thinking, I brushed my hand again against my almost-bare breast. Still present, still standing, just as spectacular as I’d never allowed it to be. Such an overwhelming amount of magic when you’re granted the grace to see it.