Hemlines In a World of Impermanence, I’ll Always Have Paris
I have never felt further from a former version of myself as I do now, here, today.
This is “Hemlines, ” a column by Tabitha Blankenbiller on dresses, identity, and how fashion reflects who we are—and who we might become.
Five years ago this September, I was crying on the Seine.
The last Batobus boat taxi had departed half an hour before we’d reached the riverbank. We had been in Paris for all of two hours by that point; enough time to shove our luggage into a prearranged town car at the Gare de Nord train station, careen through the city to our Saint-Germain hotel, plunk down our credit card and passports and then, at my unyielding insistence, head out to a few of the world’s most notable tourist sights and check them off our world citizen scorecards.
Now, I stood on the cobblestones sobbing into my scarf, which I’d hastily wrapped around my head to mask the frizzy mass of hair I couldn’t tame with the small lab of products I’d packed. Somehow I had known, a month and an ocean ago, when I filled out my Europe Outfit Spreadsheet with Train Day—White Embroidered Scarf, Black Travel Coat, Leggings that I’d be a mess. This was my thirteenth hour awake a mere forty-eight hours after our transcontinental flight from Houston, Texas to Munich, Germany. During our brief two nights in Bavaria, I’d bought a thousand euros’ worth of trachten (traditional Bavarian dirndl and lederhosen outfits), and partied at the opening day of Oktoberfest until I blacked out. That morning, I had been too needled with adrenaline and nerves about our sunrise train to Paris to catch up on sleep.
“There’s more boats tomorrow,” my husband Matt said gently, with more patience than I had left after the jet lag and the hangover and the whole day on the train listening to our seat-neighbor read the entire Rick Steves Paris guidebook aloud to her partner.
“I know, I’m sorry,” I said through heaving, sniffling breaths. “I just … don’t want … to waste … our time.”
This time; this precious, wildly expensive, finite amount of time in this most incredible city I’d never seen. And here I was, already missing the boat.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” he repeated. He pressed the trifold brochure on departure times into my hands as a promise. “We just got here, Tab. You need to calm down, okay?”
I nodded, wiping the stray tears into my scarf’s delicate embroidery. I’d ordered it six months ago with the justification You can wear it in Paris . Everything I’d done in the eight months since February was in preparation for this single week. In fact, my entire life had been spent waiting for it, when I would finally be lifted off of American soil and see with my own eyes that a broader world existed.
I saw my trajectories as linear, upward journeys. The things I built were cumulative. It could only get better from here.
“We’ll come back,” I repeated, taking a deep breath. The words became my vacation-of-a-lifetime mantra, a way to balance lifelong great expectations with chronic anxiety. Can’t figure out how to buy tickets to the real Moulin Rouge? It’s okay, we’ll come back. Arc de Triomphe has a crazy line? It’s okay, we’ll come back. Too full to try all these éclairs? It’s okay, we’ll come back. This won’t be your last time in Paris , I reminded myself. You are young and working hard and your life is just unfolding now, this life of seeing and doing and saying yes.
Even in the delirious despair of that first Paris night, with my throbbing feet and dizzy head, that promise felt true. I would be back here again. This wasn’t a culmination of wanting; this was a beginning. I saw my trajectories as linear, upward journeys. The things I built were cumulative. It could only get better from here.
I am writing this in the summer of 2022. The gulf between the woman typing and the girl crying on the river spans more physical and psychic distance than half a decade normally has the capacity to carry. The unexpected personal, the catastrophic global. I have never felt further from a former version of myself as I do now, here, today.
Growing up, international travel was a dream. We were a working-class family of five, privileged enough for the occasional Oregon Coast camping vacation and an every-three-or-so-years road trip to Disneyland. Like my fellow Washingtonian kids, I technically became a “world traveler” when our minivan rolled over the Canadian border into Vancouver for a weekend. But that felt just like being in Seattle, except with funky currency conversions and poutine at the Costco food court.
When bringing up travel with my parents, I was good at unintentionally cutting to the quick. I had grandiose ideas, picked up from grade-school chapter books or Nickelodeon commercials, about going to exclusive theater camp in Los Angeles or joining the Tacoma Youth Symphony. I’d bring home my half-baked plans far from the grasp of things like fees or other logistics and expect the same unbridled enthusiasm reflected back to me. My parents, meanwhile, were working as hard as possible to keep our family afloat, and I was continually pushing them into the dream-crushing business. I held on to nothing with the consistency I brought to the idea of “being an exchange student.” I’d bring home the study abroad packets from school any time they appeared, the ones with kids hitting all the tourist highlights on their incredible adventures: sailing in gondolas through Venice, uncovering hidden temples in Indonesia, flanking Beefeaters in London. The brochures laid out itineraries and opportunities in tidy tables, conveniently missing a cost column.
“You don’t know how much it is until you call,” I would tell my mom as she decimated sizzling ground beef with a spatula.
“If you have to call and ask, it’s too much,” she lobbed back.
“But it might not be, and you just have to find out.”
“Most kids don’t go on fancy trips all over the world,” she said. And that was the end.
Except that some kids did. Like Hannah, the German exchange student who spent a year of high school with me and my drama class friends. Or the yearly college visitor from someplace in Europe that my aunt and uncle hosted at their lake house. These people had figured it out, and that’s why they kept making brochures. On the surface, these students didn’t seem fancier or wealthier than my own family. The intricate delineations between lower- and upper-middle classes, and the individual financial choices and priorities that divided those groups even further, were far beyond my grasp.
One night I lucked out and caught my dad instead, who had much more patience for calling an 800-number on a lark. I watched him dial and specify the “Fall in Paris” program I’d circled in thick ballpoint pen. The conversation began with a few jovial laughs and pleasantries, the tenor that made him the favorite postal carrier on his suburban route. I was always mistaking strangers we met in the parking lot or at soccer games for people he knew, he could carry on with anyone so well. His confidence made my hopes soar because I knew his charm had no limit. As the conversation slipped one-sided into the finer details of sending his eldest daughter across the sea, I watched as his expression curdled. And I felt my heart slide down to my shoes.
He broke it down for me: the tuition (in the thousands), plus the plane ticket, the books, the pass to take the Metro tunnel, the requisite evening baguette and cheese.
“Who can afford that? How does anyone get to go?”
“Good question,” he said. Then, gentler, “You know this isn’t your only chance to go somewhere special, right? You’re a smart kid. You’ll grow up, have a good job. Then you can go wherever you want.”
I folded up this promise in my memory, the way kids do, repeating it when I elected to take high school French and took the first horrible job on the way to a good one. I remembered my dad’s temporary no when I spent my teens and twenties watching what felt like everyone else I knew jet off for adventure. My turn was on the way.
Is it too much to wear an Eiffel Tower dress to the Eiffel Tower ? I asked Facebook twenty years later before I hit check out on my cart. The dress was exactly my style, a vintage 1940s swing cut with airy ruffled sleeves and a full, swishing skirt that made me wish I’d learned to dance. It was black with small white towers. I couldn’t have custom-made something better.
Somehow the design team at Unique Vintage knew exactly when to release their Paris collection—exactly three months before I’d be there. This dress clearly existed for me to find it. Passing it up would be a backhand to the universe.
It was a hundred dollars with shipping; not exactly a non-splurge. Especially when piled up with everything else I had staged for packing into my new hard-shell luggage set: the two pairs of walking heels, the ankle-cut leggings, the slender Michael Kors travel purse, the croissant-shaped wallet, the miniature versions of all my haircare products. But I looked at all of these items through a prism— it’s for Paris . Sure, if I was spending tons of money on just any impractical non-essentials, it would be irresponsible. It would be something I should “feel bad about” and “stop doing” before we “ended up exhausting our financial resources.”
Instead, I waited for the Eiffel Tower dress to arrive and tried it on in the bedroom, propping my phone up against a stack of books to take a photo. I added it into my “Outfit” Excel spreadsheet for its day of destiny: Day Three, Notre-Dame, Champs-Élysées, Tour Eiffel.
What was the cost when held up against what I’d been waiting for my entire life?
The truth was, I could afford this frivolous bullshit. We didn’t have kids or an expensive house or vehicles that made a statement besides “I cheaply transport things.” We were structuring our lives in a way that allowed for the luxuries that were only anecdotes in my childhood—nice getaways, airline status, business class seats. All of our expenses passed through a miles-reward card, building a cache that could take us anywhere we could point on the globe and back. We put in years of time with jobs we couldn’t stand because the work brought us closer to escape.
The months between our March airfare purchase and September departure were spent in eternal prep mode. I splattered a Google map with more pins than I could visit if we stayed there for a month. I read a hundred Pinterest travel blogs. On summer nights, I filled our backyard with the sounds of Duolingo and my chants of “mon chien n’aime pas le fromage.”
Matt watched the packages stack at the door with one eyebrow raised, more curious than incredulous. The extent of his prep was ordering electrical outlet converters and making sure my new universal hair dryer had the correct wattage. “How are you even going to pack all of this? You know we’ve got to get on trains and stuff, right?”
“It’s fine, I watched a video.” And then ordered a set of packing cubes.
We put in years of time with jobs we couldn’t stand because the work brought us closer to escape.
At my work cubicle I made a countdown calendar out of pillaged Post-it notes and a Sharpie, and as I continued to tear yellow squares down to my destiny, my obsession did begin to feel a little weird. Everyone around me on the office floor had been on a major global vacation. Most of them had gone multiple times, boarding planes bound for destinations much less cliché than the Munich-to-Paris route I’d picked. I didn’t see any of them mainlining guidebooks, much less thematically aligning their wardrobes with landmarks. They took backpacks that were easy to get onto trains and pants that could be worn every day with a few quick sink washes. I was, I had to admit, going overboard.
“Excuse me,” a French-accented voice called out as Matt and I exited the terrifying Eiffel Tower elevator. It was the operator, pulling his phone out from the folds of his thick coat. “Monsieur, can you take a picture of me with your beautiful wife and her Tour Eiffel dress?”
I could see a weary smile curl across Matt’s lips as my heart exploded with joy. He would never hear the end of this. “Only if I can get one with you, too!” I said, leaning in with a grin that strained the structural integrity of my face.
This felt like acceptance. I knew I’d never in a million years pass for a real French person—I wasn’t fooling anyone. Matt and I didn’t have to open our mouths before waiters were already pulling Union Jack–crested menus to seat us. This was something soft and slightly amused, the same thing I felt when the man who owned the Chinese restaurant squeezed my shoulder and praised me for saying “bonne nuit” instead of “au revoir.” Or when the woman at the kitchen supply store insisted on coming outside and taking a picture of me with her storefront because I was wearing a cooking-themed dress. It was a solid thank you for trying . And that tiny fraction of love was worth waiting the extra twenty years for.
According to the schedule I’d been molding for months, this was our third day in the city, giving me two solid nights of deep sleep after my Seine breakdown. We caught the Batobus and were learning how to use the Metro. I was no longer feeling guilty about the shops I neglected to visit, all of the red pins on my Google map that still remained unexplored, as we scraped at a fraction of what this sprawling new world contained. Our breezy hotel with a balcony overlooking a restaurant we never got to visit felt like home, the concierge calling “Bonjour, Blankenbillers!” as we walked to the heaving old elevators.
I’ll always stay here , I thought. My mind was already spinning this once-in-a-lifetime trip into a routine, a tradition I could enact every few years or so. Each time I returned, I’d have a set of spaces I could count on as familiar and warm as I folded in more and more of what I couldn’t do the last time. Every time we came back, I’d always pack my Tour Eiffel dress.
The dress is hanging in my storage closet now, clumped together with all of the other garments from before I had a child and, six months later, plunged into a life of pandemic. I’m not sure if it still fits, and my heart can’t handle finding out. To stretch the seams or lose a battle with the zipper would be the final admission that I was not going to get the chance to go and retrieve that piece of my heart.
It is forever jarring to move through a world so intent on reminding us of its impermanence. Even with all the means in the world, there is no slipping back to my 2017, thirty-two-year-old self. Tour Eiffel may still stand, but it gazes out on a Notre-Dame singed down to her bones. The ease with which we moved around and through places has hardened into a weariness that does not lend itself to cozying up to strangers for pictures.
Maybe I won’t get to Paris again. Perhaps that was truly my trip of a lifetime wrapped in a beginning-of-many-more-journeys costume. I told myself I would be back because I had to believe that I would be; because it was the only way to keep my anxious mind in the moment instead of spinning ahead, wondering what wasn’t being done, asking when I could fix the mistakes I must surely be making. If the last five loaded, dense years have taught me anything, it is the lack of guarantees: that the thousand-year-old monument will still be standing, that airplanes will still fly, that I will still have an able body to move unencumbered through this world.
What a gift it is then, to be ridiculous. To spend months studying and listing and designing in anticipation of ten incredible days. To cry on the plane, next to the boat, along the river; to remain uncalloused from the enormity of it all. To take the dress, so perfect it seems woven by your heartbeat, where it belongs. To be delirious enough with joy to believe, even for a few moments out of the millions in your life, that this is where you are meant to be as well.