Caroline Before Chanel: How I Almost Destroyed a $2,100 Dress

The Devil Wears Prada, but I scavenge from the clearance rack of Marshall’s.

Look, sometimes I’ll splurge on a sweater that won’t get destroyed with one rinse cycle. I’m not frugal, per se. I just enjoy a good bargain.

That being said and done, of course, I’m a natural fit for Rodeo Drive. It’s a quiet Monday morning when I decide to grace the sacred ground of Beverly Hills style with my appearance. Long known as the backdrop of paparazzi photos of the Kardashian family, Rodeo Drive is a street known for its luxury, high-end fashion. Brands like Dior, Prada, Gucci, and Yves St. Laurent have storefronts along the street where Ferraris and Lamborghinis routinely drive, their sunroofs down.

I’m in a T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, so, you know, I dressed for the part. I’m desperately trying to pretend like I, too, have held an Oscars statuette, or owned a mansion in Beverly Hills. Maybe if I hold my head at a certain angle or maintain a certain posture, I can pass for Constance Wu or one of Brangelina’s kids. As people walk by me, I carefully note they’re all wearing white jeans. Good going, Caroline.

For a while, I’m content with taking some pictures, walking around aimlessly, getting a feel for the street. Normal tourist behavior. And then, suddenly, I decide that it’s not enough. I mean, why would you look at the outside of a museum when you can go in and see all the exhibits?

The first store I venture inside is Yves St. Laurent. The minimalist gold and white exterior, the mirrored walls, the sleek racks of black leather jackets and tailored blouses are straight from the pages of Vogue. Six of these sweaters probably amount to a semester’s tuition.

The security guard is almost disarmingly nice. It’s already pretty obvious from the moment that I walk in that I’m not going to buy anything, and it’s like he can smell the fear.

“Welcome,” he says, a smile clearly reading, Hey, pleb, you and I both know you don’t belong in here, so don’t touch anything. I take some nonchalant iPhone pictures, then make my great escape.

As I emerge from YSL, I’m hit with the realization that that wasn’t so hard. After all, it’s just a store, right? I’ve been to lots of stores. What’s so different about this one?

So, I try again. I go into Prada, and then Gucci, admiring all the clothes that are too expensive and too avant garde to even dream of wearing. The nice part about going into designer brand stores is that no store attendants harass you about the discounts (because there aren’t any) or the new collections (because there’s no way in hell you can afford anything). They just side-eye you patronizingly and wait for you to leave. Bizarrely, it’s almost kind of refreshing: there’s no façade of politesse like at normal retail stores, no niceties. No one’s pretending that they want to help you. They just want you to leave without stealing anything.

But I’ve already come this far in my infiltration of the world of Beverly Hills wealth, so I figure it’s time to kick it up a notch. I decide I’m going to find a hyperbolically expensive dress and try it on.

And what better place to carry out the mission than iconic French house of style: Chanel. Determined, I enter the store, which occupies a whole corner of the block and several stories. I walk inside. Several patrons are already being helped. I climb a flight of stairs to the second floor.

After a little perusing, I find The Dress. It’s salmon pink, chiffon, and a hefty $2,100. It’s lacy and insubstantial, the sort of dress I might wear if I were five inches taller and two dress sizes smaller. And had a disposable $2,100 sitting around in a Gringotts vault somewhere.

I go to take it off the hanger. It slips off easily… and so does the one next to it. And the one on the other side. And pretty soon the dresses are all falling off, and I’m holding a collective $6,300 in my hands and nearing a panic attack.

Lucky for me, one of the attendants comes up to me and laughs jovially. “Happens all the time,” he says in a lilting Australian accent. “We need to get better hangers.”

“Uh-huh,” I say, trying to regulate the pitch of my voice. Stay focused. “Um, actually, could I… could I try this on?”

Caroline Tsai | Lets Go The dreaded dress. Photo: Caroline Tsai

“Sure,” he says, then hands me the dress on the hanger. “Fitting room’s right there.”

The fitting room is less a fitting room and more a very posh child’s bedroom or very big, lavish dog bed. There’s a soft, flattering yellow light that diffuses from the mirror and washes over the furniture. I pull the dress over my head.

Like I said. Five inches taller, two dress sizes smaller. In other words, is any human being actually proportioned for this article of clothing? I have doubts. It’s very, very see-through. It’s also oddly shaped, to say the least. I was planning to take some pictures, but it’s definitely more transparent than I thought, so here’s me holding the dress post-panic.

Fantasy’s up, I tell myself, so I pull the dress over my head. At least, I try to. It gets stuck

around my head. I pull a little harder.

It’s not that I hear a seam pop or anything. I just feel  a certain degree of pressure. And I know that we’re nearing the unsafe zone of zipper ripping or fabric tearing and I don’t have an extra $2,100 on hand in case of emergency. Arms jutting out of the Chiffon Bomb at weird angles, legs sticking out of the bottom, my vision swimming salmon pink chiffon, I stand there awkwardly and wait for divine intervention. Nothing comes, no angel to reach out of the heavens and unzip this monstrosity. I feel encased in a salmon pink pison. Will I live like this forever?

Finally, blessedly, it lifts up around my head. I quickly replace it on the hanger, hand it back to the attendant, and then hightail it out of the store.

The experience reminds me of a line from one of my favorite books, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Miranda has just come to terms with her impending divorce from her Hollywood celebrity husband, and tells her dog, “This life was never ours. We were only ever borrowing it.”

The life wasn’t mine, but it was fun to borrow, anyway.

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