Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dress Drama?

Last weekend my town was hit with its second tragedy in less than a month when another of its teens was killed in tragic accident. Two families have had to bury sons they were expecting to watch graduate in a few weeks. Instead of graduation caps and arranging parties for the sons whose lives were only just beginning they have had to choose coffins and arrange funerals. I cannot even begin to imagine what that feels like but I am certain it is the hardest thing that either family has ever done. The first death, that of Michael Rosado, happened over Spring break and resulted in a flurry of death threats to the driver who survived. Emotions run high in times like these and the impulse to channel emotion toward the person we see as responsible is, if not acceptable, at least understandable. It didn't help his case that he went on a social networking site and posted questionable updates about partying and pornography when his friend was barely buried. That said, he is a child whose judgment is not fully developed and so I suppose allowances must be afforded.
The most recent death, that of James Volpe, has resulted in something of a circus sideshow centered around a prom dress and a reality television show boutique. It seems Volpe's girlfriend, Jacqueline Genovese, tried to return her $1200 prom dress in an effort to help his family defray the cost of his funeral. It is not clear if the family needed the money but that is not the point. The girl, in an act of what seems to be generosity, wanted to accomplish two things 1) to get rid of a reminder of dreams that will not come to fruition and 2) make an offering to the family that in some tangible way shows how much she valued her boyfriend. For a teenage girl a prom dress is far more valuable than whatever the price tag reads. It is a symbol of all the Cinderellaesque dreams that have been nurtured in her from the time she first watched Disney movies. For better or worse, ours is a culture that rears girls to see dressing up like a princess to be, in many ways, the pinnacle of their young lives. American girls play dress up from the time they are toddlers, stores are replete with faux-glass slippers, tiaras, glitter makeup, you name it, miniature glamor is a staple of little girls toy chests across the country. What's the message? Well, that's debatable but at the very least, one message is beauty is magic so is it really so hard to understand how a sixteen year old could see this dress (or the money spent on it) as the biggest gift she can give to a grieving family?
Enter the 'wicked witch' who, through circumstance and incredibly questionable business sense, becomes the focus of all the emotion attached to losing a young person with so much potential. In this story the villian will be played by Diane Scali, owner of Diane & Co, a high end dress shop featured on the Oxygen network's show Jersey Couture. Scali, in what appears to be one of the worst business decisions ever, initially refused to refund Genovese's money citing the store's no refund policy. In a move that can only be called assanine she and her daughters chose to go on the news and call the mother and daughter insincere and Diane even asked if people would cry when her shop went out of business. Perhaps one of the worst public relations moves in history. Let's, for a moment, indulge Scali's niece's assertion on a public website that Genovese's mother is "Psycho bitch", if this were indeed the truth, what, exactly is to be gained by digging in your heels? Now the child has lost her boyfriend of two years, your store has decimated its own reputation and a grieving family has become subject to a media frenzy that interrupts their grieving process. Remember the Volpes, the actual victims here? It is probably safe to say that a national controversy involving flashy reality stars is not helpful in their grieving process. Somehow, in all the brouhaha about a dress their son's life has been eclipsed. I agree that Diane & Co is a company that no one should set foot in as it has exhibited a stunning lack of concern for this community but I question whether all the vitriol on the Boycott Diane & Co facebook page hasn't caused us to lose sight of the real tragedy here, a promising young man is gone.
There are cultural questions here as well. What, exactly does it say about us, that in an economic recession, it is not uncommon for parents to spend $1200 on dress that will be worn for all of a few hours. What does it say about us that at least some of our daughters have so much invested in embodying the fairy tale princesses we reared them on? I, too, am guilty of this, my daughter watched these movies, many Halloweens she dressed as a Disney princess, she owned makeup kits, attended princess-themed parties, and I am eagerly looking forward to taking prom pictures in only a year or two. I remember my own prom with relish and I still enjoy an occasion that affords me the opportunity to buy a fancy dress. Diane Scali didn't become famous for being a nice person, she became famous for running a shop that was all about image. She has made her living helping women alter their appearance going so far as to call herself the 'boobologist' for her ability to create the illusion of larger breasts. She and her family have been successful in selling America exactly what it wanted, external beauty. They only seem to have run into difficulty when the audience changed what it wanted. When we wanted inner beauty, generosity, empathy, and tolerance they seem to have fallen short.
Don't get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be beautiful but when your culture has devolved into surgical intervention, vacuous reality stars who value image and money over decency, when the death of a young man takes a backseat to dress drama, it's time to ask ourselves if we've lost focus.