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Fashion Victim

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In American literature's most famous act of fashion resourcefulness, Scarlett O'Hara, the impoverished, but proud heroine of Gone With the Wind, makes herself a knockout dress from a pair of old green velvet curtains. So attired, she travels to Atlanta to wheedle $300 out of her lover Rhett Butler to pay the taxes on Tara, her crumbling Georgia plantation. Rhett is in jail and unable to help. Scarlett, however, looks so fetching in her made-over curtains that she lures another man with money into marrying her, thus saving her home.

It's the sartorial equivalent of a camper without matches starting a fire with sticks, or a skier digging herself out of an avalanche with a spoon. Scarlett got a rare chance to test the limits of her fashion imagination, and last week I did, too.

It was a coincidence that I also happened to be in the South. I was traveling to Lexington, Kentucky, from my home in Chicago to attend a three day literary festival, a benefit for the Lexington Public Library. A massive power failure caused by a raging ice storm the day before had disrupted air travel, and I was rerouted to Louisville. I eventually got to Lexington by car, but my suitcase never made it.

Arriving at my hotel at 4:30 p.m., I had exactly one hour to come up with something to wear to the festival's kick-off event, a grand and exclusive dinner at an historic horse farm. Had I been the hipster author of a post-modern chronicle of urban disaffection, I might not have worried about showing up in the rumpled jeans and blouse I'd worn on the plane. But I'd written a novel about Coco Chanel, and it seemed, well, embarrassing not to dress up.

At the shopping center closest to my hotel, a small enclosed mall in a complex of nineteenth century buildings, I found only two shops selling women's clothes. The first, Miss Priss, specialized in gowns for beauty pageants. By the time I'd gone through the sequined extravaganzas and tulle confections in gum drop colors, not finding anything even vaguely suitable, I'd lost 20 minutes. I made an adrenaline fueled dash for Rodes-Campbell, the dress shop around the corner, and my last hope. I pawed through the racks. Amazingly, there were two cute dresses in my size. I settled on a sleeveless, black and white chiffon in an abstract print with a sweet flounce at the hem. Then, I raced back to Miss Priss for a handbag and shoes. I bought a plain silver clutch, but struck out on the shoes - all they stocked were the nude stilettos favored by pageant contestants to elongate their legs. Back at Rodes-Campbell, the grandmotherly sales assistant let me borrow a pair of silver high heeled sandals she kept in the dressing room for customers to wear while trying on clothes.

I arrived at the hotel just as the other authors were leaving for the party. A festival official offered to send another car for me in fifteen minutes. Upstairs, I tore off my jeans and scrambled into my new dress. I got the right sandal on and buckled the strap, but the buckle on the left sandal was broken! Using the needle and thread I always carry in my handbag, I sewed the ends of the straps together. When I took a step, however, they tore apart. I called down to the front desk for a pair of scissors, which I used to cut off the straps of both shoes, turning them into mules. I brushed my teeth with an index finger (my toothbrush was in my suitcase), slapped on some lipstick, and by the time my car arrived, I was good to go.

It was 20 degrees outside, and even with the car heat turned to full blast, I shivered in my sandals and skimpy dress. At the horse farm, we followed a meandering road lined by cypress trees, their iced branches glittering like diamonds in the pale moonlight. The house was a huge red brick affair with white columns and graceful porches. The cocktail hour was in full swing when I made my way up the wide stone steps, floodlit by gas lamps held aloft by statues of women in draped garments. The high-ceilinged, candlelit parlors were jammed to a standstill with authors and members of Lexington society. Somewhere in the crowd were the Iraqi ambassador and his Chinese wife, friends of the hostess.

I told everyone about my lost luggage, remarking on the irony of this happening to a woman who wrote about fashion, and about how reminiscent it was of other ironies, such as the time, many years earlier, when, waiting to board a plane in Paris with a sea of scruffy students, my toddler son threw up on the one woman in the group wearing expensive shoes.

Dinner was served in a room that hadn't changed much since 1860. Lots of ancestral portraits and old silver. Suddenly, I had a vision of Spanish moss dripping from Oaks and slaves picking cotton in the fields. I saw myself in a dress billowing over wide hoops, dancing with a handsome soldier. A voice returned me to the sumptuous meal. "Dahlin' aren't you cold?" drawled a white-haired gentleman as he regarded my bare legs.

Later, at the hotel, I called the 800 number for United baggage information and was told by a man with an Indian accent that my suitcase had arrived in Lexington and would be sent to my hotel within two hours. I slept peacefully for awhile, but snapped awake at five a.m., worried about my bag. It hadn't been delivered.

I pulled on my jeans and called a cab. At the airport, the United counter was deserted. A uniformed security guard told me that all the airline's employees were on flight duty and would be back in 45 minutes. I stood in front of the empty counter. A door in the wall behind it was open, and I could see into a narrow hall. It was a streaming black ribbon of suitcase, the bright orange and pink tag identifying mine clearly visible in the middle. "Is anyone there?" I called into the void.

All that separated me from my Vera Wang dress and Jimmy Choo heels, my vintage handbag and red pashmina, was the low metal platform where travelers place their luggage. I could step over it, grab my suitcase and be out of there in 30 seconds. What federal law would I be breaking? Would anyone notice?

I looked around. A couple of groggy-eyed men in business suits sat reading newspapers. The Delta employees at the next counter were chatting and laughing among themselves. I started to step over the platform. Then I remembered what had befallen my husband's tennis partner after he told a flight attendant to "fuck off" when she prevented him from leaving his seat during a recent flight to L.A. As soon as he disembarked, he was handcuffed and arrested by two burly police.

I decided to wait. Eventually, a United employee materialized. "Can I help you?" she asked sleepily. "That's mine," I said, pointing to my suitcase through the open door. She handed it to me without a word, not even asking to see my identification. I could have been a thief. Or worse. It was early, though, not yet 6:30 a.m. She wasn't fully awake, and, frankly, she didn't give a damn.