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Lori Fradkin

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Before You Buy A $1 Dress, Consider This

Posted: 01/05/12 10:40 AM ET

If you see me in a strapless blue dress with a corseted top and colored stitching around the rib cage and at the bottom, don't be shy -- inquire. Not only will I happily reveal that I got it on sale, I will also tell you exactly what it cost me. The dress was originally priced around $750. I paid $1.

For its one-year anniversary, a discount website I frequented was offering $1 merchandise to all who signed up for a special sale. I don't actually remember signing up, but some Pavlovian response must have kicked in the morning the sale began. I was at my computer before 7 a.m.

As a Texas native, I can only compare what happened next to a rodeo event known as the calf scramble. The pen swings open, and shoppers desperately chase after anything -- anything -- they can get their hands on. The rule was one item per customer, and if I had been prepared, I would have formulated a strategy: Go to the handbags section, sort them from highest original price to lowest, purchase your favorite on the high end. Instead, I panicked. I went immediately to the clothing and sorted by size. I saw a silk-blend-taffeta dress with a sweetheart neckline and a ruffled hem and threw it with virtual abandon into my cart. Designed by Luella Bartley, it was in British sizing, of which I wasn't certain, but if I took any more time to browse and make an informed decision, it could be lost for good.

Many years ago, my grandmother saw a beautiful gold necklace in Venice that she loved, but because it was just the beginning of her vacation and she didn't want to get the first thing she came across, she left without it. She has regretted that decision for 26 years, and as a result, all her grandchildren have been taught to live by the motto, "You may never get back to Venice." I was not leaving Venice -- understudied in this performance by my desk chair -- without my dress.

There was also the fact that I had recently become a discount shopping regular. The Luella dress may have been my greatest triumph -- the most extreme and literal example of stretching my dollar -- but it wasn't the first time I'd turned to high-end sale sites to purchase items that would otherwise be out of my price range. I suppose I could wear them and pretend that my salary magically expands to cover their original prices, like a car that looks tiny but is actually filled with a shocking number of Marc Jacobs-clad clowns, but of course I don't do this. Instead, I blurt out the discounts as if I suffer from a severe case of Fashion Tourette's.

When my $1 dress arrived I could hardly contain myself, and it turned out that my dress could not contain me -- or not my top half, at least. I'm a petite woman with a petite chest, so I was surprised. Due to the construction of the bodice, it simply would not zip. I sucked in. Nothing. I sucked in again. Nope. There was no give at all in the material, nothing to let out that I could see. (My mother, helpfully: "Maybe that's why it was only a $1.") And yet when you have a $750 dress in your possession, you don't want it to not be in your possession.

I took it to my tailor, who told me if I was willing to do without the small bow on the back, he could use the material to remake the top. He would charge me $95, but considering that the total cost would still be under $100, that seemed more than worth it. When I tried on the finished product, I somehow refrained from saying, "I love you."

The dress then hung in my closet for a year before the right occasion came around. It was too fancy for the rehearsal dinners, too casual for the black-tie affairs. Or it wasn't appropriate for the season. It made me wish I had a life that included movie premieres or cocktail parties, strictly for sartorial reasons. It was too hard to justify getting dolled up to watch "30 Rock."

Finally, the perfect event appeared on the horizon. A friend of mine was getting married in Mexico in a family-only ceremony, but she and her husband would have a reception for friends after the honeymoon. It was meant to be.

About two months before the party, I thought it might be wise to try the dress on. I zipped it up and realized, to my not-quite-disappointment, that it was now too big. Though I hadn't made a conscious effort to lose weight, it had happened, and while a minor weight fluctuation is often unnoticeable to anyone but the person experiencing it, my dress proved a keen observer. It could have been cast in plaster, so unwilling was it to mold to anything that veered from one specific size. I busted a few moves in my apartment and discovered that if the band played "Shout" or "Jump Around," Houston would have an indecency problem. I went back to my tailor and paid him another $75. The dress was still a steal, but at the rate I was going, it wouldn't be long before I paid full price.

It was at this point that my taffeta friend took on a life of its own. It became a focal point of my thoughts, its smallness looming large. I eat generally healthy and operate on the belief that if I have a bad day or week, I'll make up for it with a good one. This philosophy goes out the window when you are on deadline. To fit into a dress with no wiggle room, I would have to be careful. It was like a threat from Ursula of "The Little Mermaid": "If you want to wear the dress, my dear, you've got to pay the toll." It wouldn't cost much, just my yogurt pretzels.

Conveniently, the week before the party, I had plans after work three nights in a row, and I was concerned about how I would monitor everything I consumed without being obnoxious about it. I thought about the dress constantly, tried it on daily to make sure we were still getting along. Along the way I determined, due to the difficulty I had getting in and out of it on my own, that it wasn't really a single person's dress -- it was more of a "Honey, can you help me with this?" dress. Mercifully, a date canceled, but I still had plans for various happy hours, the second of which broke my resolve entirely. Reader, I ate mini-cheeseburgers.

I packed a backup option, but on the night of the reception, my dress finally got to make its debut. I arrived at the party at the same time as a friend, and as we stepped out of our respective cars, it immediately elicited admiration. True, this was a friend who always expressed enthusiasm for my style, but no matter. My parents, standing nearby, breathed a sigh of relief after hearing about it all week. I attempted to do the same.

PHOTOS: My $1 Dress

The Dress, Pre-Purchase
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