"The Blue Dress" by Sharon Olds

The first November after the divorce
there was a box from my father on my birthday—no card, but a
big box from Hink’s, the dark
department store with a balcony and
mahogany rail around the balcony, you could
stand and press your forehead against it
until you could almost feel the dense
grain of the wood, and stare down
into the rows and rows of camisoles,
petticoats, bras, as if looking down
into the lives of women. 

The box was from there, he had braved that place for me
the way he had entered my mother once
to get me out.  I opened the box—I had
never had a present from him—
and there was a blue shirtwaist dress

blue as the side of a blue teal
disguised to go in safety on the steel-blue water.

Blue Teal
I put it on, a perfect fit,
I liked that it was not too sexy, just a
blue dress for a 14-year-old daughter the way
Clark Kent’s suit was just a plain suit for a reporter, but I

Felt the weave of the mercerized Indian Head cotton
against the skin of my upper arms and my
wide thin back and especially the skin of my
ribs under those new breasts I had
raised in the night like earthworks in commemoration of his name

A year later, during a fight about
just how awful my father had been,
my mother said he had not picked out the dress,
just told her to get something not too expensive, and then
had not even sent a check for it,

that's the kind of man he was.  So I
never wore it again in her sight
but when I went away to boarding school I
wore it all the time there,
loving the feel of it,

just casually mentioning sometimes it was a gift from my father,
wanting in those days to appear to have something
whether it was true or a lie, I didn’t care, just to
have something.
--Sharon Olds (The Gold Cell)

Father and Daughter (pencil sketch) by Kevin Candon

"I'll Stand By You" from The Pretenders sung by PS22 Children's Chorus


  1. I love the PS22 Children's Chorus, what an amazing group of kids, and what an amazing director they have!

    I remember seeing this poem before, and again I'm find myself feeling such sympathy for the writer, to have invested so much weight in the father's gift, and to have found out later that it wasn't really from him.

    I think the timing of that revelation is especially poignant. A year is long enough for the feelings and connections to be deeply established,but not long enough to give the distance and perspective it would have when she was older. And yet she still tries to maintain that feeling of connection, at school where no one can tear away the illusion. Really heart-rending.

  2. Hi Kathy! Yes, they are an amazing group of children and so emotive. I honestly think that many of them have significant experiences themselves or they would not be able to create such dramatic interpretation.

    I too empathize with the narrator. I remember receiving a gift purportedly from my father when I was nine for my birthday. It was a beautiful doll with french clothes, and I had never had a gift from him before. I opened the card and it said "Happy birthday, 11-year-old!" The gift had been from my grandfather trying to cover for my dad, but the card was genuinely my father's. I threw both away. My mother tried to comfort me. She said nothing about wasting a perfectly good gift. Yes, away at school where no one can tear away the illusion. Nice way of putting it. Another friend asked why she never wore it again in her mother's sight but it is very clear to me, and to you also I think. Thank you for your lovely comment. I added the drawing of a father and daughter at the end. It seemed appropriate. It is, after all, what she wanted. What we all want.

  3. What sadness! I give my ex credit for fostering connection and relationship with our sons after the divorce. Some men are so inept at relationships, even those with their own children.

  4. Yes, I agree. I think it is good to explore these things once in a while. I have always loved this poem. It speaks to my heart. When I was a teacher, I would read it in class and always see some young woman in the front with tears in her eyes. I knew it was something we shared. Some men are good at relationships, but when they aren't the children suffer.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts