The poem is filled with interesting examples of imagery and allusions to styles, opinions, and a woman’s life choices. Some passages are clearer than others, but the broader meaning is clear. Shaughnessy also makes good use of literary devices like personification and metaphor in ‘Your One Good Dress.’
Explore Your One Good Dress
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker goes through all the reasons why one dress or another is the incorrect choice. After dismissing ballroom gowns, red, brown, and olive ones, they land on a black dress as the right choice. It’s the only one “you” can wear to a funeral, party, reunion, or when you decide to go missing.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Your One Good Dress’ by Brenda Shaughnessy is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, the lines are all visually similar, contain somewhere between seven and twelve syllables each.
Shaughnessy makes use of several literary devices throughout ‘Your One Good Dress.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “big” and “beard” in line three of stanza two and “movement” and “matricide” in line two of the fourth stanza.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of that same stanza.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “should never be light. That kind of thing feels” and “is a big wet beard with, of course, a backslit.” Sometimes this occurs when they use punctuation or when there’s a natural pause in the meter.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially vibrant and interesting descriptions. For example, “a hundred shiny-headed waifs backlit” and “the dull-chic, / the dirty olive and the Cinderelly.”
should never be light. That kind of thing feels
unison, murmuring, “We are you.”
In the first stanza of ‘Your One Good Dress,’ the speaker begins with the speaker dismissing one type of dress. By thrusting the reader directly into the story without a preamble, the poet is using a technique called in medias res. It is going to take a few lines for the narrative to make sense because of this.
The poem begins by utilizing the title. “Your one good dress,” the speaker says, “should never be light.” Only “a hundred shiny-headed waif” would choose something like that. It looks “skeletal.” As the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the dress is a dress, but it’s also a symbol. It represents who “you” are in the broadest sense. So, choosing your “one good dress” is incredibly important.
No. And the red dress (think about it,
You’re only as sick as your secrets.
The red dress is not a possibility either. It’s all “neckhole.” It has a single point of interest but nothing else redeeming about it. The brown is clearly out too, the speaker adds, it’s got the “backslit” but looks like a “big wet beard.”
The final line of the second stanza is an interesting one. The speaker says that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” This may suggest that one’s mental wellbeing and happiness are directly related to those things in one’s life that are hard or impossible, to share. How this relates to dress shopping is up for interpretation. Perhaps, the dress is a way of disguising those secrets or a way of coming to terms with them. Readers can also note the use of consonance in these lines with “backslit” and “sick” and “secrets.”
There is an argument for the dull-chic,
“Shimmer, shmimmer,” they’ll say. “Lush, shmush.”
The next lines acknowledge that for some, olive-colored dresses are okay, as are ones that are “Cinderelly,” or look like a dress Cinderella would wear. Traditionally, this refers to a large ballgown. But, for those people who support these kinds of dresses, or a particular way of moving through the world, are “part of the conspiracy.” It’s interesting to consider these lines and what this real or fake conspiracy might be. It’s likely related to a way of living and a way of carrying oneself through the world. “Shimmer, shmimmer” are words of encouragement that “they” speak. They promote this kind of dress, but the speaker is clearly against it.
Do not listen. It’s not part of the anti-obvious
And is it a crime to wonder, am I. In the dark a dare,
The speaker tells the listener not to listen to “them.” Listening would mean going against what your “mum” would say, and it would “kill her” if you did so. The following lines reinforce the idea that doing what “they” say is a negative, as is even thinking about it.
Am I now. You put on your Niña, your Pinta, your
Your body is opium and you are its only true smoker.
It’s in the fifth stanza that the type of dress the speaker supports becomes clear. It’s “black. Glassy or deep.” It’s the only one that’s worthy of being worn and enjoyed on your body. The last line of this stanza reinforces the idea, that as your body’s only “true smoker,” you have to smoke something that you enjoy.
This black dress is your one good dress.
Taking it off never matters. That just wears you down.
Without questioning it further, the speaker says that the black dress is the “one good dress.” It’s what you can do everything in, from buying your children after their untimely deaths to visiting hometown friends and going missing for days. These are features of one’s chaotic and wandering life. Taking the dress of “never matters.” It’s at this point that the dress as a symbol for one’s life is even more important. By taking it off, you’re just being worn down. This is likely a complex metaphorical way of suggesting that by taking the dress off, you’d be lying to yourself and losing your true self.
The meaning is that you should live your life in a particular way, one that represents who you truly are rather than what other people would like you to be. The dress is used to symbolize this.
The purpose of ‘Your One Good Dress’ is to remind readers that it’s important to structure one’s life around that which you believe in and support, regardless of what other people think is right. The “one good dress” you choose is that which represents your intentions and attitude.
The speaker is someone who is world-wise. They are likely a woman, considering their knowledge of women’s wear, and are well aware of the implications of different choices. These are symbolized through the dresses one might choose.
‘Your One Good Dress’ is important because it speaks to the importance of representing oneself clearly and powerfully. This is done, in this instance, by choosing the right dress. One that can be worn on any occasion and still feels like it’s “yours.”
Readers who enjoyed ‘Your One Good Dress’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Woman Who Shopped’ by Carol Ann Duffy – comments on the objectification of women, using the extended metaphor of a woman made into a shopping center as its basis.
- ‘A Woman’s Hands’ by Eva Bezwoda – depicts a wife/mother proclaiming her distress in the number of tasks she must tend to regarding her family.
- ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou – defies the stereotypes women are often faced with today. It is a poem filled with strength and determination.