I have mixed feelings about formal occasions. On one hand, it’s an opportunity to release my inner child and play dress-up. On the other hand, my outer “mature” adult cringes as it contemplates the possible necessity of Spanx or other constricting undergarments. Even the idea of panty hose makes me shudder.

So when the invitation came to attend a charity ball as the guest of the honoree, my inclination was to say no, thank you very much for asking, and send a donation. My life would be no less rich for having missed one more mass-produced meal and some boring speeches. And I could lounge comfortably at home in my finest Russell athletic wear, sans undergarments if I so chose.

But there was a personal connection to the guest of honor, so we accepted. Besides, the venue was enticing. The affair was to be held on the USS Intrepid, the former WW II air craft carrier now a sea, air and space museum, located on Manhattan’s west side. If not entertaining, the evening at least held the prospect of being educational.

An event such as this, I believe, brings to light yet another significant difference between the sexes. I highly doubt that a man is challenged by the phrase “formal attire.” He simply unzips the protective garment bag, removes the tuxedo and hopes that it still fits. Also, that his wife, because errands are encoded into female DNA, remembered to pick up his pleated shirt from the cleaners after it was last worn.

But a woman, no matter how extensive her wardrobe, will arrive at the inevitable conclusion that she has nothing to wear, despite the perfectly good little black numbers already hanging in her closet. Hence, she must shop for the perfect dress.

This shopping excursion is no mere lark however. For women of a certain age, it can be a devastating experience. Second only to trying on bathing suits.

Unlike men, who have only to don the equivalent of a school uniform, women are faced with endless choices when it comes to formal attire. Arriving at the best decision requires careful consideration and a frank confrontation with one’s anatomy. Which body parts can still be revealed, and which are best left undercover?

Personally, I believe I have surpassed the upper age limit on strapless. But there remains the issue of cleavage. (Nora Ephron’s words about peach pits still resound in my brain.) Sleeve length? Be honest, do the upper arms jiggle more now than they did last year? And hemline? How much leg do I dare to show?

After an agonizing self-critical afternoon, I purchase yet another short, black, sleeveless cocktail dress. Thankfully it is not clingy and will require no masochistic undergarments. I have thoughtfully concluded that my knees and upper arms can handle the exposure. I decide to ignore the issue of elbows. I can’t see them anyway!

The day of the event, I am gathering my accessories and discover to my horror that I do not own a pair of dressy black shoes. How have I existed without this essential? Clearly, I have to get out more.

I make an emergency trip to a local shoe store. There, I find myself gazing at, not footwear, but weapons! Six-inch stiletto heels attached to a sole and some straps that look like evil props from a James Bond movie. But I know that the only person I will kill with these heels is myself.

“Don’t you have a dressy black shoe with a lower heel?” I pathetically ask the clerk. She is smiling, but I know she is thinking that I should try the orthopedic store around the corner. Nevertheless, she wants to be helpful and so she disappears into the mysterious back room where shoe salespeople seem to disappear for all eternity, and finally emerges with two shoe boxes.

She removes the box covers to reveal a pair of silver sandals and a pair of elegant black pumps. I am drawn to the elegant black pumps and am pleased to note they do not have six inch heels. By comparison, these four inch heels don’t seem that high. In retrospect, I realize that my perception of reality had been seriously altered.

I try on the shoes as cautiously as if they were glass slippers. They are a good fit and hug my feet comfortably. So far, so good. But I have yet to stand.

Slowly and carefully I rise, hoping that my health insurance card is tucked safely in my wallet. The sensation is vaguely reminiscent of wearing ice skates for the first time and I suddenly want to grab onto a railing. Like a cautious toddler, I take my first step, then another. Not bad. I can do this. I’m pleased as I catch a glimpse of my legs in the mirror. Very sexy. Sold!

From the moment I stepped out of the taxi, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I was yet another victim of fashion. I was afraid to move. I was trapped and terrified. For some reason, strutting around the shoe store and actually walking on pavement was an entirely different experience. Out here, in the real world, my mobility had been seriously compromised.

Women all around me seemed to be moving with no difficulty on heels even higher than mine. If they could walk without fearing for their lives, why couldn’t I? So what if some of them were thirty years younger? I had more experience. I had been walking longer.

I decided that there must be a balancing technique that they knew and I didn’t. So I experimented with various postural adjustments. Holding my shoulders back and thrusting my pelvis forward allowed me at least enough momentum to catch up with my husband, who, bless his heart, seemed unaware that I was no longer at his side.

I immediately linked my arm in his and told him that the only time he could leave me for even one second was when I was safely in a chair.

Did I mention that we were on an air craft carrier? Of course, when I chose these shoes I never considered that we would be navigating the length of three football fields to reach the dining hall. Clinging to my husband, it was indeed the longest trek of my life. I felt as challenged as the man who walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon. In fact, at that moment, I would have happily traded places with him.

I did not leave my seat once for the entire evening. Dancing was out of the question. As was a seriously needed trip to the ladies’ room. I have no idea what we were served for dinner, because I was completely preoccupied with the notion that at the end of the evening, I would have to walk all the way back.

Eventually, the night was over. We thanked our host and I lied as I told him what a lovely evening it had been. After all, it wasn’t his fault that I had fallen under the influence of some misogynistic shoe designer.

The shoes came off as soon as we reached the lobby of our building, and I happily walked the corridor with my feet, albeit bare, securely back on the ground. I was still alive. I felt like the winner on “Survivor.” And to think I had been concerned about wearing Spanx!

Note to self: Next time you receive an invitation to a charity ball, send a donation. It’s cheaper and much, much safer.

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