‘A Very Private Moment’

Something new for you.

I recently discovered this Saturday Evening Post cover by my grandfather Norman Rockwell from March 19, 1949: Prom Dress. It has become one of my new favorites. Perhaps because it reminds me of myself as a teenager.

It is a very private moment in a young woman’s life. She stands on that imperceptible precipice between childhood and becoming a woman. It’s her first prom. She has thought of this moment for years — what will it be like, who will she go with, how will she feel? Her nervous, slightly tentative excitement is palpable as she gingerly holds up the dress in front of the full-length mirror. This mirror has reflected her back to herself for years — it has been a silent witness to each unfolding year of her childhood.

The purity, delicacy, and appeal of the new dress contrasts with the lived-in, worn-out room. From the looks of the elegant dress box it seems she went to the Big City, perhaps saved her money over time and got the dress of her dreams. Rockwell chose to paint the walls a yellowed ivory to emphasize the untouched white of the dress. You wouldn’t know how drab the walls are without the crisp, clean white gown — the two representing where she has come from and where she is going.

The see-through chiffon layers with sparkles are reminiscent of a delicate confection. A Cinderella dress. With gold shoes like ballet slippers waiting to be danced in. From the other side of the room, the faded pink wallpaper with a subtle feminine design frames her reflected face, and there is a hint of the wallpaper to the left of the closet door — hidden touches of pink where you don’t expect them.

Her old clothes hang neglected in the closet. My grandfather didn’t want you to miss this — he illumined the contents with the light from a closet window. A tired petticoat pops its way out of the rack, asking to be remembered. Her pajamas and ice skates hang in disarray on the door. All the remnants of the childhood she is leaving behind.

In his autobiography My Adventures as an Illustrator, Norman Rockwell remembers a vivid moment from his own childhood:

“I can remember walking into a room in a friend’s house during a swimming party one summer afternoon when I was ten or twelve years old. … All around the room, lying in disorder on chairs, tables, the windowsills, were girls’ underthings. … I stopped, utterly thrilled by the sense of femininity. … The pink ribbons on a bodice stirred in the breeze. I felt I had penetrated into the strange, secret world of girls, which had heretofore been closed to me. I could hardly breathe, the sense of it was so strong. The delicate, frilled underthings … seemed suddenly, for the first time in my life, to show me what girls were. They weren’t just annoying creatures who threw a baseball awkwardly. … Girls were different.”

She has always been a country girl, living far from the sophistication of the city. But a new world, a new identity awaits her. Is she ready?

Her rolled-up baggy jeans, drooping socks, and worn shoes are familiar, comfortable, and safe. She stands slightly pigeon-toed. This is a girl who knows hard work, has never been scared of it. She puts her hair up quickly with a clip and looks in the mirror with quiet intensity. Who is this woman who stares back at her? A very pretty, determined face emerges from the tomboy inside.

In Rockwell’s paintings the magic and mystery are in the details. The textured rug reminds us of a country lawn; the old, dark Victorian stool is an outdated symbol from another time; the soft, comfy pink blanket has been on her bed for years; papers carelessly stuffed into shelves; and yet we notice the delicate string falling from the dress box, a new chapter has been opened.

Four years after World War II the country was beginning to recover from its dark period and awaken to the idea of new possibility and a fresh beginning.

My grandfather’s art reminds us that no matter what transition we are facing, or how trepidatious we may feel, everything will turn out all right. He leaves you with the anticipation of a happy ending. And isn’t that what we all secretly want? To know that in the end, all will be well, we will be safe, loved, and cared for.

A girl looking at herself in a mirror
Girl at a Mirror, by Norman Rockwell
. March 6, 1954. © SEPS

Prom Dress preceeded Rockwell’s ultimate mirror of the transition from childhood, one of his true masterpieces, Girl at Mirror, 1954. The transition into adolescence is a recurring theme in his work; it was a time of heightened sensory awareness and precariousness in his own life. And his paintings reflect that tender moment.

I never had a prom. Losing myself in my grandfather’s painting makes me feel as if I did have one, though. Thanks, Pop.


Warmest wishes,