Style

Betsey 4 Ever

Girls are fun and awesome and let’s dress up every single day.


When I fell prey to that horror of adolescence—orthodontia—there was only one glittering silver lining. I don’t mean those awful, colored rubber bands, the tiny markers of a season (red and green for Christmas!), wrapped around the metal affixed to my teeth. I’m talking about the Betsey Johnson store that was exactly one block away from the dentist’s office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d been in several times before with my sweetly indulgent parents—they almost always caved when I asked for an inappropriately sexy Betsey outfit for my birthday. But when I got braces, I started going in all by myself, which felt deliciously grown-up.

It wasn’t just the flattering cut of the clothes that I loved, with the bell-shaped sleeves and the high, small waists. It was the entire philosophy, which was something along the lines of “Girls Are Fun and Awesome and Let’s Dress Up Every Single Day.” All the women who worked at Betsey were cool—black hair, tattoos, high heels, corseted waists, and hourglass bodies spilling out all over the place, which was in stark contrast to the neutral tones and boxy garments the other women in the neighborhood favored. The salesgirls enthusiastically encouraged my every outfit, and we would twirl around together, the bright cabbage roses on the wallpaper our backdrop.

Me in my Betsey top.

I took my Betsey Johnson dresses to summer camp. I wore them to Central Park to ride the seesaw. I wore them to birthday parties, to dances—everywhere I could. I hung the tags (with large black-and-white photos of Betsey and her daughter, Lulu) on my bedroom walls. When I went to the 13th birthday party of an older friend who went to another school, I wore a choker that said “Betsey” on it. Everyone thought it was my name. I’ve rarely felt that cool or mysterious since.

When I was young, nine or 10, Betsey’s clothes made me feel sassy, or as one friend’s father described me, “spunky.” This is a gross word, but I knew what he meant—it was a little wild, a little brash, and unapologetic. Those parts of me had always existed, but Betsey brought them out even more. Her designs were the opposite of my conservative school uniform—a white polo shirt or turtleneck, navy pants or skirt, and, if you were feeling particularly kooky, some khaki. They were brightly colored, with a soupçon of sex. They were poufy and bright and snug and lacy and absolutely shot through with an electric current, at least for me. I had a jacket with skulls on it that I would KILL for today, as well as half a dozen dresses that Donna or Brenda or Kelly wore on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Not that I was interested in having sex at that age, mind you, but I was very interested in kissing, which felt like pretty much the same thing. Once, when I was about 11 or 12, in need of a new party dress and already a size six, one of the salesgirls told me that Cindy Crawford was a size six too, and instead of feeling like an ogre compared to my friends, the way I usually did, I felt instantly beautiful. That day I bought a forest-green lace dress that clung to my hips. I wore it at home, wrapped with a feather boa, to watch the Academy Awards with my parents. My friends wore plainer things from the Gap or Express, as did I most days of the week. Some of them dabbled a bit in Betsey, a flowered party dress here and there, but none were as full-throttle obsessed as I was. Betsey Johnson made me feel like not only was it OK for me to have curves, but that those curves gave me an edge on the competition. Hell, I was the same size as a supermodel!

I wore Betsey Johnson to my eighth-grade graduation, and on my last night of summer camp, when I was 14. I wore Betsey Johnson to bat mitzvahs and birthday parties. When she started making underwear with little bows and bright colors, I wore Betsey under my clothes too, so that I felt feminine and flirty even in a pair of jeans.

As I got older and bigger, the dresses (and skirts, and tops, and one ill-advised shorts-and-peekaboo-tank set) were a way for me to feel better, like a shot of adrenaline. One dress in particular (a white spandex number in a rosebud pattern with a lace-up front, like the St. Pauli Girl) was my go-to outfit during my college years. Whenever I was feeling low about romance, or friendships, or school, or anything at all, I would put the dress and some bright lipstick on, and I knew I would be OK. I was still larger than most of my girlfriends, if not all, but whenever I felt sad that I couldn’t share jeans with my roommate, I slinked around in the spandex, knowing that there were ways that I could fill it out that she couldn’t. Betsey didn’t care if I had big hips—she liked me that way, and her approval meant that I liked me that way, too.

When I got married, I wanted a fun dress to wear to the reception, which we held the day after the actual ceremony. I bought dress after dress, returning each one. This one was too boring, this one was too fussy. I was totally at a loss. When my husband-to-be and I went to visit his mother in Florida a couple of months before the wedding, we were walking through the mall near her house when the Betsey Johnson appeared, like an oasis in the desert. I tried on six or seven dresses, all of which made me feel like the homecoming queen. (That’s a good thing.) I bought a pale-blue-and-white one, on sale, because it reminded me of a wedding cake. As always, it was a dress made for twirling and for fun.

Here’s the sad part: I didn’t wear it. I was freaking out so much on the day of the party (late relatives, terrible hair-do, panic attack) that I chose the wrong dress. Is it strange to put it that way? I had a grown-up dress on standby in case I chickened out, a lovely Phillip Lim in the shape of a lightbulb, with a wide body that narrowed around my upper thighs. A lightbulb! It was gray—silver on a good day. I liked the fact that it was sort of white, because it was sort of my wedding, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun. I suppose I thought the Betsey dress was too young, too frivolous. I drank too much at the party and felt like I didn’t get to have a proper conversation with anyone. I looked evilly at the one friend who had dared to wear a feather in her hair as I had. I think that I was trying to be an adult, because I was 28 and had just gotten married. Really, I should have been trying to be myself. I was surrounded by everyone I loved, and they all would have taken one look at me and said, Of course. There are so few moments in life when one can walk into a room dressed like a wedding cake, and know that everyone will turn around and applaud. I can’t help thinking that I would have enjoyed myself more if I’d worn Betsey Johnson.

The wedding dress that wasn't.

A few days ago, I read that Betsey Johnson (the company) was bankrupt, and closing most of their 40 stores in the U.S. Betsey Johnson (the person) had sold the brand years before, maybe to spend more time at Betseyville, her compound in Mexico where I lobbied hard to honeymoon. (Really—at the time, you could rent Betsey Johnson’s house in Mexico. It was a thing.) It makes me really sad to think that young girls won’t have the same experience I did, prancing around in their sock feet while older, wiser girls cheer them on. Betsey was really special to me, as a place to go and feel powerful and sexy and gorgeous. I’m sure there are other places for teenagers to go for that today—Tumblr, say, or right here at Rookie. For me, it will always be Betsey. Someday, I’m going to do cartwheels with her on the beach in Mexico, both of us wearing lipstick and spandex and laughing our heads off. Just you wait. ♦

43 Comments

  • Moxx May 15th, 2012 7:22 PM

    The end of the Betsey era (which I did not get to experience, sadly :(
    makes me, well, sad.

    Who will make cake-like dresses now??
    Cake-like things are always lovely.

  • Rosebud May 15th, 2012 7:32 PM

    I love Betsey Johnson too! I can’t afford any of her wonderful dresses but was hoping to buy one when i’m older & have money haha

    I was so sad when i found out she was closing too! At least there are mad sales now

  • loonylizzy May 15th, 2012 7:32 PM

    we still have a betsey johnson store here in atlanta, and i just went for the first time when i went prom dress shopping with my friend. i fell in love with her clothes!! my friend found the most amazing dress there and i found myself wishing i’d been asked to prom just so i could buy a betsey dress. thanks so much for this article!! :)

  • tinklebot5000 May 15th, 2012 7:38 PM

    This was so awesome! You rock those dresses, giiiiirrrl :)

  • Marie May 15th, 2012 7:42 PM

    POR VIDA!!!!!!!!!!

    I am heartbroken too but it’s nice we have such great memories in her clothes.

  • Toria Crux May 15th, 2012 7:44 PM

    I neeeeed that last dress! *-*

  • poppunkgurrrlx May 15th, 2012 7:49 PM

    I LOVE the wedding reception dress! soo cute. betsey has always been my favorite designer. she’s so fierce and feminine, i love her clothes! it is so unfortunate that the company went bankrupt </3

  • myy May 15th, 2012 7:55 PM

    I love Betsy Johnson! I’ve been saving up to buy a dress from the store near my house for a few months now . . . I really hope they don’t close down!!! I didn’t know they were closing, so now I’m really sad :( :( :(
    Love this article, though, and the pics of you wearing all of those stunning dresses!

    http://mygenerationmusic.blogspot.com/

  • Anaheed May 15th, 2012 7:57 PM

    Emma Straub you are SO CUTE + COOL. CUL.

  • Marguerite May 15th, 2012 8:00 PM

    Betsey Johnson talked to my cousin! They were admiring Oscar de la Renta shoes together! jelly!!!!!!

  • Emilie May 15th, 2012 8:10 PM

    This is so great. super awesome article

  • GagaMcQueen May 15th, 2012 8:24 PM

    I wore a lovely Betsey with attached gloves a tiered skirt when I was the 8th grade graduation speaker. I just went to say goodbye to my city’s store the other day. Betsey: I will love you forever.

  • Claudia May 15th, 2012 8:57 PM

    this was a cute article :)
    my sister just got this adorable heart shaped Betsey dress for her conformation! it’s cheetah AND it has sequins. <3

  • girlpolish May 15th, 2012 9:28 PM

    My younger sister and I discovered Betsey in Florida, in a oddly misplaced wonderful vintage shop near my grandparent’s retirement home. We both bought the Betsey dresses that were just-so to us, just enough lace, just enough demure. But my aunt (who was schizophrenic and passed away in her 30s) also found solace in Betsey. She would bring my grandfather shopping along with her, and stock up on rose patterned leggings and shocking pink tops. I loved that we both loved her. And I’m definitely keeping the collection stashed under my bed 4eva.

  • May 15th, 2012 9:37 PM

    I love Betsy, though unfortunately I can’t afford much of her stuff. I can’t believe the company’s bankrupt :( I love your almost wedding dress ;)

  • Ben May 15th, 2012 9:38 PM

    This is a really nice article. Those clothes sound wounderful I really like the blue roses and the cake dress!

  • Leanna May 15th, 2012 9:40 PM

    Aww, I love this post. I never was able to afford one of those beautiful dresses, but rarely does a day go by that I don’t have some sort of Betsey Johnson accessory on my body. So sad.

  • MissKnowItAll May 15th, 2012 9:52 PM

    Reading this wearing my Betsey Johnson sunglasess ;)

  • rebecca May 15th, 2012 10:04 PM

    thanks so much for sharing this! i also feel most powerful in betsey. her dresses make me stand out and feel incredibly confident in my appearance, which i don’t usually. they also bring in loads of compliments! i recently met aaron carter (whatever) and he was LOVING my outfit, which was a turtleneck betsey johnson dress that had tiny devils all over it. it’s my favorite!

  • lyrarose May 15th, 2012 10:14 PM

    I’m not a fan of Betsey Johnson (the brand), but this is a really nice article.

  • Sea goddess May 15th, 2012 10:33 PM

    ahhhh i loved it, i love clothes too, they are the way i fully express myself:)

  • Sea goddess May 15th, 2012 10:33 PM

    OH HOLY BETSEY THE HOUSE IS BEAUTIFUL OMG

  • Yellie May 15th, 2012 10:51 PM

    feeling the sadness, I actually cried when I found out, I love Betsey. I will never forget my one and only dress! :(

  • Adrienne May 16th, 2012 12:43 AM

    I like Betsey’s clothing and prints, but they aren’t my style :P. Doesn’t keep me from admiring them though!

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Susann May 16th, 2012 1:04 AM

    Such a wonderful story!
    I still remember that the first time I heard about Betsey Johnson was on an episode of Clueless :)

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • Caden May 16th, 2012 1:29 AM

    That wedding cake dress is gorgeous! I’m so sad that I only found out about this wonderful-sounding store just as it’s closing down!

    Caden x
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinkpoppies1991

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini May 16th, 2012 9:19 AM

    My twin sister has the blue and white one, but she got it when she was twelve in a size zero, so we’ve both outgrown it. I wish I could wear that dress again- It’s such wonderful princessy tea party dress!

  • Jakeline May 16th, 2012 10:34 AM

    Betsey’s store’s are so magical! I’ve been to one by my town and one in Soho, and they’re fabulous! I wore one of her dresses that I got for $25 (!!!) to my junior prom.

  • Laia May 16th, 2012 12:17 PM

    Agree with all of this. My first “designer” dress was a Betsey blue crochet number (kinda Fiona Apple during her mtv speech) with a darker blue polyester slip under it. My mom bought it for me at the Betsey store in Soho on my 15th birthday trip to NYC (my first and the time when i decided that i wanted to move here “when i grew up”). I wore it to pretty much all formal events after that and I still have it. Betsey is so so so so special. <3

  • Maggie May 16th, 2012 1:01 PM

    What I think is quite special about this piece is that you don’t have to love Betsey Johnson to appreciate why YOU love her. The bit about your wedding reminds me of this juicy book Altared
    [http://www.amazon.com/Altared-Bridezillas-Bewilderment-Breakups-Contemporary/dp/0307277631] which is a collection of essays about intelligent women whose weddings cause them to go insane and become strangers to themselves. I hope you will write more about your wedding in the future.

  • MayaFL May 16th, 2012 2:05 PM

    Wonderful post! I really identify about the curves. My first Betsey dress was borrowed. I was 14, and it made me feel beautiful and desirable in a really positive way that stayed with me. My last Betsey dress was my wedding dress!

  • EveyMarrie May 16th, 2012 2:11 PM

    This article is completely and utterly made of love<3

    Betsey Johnson is like, my favorite favorite FAVORITE designer ever (with a close second of Anna Sui) and everything she puts out makes me want to smile :)

    At my art school, we had a designer fashion gallery (Frock & Roll Fashion That Rocks) that hosted clothes from Yamamoto to McQueen to Westwood to Stella Zotis (<3) and including vintage Betsey from the 90s. OMAIGAWD i wanted to rob the entire collection haha

    Anywhoodle, Betsey is life<3

  • Stacey May 16th, 2012 2:49 PM

    I love Betsey, and was quite obsessed when I was 11-13 too! I couldn’t ever afford her dresses but when I was 13, my mom bought me a Bestey purse! It’ll always be a memory I’ll cherish! I walked into a Betsey Johnson store on Sunday and was surprised to see all the clearance signs, but never would have imagined they were going out of business. I’m gonna go snag a dress now!!

  • Marisa May 16th, 2012 4:25 PM

    THE BLUE AND WHITE LACE BETSY DRESS IS THE ONE I WORE FOR MY BAT-MITZVAH!
    I love betsey! I was heartbroken at finally giving away the dress this year but its way past my size. I loved this article!

  • Pashupati May 16th, 2012 8:22 PM

    Ah ah, even on sale I can’t afford her clothes, though I do like what she do.
    It’s sad because it would be like possessing a piece of history somehow?

  • lua May 16th, 2012 11:49 PM

    I love the fact that this article seems to be all about Betsey Johnson’s clothes but is actually about so much more.
    Though I have never wore any Betsey Johnson’s clothes (I think I wouldn’t find any of her stores anyway cause I live in Brasil), I totally identify with the kind of feeling that these clothes could bring to you, and how wearing things that make you feel like yourself can be magical and transformig.
    I know how it feels to be preassured by everyone about how you should wear “more seriouss stuff” when you’re getting older (I’m 25 now) and it is amazing to read someone telling the truth: it’s just silly! It’s way more important to feel like yourself.
    LET ME WEAR MY COLORFUL CRAZY CAKE-LIKE THINGS FOR AS LONG AS I WANT!!!
    (And, yes, I read sites for teen girls, LEAVE ME ALONE!!)

    Thank you for the beautiful article. <3

  • abillionjennifers May 17th, 2012 5:31 PM

    Prom Dress : Hot pink Zebra stripes and a fishtail cut bottom, got a lot of great looks that night :)

  • neon_rattail May 17th, 2012 7:47 PM

    I love this! It’s great how fashion can be so personal in this way. Betsey is amazing (obviously) and wearing her stuff is so exciting to me. I actually got the chance to meet her a few months ago – due to a string of perfectly random happenings where I accidentally ended up as a VIP at her event – and it was one of the most exciting/amazing/happy/ridiculous moments of my life! She was SO sweet (and super short!) and floated around like she was made of magic, which I think she kind of is.

    Anyway, I have pictures of our loving embrace here: neonrattail.blogspot.com/2011/10/fashion-i-met-betsey-johnson.html

    xoxo
    Michelle

  • Corcey May 18th, 2012 12:04 AM

    I got my prom dress at Betsey a few months ago. I wish they weren’t going away :( It is completely my style!

  • Nikilodeon May 18th, 2012 10:29 PM

    I’m a big fan of Betsey Johnson’s, too. I remember being like 12 and having no money to buy her clothes but loving and admiring them anyway. I was in a mall in New Jersey and I just beelined for the store as soon as I saw it. The salespeople inside laughed and said, “You look like a kid in a candy store!” And it was true, Betsey Johnson was and always will be my version of a candy store. I still have never bought a Betsey Johnson dress, but I hope to sometime in the near future!

  • Rachel Aurore August 9th, 2012 7:30 PM

    I was very lucky to catch the Betsey bug years ago. My closet is pretty much a shrine (Okay, museum…) to her. I literally have everything imaginable made by her. I was really sad to watch the stores close, especially since her clothing made me feel wonderful and fabulous to the extreme.
    I had hopes of even working with her one day.

  • awkwardblackgirl June 2nd, 2013 8:33 PM

    You remind me of the beautiful creepy little girl from Frankenweenie.