O. Henry’s Short Story, ‘Lost on Dress Parade’

A cautionary tale about trying to impress a lady and getting the opposite result.
O. Henry’s Short Story, ‘Lost on Dress Parade’
“A Soirée,” 1909, by Henri Gervex. (Public Domain)
Kate Vidimos

In Thomas More’s “Utopia,” he says: “[How can anyone] be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woolen thread than theirs. After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep.” By envying another’s life or wishing to change lives (even for a moment), you sacrifice your own value.

In his short story “Lost on Dress Parade,” O. Henry tells a comical story in which a young man, Mr. Towers Chandler, pretends to be a rich bachelor for an evening. As Chandler plays this part, Henry demonstrates that he loses more by acting than if he were himself.

Dressed to Impress

Chandler works for an architect and earns $18 per week. Out of each weekly paycheck, he saves $1 for 10 weeks so that he can spend an evening as a rich bachelor. With $10, he can easily afford to “play the wealthy idler to perfection.”

After ironing his suit, Chandler heads out of his lodging house to enjoy dinner and the lingering stares of strangers. He walks along, perfectly assuming his role in this “vespertine dress parade.”

Basking in the admiration of those around him, Chandler encounters a young woman who rounds the street corner and slips on the ice. In an instant, he is by her side and helps her stand, as her ankle is sprained and she can barely walk.

Though she is dressed in simple, poor attire, Chandler admires her beauty and refined demeanor. Suddenly, an idea hits him. How much more would he enjoy his night on dress parade if she joined him for dinner. He cordially invites her to dinner, assuring her that a good rest would benefit her ankle.

Playing and Parading

The young lady, Miss Marian, assents to this plan and hobbles to the restaurant with Chandler. At the restaurant, he easily uses his $10 to afford an impressive dinner for them both.

However, though he admires her simplicity, the “frenzy of Fuss and Feathers” seizes his mind, and he loses all control. He begins to regale her with fictional information “of clubs, of teas, of golf and riding and kennels and cotillions and tours abroad.”

He revels in his companion’s appearance of wonder and truly believes that she is impressed. Despite her surprised appearance, she asks: “This way of living that you speak of ... sounds so futile and purposeless. Haven’t you any work to do in the world that might interest you more?” Yet even this question fails to shake his parading.

Unfortunately, Chandler creates an undesirable impression on the young lady. Though they both wish to know each other better, Chandler senses that his rich appearance would never win her, since she will think she is beneath him. They part, Chandler to his modest lodging house and Marian to a very different abode.

Through this comical contrast, Henry proves how ridiculous it is to play a part for the sake of admiration or relief from your own life. He echoes C.S. Lewis’s words in “Prince Caspian”: “You doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”

When you play a part that is not your own, you abandon the innate value that blooms within you. The next time you envy another’s situation, clothes, life, or car, remember that your value belongs only to you and has never, and can never, be replicated.

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Kate Vidimos is a 2020 graduate from the liberal arts college at the University of Dallas, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English. She plans on pursuing all forms of storytelling (specifically film) and is currently working on finishing and illustrating a children’s book.
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