It was about noon when the edible kicked in.
The night before Sundress Fest was spent with thirty of my friends on a rooftop. The party slowed down at the conservative hour of 4 a.m., just before the starlings started their racket in the trees that line 11th Street. My friend Josh came back from Iceland in time for the gathering, bearing three gifts for my birthday: a vial of black sand from the southern-most tip of the island, a flask full of what I can only guess to be a blend of assorted Irish whiskies he had lying around, and a THC-laced caramel wrapped in a little blue-and-red paper.
The following morning, I fried two eggs for myself, carved up the leftover hanger steak au poivre, made some toast with chèvre and baby spinach, a little bowl of granola and yogurt, a Greek-style frappe, and had the Icelandic caramel for dessert. About an hour later, I noticed the clouds overhead started moving faster than normal, and that the trees seemed to be breathing. I made a mental note to thank Josh the next time I saw him.
This was all in preparation for what is easily one of the District’s best block parties. Where H Street’s and Adams Morgan’s respective festivals seem to have no rhyme or reason, cramming the streets with as many stalls as the pavement will allow, Wonderland Ballroom’s Sundress Fest has a serious neighborhood bent. Matt and Rose (the power couple behind Wonderland, Looking Glass Lounge, and Dew Drop Inn) have kept it simple for the past thirteen years, operating their festival with only three guidelines:
- Sell beer.
- Donate profits from sales to charity.
- Make everyone in attendance wear a sundress.
Thirteen years after their inaugural festival, my partner is rifling through the closet to find a sundress that fits my frame. I opt for the soft cotton pale blue number for two reasons: firstly, it’s the only dress that manages to get onto my torso without popping a seam and doesn’t ride up in the back. Secondly, the color happens to match my eyes perfectly.
Down the street at Wonderland Ballroom, the party was already well underway. While my partner wished to attend the festival just for fun, I had a job to do for the afternoon’s proceedings. Before I could even get a can of Genesee in my hands, Rose Donna grabbed me off the sidewalk, and threw a blue silk sash over my chest reading “JUDGE — SUNDRESS FEST.” I had to get to the stage.
Linsay Deming was already on the mic, working the crowd hard. With her hair down, an old-school floral dress, and John Lennon sunglasses, she looked like she was pulled from the audience of the Dick Cavett show, circa 1970. She gave me a hug, wished me a happy birthday, and told me to get the fuck to my seat. There was a show to put on.
Party Like It’s cleared their gear from the stage, replacing the amplifiers with a few folding chairs. The drum set disappeared, and a DJ table was set up in its stead. Morgan Russell, my former boss from my days at Silver Spring’s Dale Music, looked like a warrior in his size 0 turquoise dress and tenor sax. He walked his wife, Alicia (in the most stunning knit dress I saw all day), to the stage. She looked at me, then down at my clipboard, and quietly said “oh, this is your first time judging, isn’t it?” It was her sixth consecutive year. For the next hour, she was the Virgil to my Dante through the ridiculous circus of Sundress Fest’s fashion show.
We sat and watched grown man after grown man come to the stage in sundresses, strutting their stuff, swinging from the tent poles, writing against the judges, some clearly just wearing what their girlfriends told them to wear, others putting considerable amounts of effort into their ensembles. I saw a six-foot-four man in three-inch wedges (with matching nails) twerk on a speaker stand, then leap over the barricade into the patio crowd.
To be very clear, this was not drag. Unless I am terribly mistaken, none of the contestants were pros. They were just enthusiastic supporters who worked hard to dress nice for the day. It’s also definitely not burlesque (or boylesque, if you wish), because they all kept their clothes on. It was something different, something unique that Matt and Rose have carefully fostered over the last decade and change. The two founders watched from the sidelines, laughing, cheering, clapping, and holding hands.
There’s a curious dynamic in the crowd at Sundress Fest, and I think this is the only place in the District of Columbia where it can be seen: some men show up to the festival, and refuse to put on a sundress. Remember the boys in high school who laughed at the other boys who joined the theater club because it’s gay? They grew up (rather, they got older), and moved into Columbia Heights. As these pants-wearing chumps walk around the festival, you can see the men in sundresses scowl hard at them. For just a day, the tables have turned, and it’s glorious.
Someone (can’t remember who exactly, as most my memory of the afternoon is just a swirl of colors) suggested adding a new element to the fashion show: make the contestants answer a question, like Miss America. Caroline Phillips, cannabis activist, proposed “what if we ask them their feelings on Congressional efforts to restrict marijuana use in the District of Columbia?” I seconded the motion. Deming put it into law, telling the crowd “since we don’t have a vote in Congress, this is how we’re going to have to get our point across. Y’know… with sundresses.”
A few choice words from the finalists:
- “My message to Congress needs only three words: ‘Do your job.'”
- “I don’t want another straight, white, male lawmaker to tell my little sister what she can or can’t do with her body. Also, there are more of us than there are of you.”
- “Keep your hands and laws off my body, and off my weed.”
As we crowned the king and queen of Sundress Fest, the crowd went wild. The judges’ chairs were thrown off the side of the stage, and the floor turned into a dance party. Beer flowed, spirits were high, and no one seemed to care about the two or three showers that sprinkled the streets with rain.
I talked to Rose before I split, just to clarify exactly how the money was broken down for the festival’s charity. I couldn’t remember if it was a portion of sales, or tickets, or something else. She explained, “No, it all goes to DC Central Kitchen.” Ticket sales, profits from booze, and even the money they made from selling sundresses (oh yeah, I forgot– if you didn’t wear a sundress, you could buy one there for $15) all went to DC Central Kitchen.
In these dark days, when the current presidential administration is actively trying to undo all the social progress we’ve worked on for the past twenty years, Wonderland Ballroom refuses to yield ground. Sundress Fest is more than a neighborhood block party; it’s an open act of defiance to watered-down fascism. The resistance is here, and it’s wearing a sundress.