Pure, intense emotions. It’s not about design. It’s about feelings.
July 2011: The dark blue floral voile falls soft and sensual against my skin, the shirring elastic bodice still has elasticity and bounce.
Anne holds the long flowing dress against her slim body, sways slightly and lets the material swirl at her ankles. ‘Can I have this, Mum?’ She sashays in front of the wardrobe mirror, ‘ it’s so cool.’
I smile and nod. ‘ Your Aunty Cate made it for me. I was 18, maybe 19. To think it once fitted…’ I close my eyes briefly as remembering is hard, ‘size 10 I think…’
Anne grins and pats my shoulder. ‘You’re beautiful Mum,’ and as if aware of my embarrassment, ‘your body’s great for your age and what you’ve been through.’
I chuckle at the backhanded compliment – and understatement – pushing sixty and living without a cleavage after a mastectomy, plus coping with extra weight from Tamoxifen, this body’s been ‘through the mill’. (I hear Mum’s voice, she loved her proverbs, Bible quotes, adages… they may be cliches, but always ‘hit the mark’!)
I remember choosing the pattern and material for this dress in 1971. Older sister, Cate and I on one of our many sojourns to the South Melbourne Market, a great place for bargains as well as having an exciting multi-cultural milieu that made every visit memorable in the 60s and 70s, especially for us living ‘out in the sticks’ at Croydon, the foot of the Dandenong Ranges and considered semi-rural.
The baby doll style fashionable in the late 60s and early 70s, but the material and shirring elastic bodice set the pattern apart, as did the smaller puffed sleeves my sister added and the giant zip at the back allowing my then recognisable waist to be shown off!
When I look back, I appreciate how lucky I was to have clever seamstresses in the family. My father’s sister, Chrissie owned a dressmaking school when she sponsored us to Australia in 1962. She generously taught my sister and I all she knew as well as making the latest styles like muumuus, mini skirts, and hot pants so we could be fashionable despite our low income. Dad a blue collar worker chasing money so we could be established in Australia. We used Aunt Chrissie’s Singer machines, the large cutting-out table plus all the other accoutrements necessary for tailoring.
In a machine age, dressmaking is one of the last refuges of the human, the personal, the inimitable.
Needless to say, my sister Cate thrived under her tutelage with an inherited passion and gift for the craft. I preferred to find a hiding place to read, or go off on an adventure with my brothers. After all, how many dressmakers did the family need? Cate, with a natural talent for design and style, infinite ideas and good judgement, expertly manipulated needle, thread and machine. Today her embroidery, sewing and quilting still win prizes, also her porcelain dolls and teddy bears, even crocheted and knitted articles.
Many people (including me) have wedding photo albums full of pictures of bride and bridesmaid dresses Cate made, as well as outfits for formals, debuts, travel, new babies, concerts and any other occasion you can imagine. When she moved out of home, I think every visit back was spent altering clothes for some member of the family – saved up just for her – that’s the downside of having skill in a big family, everybody wants a piece of you!
I stare at the flimsy material catapulting me back to my youth. I loved this dress, and those years so much! The dress suited my slim physique and hopeful outlook – the hippy years at university – and the restless years – setting off overseas in 1973 and again in 1976.
In Scotland, it doubled as a formal dress when I added a hat and attended a cousin’s wedding. It’s that kind of dress – casual, comfortable, but elegant too.
Anne rolls it up, but before she packs it into her backpack, I hold the dress to my face, breathe deeply and imagine the lingering smell of patchouli, a staple perfume in the freewheeling 70s, when I was in love with Donovan. I feel the warmth of the bodies of lovers I met on my travels, the wonderful last dance at the Mecca in Portsmouth to Procol Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. I hear the crackle and swish as I dance to Steeleye Span’s ‘All around my hat…’ at Melbourne’s ‘summer in the park’ festivals popular in the 80s.
‘So, it’s going to Canada again, ‘I say and with a nod of her blonde head, Anne smiles. She throws her arms around me. I hold back tears as she whispers, ‘when I wear it Mum I’ll think of you.’
I swallow the lump of emotion and laugh; returning her squeeze. ‘Well, I hope you have as much fun and good luck as I did on my travels!’
Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it.
Yves Saint Laurent
January 2015. I think that’s why I kept the dress – years of clearing out, moving house, pregnancies, seesawing sizes, yet it remained at the back of the wardrobe. A reminder of a happy time, of travelling the world, maturing, learning, becoming independent and my own person. Not always having someone looking over my shoulder expecting me to be… not surrounded by preconceptions, accepted norms.
And now the dress has returned – in need of minor repairs four decades later, but still wearable and still loved.
A Stitch in Time
She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
As she sits sewing by pale moonlight.
Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
Contented, happy, eyes shining bright.
Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
As she sits sewing by candlelight.
Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
Contentment gone, eyes no longer bright
History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
Many still struggle in shadowed light
Exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.