A story in clothes

by Kate Ryan
'Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upwards from her poised foot to her lifted arm.'
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
'She's a frump,' thought Elizabeth with relief; but then Athena stepped forward and held out her hand, and Elizabeth saw the cleverly mended sleeve of her jumper and was suddenly not so sure.'
Helen Garner, The Children's Bach


AT THE SOCIETY parties that Lily Bart, the doomed character in Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, attends it is a form of entertainment for young women to present a kind of tableau modelled on an old master painting. The women dress as a character in a painting, replicating the clothes worn and the scene presented. Lily's 'pale draperies' throw her beauty into relief, but their soft ephemeral quality remind us that time's ravages will take Lily's beauty too, her only asset. Lily's costume reveals her artistry but also that she is a possession to be acquired, sold and potentially discarded. It highlights the fact that Lily is only beauty. As a penniless orphan with neither education nor concrete skills, she is not daughter, not wife, not mother. In the terms of her narrow world, Lily is no one.

Clothes are often given a bad rap. They are seen as frivolities; an excessive interest in them, particularly in women, indicates superficiality, vanity, probably both. When I was at university I remember letting slip to a male friend that we had a subscription to English Vogue at home and the utter contempt of his response. Here, though, I make a claim, as the strident yet vulnerable Elizabeth in Helen Garner's The Children's Bach does, for an attention to clothes as a kind of artistry. I am also interested, as was the artist Louise Bourgeois, in the symbolic nature of clothes: how they might have shaped me but also how they reflected my emotional life. Bourgeois said, 'You can retell your life…by the shape, weight, colour and smell of those clothes in your closet...They are like the weather, the ocean, changing all the time'. In a number of works Bourgeois cut up her own clothes, even hanging them from bones to evoke their functions as relics of a past life. In motifs circling around sewing and clothing, Bourgeois reflected on her own fractured history – the memories of her family's tapestry restoration business, her life and that of her mother, for whom 'sewing was reparation' for a complicated marriage, in which her husband introduced his mistress, originally the children's governess, to the household.

I have gone on a journey with clothes. For as long as I can remember they have been more that just covering. To me clothes have always been emotional, signifying things very personal to me. They represent disguise, play, adornment and art; they remind me of inner and outer; they signify belonging and separation. I know I am depressed when clothes do not matter to me, when they feel pointless, something to throw on in the morning and drop on the floor at night. A dress brings back a single occasion with its loss or joy, the excitement or pain of being fifteen or thirty. Clothes are reminders of my mother, my friends, long ago boyfriends. When I was pregnant with my third child, a dress of my daughter's, garishly pink and orange patchwork with a bit of floral thrown in over the top, intensified my morning sickness so much so that I had to hide it away. Is this a measure of a sort of insanity?

I was six when I chose, really chose, my first outfit in a conscious way. It consisted of a white T-shirt, white football shorts, white socks and white runners. I put together this ensemble from the wooden dress-up box in our hall.

The box had an air of secrets and magic, as if things appeared in it that weren't there before. When I think of myself then I am alone in that hall though often I must have had companions: my friend next door, my cousins who were often over to play, not to mention a family of mother, father and four outward-bound older siblings. My sisters brought with them bags of dirty washing from their mysterious Bob Dylan-playing share houses, my brothers crashed in and out with tennis balls, teasing and swearing.

Despite all this action I did feel myself to be alone and perhaps the white outfit said this for the first time. It also said, This is who I am.

I locate the beginning of something in the white outfit – the seed that takes me back – for clothes were to become one of my passions. The white ensemble must have belonged originally to one of my brothers, six and eight years older than me. I was going for a certain look. Cricketer/tennis player? Soon I would be obsessed with Evonne Goolagong. I spent hours playing cricket with my brothers or whacking a tennis ball against the back wall. There was a slightly musty smell to the T-shirt. I was proud. I looked good. My sister, however, over from Fitzroy, no doubt bedecked in some '70s creation of overalls and tight T-shirt or floppy '30s inspired floral dress, mocked my all-white ensemble and I rushed to change.


I WAS EIGHT. I wore a Laura Ashley dress, floral with ruffles at the front, no waist, sleeveless. I can remember the dress when I see the photo. It is uncharacteristic, I think now. My early memories are of not wanting to wear dresses. My mother said to me recently that my resistance to wearing them became a source of worry for her. What would become of me? So how to explain the dress? I look comfortable enough. The light is yellowish; it adds to the '70s feel. Perhaps Mum and Dad brought the dress back from London? A '70s haircut too, something like Jane Fonda in Klute. I stand in a doorway. I am very brown, even my face, with bright blue eyes, freckles, bare brown feet.

Before the clothes there was the body. The baring of feet was a matter of honour. I ran up our gravel driveway to make my feet tough and lifted one foot from the couch grass to extract prickles. I remember the hot/cold feel of burning feet on wet grass and how running on frost induced a kind of numbness in my toes that I liked. I remember, too, the indentations of bark under my feet as I climbed trees, the smoothness of white gum, the scratchiness of pine, the satisfying solidity of oak. Then there was the electric heat of corrugated iron on the roof of the neighbouring school, the scrapey sound of a bare toe stubbed on hot concrete.

In his Playing and Reality, English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott speaks of an 'intermediate area of experience', a transitional space in which the child explores his or her separateness from his or her m/other. Neither self nor other, this transitional space is a site of creation, of play.In my solitary state it seems to me that I explored the edge of me. The limits of me were created as I came up against the world but I also learnt to hold the world in my mind. I sense, too, that the interest in clothes began in these in-between places. The first awareness of textures and surfaces, of inside and out: peeling skin, bark, grass, warm dirt, frost, stones, blood on a grazed knee. Patterns and colours were here too. I looked closely at prickles, small and star shaped, pulled out bee stings, with their cloying sweet smell, as their sharp pain spread through the arch of my foot. I looked for deep green four leaf clovers as I lay on the grass, the sun dulling my head to stupor. I pulled apart the veins in leaves and watched ants trawling ridges in the concrete outside our back door.

What I wore then, though, was still utilitarian; shorts and T-shirts on weekends and after school my school dress minus the clunky brown shoes that I levered off onto the floor without bothering to undo the laces. The dress, blue and white checked cotton, washed to thinness, didn't stop me climbing and there seemed to be no urging from my mother to change or keep it clean. I pulled off the belt so it was loose and formless. I felt sensual but earthy, something like a pagan prince or a Peter Pan Figure. I thought of myself as more boy than girl. I liked climbing in windows instead of walking in doors. I had my hair cut short. I felt proud when the man in the fish and ship shop thought I was a boy.

There was a gap, though, between my kingdom at home and the outside world. Once, on the long trail down to primary school, some bigger boy told me I looked pregnant in the beltless school dress creation. I was small and fairly slight but still the comment stayed with me. A question planted itself in me about where I began and ended and the nature of coverings on my body.


I WAS ELEVEN. I wore a red sailor dress, from a chain shop, Portmans, to E. M's party. E. M scared me. I didn't know why she liked me and I wasn't sure I liked her. She said a man had once showed her his penis and she had laughed and run away. She was fearless and popular and made fun of the Philippine boy and the boy who was way too skinny and had a long Pinocchio nose, in ways that I knew were cruel. She had left the state school across the road, akin to a different country, and arrived at our namby-pamby, good values Catholic school, in grade four, as explosive as a bomb. She was as sure of things as I was shy.

But the Portmans dress. It was unlike anything I had ever worn. I received compliments on it, the first time this had happened. Suddenly, without actually doing anything, except putting the dress on, I felt I had become someone. I was the same on the inside – shy and self-conscious – but now, in a flash of understanding, I saw that clothes could be armour, protection, cachet: that they might impose something on me that I didn't have before. In Martine Murray's How To Make a Bird, the central character Mannie wears a red dress, her mother's, with 'three tiny black buttons…from the waist it widened and floated down'; it made her feel 'tremendously elegant and worthwhile'. She is attracted to the dress because when her mother wore it 'she seemed to shine…with some deep, dark colour'. Later though, she says, it was 'my mother's dress and not mine and even though she was in me, I was in me, too. And I was the one wearing this self'. The dress was a disguise and a symbol of connection with her mother but it was also a reminder of what she could not be and, in the end, did not want to be.


I WORE A tartan skirt, a white shirt with a frilly collar (New Romantics), a red v-neck jumper, black tights and black Happy shoes to my dad's funeral. Did one of my sisters buy the shoes for me? They seem too on-trend for Mum. They did up with a tiny metal buckle on one side, flimsy like a drink can ring. I felt strangely aloof from everything, but protected in the clothes I wore. It was the dawning of the feeling I still know now: if I get the clothes right, the occasion will be manageable; the edge of my fear in coming up against others will be blunted or perhaps softened, the way a soft cloth may caress one's skin. Surely there was not more to do than dress myself? Did I really need to say anything?

The church was a sea of relatives and friends. We walked the gauntlet and sat at the front in the left hand pew. I looked at the altarpiece, the material sewn together in squares by the primary school kids. Only two years ago I had been one of them, but it seemed a lifetime. There was an olive branch, a dove, a sun, a jug of wine, a hand. The material was bright, '70s Godspell colours. It was the heart of the rock mass era, out of kilter with the hard edges of punk that in a few years I would know about.

After the service I stood in front of old ladies with powdered faces who examined me as if I were a doll. There was nothing much to say and indeed I didn't know what could be said. I don't think I cried. My father had been a difficult man in some ways; his moods had permeated the house, it seemed to me, like smoke. My hair was light brown, long and straight, pulled back with a ribbon, Alice style, my chest still flat as a boy's.


I WAS FIFTEEN. It was my brother's law graduation. I had become plump. I felt wrong, as if I was coated in something I could not remove, womanly, not boyish any more. The flesh was not me. I wore a blue cord skirt, short, full, side pockets, a white frilly shirt (Adam and the Ants), under a blue v-neck jumper from Bob Stewart's (we all went there), black tights, Happy shoes. I was beginning to choose things for myself, to take up hems, and picture an outfit in my mind's eye. It made a difference but not enough. I was not happy, though in the photo I beamed.

I was sixteen and thin again. With my clothes I was learning to sew myself together. I was creating a version of myself. Not sister, not brother, not mother, not child any more, still a girl without a father.

In the clothes department I was now cutting a fine line between what was in and 'being different' and I felt this gave me a sort of power in my limited social sphere, though it didn't always translate to social ease. My friend A became my significant other when it came to clothes, beginning years of searching for the constantly evolving item – perhaps a mohair jumper, a pencil skirt, the right stripey T-shirt. In the clothes we wore we reached out to figures in alternative bands we admired, kids from the schools around us who were also looking for an identity apart from the ponytailed pack. We might not even know their names but we noticed the extra earring, the hair shaved up under the dark bobbed hair, the button-up '50s dress on casual clothes day. We glanced at each other in the streets in silent kinship and A and I discussed each of them, speculating on their lives.

We started to sift through Camberwell Market and fossick through the eclectic eras of our mothers' wardrobes – A's mum's slightly hippyish collection, hinting at free love and tending towards sculptural jewellery, my mother's more '50s/'60s prim with the occasional psychedelic leaning. A and I travelled long distances to obscure suburban op shops that held the whiff of brilliant discovery: a green cardigan, some pink glass beads, the substantial score of a brown cord jacket. The smell was intoxicating, familiar and strange: old wool, silk and fake leather, metal coat hangers and the odd mothball. The beads hung from their little stands on the counter and they seemed like treasure. I narrow my mind's eye and can see them now.

It was always my mother's clothes that I gravitated towards, never my sisters, ten and twelve years older than me. Perhaps what they wore was too current, too close. Maybe I wanted something that tied me to my mother or which spoke of her history with my father, who often gave her clothes as presents, bought from Georges, an old-school department store in Collins Street. In one photo, my mother wears a wine-coloured cotton shift dress, sleeveless. My father is holding a grubby looking toddler, me, and my sisters and brothers stand around, smiling stiffly. We are out 'as a family' at a barbecue of one of Dad's law colleagues. I look closely at my mother in the photo. She is unsmiling, elegant and beautiful and somehow untouchable in the blood-red dress.


MY FIRST SIGNIFICANT date was with D, at the Argo Inn, South Yarra. It was summer. I wore a raw cotton sleeveless off-white dress, 1920s-ish, borrowed from A. It had a slightly dropped waist, two buttons vertically placed on the hip and a box pleat skirt. I wore an aqua crewneck Sportsgirl T-shirt underneath. I was slightly paranoid about my arms and the dress was more fitted than I would have liked. D commented on the dress, something about it having ancient Grecian overtones. It wasn't particularly complimentary; coming from a Blundstones and jeans standpoint, he didn't see where I was coming from, sartorially. I knew this but nonetheless felt wrong all evening. Beer for D, white wine for me, the cheapest, on empty stomach. Four?

A grey tube skirt was made from material from Spotlight. Worn with a shirt done up to the neck, loose, and a wide belt at the hip. The shirt was sort of blouson style or maybe pirate – or both. There were tights, sometimes with pushed-down socks over them and flat pointy shoes. We stood in front of mirrors at each other's houses, A and I. We swapped beads, tops, skirts and possible combinations or dire choices. We laughed and fell on the clothes-strewn floor at the sight of ourselves. I sucked my stomach in with a few last minute exercises. We went out.

Next morning I sat at the breakfast table in a pink paisley nightie. The cotton was cool and it seemed to gently hold me, to work against the layer of seediness from the night before. The nightie had been Mum's so it carried with it a sense of gentle nurture. I concentrated on not vomiting.

J from school was in hospital. She had had cancer. I was not a close friend and when I visited I felt that I shouldn't have come. I wore a long straight grey '50s patterned skirt, with a slight flounce detail at the ankle and a white T-shirt of Mum's with a picture of a Matisse-style woman's face in hot pinks and blues. J admired my clothes. 'You could be a model,' she said. I laughed, knowing it was ridiculous but flattered anyway. I am shocked now at my self-centredness in this encounter. The clothes were all about getting me through an uncomfortable situation, creating a distance, a distraction, or perhaps camouflage.


AT SEVENTEEN I bought black shoes, very pointy, small kitten heel, for the ball, from a shop in a black and white checked arcade in the city. Was the shop Stiletto? A and I were entranced by the pointy boots, buckles everywhere. A bored punk-ish older girl, perhaps early twenties, wearing a bright pink mohair jumper and black vinyl jeans with zips everywhere, served me. I got a size too small because I thought my feet were too big.

In Virginia Woolf's story The New Dress, choosing an inappropriate dress brings with it not only social failure but layers of shame to the protagonist Mabel Waring: 'At once the misery which she always tried to hide, the profound dissatisfaction – the sense she had had, ever since she was a child, of being inferior…set upon her, relentlessly, remorselessly'.

For me, doing a law/arts course in which the law part was completely wrong for me, the law problem seemed to be a clothes problem. The private school kids (of which I was only nominally one – Catholic schools didn't count) who studied law wore polo shirts and asked what my HSC score was. The boys wore boat shoes and the girls wore long, white T-shirts and all their clothes were new.

After a while I gravitated towards the arts faculty, though I couldn't quite get out of law. In arts, hennaed hair was everywhere and everyone had holes in their jeans and big belt buckles, cardigans. There were pointy ankle boots and little old floral dresses often worn with a tuft of tough, Frenchy underarm hair.

My birthday party. Nineteen. Dachet three quarter jeans, black crewneck T-shirt a bit frayed at the neck (Dad got it for Mum twenty years before at Georges), silver plated necklace, little flat discs joined together with thin wiry bits, which made my neck itch if I wore it for more than about an hour. I kissed L, regretted not kissing H, a law student, who, despite the law bit, would have been a better bet, though I didn't know this yet.


I WAS BETWEEN twenty and twenty-five. An unravelling had begun. The effect of my father's death, the death I hadn't felt, apparently, was rising up to claim me, the daughter of a reluctant lawyer, failing at law.

Approaching the upstairs uni café my chest felt tight and when I walked in my vision sometimes flicked like a photograph. I developed a tendency to blush and I stumbled when reading things out loud in tutorials. I wore a grey '50s raincoat with very faint white and blue background checks. Knee-length, a bit scruffy. I had moved to St Kilda and was trying to change my image. I had gained weight though and nothing was feeling right. Each day I carried Dad's battered old leather briefcase.

Two more occasions I remember. The first was when a black silk '50s jacket was stolen from the back of my chair at the Esplanade Hotel, leaving me disproportionately bereft. It had a square boxy shape with four false flower buttons on the front with press-studs underneath. There with L, I drank three pots quickly and smoked a lot. I felt fat and frumpy and weirdly middle-aged though I was only twenty-two.

The second was a cocktail party, of sorts, at our share house in Richmond where I got way too drunk. The next day I wore off-white '60s jeans from a Hawthorn op shop with R's black '50s diamond patterned jumper (Greville St) and brown lace-up shoes with decorative detail in the leather, swirly pattern. M, a different kind of boy, nicer, stayed. He said, 'I've been wanting to kiss you all day.'

I felt terrible, trapped in a body I did not recognise.

At this time I had a clothes rack in my room. I arranged the clothes so that each garment complemented the next, not matching but enhancing. They fell into one another as if they were giving each other light. I looked at them, but when they were on me they did not work. The artistry was gone; my body resisted the clothes. Instead of feeling beautified or made interesting by them I felt garish, a spectacle.


THE MELBOURNE FASHION designer Pia Interlandi designs special garments for the dead, beautiful shrouds. In a documentary about her, Anatomy – Soul, Interlandi discussed her experience of dressing her nonno,her Italian grandfather, fordeath and her realisation that the clothes chosen to bury him in were inappropriate. First, this led her to consider forensics and the nature of materials, the ability of clothes, like the body, to degrade – or not to degrade. But more profoundly, it led her to consider notions of ritual and the soul.

Interlandi's first commission was to make death garments for a woman in her sixties, Kaalii, who had recently buried two parents. Despite being healthy, Kaalii wanted a garment that would prepare her and her family for her death. When the garment was finally made, she had her children and grandchildren come to see it. Paradoxically, Kaalii felt energised by the process. It made her want to live.

When I told my partner about death garments, not long after both his parents had died in quick succession, he was unimpressed. 'It's a bit morbid, isn't it?' he said.

But I was captivated by the melding of clothes and death. I remembered my father's long blue overcoat and his polished black shoes, stamping his feet, wet from rain, before putting his key in the front door. I remembered the scarlet Georges boxes opening to reveal some present for my mother, perhaps a silky shirt wrapped in tissue tied with a white ribbon.


WHEN I WAS twenty-five I went overseas. I looked around at the stylish women and girls, their scarves and boots and layered dresses and I did not know what to wear. The only success was a navy-blue 1920s jacket from a flea market in Paris. The lapels were cut out in art deco shapes, the sleeves went to the elbow. I wore the jacket over a fitted white T-shirt (I had lost weight again), with Levi 501s or a maroon cotton skirt with black tights. After a while, though, I began to like the idea of shedding things. Each night I washed one of my two outfits. My pack was spare and light.

Back from Europe, though, old patterns reasserted themselves. I wore a '60s cardigan, with pearl buttons, a collar and a floral pattern in the knit (same colour) at the collarbone with blue woollen shorts stolen from Esprit before my therapy appointment (what did this mean?) with black tights underneath and Doc Martens, a red '60s coat. Date with D. 'Nice shorts,' he said.

I thought I was in love and we had fun, initially.

In his share-house room we took off our clothes. There was tracing paper covering the bottom of the window and in the morning it filtered the winter light, reminding me of cicadas' wings.

I imagined a life of art but, with D, it didn't turn out like that.

Donald Winnicott says that 'it is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self'

D was gone. I was twenty-six and I knew something had to change. I didn't see him or L any more though I thought of them a lot. I started swimming. I wore sky blue Speedos, then navy, then green, pools all over the city. I swam and swam until the goggles left red indentations around my eyes, my chest was tight and the sweet taste of thirst was in my throat. At first it was hard but I went again and again. Not every day, but I kept it up, week after week I went at least once, sometimes twice, until it became years. As I swam I let my eyes rest on the patterns of light that fell across the tiles at the bottom of the pool, flitting, changing and rearranging, another world.

I was completely alone.

Turning my head again I heard the muffled cries of children and the rattle of lockers and then I faced down again, submerged into a world that was pure vision and limbs, my thoughts filtered as though transparent.

When my laps were finished, I climbed out of each of these pools and water dripped down my thighs.

I felt stronger and it was a good feeling.

Each time, I walked to the change rooms, turned on the shower, pulled my cap off and stepped out of my bathers. I let the hot water run down my body, which for that moment felt like my own. I pulled a towel around me, left the shower cubicle, opened my locker and grabbed my pile of clothes.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 44: Cultural Solutions © Copyright Griffith University & the author.