Saturday, September 25, 2010
To be a follower of fashion, to be what my mother called “clothes-y”, is to risk being seen as frivolous and even silly. There are more important things in the world than frocks!
Or are there? Might it be that clothes are, in fact, very important indeed? Fashion is an industry, an entertainment and a cultural barometer of our times, but it is also more than the sum of its parts. Clothes are the intimate artifacts that perhaps best document and chronicle our life and times. Who hasn’t pulled out a forgotten old sweater they lived in one winter only to be whisked back there with awesome force? Who can’t remember her wedding dress?
Our clothes are the cloth, yarn and stitches that cover the shame of our nakedness, that protect us from the elements, but they are also more than that – they are how we choose to represent ourselves to the outside world as we navigate our personal path through it. Clothes signify which tribe we belong to, how we view the world and ourselves. Clothes can make or break a date, or a party or a job interview. Clothes can make us feel happy or sad. As Linda Grant writes in her wonderful book The Thoughtful Dresser, clothes can even be “fabric friends” who comfort us when we are lonely. I’m pretty sure clothes have magical powers.
This fashion theorem was proved to me a little over a year ago Maureen Ryan came into my first Sydney boutique, through which I sold my own fashion label, Mrs Press, and special vintage garments; either carefully renovated or impeccably preserved. Maureen was looking for something fabulous, flattering and 1950s-inspired to wear to her son’s wedding on Scotland Island.
“I’ll never find anything to fit me,” smiled the petite brunette with the dancing eyes. “Or to suit me. Sorry.” Why was she sorry? She was sorry, as so many women are when they shop for clothes, because she was expecting defeat at the first hurdle, but had turned up anyway. The word “sorry” was said with a familiar shrug and shy smile - familiar because, as a shopkeeper, I see it every day.
It is a rare woman who can swan into a boutique and descend confidently on the dress of her dreams, safe in the knowledge that it will suit her, her budget and the occasion for which it is destined. A rare woman, or a fashion editor.
Despite what men think, most women don’t find serious shopping fun. Browsing is fun. Hitting the shops with your friends to gossip and ogle and giggle is fun. But shopping on a mission is something else altogether. Shopping on a mission is the stressful hunt for affirmation that you are beautiful and there is a dress out there that will make you look like the very best version of yourself. When you don’t find it, it’s no fun at all.
“I have just the dress,” I said, knowing that I really, truly did. I had recently bought some exquisite pieces from a vintage fashion collector who had assembled her treasures over a 30-year period before finally admitting defeat – her house was overflowing. Amongst the pieces I’d selected was a scoop-necked, full-skirted number cut from cream Italian linen and covered all over with turquoise polka dots. Those dots could have made a lesser dress ditsy, but this one had such good breeding that such decoration only rendered it oh-so-fashionably festive. I showed it to Maureen and her eyes lit up. When she tried it on it fitted like it was made for her.
“I’ve never bought a vintage dress,” she said. “But I like the idea. I wonder who owned it and where they wore it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I feel sure they danced in it.”
“I bet they did! Danced the night away!”
“Maureen, you look seriously gorgeous in that dress,” I said.
“I do!” she laughed. And she was right, she really did.
“So there’s no point in showing you this other one,” I said, “but I will just in case you prefer it.” The second dress was silk too, and also from the 1950s. This one was slightly less dressy, pencil skirted, but beautifully shaped to emphasise the waist. The silk was printed with a gorgeous blurry floral of teal blues and greys on an elegant black surround.
And this one fitted a treat too.
“Get the polka dots,” I said. “They are perfect for a wedding.”
“I’m getting them both!” grinned Maureen. “I love them! This is so much fun.” She’d found her fashion Holy Grail – shopping on a mission and it’s fun…
A month later Maureen emailed me some gorgeous pictures of herself smiling in the sunlight in the polka dot dress, a handsome dark man beside her, and blue water glinting in the background. She and the dress had obviously become great friends. She and the dress looked beautiful together.
I didn’t expect to see Maureen’s dresses again. They had been passed on to the right person and were clearly having a ball. I love it when the matchmaking works.
But last week I came downstairs into my new store and my eye fell immediately on a familiar blur of blue and grey. “What are you doing here?” I asked the dress. But it only stared at me, sadly, refusing to say anything at all.
I asked Fay, who works for me, how the dress came back. Her face crumpled. Maureen’s husband Mike had driven from Canberra to return it to us. He had found our old shop empty, but persevered because he was shopping on a mission and refused to fall at the first hurdle.
Maureen Ryan passed away from a brain disease on August 16th. Her son’s new baby was yet to be born. It was cruelly, shockingly quick. Her illness hit her like a freight train, and four days after she collapsed she was gone. “She was my sweetheart of 41 years,” Mike told me over the phone. “I loved her so much. There wasn’t enough time…” He trailed off.
“It’s not fair!” was all I could think to say. But Mike was focused on the reason for our conversation. They buried Maureen in the polka dot dress; the dress she’d danced so happily in less than a year before. The floral dress was left behind.
“It didn’t feel right to throw it away. I remember her smiling in it. She liked the idea of the vintage dress having a history, belonging to someone who had enjoyed it. I believe she would have liked me to pass it on.”
I didn’t know Maureen, not really, but I knew her dress. And that dress loved her. Looking at it now it seems forlorn, like it feels her loss. But dresses, like the human spirit, are amazingly resilient. I know that eventually it will be ready to dance another day. It has to – because I promised Mike it would.
This story was written for Sunday Life, 26th September edition.
Posted by Mrs Press at 9:26 PM