Every garment tells a story (part 1)

I attended an interesting lecture last week, where PhD student Sara Chong Kwan told us about her primary research into male and female sensory dress experience. As she shared snippets of the stories she had been told by interviewees who were showing items from their wardrobes, I started to think about what I would talk about if she interviewed me. To begin with, here are a few stories about clothing that I no longer own – fondly remembered garments from my school, college and university years. It’s striking just how much I can remember about the garments I have owned, and how much they remind me of people, events and places.

Me (left) in my ‘ra ra’ skirt, and my sister (front) wearing my old bridesmaid dress (Sept 1984).

In 1980, when I was five years old, I was bridesmaid at my cousin Marion’s wedding. I remember nothing of the day itself, but I do remember the soft cotton empire line bridesmaid dress. It had short sleeves and a high neck, and was a pale shade of pink with white polkadots on the bodice. I wore it many times (when dressing up, and to parties), as did my younger sister when it fitted her, and it was unquestionably my favourite dress… until I was bridesmaid again, when I was eight, for my parents’ friends Mick and Diane. They had two bridesmaids – I don’t remember the name of the other girl, but I do remember that we looked very similar and our mothers made our dresses by hand, to match. This dress was also empire line with short puffy sleeves, and made out of peach satin with lace trim. Until I grew out of it, it was my most prized possession. Around the time I was nine or ten, my mum put her sewing skills to work again and made me a ‘ra ra’ skirt out of black taffeta with a moire pattern. This was, quite possibly, the most fashionable item of clothing I owned at the time! Another party outfit sticks in my head from when I was about 14, but this one was bought from a shop (I forget which one, but I remember that I was thrilled to be allowed to have it). The outfit consisted of a black circle skirt with a multi-coloured print of streamers and a built-in net underskirt, plus a white mesh silver flecked batwing jumper with a boat neck and a deep V at the back. That outfit pretty much sums up everything I loved (at the time) about 80s fashion and the movie Grease!

Once I reached 17, things got a bit more ‘romantic’. There was the striped cotton ankle length Laura Ashley dress with leg-o-mutton sleeves that I used to cinch at my waist with a wide black elastic belt which fastened at the front with three press studs. I got that from a bag of unwanted clothes that my Aunt Cass let me rummage through and would never usually have shopped in Laura Ashley. I continued my fascination with full ankle-length skirts by buying a cotton patchwork one from a ‘hippy shop’ in my home town – featuring beige, yellow and brown batik designs – and a tiered blue cotton one from River Island, with gingham and seersucker fabrics. Next up from the memory bank was a dress from the start of my obsession with black when I was 18. I can’t remember where I got that ankle-length scoop-necked sleeveless black jersey dress from, but I remember it very clearly! It had a full skirt plus pearlised press-studs all the way down, and I often layered it over other skirts. When I was feeling more daring, I wore it unbuttoned to the waist over black shorts, with a pair of low-heeled thigh high suede boots that I got for a mere £16 in the Dolcis sale! Whilst doing my art foundation course, I bought a (small) men’s grey pinstriped suit from a charity shop to wear to a ‘drag night’ at the pub my friends and I always went to on a Friday night. I’m not sure if the trousers were ever worn again, but the jacket became one of my favourites. Another wonderful garment I owned at that time was a handmade black A-line floor length velvet skirt that I got for £4 from a flea market. Despite the elasticated waistband, it looked beautiful and could easily be dressed up or down. I’ve no idea what happened to that skirt, but I suspect it was pretty worn out by the time I finished with it!

Me (centre, wearing my velvet corset top) and my flatmates before heading off to Renaissance at The Haçienda in 1996.

I went to university in Manchester and remember being amazed at the choice of shops there. One of the first things I bought in the city, back in 1994, was a ‘corset’ top from Miss Selfridge that tapped into my love of all things Vivienne Westwood. It was shaped like Westwood’s corsets at that time, with black velvet front and back panels, black powernet side panels, a centre back zip and plastic boning. I wore it to many events – including the Christmas Ball for my Hall of Residence, where I paired it with the ankle length black skirt I’d brought from home – and it’s one of the few garments from back then that I really wish I still owned. Another Hall Ball outfit that I loved was bought from a vintage seller in Afflecks Palace in 1995. It was a 1960s boat-necked black pencil dress, overlaid with black chiffon and with diamante around the neckline. There were two panels of chiffon hanging down the back that flowed while you walked and I still remember that it cost a mere £15! Back in the days before vintage was cool. I also bought a red wool and cashmere double breasted military style coat around that time, which had a long full skirt and big brass buttons. I got it in the sale on the last day of the Clothes Show Live one year (joint Xmas and birthday gift from my parents), and changed the buttons every year that I wore it. It ended up being worn far less after I graduated though, because I drove everywhere and such a long full coat was really impractical in the car. Another coat I owned whilst at uni was a vintage blonde faux fur jacket (again from Afflecks) that helped me stay warm and glamorous.

Next week, just for the hell of it, I shall share tales of more recent and current items from my wardrobe. If you have any garments that you remember fondly, please share your stories!