Childhood Memories, Fashion and Play

A grainy photo of me at five years old, a round faced, pink-cheeked white girl with brown hair standing in front of a classroom blackboard. I am dressed as an angel in a voluminous white tunic-style robe with gold tinsel tied around my waist and a wreath of gold tinsel on my head.

When I was little, my mother used to find things in op shops that I could play dress ups with. Costume jewellery, hats, a frothy lace wedding dress with a long veil, and once a truly thrilling find: old dance costumes that had been discarded by a calisthenics troupe. There were three, white, pink and yellow shiny lycra leotards encrusted with rhinestones and adorned with floaty chiffon skirts. The yellow didn’t fit me, but was donated to my best friend and we got hours of play out of them. I loved jumping and twirling and dancing in them, feeling the skirts drift around my bare legs and watching the rhinestones sparkle.

I’ve always been drawn to the sparkly and frilly and lace-covered things in life. If an outfit is covered in ruffles and encrusted with glitter, well so much the better. When I was a five years old and begged to be allowed to take ballet lessons, there was nothing that filled me with more delight than trying on costumes for the clumsy concerts we performed to adoring parents and sitting to have thick stage makeup applied by the mothers who volunteered to chaperone us back stage. When we had been in the class for long enough, we were allowed to graduate from the little sheer skirts that went over our leotards to big frothy blue tutus with fabric roses sewn to the waist. I would take any excuse to put on my tutu and bounce around the house, loving the drama and theatre of it, feeling for all the world like a real ballerina.

There are many treasured clothes and accessories remembered from my childhood. The pink and white party dress I got for Christmas one year, that I insisted on wearing at every opportunity. The plush koala handbag that was lost at a shopping centre and replaced with an almost identical bag that was, nonetheless, never the same. The rustling plastic grass skirts brought home by my parents from a holiday to Dunk Island. The Minnie Mouse ears on a headband from our trip to Disneyland when I was seven and the I Love Lucy t-shirt (with its enormous red glitter heart) picked up at Universal Studios on the same holiday. And when remembering America, one mustn’t forget the 1950s rock-and-roll outfit from the hot rod show; a frilly white top and pink skirt with a poodle appliquéd onto it, complete with a matching pink scarf, puffy petticoat and and elastic belt with a big gold buckle in the shape of a poodle. There’s still a photo of me on the desk in my parents’ lounge room standing on a paddle steamer in Louisville wearing the poodle outfit and grinning fit to burst.

As a chubby, somewhat awkward and occasionally weird kid, having clothes that made me feel fabulous was thrilling, because I felt dumpy and a bit embarrassed a lot of the time. Slightly too tight bottle green uniform bloomers under a netball skirt that cut into my belly made PE even more uncomfortable than it usually is for a not terribly coordinated fat kid. Our school dresses were short and I just could not get the hang of sitting with my knees together, constantly flashing my floral undies to all and sundry. During a period of bullying during grade three, I have a vivid memory of launching into a panic attack at the prospect of having to find something suitably cool to wear to a free dress day at school. My poor mother carted me around the shops for hours until we found the perfect outfit and I felt devastatingly grown up in my cream coloured leggings, brown oversized t-shirt with SPORTSGIRL emblazoned across the chest and cream scrunch socks…until I got to school, saw all the other girls were wearing floral sundresses, and realised I’d hopelessly misjudged the fashion of the day.

These aren’t universal experiences, but I think a lot of women – and other people too – can probably recall vivid emotionally charged memories to do with clothes they loved or hated or longed for when they were kids. I’ve been reading a book called “It’s So You: 35 women write about personal expression through fashion and style” (you can find it here on The Book Depository) and it’s full of stories just like mine. The essays within touch on fat, feminism, wrangling with one’s own gender identity and politics and the painful, awkward experience of growing up girl in a world where everyone has an opinion on what you should wear and how you should look. They tell stories about the authors using clothing as children and teenagers to explore their identities, to try on new ones, to try fitting in and standing out, to test out being grown up and what it might mean to be a woman. It really brings home to me the power of clothing and bodily adornment in our lives as a signifier of so many different things, and as a vehicle with which to not only express but explore, play with and try on identity and gender.

Today, more and more, I find myself injecting that sense of play into my fashion choices. Dying my hair outlandish colours, switching between – or co-mingling – the elegant and the crass or tacky, finding new parts of my body I can adorn with nail polish or makeup or jewellery. I enjoy making merry havoc with the “rules” of fashion for fat women, and while I am still usually presenting a high femme version of myself – with my cat’s eye eyeliner, squeaky giggle and flippy blonde hair if not with the clothes I’m wearing at the time – it is fun to mess around with how I feel and how others see me depending on what I’m wearing. Putting on makeup and picking which necklace to pair with which dress almost always feels like putting on my Girl costume, and I like it that way.

Do you remember any treasured – or loathed – pieces of clothing from your childhood? Are your memories of clothes and accessories as vivid and charged as mine? I am curious to hear how different this experience is for people who are less femme than I am. Perhaps fashion has been particularly salient for me because it is one of the ways in which it is “acceptable” to explore and flaunt a high femme identity, but I suspect clothing and adornment are significant (perhaps in different ways) to those who aren’t femme and/or aren’t women as well.

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6 thoughts on “Childhood Memories, Fashion and Play

  1. rhyannon says:

    Excellent post as per usual. I remember my mum picked up a fancy frilly blue dress with a HUGE skirt and lace from the op-shop when I was about 7. I literally wore that dress to death. I would wear it climbing trees and going through the blackberry bushes. I tore a lot of the netting, but I didn’t care. I felt like a fricking princess!

    I never felt comfortable in school uniforms though, and I also would spend a lot of time flashing my underwear from sitting with my knees apart. It was quite amusing going from a school with a long dress to a school where the coolest girls had the shortest dresses. I always wished that my dress was shorter so I could be cool too.

    I also remember NEVER taking my jumper off in primary and high school even on the RIDICULOUSLY hot days because a boy in primary school told me my arms were hairy and gross. People would ask me if I was too hot, and I would always say I was fine, meanwhile I was practically melting.

    • Sarah says:

      School uniforms were extra unpleasant when I started being sized out of them in the last couple of years of high school. I had to have them specially made to accommodate my hips and boobs, which was painfully embarrassing even though the uniform shop staff didn’t seem to care. I also used to wear my school jumper (or vest, which I mercifully convinced my mother to buy me in year twelve) even on the hottest days to cover my stomach.

      One of the girls at my high school once confessed to me that she shaved her forearms because a boy had once commented to her about how hairy they were. It’s extraordinary what a lasting effect those sorts of comments can have on us.

      I love that you wore your princess dress adventuring and climbing around 😀 Who says frilly dresses aren’t for adventurous types?

  2. Cerise says:

    Even though there are pictures of me bouncing around in girly clothes when I was very young, my primary school years were largely defined by my staple outfit of baggy jumper, leggings (preferably those stirrup leggings), slouch socks and runners. Warm weather clothing was shorts, baggy tops and runners/thongs. I didn’t understand why I should want to wear a dress or a skirt, particularly if there was a risk of flashing ones underwear, nor did they seem very sport friendly. My hair was a nuisance to me, and as for make up – ‘ew, that’s for girls’.

    And then there was high school. It was completely unacceptable for any self respecting girl to wear pants in summer (term 1 and 4), just as it was unacceptable to not wear pants in winter (2 and 3). School dresses had to be as short as humanly possible, preferably only an inch longer than your jumper, and TIGHT up top, and the pants needed to be of the boot leg variety, over your pair of heeled Colorado shoes. I really started to develop at the start of high school and really struggled with wearing my school dress. I had to wear one, in order to stay in with my group, but the problem was that I always had to get bigger sized dresses to fit my bust, thereby achieving an awesome tent look everywhere else. Fortunately it was acceptable to wear your jumper around your waist so I was able to tuck all the fabric in. It was then that I also discovered black eyeliner and a fascination with hair dye. Upon reflection I looked utterly horrific, but so did everyone else (anyone remember those hair mascaras?).

    So like Rhyannon, school uniforms were a hideously uncomfortable experience for me (and then having to deal with that bloody blazer at Yarra……), but upon reflection I have realised how much of an influence my childhood dressing has had on me now. I’m at my most comfortable when I’m make up free, hair back, in trackies/shorts, singlet top and hoodie. I own 20 pairs of thongs, 1pair of high heels, and the shoes I go through the most are ballet flats and sneakers. My lack of interest in dressing up has resulted in many last minute shopping expeditions because I have nothing to wear at ‘dressy’ functions. On the flip side, I do have an extensive make up collection, I just only wear it when I feel the need to. I can also rock the good old smart casual look.

    Apologies for the slightly lengthy response, but it was a really good blog Sarah, and it makes up for my lack of response on your other ones 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Your lengthy response is great! I can relate to that anxiety about wearing what all the other girls are wearing in high school. I think it was in year ten that I started wearing makeup to school every day because I just couldn’t bear the way I looked without eyeliner or that anyone might see a PIMPLE on my chin (horror!). These days I wear makeup more often than some, but nowhere close to every day, and feel perfectly comfortable with a “bare” face. And I’ve just realised that even though my dress is usually pretty femme (I only own two pairs of trousers and one of those is pyjama pants) I don’t currently own any high heels! I think as you get older it gets easier to discard the “expected” items of clothing that don’t really work for you or that you don’t feel comfortable in. The idea of not owning heels when in high school never even crossed my mind, though.

  3. whitealinta says:

    I have never had a good connection with clothes. When I was in kinder my grandmother gave me a tan coloured dress with lace and sheer fabric. It had been the flower girl dress that my cousin (mum’s cousin) wore at my grandmothers wedding. At age three and a half I was told by my mother that I was too fat to wear it. I was the same size around the waist as my mum’s cousin had been when she was nine, and my mother didn’t want me to get too attached to the dress because she knew I was already too big for it and would probably destroy this precious family heirloom if I was allowed to wear it. Incidents like this have left me feeling uncomfortable when I choose my own clothes to wear. Even now as an adult I panic before going out because I am not confident that I look ok.

    School uniforms were a blessing for me, and later in life I discovered the joy of costumes for theatre productions. When someone else tells me what to wear and how to do my hair and makeup, that is the only time I feel comfortable in an outfit.

    • Sarah says:

      I can totally understand that anxiety, although it makes me sad. Partly because I think you always look good (I am particularly enjoying your new penchant for dresses because I think you look great in them), and partly because even if you looked like you’d just rolled out of bed and thrown on the stained and crumpled clothes from the night before, you wouldn’t deserve to feel panicky about your appearance.

      I think costumes began my positive feelings about clothing, too, and perhaps the fact that I discovered them early helped me to see my everyday clothing as costumes as well, and trust in my own ability to choose things for myself. Even if I look back and think the outfit I loved was horrible, I now don’t tend to feel ashamed of it, which is nice. There was definitely a time when any photo of myself sent me into a panic, but now I even have some deeply unflattering ones tagged on Facebook. Because sometimes I look ridiculous or awful and that’s actually *okay*. I think I am able to find more pleasure in feeling like a look good – and am able to feel as if I look good more often – now that looking bad doesn’t frighten or upset me so much. I – and you – do not owe prettiness or even looking okay to anyone.

      It’s a painfully difficult lesson to unlearn, though, that childhood admonishment for being too fat or too sloppy or too whatever.

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