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.