When I was in primary school, one of my favourite books was Eleanor Estes’ The 100 Dresses. It is about a young Polish girl, Wanda Petronski, who boasts about her 100 dresses. She is visibly poor so a number of kids decide to tease her and claim she is lying. By the end of the book they discover that she did indeed have 100 dresses – all of them were drawings. I’m not sure why, but this book left its mark on me. The cruel kids that taunted the young girl, her life of drawing, imagining, dreaming of the beautiful dresses that she could one day own, and considering her own drawings to be as much a reality and tangible possession as a material dress could possibly be.
I love wearing dresses. I love the way they feel when I walk. I love the way they sway. I love their airiness. Early this year, I realised that I didn’t even own a single pair of trousers*. I have suit bags that lovingly house my dresses from my thinner years. My dresses are not particularly expensive (except for that one, glamorous, plunging neckline, silk, green Merivale) but I can’t throw them out. In the last couple of months I have read two books on dresses. The first is 25 Dresses and the other is Dress Memory.
25 Dresses: Iconic Moments in twentieth century fashion by William Banks-Blaney
This book was both a visual delight as well as a well-researched fashion history book. As one of four girls, my sisters and I always had fashion magazines in the house when we were growing up. Though they weren’t our foremost reading, they certainly were a mainstay of our reading. Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Cleo to name a few. Understanding the influences on the clothes that we either wore, coveted or copied isn’t particularly important to me but understanding the broader historical world circumstances that impacted the fashion industry is much more interesting. I loved that specific cuts and styles were described in detail and photographs not only showed the original designers but also those who reimagined the same cuts to continue a long chain of influence that is evident through to the 21st century. I highly recommend this superb book for those who enjoy fashion history.
Dress, Memory by Lorelei Vashti
The next dress book I read was quite different to the Banks-Blaney. Where his book is a lens upon a historic time, Lorelei Vashti’s lovely and touching memoir Dress, Memory is a personal narrative of how twelve dresses from her life were part of her own formative adult years. A chapter and a dress for every year in her twenties (and one dress for when she turns 30), her book takes you through her studies, her work, friendships, journeys, love life and her numerous returns to her childhood home. Her decade of exploring her self is not all that different from many other memoirs but her writing from her sense of how specific dresses shaped pivotal experiences in her life touched me.
This is how I feel about my dresses. From my orange sparkly party dress I wore during a bogong moth plague necessitating an excruciating night of plucking winged caterpillars off myself, my blue empire line beach dress that I had to sneak-wear out of the house as my dad absolutely hated it as our obnoxious neighbour asked him if he was embarrassed that I was pregnant (stupid neighbour – I wasn’t pregnant, I had a funky cool little pot belly), my magenta grecian style dress that drapes and falls in folds and flutters as I walk making me feel like a goddess to my twitter dress, my rumble in the jungle dress, my daisy dress and my fusion Japanese tunic dress. So many fabulous dresses. Dresses evoke such passion in me. I cannot summon the same adoration for a pair of trousers no matter how comfortable or flashy. Dresses are gorgeous, and now that I have read Lorelei Vashti’s book I will be thinking of the story that each of my own dresses carry. I will also think of 25 Dresses and the couture dream styles that I may not own, that I may only dream of and covet, but, as Eleanor Estes showed me, I can treasure these images of the dresses I own in my mind as much as those I own in my wardrobe.
I borrowed copies of 25 Dresses and Dress, Memory from a public library in New South Wales. I still own my copy of The 100 Dresses that I bought from Scholastic Book Club back in 1979.
* I have rectified this and now own 3 pairs of trousers.