Anyone who thinks of me as a tough-minded sort of person might be surprised to learn that as I strip down my possessions in preparation for a move to New York, the pieces I’m finding hardest to part with are my wedding dress, and a silk dress and a smocked woollen coat I wore as a one-year-old.
Obviously I am never going to wear these garments again and neither is pristine enough to donate to a worthy cause, but I find myself strangely reluctant to consign them to the rubbish.
Am I just being sentimental in clinging to these remnants of who I once was?
I don’t think so since neither evokes happy memories. I have no recollection or photograph of my wearing the adorable childhood outfit. And my wedding dress is actually a grim reminder of a pretty awful day. Not because of who I married but because of a family drama that on the Richter scale of wedding disasters, rated at least 9.5.
I had made the dress myself and was so proud of its fashionable sleek lines, its pin-tucking and tiny covered buttons. I planned to wear it with white fishnet stockings and low-heeled strappy shoes.
But when I arrived at my parents house that April day in 1967 to dress for my Registry Office marriage I discovered that overnight my mother had lowered the hem of my Mary Quant-style short white crepe dress by a good five centimetres.
I thought I would look the height of mod fashion. My mother thought I would look like a tart. By the time I discovered her crime, it was too late to alter the dress. The taxi was waiting.
The day got worse from there and ended with my new husband driving his blubbering bride around Adelaide to try to calm her down before we faced our friends at the party that, presciently as it turned out, we’d thought we’d need after the family reception.
So it’s not syrupy memories that are stopping me from throwing it away. Rather, I think there is something about the power of garments to tell a story.
That story can be a sad or brutal one, or it can be joyous, but the outfit takes us there in ways that a photograph cannot. The garment is tactile and has texture and it invariably bears the stains of human life: sweat, food or other detritus.
Looking at it, fingering its folds and creases, reminds us of the human being who inhabited it and of the things she did while wearing it. In other words, it is a palpable piece of history.
Nothing is a more powerful example of the demeaning treatment of a previous generation of Aboriginal women than the mission dress. This shapeless garment, designed to hide the body and shame its wearer, was imposed on these women by Christian missionaries. The artist Clinton Nain has made an unforgettable series of paintings of the mission dress his mother was obliged to wear, its bright colours and simple shapes making it a both an image of childhood and a symbol of dispossession.
Similarly, I find the clothes of concentration camp prisoners even more heart-wrenching than photographs of skeletal survivors. Sydney’s Jewish Museum has a stylish black woman’s coat donated by journalist Daniela Torsh. It belonged to Olga Pohnert, her grandmother, who wore it while she was in Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. At the railway station where she was about to be shipped to Auschwitz, Olga gave it to her daughter, Mimi, Daniela’s mother, who brought it to Australia.
This fashionable garment, with its nipped-in waist and swing skirt, worn by a woman who was murdered by that era’s Nazis, is both pitiful and a profound symbol of survival and hope.
Neither of my outfits carries such freight. They are simple girlish items of clothing and all they have in common really is that I wore them both, some 20 years apart, and they are both white.
I was among the first of the Baby Boomers so my little silk dress and embroidered woollen coat represented the emergence of post-war prosperity.
My mother’s own wedding dress and veil were borrowed because wartime rationing did not allow the purchase of fancy fabrics. She made sure her little daughter, her first child, suffered no such privations.
Today’s brides seem to opt either for the tulle extravaganza or form-fitting satin.
What these gowns have in common is that they are bespoke, expensive and most often floor-length.
My wedding dress was not as short as I’d planned but it was above the knee. It epitomised the Carnaby Street revolution and the arrival of the mini skirt (which seems dowdy compared with today’s crotch-huggers), the freedom of the 1960s and the beginning of women’s liberation.
How could I possibly throw it away?
This article was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald online on 18 August 2017