Who are you wearing?

PICEDITOR-SMH

Now I’m in my 50s, I look around and see little on offer when it comes to inspiring archetypes in dress and appearance. Where I live, there’s pretty much just two styles: Toorak Woman – caramel tones, black Range Rover, highlights, shops at Thomas Dux – and The Artistic One – red flats with leather daisy, stripey top, grey bob (she also has a cousin who only ever wears variations on a theme, the theme being, as a friend put it, “menopause mauve”).

So. Boring.

In fact, the deficit has been there for decades, only it’s covered up till a woman gets into her mid-40s by the whole paraphenalia that goes with playing the role of the “desire-awakening maiden”*. Once a woman outgrows the role she’s been obliged to play since she was 12, she looks around and sees … what?

I’ve been lucky. I grew up to be tall and willowy, with the square shoulders and long legs of a model and people would say, “hey, you should be a model …” I could wear a sack and make it look good. I was confident and inventive in what I wore. I made clothes by knitting or crochet – I crocheted myself a sky-blue bikini when I was 12 – and was mad about customising them, cutting off sleeves or sewing on braid or ribbon. I’d pick up bits and pieces and turn them into things to wear. A man’s tie I found somewhere I wore for years as a belt, and in Balmain market I found the beautiful buckle below which I also made into a belt. It touches me today to see what a good job I made of it and how tiny my waist was.

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Fast forward several decades, and now what? I realise writing this that I’ve been asleep in the “delight in dressing up” department for years and I’ve mostly become a conventional dresser. So where to next? The game’s not over. I can walk into a room and turn heads. I know it’s in response to a certain presence, rather than fresh skin and child-bearing potential, and it suits me fine. In fact, it suits me better than it often suited me in the past, for then I felt owned by men looking and some of the crude and frightening stuff that went along with it.

What does it look like if I want to take up another version of that earlier delight in dressing? Have you done this yourself? What did you develop? Ideas welcome.

*

* The quote is from Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire

Image: Michelle Jank (right), Australian-born designer and stylist, a former style inspiration for me, with model

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13 thoughts on “Who are you wearing?

  1. Hi there. I am almost 43 years of age and to be honest, up until my 40’s have next really found a style that suited me or that I felt truly happy with. How has that changed? I went to university as a mature student so anything goes. also I work in a charity shop and get to try on a whole range of items, some look good, some not, but I get to experiment.

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  2. You look good to me Narelle! We are in the midst of watching “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” Many of her clothes were what I wore for years. Costumey, yes, but so much fun. We don’t attend as many events today. The limitations of age include no night driving, old friends gone permanently missing, etc. But as an artist, I have always enjoyed “dressing it up”. I love Essie Davis’s bob. I may experiment with it. Clothes are an endless fascination. Hey we’re girls. xxx

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    • You get Miss Fisher there? Her clothes and style are beautiful. I read an interview with the costume designer and she was talking about the challenge of finding a particular beret she wanted. Agreed about Essie Davis’s bob. I get it about dressing up being an expression of you as an artist. It is that for me too; I’ve been forgetting that. xx

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  3. Just finished another episode. So much of the fabric is vintage. We don’t see it often. I too worked in a thrift shop for a number of years. I bought so much my kids said they would have to give it all back when I died. Fortunately the thrift shop died before me and I outgrew the clothes.

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    • One day, if not already, someone in your family will be glad you bought that stuff, won’t they? Op shops are the best. I still think about a raw silk (remember the raw silk phase?) skirt i bought at the age of 22 for one dollar. Best skirt I ever owned. You’re right about the Miss Fisher fabric. The designer said she and her team scour the world for fabrics and accessories for the show. I like that they put so much care into it. The clothes and the way she wears them are actually the star of the show.

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      • It shows. It’s filmed a few kms from where I live. I saw a snippet of an episode last night and she was wearing a long flowing open coat in coral, over a pearl-grey loose sleeveless top and matching wide-legged pants. On her head, she was wearing the beret the designer must have been talking about in the interview. It was a dusty salmon colour, made of straw and trimmed with plum-coloured marabou feathers. The coat was silk or maybe even velvet though it rippled when she walked, unlike velvet. I would totally wear the coat and under things today if there were anything like that around.

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      • I’ve been thinking about your word, costumey. The magic, don’t you find, is to take costumey and decostumefy it to the exactly right degree? :) My cousin, H, is a case in point. She’s 55 and for the past 20-25 years she’s had a tendency to put on weight and sometimes she’s felt unhappy about it and self-conscious. And then something changed about 10 years ago. She worked out, through some op shop purchases, that waisted 50s style dresses with the full skirts really worked for her because however her weight varied, she kept a lovely sweet waist. She’s come into her own with this style. I saw a photo of her at her nephew’s wedding a few weeks ago, and she was wearing a creamy waisted dress, with pale pink highlights, and a narrow black velvet ribbon around the waist. She was wearing black mary-janes with a medium heel, and her dark, shoulder length hair was loose and free. She was the picture of a woman who’s free and feminine and loving and fully self-expressed. Truly beautiful!

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  4. My mother was an incredible seamstress and when I was still at home, I could just pick out fabric and a pattern and she would make anything I wanted. The late sixties brought an anti-fashion movement–it was bell bottom jeans and tee shirts all the way. When I went to work, I propped myself up with clothes–trying to inhabit the role by wearing the costume. These days I seem to rely mainly on ethnic clothing purchased from Thailand. The clothing is beautiful in itself and works well for petite women. In my next life, I’d like to be taller–more like you describe yourself, Narelle–if only to reach those top shelves!

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    • You’re one of the petite women who ask me to get things from the top shelves in the supermarket :) I get it about using clothes to try to take on a role. That’s why talking about clothes is never just talking about clothes, right? Thanks for mentioning ethnic clothing; that’s the other option. Clothes from India, South East Asia and Africa offer new possibilities that women don’t readily have access to in the West, new possibilities of grace and colour and womanliness.

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    • It’s pretty popular with women for the reasons we’re discussing. It’s funny about Essie Davis. She seemed to come from nowhere, and no-one even much discusses her now. Instead, they discuss Miss Fisher and how great she is; that’s how fully she’s inhabited the role. She’s so good she manages to overcome the dialogue :)

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