A Body round thy Body
One of the rectories we lived in when I was a child had a tree in the garden where cicadas loved to wrestle out of their bodies. Unhooking the husks they left behind was a careful job. Poised on the length of my palm, each empty cicada light as a dried leaf and as recently alive. A ghost you could stroke with your fingertip. My dad, my brother and I would spray-paint them gold and silver for our Christmas tree.
I later learned cicadas bury themselves underground to grow into their adult bodies. That what we collected was their bones, which protect their growing wings until they’re ready to tear open their backs and struggle out. Their body-skeleton even has vents allowing them to breathe – some communion, then, between the shelter of their bodied interior and the fresh, open world.
By the time I became interested in clothes, we’d moved house again, leaving the tree and its occasional treasure behind. Remaining constant for my family was the church, both a place and a community that wove through me, who, in turn, burrowed happily into Sunday night services, youth group and Bible studies. My faith was as simple and strong as milk. When I focused on God, I felt total unity, symmetry in myself. Singing the words of a centuries-old hymn, I was sheer spirit and feeling. A beam of light both rising and falling, lifting as I expanded with joy, and deepening, deepened, with presence. This shining sense could pierce me when a verse cut through, or in prayer, when we were alone together, God and I, both invisible in my room. I wasn’t separated from my body, and God was in me, and it was good.
But somewhere in the number of those days, I went from a girl in a body to a woman with a body and the symmetry was upset. Carried with the unwelcome changes of adulthood was the realisation that the world’s relation to me had changed. My body became a stranger and for the first time, the way other people saw me felt present and intrusive. It wasn’t only that their gaze pinned me into myself in a specific, confusing way, but that I didn’t know how to evade it.
Highlighting my nascent self-consciousness were the talks administered at church, reminding me and every other girl that we had a problem on our hands. Nothing could feel less erotic than sitting cross-legged on the floor of the church hall hearing a leader explain we should wear T-shirts into the surf so not to cause our teenaged brothers in Christ to stumble. Our friends, familiar as puppies, were recast as a threat and our bodies the weapons that would be turned against us. Clothes were the answer: they hid, and in hiding made acceptable. Clothe yourselves in righteousness.
I refused to wear a T-shirt to the beach: to even think of it was to feel the dead weight of wet clothes on a scorching day, exacerbating my sullen hips and embarrassing breasts. But the danger had been marked: to appear in the world in unconscious immediacy, me in my body, here and visible, was to have control taken away. But even as an uncertain teenager I was stubborn, and this particular restriction, in my hands, became an escape route. Clothes as a way of effacing and resurfacing, clothes as elision, clothes as hiding in plain sight.
A gift came in the post. My aunt in Cairns signed up to Vogue Australia because they were giving away a watch with every subscription. She wanted the watch more than the magazine, so she sent it on to our house each month. Every worshipper remembers the moment of their conversion, and this was mine: standing barefoot on the chilly tiled floor, holding onto the pages like the hem of the future. I didn’t know then what fashion would come to mean to me, but I saw in these glossy clothes a way of materialising my longing. I’d scrutinise each page, drinking in the line of a miniskirt slung in frills across a hipbone, and the elegant slouch of grey grandpa pants tied with a silk chiffon bow. A one-shouldered Chloé dress, rearing white horses foaming against turquoise, slung across an insouciant shoulder. I studied spaghetti-strap tops that floated empire-line from the bust, and sporty neon Versace dresses so tight and slick they looked painted on, and jeans styled back to front and bleached to a fine fray. Desire is often likened to fever because of its hot abandon, but what of the nausea of unrequited wanting, and its inflamed anguish? Most of the brands weren’t stocked in Australia, and those that were were so impossibly beyond my reach that the yearning they produced seemed as inherent to them as their astonishing prices. Yet these clothes and how they were worn in the magazine offered a look and an attitude: here were women who looked at home in themselves as they strode down catwalks and glared at the camera: they didn’t have to care about who saw them because they were so self-sufficient. These women were on the page to be looked at but remained unfazed, untouched, because they existed somewhere else entirely.
These photos trained my eye. Now when I went shopping with my pocket of money from working at the video store, I knew by instinct what I needed. And I searched for it. My local shopping centre, home to a thousand surf shops, lost all appeal. I scoured the newspaper’s fashion pages for notices of sample sales by Australian brands. I would journey from the southern suburbs into Zetland, a wasteland of squat warehouses with tiny windows, filled with silk seconds and haughty PR girls who resented having to work the card machine. I’d ride the train to Central, reading my book until the doors opened on Foveaux Street, a vertiginous hill with a studio halfway up where Akira and Zimmermann held their sales on the third floor. You had to be buzzed in. They only took cash. Inside awaited a profusion of rails and hangers and boxes of bikini bottoms. Shy, I’d spend the entire time in a deep blush as older girls, who looked to me like models, dug through on their knees, and by them I also kneeled, all of us looking for just the thing.
If I found a way to imitate a catwalk look that lived in my imagination, I would experience a kind of floating escape. The clothes I unearthed ascended me somewhere rarer. A charged space beyond how I usually experienced myself and closer to the promise of who I wanted to be: a person liberated from burning self-consciousness, a person who was inscrutable, and therefore free. The fashion looks I saw in the magazine handed me the knowledge to build, to borrow from Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Sartor Resartus’, a Body round my Body. These clothes felt like a vision of style that remade me, marking me as separate and safe, hidden and defiant.
Getting the Picture
A friend recently told me that in Northern Ireland, when someone dresses in a way that is out of step with everyone else, it’s said that they have notions. We seem to have agreed somewhere along the way that it is unseemly to be preoccupied with clothes, so to encounter someone who appears outfit-first can be to sense a kind of threat. The eye-catching clothes symbolise something and if their meaning is elusive, the shortest route leads to vanity. Likening a person in a big look, as I’ve heard they say in Polish slang, to a rat who’s dressed for the opening of a sewer, or asking them, voice dripping, what they are wearing or, what we’ve come as today, or you didn’t pay money for that did you calls profligates back by reminding them of the shame they should have felt before leaving the house dressed like that.
Dressing is deeply social, marking our collective humanity. Our clothes signal in multiple, complex ways where we belong and who we belong to. So garments that reveal that you have one foot in another world are often perceived as a rejection of your community, or as an effort to project yourself as bigger and better than them. The question of where the intention is directed is important. As art historian Anne Hollander writes, it is the inner theatre that is costumed by the choice in clothes, and this is not always under conscious management. The public may not always be intended, much less able, to get the picture. Whatever in the social mix a person is resisting, the distinction marked by their clothes is not about self-elevation but about ameliorating the quality of their existence. Whether consciously adopted or not, a strategy of sartorial misdirection is an effort to make being in the world more bearable while carrying the confusion of yourself. It draws attention to the surface, for both onlooker and wearer, away from all that can feel helpless, painful, unresolved or dangerous.
Some say that our faculty of reason is what distinguishes us from other animals, but as psychotherapist Eve Golden reminds us, we’re the only species that requires clothing to exist comfortably in the natural world. In ‘Clothes, Inside Out’, an essay weaving psychoanalytic thought with a meditation on what clothes do to and for us, she describes clothing as both artefact, protecting and delineating us, and idea, contribut[ing] to the language of imagery by which we think of and speak to ourselves. When we put on clothes, we are dressing our psyche as much as the rest of our body. A favourite jumper can comfort and warm in equal measure. In writing that clothes help keep separation and merger, inclusion and exclusion, conformity and individuality, closeness and distance, concealment and display [ . . .] adjusted to tolerable levels, Golden acknowledges something fashion theorists know intimately: that clothes always rest on the interface of opposites. While in the world and of it, clothes are separate to us and yet they become part of us. Clothes enter the space of our body and fold against it, becoming our threshold and therefore inextricable from our experience of being in the world.
So let us see extravagant clothes as turning the volume up on closeness and distance, concealment and display, as they throw others off the scent and in their distraction, reveal something about us, even if the message remains elusive. Driven by instinct, things we half-know about ourselves, or things we don’t want other people to recognise, clothes offer a facilitating environment in which to exist. They help us feel our way towards a coherent sense of self as they point others over there, away. Look here! they say. Let them stand in, for now, for me.
A Way of Honouring those Sartorial Traditions
Last summer, without really thinking about it, I posted that I thought extravagant clothes can be a way of hiding or escaping complicated feelings about yourself. I invited anyone who felt the same to write to me and, if they wanted, we could talk.
How the people who replied defined ‘extravagant clothes’ varied but their stories all touched on difficult feelings: of shame, confusion, pain and temporary self-alienation. As we spoke, we saw how clothes had presented a way of holding and speaking those feelings, transforming them into a skin that was more comfortable to wear, offering beauty, release, invisibility and, sometimes, recognition.
I first met Cella at an academic conference, where she wore a green carnation pinned on a velvet frock coat to give her paper on Oscar Wilde. She told me that she first started dressing to the theme of her presentations in high school, when she realised that dressing up in some way, even if it was just to mess around with her uniform, released her from her fear of public speaking. Picture Cella striding across campus in a recent favourite look: for a seminar on the late Victorian New Woman, billowy tweed Rationals, a silk cravat and boater.
Cella has always been particular about what clothing says about her: even as a child, she wanted to match her clothes to her emotions. Dressing was a way of embodying complex feelings but without directly expressing them, she said. My dress is at once expressive and illegible, save by those who know me best. My complex feelings are hidden in plain sight. Dress is how I understand the world and assert my place in it. The vintage dresses from the 1940s, 50s and 60s that she favoured as a teenager morphed into a form of nineteenth century dandyism in her twenties, flourishing through patterned blazers, silk shirts and brocade trousers. We were unknowingly in lockstep in our different cities, each dressing into a collection of fashion references; but Cella’s was a bespoke library of David Bowie’s glamorous androgyny, the Artistic Dress movement, high Victorian dandies and the New Woman’s defiant panache. Cella was feeling her way towards a version of androgyny that side-stepped the aesthetic of teenage boyhood; instead, her androgynous dandyism was classically elegant, a little masculine. Her collection of 1970s power suits grew, culminating in her purchase of a neo-Edwardian tailcoat. I felt myself when wearing that garment. Cella hadn’t come out as queer and had no plans to, comfortable in knowing who she was without feeling that she had to share it with anyone else.
Yet all that time, the nature of the conversation she was having with her clothes remained semi-opaque, until a pivotal moment towards the end of her PhD. Cella was invited to an overseas conference and decided to get a bespoke suit made while she was there. A dressmaker and tailor herself, she had the suit in her head, and loved the process of having it measured and cut, the fitting of the baste, white stitches dashing the lines of the jacket, holding it all together. The length and breadth of her limned in fabric. It took three days for the tailor to make.
The suit was loosely inspired by a 1940s photograph of her grandfather in his thirties, wearing a grey double-breasted jacket and wide-leg, almost Oxford bag trousers with a deep cuff. Cella’s version was a classically cut two-piece, dark navy worsted wool self stripe, with narrow trousers sitting on her natural waist. Single-breast, single-vent, three buttons, with a three-button cuff and a narrow lapel, because she didn’t want it to look too ‘fashionable’. Yet it was lined with acid green and blue shot silk, a flash of juicy colour inside the tidy fit. When I put it on, I felt this incredible sense of relief and confidence and how I felt in my body, how I understood myself to be, coalesced. She turned to face the mirror and saw herself. And in that moment, I knew how to say it – I want to come out. It all fits together, it all feels right.
The next night, still charged with the clarity wrought by the suit, Cella came out over dinner to her supervisor. Patty, who had gone with her to the tailor to try the suit on for the first time, already knew: it was obviously the suit, I could just tell. Your whole body relaxed; your face opened up. You looked like a different person.
Every time Cella wears the suit, the same feeling returns. Soon after, Patty gave her another Edwardian coat, which she had bought right after her own coming out. This gift from her queer family is material lineage, connecting Cella to Patty and to their queer forebears. I could see myself doing that with the suit too – gifting it to a young queer person in my family one day.
The Fugitive and the Stable
In the opening montage of his documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes, director Wim Wenders narrates white typewritten text as it slides up the screen, backlit by dark blue static.
We are creating an image of ourselves,
We are attempting to resemble this image . . .
Is that what we call identity?
Between the image we have created
And . . . ourselves?
Just who is that, ‘ourselves’?
When they commissioned this film in 1989, the Centre Georges Pompidou asked Wenders to make a short film about fashion. What he produced was a rumination on how images and identity inform each other in fashion and cinema. Its central subject is the philosophy and practice of Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, who speaks about his desire to make clothes that protect the people who wear them. His ideal, as a designer, is that people can live life with this clothing.
In one scene, Yamamoto sits in his studio as he explains this intention. Surrounding him are cool white walls and black clothes, some hanging on a rail, some on dress forms. He wears black, too, a collared shirt, sleeves pushed slightly up as he gestures with his cigarette. He tells how working people in the early nineteenth century relied on their winter coats to survive the extreme cold. You need a thick coat on you, then this is life, this is real clothes for you. This is not for fashion. The coat is so beautiful because you feel so cold and you can’t make your life without this coat, for example. It looks like your friend, or it looks like your family. And . . . if people can wear my things like in that way, then I could be so happy, because . . . He smiles and gestures, as if to say, that’s all there is to it.
Yohji Yamamoto is the fashion designer whose work is most important to David, who cited this film as a personal touchpoint in our conversation. He contacted me after seeing my post, and during our phone call, he described his teenage self as a poor, skinny and brown boy who did not fit in at school. He was interested in clothes but without access to them because his family didn’t have the money to spare. He owned two sets of clothes: those he wore to school and the pyjamas he changed into when he got home.
When he was thirteen, David was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s wears cruelly on the body, an inflammation of the bowel leading to fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition, among other symptoms. While David’s diagnosis seemed to explain his perpetual thinness, it also exacerbated his feelings of not fitting in and concentrated his disdain for his body. When, as a teenager, he started earning disposable income, David gravitated towards the brightest clothes he could find because the more colourful they were, the safer they felt. Clothes became a way to create more distance between me and other people. If I can get people to look at the clothes, they’re not looking at me.
When he wore vibrant colours, he felt as though his body didn’t matter as much. Topshop and American Apparel were beacons: David would stalk the shopfloor, hunting for the most vivid version of whatever they had. When getting dressed, he’d put together anything that clashed: a hot pink sweater with lime green skinny trousers one day, head-to-toe red and electric blue another. A pastel camouflage hoodie. A pair of bright orange suede trainers. David’s aposematic style created a smokescreen for the bullies laying in wait on the streets of his neighbourhood. They started calling out to him about his clothes instead, which was both a relief and the intention. His outfits were something to know me by that’s in my control. I don’t feel like I have control of my body, my health, my mental health. But that’s always been my relationship to clothing and fashion: impression management.
But even in the midst of his brilliant colours, David felt he was dressing for other people, not himself. He photographed his outfit every day to document it, always angling the camera so his face was obscured. Looking back at the photos, David could chart how good he felt in himself on any given day based on the clothes he was wearing. The more colourful, the more excessive, the worse he felt and correspondingly, the more bravado he exerted to conceal his feelings.
When he was twenty-one, David’s doctors told him he would have to be hospitalised for treatment. He had to take time out from university and sold almost all of his clothes. He decided to start again from scratch and this time, to only wear black. I asked why black, and he said that he’d always wanted to wear it but told himself, later, something to anticipate. David’s feelings changed when he felt that his illness was taking everything away from him. I thought, why not embrace it now? It’s a luxury and an extravagance to just wear a single colour. It’s attention grabbing but not.
Black gave him distance in both directions: reaching out, an inscrutable forcefield; reaching towards, wrapping David against himself. I’m still trying to create distance. I was never comfortable with my body or who I am – it’s an ongoing journey. But he did glimpse something of himself in the words and work of other black clothes afficionados. One of them was Wim Wenders. In Notebook on Cities and Clothes, the director describes his first encounter with Yohji Yamamoto’s designs as an experience of identity. His voice speaks over a scene of the two men playing pool, Wenders lean and boyishly clean-cut in a steel-blue shirt and jeans; Yamamoto casually elegant in black as he leans forward to crack apart the triangle. The narration places us in a shop’s changing room, where Wenders is trying on a shirt and a jacket that seemed both new and old at the same time. In the mirror I saw me . . . only better; more me than before. The clothes reminded Wenders of his father, and his childhood, as if his personal memories invigorated the warp and weft of the cloth. The jacket was a direct translation of this feeling and it expressed ‘father’ better than words. What did Yamamoto know about me? About everybody?
Feeling similarly saturates David’s experience of clothes. At one time in his life, he didn’t look into a mirror for a year, deciding what to wear based on whether the clothes felt right. When I asked what feeling right felt like, he said, they help me feel more like myself, and I don’t know how else to put it. He gave the example of the security bestowed by a pair of black Yohji pants that belt across his waist, quietly speaking strength, a soft anchor. And his Ann Demeulemeester shirt, offering a feeling of being seen and met. When he put it on for the first time he wondered, how does she know my body this way?
Yohji Yamamoto kneels on the floor of his studio, dress forms and assistants visible in the background as he contemplates a model, off-camera in one of his designs. Wenders’ warm voice explains his realisation that Yamamoto expressed himself in two languages simultaneously. He played two instruments at the same time: the fluid and the solid. The fugitive and the stable. I am reminded of David, clothing himself every day in the depths of velvet shadow. He’s known for always wearing black, distinctive but inscrutable. His clothes swoop and drape, the touch giving form, the material giving shape. An elegance that steadies.
In Symmetry and Solitude
When I think of my teenaged self, I remember most keenly how full of feeling I was. As forceful, as buoyant as a shaken-up bottle of lemonade. I couldn’t have explained then why my clothes felt so necessary, or why I felt so wrong and stunted on the rare times I tried on ‘normal clothes’, like my friends at church wore. I didn’t have a language to name the feeling, which was shame. But it was there in the surge of humiliation and helpless fury that only the sight of myself in a bikini could prompt. And in the mortification of being told a boy liked me, even one I had thought cute until that moment. And did I question why I covered my school diary in photos of fashion models looking aloof and hot in clothes? Collect the litany of shoulds and shouldn’ts and must nots, and pray about it, and you’re fearfully and wonderfully made, and your body will cause others to sin, and your body is holy, and yes, God loves you, but He loves you best when you obey, and understand that to obey is to be truly free, truly known, truly loved? I could have laid them out one by one, these messages I took to heart, to see what they added up to. But instead, I held their contradictions close and believed them all. For me, they were proof of God’s mystery, his inherent difference from our way of making sense. If Jesus can be fully God and fully man at the same time, anything is possible. I trusted him to sort me out, and that my wordless, feelingful tangle would unspool, in time, in his hands. And in the meantime, as I kept unfurling into sudden womanhood, I had to somehow not only command the tumult but live with it, learning to breathe through everything I was taught and everything I tried to be, and all of the mystery I inherited, and all of the grace, and all of the pain.
It was a lot to carry. Easier to find coherence and delight in the clothes I chose for myself. They made acceptable a body I didn’t really know how to inhabit with any freedom; the ways my outfits seemed strange in my suburb materialised my sense of not fitting in, of feeling ravelled and not knowing why. In clothes, I met strangeness with strangeness. They dressed me with a kind of distanced power. My style also put distance between me and the girls I compared myself to and knew I could never really emulate, seeming so assured, so comfortable with wanting and being wanted.
Joy came on Sunday mornings, when the sprawling playground of Bondi Public School would fill with stalls packed with everything from irregular bricks of soap to amateur paintings of the beach, and most importantly, vintage clothes. These clothes were technically second-hand, rather than vintage but they were good. The stalls were hidden around the back, in the courtyard, a maze of polyester dresses and blouses wafting in the breeze above suitcases of T-shirts, soft as time.
I preferred to venture there alone, the intensity of my desire flooding my field of vision and powering me through the daymakers hovering over cuffs made of bent spoons. I wouldn’t slow down until I had my hand on a hanger, blood beating in time with the sun on my back, the rhythm of right passing to left. Eyes glancing up and down. Touching to feel how scratchy, how soft. To see something I wanted was to involuntarily catch my breath. Solitary gymnastics as I wrangled it over my perspiring shoulders, twisting, bag sliding down to hobble my knees. And then I’d ask the slightly sick, knife-edge question: ‘how much?’
I remember everything I bought there, even though most of it has drifted away by now, to charity shops or into someone else’s wardrobe. A tiny chocolate and gold Louis Vuitton coin purse that was definitely fake. Bright blue fisherman’s pants that wrapped me hip to hip into a flat parcel of cloth and girl. A hand-knitted pale pink acrylic jumper with a tiny pie-crust collar and enormous leg of mutton sleeves that narrowed into tourniquets, making it hard to bend my arms beyond 90 degrees. But the most vital of all, and long-gone now, was a pinafore dress that seemed to me the apotheosis of all that was cool in Sydney, fashion, and life. It was faded buff brown, made of cotton worn stiff by someone else, with a tiny waistband and a full skirt. Its bib-front was straight and rectangular, making me look like I was constantly holding a manila envelope against my chest. It felt artless, cool and model off-duty, the highest compliment I could feel in a garment thanks to the fashionspeak I faithfully absorbed. I would wear it over a white ribbed singlet and a pair of hot pink thongs, and feel myself expand, filling with a helium sense of pride and fulfilment. The pinafore transformed me into a girl from the magazines. I didn’t look like her, but I felt like her. By approximating the longed-for look, I dressed myself into a dream that was better than a dream, because I could slip my yoke and live inside it.
Sunday night would come, and I’d choose something I bought and get dressed. The fizz of the thing that burnishes a new facet of you. I’d step through the arches into the church building, saying hi to John, the church warden who would wait by the door in an ironed shirt and tie to greet us all. The band would be warming up, my friends already gathering in our pew, fourth from the front, on the right, which the rest of the congregation always left free. The plastic-covered brown Bibles, the cream pleather pews with all their stuffing worn away. Maybe as I moved down the aisle, I’d see my friend Kieran, grinning at me. ‘Nice outfit, Rose. What are you dressed as tonight: an eighties babysitter?’ And I’d grin back, happy, at home for now. My clothes a secret weapon, a secret language, a delight that was just for me.
Image © Jessica