When I was 20, my heart started beating so loudly it terrified me. I went to a doctor and she told me I was having a panic attack and that I should try to breathe either more or less, I can’t remember which. Then, in a whimsical offhand way, and in a tone of voice that wasn’t medical, she added that next time I was freaking out maybe I could try focusing on something other than the distorted white noise of my own mind: why not try, say, focusing on the hem of my dress?
That day I was wearing what my friend Beck used to call my Mintie dress – green and white – that I’d chopped off and re-hemmed myself, tacking it in a clumsy schoolgirl Home Ec way. As I sat and concentrated on the wonky stitching, I did calm down. Years later, I understand now how this tactic can helpfully disembody oneself from one’s addled brain. Back then, neither I nor the doctor could have known that her excellent advice would encourage me to go and build an entire pharmacy full of hems over the next 10 years: one that, to my great pride and absolute shame, now fills five wardrobes across two states.
I work as a freelance writer and editor, which means I hardly need to leave the house. Still, putting on a particular outfit can mean the difference between being able to focus on the work or sitting there, helplessly grappling with my thoughts for hours.
I have tried to throw dresses out, give them away or otherwise let go of them, but whenever I do I go through an overdramatic grieving process for a particular dress and its associated memory. The dresses stayed.
It seems obvious to state that clothing has some power over our emotions. Most of us can relate to the idea that dressing smartly for a job interview helps us feel more confident; we have all heard of actors preparing for a role by dressing in the clothes their character would wear.
I recently read a study that discovered people score more highly on cognitive exercises when they’re wearing a white lab coat – apparently the brain makes a connection between the item of clothing and the reputation doctors and scientists have for being careful and rigorous, and they take on those characteristics themselves. On the other hand, if you’re told the coat belongs to a painter, you won’t score any better, because the power of a piece of clothing depends on the symbolic meaning you give to it.
However, I still think the best way to observe the influence clothes have over our own psychological state is to wake up every morning and just get dressed.
The popular line goes that wearing something fabulous can make you feel like a new person, but as someone who collects dresses, most mornings my goal is the opposite: I want to feel like an old person, or rather, be reminded of the old person who used to be me. Even as I move away from her towards the safer harbour of the future, these flashes of my old selves, relentless and repetitive, illuminate my way. Memory, like a lighthouse, shines the most vivid moments back to us, over and over, and these stories become the myths we stitch together and inhabit every time we try to answer the question, “Who am I?”
The teal ’50s chiffon dress, the only luxury I took away with me on a half-year trip to India, was also what I wore to the opening night of a glamorous ballet, years and worlds away. The light cotton backless dress my mum made when she was a teenager was a favourite during my early 20s – it was perfect for Brisbane’s sweltering summers. I wore it to an outdoor street festival where I had an argument with my boyfriend and left, storming impetuously towards home as the sun set. I hoped he would chase after me, and the moment I felt the cool of his hands against the warmth of my naked back I melted into his hug, and we returned to the festival together.
There’s the too-long vermilion dress which my mum chopped off and, with the excess fabric, made a floaty sash that twined round my waist four times. I wore it to a New Year’s Eve party, and left early, alone, as midnight rang through the city streets, wondering if I would ever fall in love again; I didn’t wear it again until two years ago, accompanied by my new boyfriend to the wedding of a dear friend. Now, that same friend and I have both just had our first babies.
Lying in bed with my newborn daughter asleep beside me in the days following her birth, the wardrobe door partly open, I could see a familiar vermilion frill shining out from it like a smile, coyly whispering its tales of lonely New Year’s Eves and joyous wedding parties, and all the other moments I couldn’t have known would happen in my future until they had been sewn into my past.
And that very first Mintie dress? It has been re-hemmed many times: only once on a sewing machine properly, by an ex-boyfriend’s mum, when we visited her out in the middle of Queensland.
I am still reminded of her when I wear it, as well as that first doctor who suspected I was tumbling into a years-long blackout before I could see it myself. The dress also makes me recall the kindness of the air hostess who offered me tissue after tissue as I wore it and wept for the entire flight on my first move to Melbourne in 2003; also, the man who skilfully disunited me from it years later in his bedroom above the New York bar where, moments earlier, we had been drinking White Russians.
While some people remember stages of their lives through the smells of certain places or the music they were listening to during that time, I remember them through my dresses. The racks of my wardrobe have long become bookshelves; the dresses are pages that I fill with new stories every morning I wake up and put one of them on.
Edited extract from Dress, Memory by Lorelei Vashti, published by Allen & Unwin this week, $28.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.