Their lives in dresses

By Niamh Cullen

The scene I saw in front of me as I walked into the room looked like the dressing room of an actress or eccentric ‘society lady’ from the 1950s; both intimate and luxurious at the same time. A rail of vintage dresses on one side, mannequins modelling more elegant pieces on the other, a video screen disguised as a mirror with a gaudy, brass frame and an old-fashioned full-length lamp; this is the set of My Life in Dresses, a piece of theatre by Sorcha Kenny dedicated to dresses and the stories they can tell. The performance is only part of a much larger project whereby Sorcha, inspired by her own love of dresses and convinced of their importance in people’s lives, collected stories from men and women of all ages across Ireland, about dresses which held a particular significance for them.

The resulting performance – which blends video and audio excerpts from Sorcha’s interviews and readings from letters with her own ‘dress stories’ – makes a powerful case for the importance of clothes to people’s lives; the way they regard themselves and their relationships with others. We also get a sense of how history is made up not of the big political events that touch most people’s lives only through the news, but of the lived experience of everyday life; the thousands of little stories that collectively make up the past. The stories of the elderly lady from Cork who modelled her wedding dress for Sorcha – which, impressively, still fitted her decades later and resembled a glamorous 1950s style cocktail dress more than the modern day full length white gown – and the eighty year-old Limerick man who had kept all of his late wife’s clothes, including her honeymoon outfit, show just how important clothes are to our experiences and memories of events. It’s about much more than fashion; it’s about creating a sense of self through the clothes you buy and choose to wear, and how you wear them; about choosing how to present yourself visually to other people and to the world.

This is something I’ve become much more aware of since I started researching dress, and the different attitudes towards dress, in the changing society of 1950s and 1960s Italy. Italy at that time was a place where life was changing rapidly and dramatically; it was a period of economic boom and people from small towns and villages were leaving for the cities in their thousands, in search of prosperity, liberty, or even just a way out of endemic rural poverty. Many young women were moving to the city in search of work and to live by themselves for the first time. Many more dreamed about a different, more glamorous life in the city that they only glimpsed in magazines and films. Clothes could have very different meanings for women in such a world.

For a group of girls in a small village near Milan in the late 1940s, it was about unattainable glamour; as they flicked through the glossy magazines they couldn’t afford to buy, they always resolved to make a dress of their own in the style they admired most. Except that when they got home, they realised that they couldn’t really afford the material, and the dresses never got made. In other cases, the dress wasn’t about movie-star glamour but about appearing sophisticated and showing that you belonged in a certain world, even when you weren’t sure yourself if you did. This was the reason that a Sardinian girl wrote into a women’s magazine in 1957, desperately seeking advice on what outfit to wear when meeting her fiancé’s parents – who were wealthy city folk – for the first time. Another issue that concerned a great many women, was what to wear to work in the office so as to strike a balance between appearing professional, looking stylish and feeling comfortable, when they were still a minority in what was essentially a man’s world.

Fashion is rarely the biggest concern in deciding how to dress, or the real reason for treasuring an old dress, despite what the glossy magazines might have us think. It is always more personal than that. As Sorcha Kenny has shown, dresses tell us much more about the personalities of the women who wore them, the kinds of lives the led and their relationships with the people around them than they tell us about styles and trends. From this perspective, even a simple nightdress can become as significant as a designer vintage dress.

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