Personal Essays

Wearing my heart on my sleeve – my life (so far) through what I wore

Like all magical stories, it all started with a treasure chest. When I was very small, 5 or 6 I think, my father made a little wooden chest for me carved out with my initials ‘AKO’ highlighted in black lacquer on the lid. I kept it at the foot of my little pink wooden bed, stuffed full of bits and bobs for playing dressing-up. A special favourite was this silver tulle dress which transformed me into an enchantress. Here is a photo of me posing around in it while my friends Kathy and Reinette wait for me to get on with it!

Later on I took to wearing the shadow double of the magical silver dress. It was on a old dress of my mother’s, long and sexy, Van Dyke brown with a Celtic knot pattern which I thought looked suitably witchy. When I wore it I felt powerful, imagining I was casting scary spells and stirring a cauldron of potent potion.

Treasure trove

As I grew up, I forgot about the little chest, it became – rather literally – just part of the furniture. Then when I turned 15, my mother and I moved to a marvellous old Victorian house just up the street. After we had settled in, I rediscovered it and placed it in front of the fireplace in my upstairs bedroom. When I opened it, it really was like finding a treasure. The top layer consisted of the relics of my childhood- an electric blue lamé 1980s Dirty Dancing skirt and the silver tulle, worn to rags. But lurking underneath were dresses I had never seen before! They were my mother’s, the beauties she had worn in her heydays, in the 1960s and 70s. There was a slinky, silky snakeskin dress with ties along the back. A green and blue cotton kaftan that was cut in a Georgian style had a tie in the front and long billowy sleeves. I wore it on a Sunday when I was feeling romantic, and swanned up and down the stairs in it. Who knows what happened to it? Best of all was the witchy dress, ruched under the bust with a scoop neck. Still intact and beautiful. A really special one was purple, her favourite colour, printed with an antique French lace motif. Here is a photo of me wearing it (one of the few times in my life it fitted me!) under the catawaba pergola in front of the house…

I was in love with all of her dresses. I mean, they had had even managed to survive all my mother’s extreme bouts of cleaning and chucking out. I have never really liked curtains, so I took her purple dress and hung it in front of my bedroom window next to a swathe of nasturtium yellow fabric. The sun would shine through it (it is now slightly faded because of this!) and at night the moon shone through my window. It is something I have done ever since, hanging vintage dresses everywhere and anywhere.

The dress pictured below happens to be my mother’s wedding dress! Can you believe it? It’s so unconventional: old gold and forest green with cream crimpelene sleeves with a criss-cross bustier. It’s a strange mashup of saloon barmaid, 70s psychedelia and Voortrekker girl. In an overexposed wedding photo (which I’ve have been hunting high and low for) she is standing in the garden of her parent’s house, surrounded by flowers and wearing this dress.

My mother’s wedding dress. It was bought at a boutique in Stellenbosch in 1972.

I appreciated the uniqueness of my mother’s dresses both as works of art and cultural relics, the notion of this what women used to wear. I distinctly remember the realisation that a dress is the most beautiful way to express yourself. It can tell you so much. A dress is a costume for your life. It also encompasses so much, just like Frida Kahlo portrayed in her incredible painting My Dress Hangs Here. It can be a uniform of culture and gender or a costume for creativity and flamboyance. A second skin. A wearable symbol of what it means to be a woman.

A 90s kinda girl

It was the mid-90s so it was the craziest, most intense time ever. It was also a really, really amazing time, fashion-wise. After a brief stint of being popular and trying to fit in with a bleh burgundy and deep green hoodie, I went back to where I belonged, hanging out with the arty misfits on the periphery of the courtyard. I was discovering how combining colours and textures represented my identity or different aspects of my personality- outrageous, quirky or serious. It seemed so natural to me to experiment with the image you project onto the world. I may have been the arty outsider but to be perfectly honest, I was a bit too squeaky clean to be grunge! Nirvana was too hectic for me but I loved Smashing Pumpkins (even though I tended to skip all the heavier tracks). We were deeply shocked when Kurt Cobain died though. It really affected everyone deeply.

In a vague interpretation of rave culture, I loved wearing satin, combining blue and silver and my favourite pair of white platform sneakers. I played with what I wore, mixing ‘cool’ pieces such as a cropped tee with ridiculous things like a peacock blue jersey full of dropped stitches I knitted in primary school. I loved wearing a candy striped top under a black baby doll dress with the ubiquitous chunky boots and a tiny backpack. From the treasure chest emerged a cropped gold sleeveless jersey which I wore under a pale desert orange cotton cardigan with bright blue low rise jeans. Once after Drama class, I wandered into an antique shop and bought a black crepe 1940s evening bag with a rhinestone clasp. I wore it with a long stretchy velvet skirt and a 1960s short sleeved black cardigan with buttons down the front.

Blue is the warmest colour

This blue velvet coat I found recently, reminds me so much of that time. Handmade, satin lined. 1970s.

I also raided my mother’s wardrobe for any vintage pieces. My first kiss happened while dancing to the song Lady in Red wearing her patchwork shirt and my short red skirt covered with small black flowers. For Civvies Day I wore a royal blue 1940s jersey with deep pockets and embossed flowers with a cobalt blue silk shirt and indigo blue jeans. This was the first time I ever wore one colour from top to toe and I haven’t looked back. People tend to stare at me in the street (a wallflower I am certainly not) but probably most often when I do this! During that era of my life I was especially entranced by a particular deep shade of cobalt blue and looked for it everywhere. Like DH Lawrence’s celestial Bavarian blue gentians, that blue called out to me. I dreamed in blue. I found the ultimate hue in a long satin dress which I wore to my matric farewell with a bright blue feather boa and leather ballet shoes I painted blue and silver. The only adornment was a necklace made from very fine silver wire in the shapes of suns, moons and stars. I wore the dress for years afterwards, combining it with combat boots, an angora wool cardigan and a small silver galvanised tin suitcase with a blue star painted on it.

Finding my first

I had just turned 18 when I bought my very first vintage piece. It was the last day of the arts festival, which takes place in my home town. A woman was selling some clothes in the street downstairs from my favourite coffee shop (which, I kid you not, was called the Blue Room). She showed me two rather shabby old petticoats, one black and one red. I can’t remember exactly how much they cost but I could only afford one so I had to choose. The black one was in better nick but the fabric of the red one was absolutely entrancing. It was my favourite shade of deep red with a silvery-blue iridescent sheen, like oil on water. She said it was called ashes of roses and that it was very old. How could I resist that poetic name? It was a rather shapeless but the hem had some faded lace sewn along it, which I painted a dusky blue. I still think about its twin, which I vaguely recall having a peacock blue-green sheen to it. I have that petticoat to this day, much the worse for wear, knowing now that it is from the 1940s. One day I will use it with other amazing fabrics to be made into a quilt, the strangest one you can imagine.

On my 20th birthday we ran around town in our fairy wings, scaling the gates of pretty gardens. This time my friend Jane is wearing blue (which was also her favourite) and I am wearing a 1940s silk petticoat over very 90s satin blouse.

The second most significant piece I bought in my early 20s was a 1950s peacock blue velvet coat with white mink cuffs. It was proudly purchased with my first big pay check as an actress in a play. It didn’t suit my shape but I loved it and wish I still had it. Now I would know how to wear it, not feeling pressured to go the whole hog with a vintage dress, hairstyle and heels but pairing it with clean, modern lines and textures. Velvet is obviously an obsession of mine. That same year I wore a pale blue striped 1960s house dress with red tights with a blue stripe down the side and red boots, like some kind of failed superhero!

Two years later, I was still deeply in love with blue. But the shade was totally different. The deep, intense blue had lightened and opened up. My favourite dress then (and probably ever) was sky blue made from a wonderful fabric you can’t get anymore – peach skin. It was a classic Princess cut in the Chinese style and, rather luxuriously, cut on the bias. It was the most flattering dress I have ever worn and it made a wonderful sound like flapping swan’s wings as I walked. I wore it for 15 years, totally amazing to think that such a treasure was bought at a chain store! During those times I also loved wearing a vintage blue dress printed with golden yellow Chinese dragons (sadly, no more) and a short black satin dress worn over jeans and a black wool blazer with a 1940s marcasite brooch pinned to the lapel. There was also a lovely dress in shades of russet and orange which I wore on my first day as a Drama teacher which I paired with a woven rattan briefcase from Thailand.

This handmade 1940s silk crepe dress in a Grecian style is exquisitely tailored.
I found it at a church fete 15 years ago.

The world and other places

In 1999, I moved to Holland for a year to work as an au pair. I stuffed my new royal purple rucksack with a long blue velvet skirt, a 1950s black bouclé coat and a black and white satin Pierrot shirt, which I rather romantically imagined I would wear in Paris. I was paid a pittance but managed to buy one vintage dress from a shop in Amsterdam. It was 1960s blue Chinese satin brocade and it was magical. It was a depressing year and the best boot cut indigo blue jeans I ever owned were worn though at the knees. I was deeply homesick for South Africa and my home. Before I left, I stuffed most of my clothes, including my blue satin dress into the bin of a clothing bank. By the time I got back I was wearing red, my true blue days forever behind me.

This handmade Chinese brocade dress was bought in Amsterdam in 1999. Here I am on my 22nd birthday in Wellington wearing it.

Blue becomes red

I often had dreams that I was a girl in a fairy tale, lost in a forest, wearing red. This feeling was brought to life on a deeply traumatic day. I thought he was the love of my life but he decided to leave. It was a Friday and he was gone by Monday. I wore the 1940s red petticoat under a bright blue velvet top and red pumps and walked through the forest to say goodbye.

Red became my signature colour. It all started with my mother’s 1950s coat. I was but nine years old when we visited my uncle in Paris. It was such a magical trip. I remember her wearing it as we walked up the endless flights of stairs to their apartment in the Latin Quarter, the coat swishing behind her as she walked. It had a detachable hood (alas, lost) so it had a grown up Little Red Riding Hood thing going for it. She stopped wearing it by the time I ‘inherited’ it in my 20s. It is my favourite shade of red in the whole world; a deep, rich cherry red. A smart gabardine number, it’s beautifully fitted at the waist and flared with a beautiful iridescent satin lining. The cuffs and collar are of rich black velvet. I love wearing it with a bag that is a knock off of Mae West’s lips…

The ultimate red coat. Circa 1950s. Label: Jarmode.

When I turned 30, I had a 1950s style red dress made up for my party, full skirted and covered with tiny white polka dots, with a sassy tulle petticoat. It was inspired by the dress Penny wears in the dance class scene in Dirty Dancing – my ultimate coming-of-age film. I love the place where different eras merge, such as, in the case of the film, 1980s does 1960s. That particular refraction of the lense makes it all the more interesting. Take Chinoserie, which is Chinese and Japanese design viewed through the lense of Victorian Europe. All these elements become more distilled somehow, and so much more fun. Like this 1960s red Chinese silk brocade dress I found in a charity shop a few years ago.

A bright red Chinese satin brocade dress. 1960s. Handmade. I wear it with a blue denim jacket and red and blue sneakers.

Now that I think about it, most of my life it has been all about red. It has turned out to be my most favourite favourite. I am always looking for it. A silk shawl embossed with roses. A chic 1990s red dress with a boat neck worn with red espradrilles. A shift dress emblazoned with bold red flowers, reminiscent of my favourite Marimekko design. I love to wear it with my favourite cherry red Bakelite necklace and red wool coat. But probably the most ultimate red vintage piece I own is this sumptuous iridescent red velvet dress.

Another church fete treasure. This photo doesn’t come close to capturing its outrageously sensual beauty.

If I think about the symbolism of colours, I remember this moment in 2002, when J and I opened a coffee shop together called Red Cafe. I have always thought of us as red and blue, two opposites that work together so well. In fact my nickname for him during those times was Blue, because of his blue eyes. However the pressure of two very creatively precise people opening a business proved to be too much and we parted ways.

Red and Blue, 2002

But years later I returned, after I had moved away and we had both moved on. He took this photo of my reflection in the mirror of an antique dresser, surrounded by blossoms. And we have been together ever since.

Wearing polka dots among the blossoms at Red Cafe. The mural behind me, of Van Gogh’s Night Cafe was painted by my friend.


One thought on “Wearing my heart on my sleeve – my life (so far) through what I wore

  1. Ahhh thank you for this beautiful post. I remember your clothes well and you always wore the most stunning, strange ensembles with such panache! You and your mom both have wonderful style and a great sense of fun and beauty


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