I can’t help it – I really, really love clothes. At least I’m in good company, writes Claire Mabey
The other weekend I found myself inhaling clouds of baby powder and fretting over a dress. Not just any dress. The witches dress in maroon twill by Gloria (by the designer Kristine Crabb of Miss Crabb fame). I’d worn it out the night before to a dinner. During the main course my fork slipped and tossed a cluster of oily courgette onto my knee and down my thigh. I am astonished that I remained serene at the time. Without a break in the flow of conversation I surreptitiously plucked the vegetables off my dress and flicked them onto the floor where they lay concealed by the lengthy tablecloth. I rearranged my crossed legs so that the devastating, dark patches couldn’t catch my eye and threaten to undermine my stoic resolve.
I waited until I was safely back at home before I allowed the panic to fully take hold. “What the hell are you doing?” my partner yelled from downstairs where he was greatly alarmed by the desperate clunk of my boots as I pulled them off and threw them on the floor. I stood in the middle of our lounge, windows wide to the world, and stripped down to my underwear.
“Fucken, fuck, fuck.” The stains were the size of shadow apples and those were surrounded by shadow grapes. The heat of my skin had no doubt caused the oil to spread as I had sat and chirruped idiotically through dessert.
Google threw up a range of methods for removing oil stains from delicate fabric. I resorted to spraying a weak solution of vinegar and baking soda on the reverse side and hoped it wouldn’t cause any further damage. I left it hanging in the bathroom. Perhaps a good witch would work some magic on it while I slept. And in the morning I’d open the door to find my dress shimmering with health, as good as new.
But lately, since lockdown 2020, clothes have gained fresh weight and significance. I trawl Trade Me for vintage New Zealand designers: Marilyn Sainty, Miss Crabb, Rosaria Hall. I covet new collections from Nom’D, Zambesi, Gloria, Twenty-Seven Names, Ovna Ovich, Penny Sage. I celebrate every Vivienne Westwood Instagram post and am hopeful that when I am old I will have the wardrobe and the imagination to emulate her joyous dedication to eccentric comfort x glamour. Her dark lips, pale face, and greywhite hair that somehow carries the legacy of red. I am halfway there. I squirrel hard-earned cash and blow it, spectacularly, on one perfect garment. There are no genuine regrets. I enjoy getting dressed. There is more to the morning ritual than rush and porridge.
Yet, even as I write I feel ashamed. It spoils like an oil slick. Like some Catholic mantra of guilt: thou should not be so materialistic. I Google search for a patron saint of fashion but can’t find one. I am convinced that there is something radical, some shimmering thread of the spiritual, about clothes. I’ve always felt it but struggled to articulate it. Or have been too embarrassed to try.
‘Rita loved clothes …’ I read on the label at the recent exhibition at Te Papa when I was there to procrastinate from writing. Rita Angus created over 50 self portraits over her lifetime. My favourite, the one I call ‘Smoking Rita’ in my head but is labelled Self-Portrait, 1936 – 37, glared haughtily from the white wall. That divine coat rolling over her shoulders and arms with hillocks and shadows as lush as the Otago landscapes. The red lips, the emerald and cream polka dot scarf. That cigarette. Rita looked down and over the chic folds of her outfit and said “Go and write your fucking book.” No, Rita. I’m too drawn to you and your clothes. The way you reimagined yourself with fabric, colour, shape and style.
The scarlet scarf tucked into the green gingham collar in Self-portrait (In Green Jacket) 1936-37 is an assertion of red. It blooms across her throat, the geometric pattern like silken muscle and cartilage revealed once the skin is peeled back. The minty mountain of smock in Self-portrait c. 1937 (unfinished) — in which Rita looks at the floor as though waiting for someone to arrive and finish her hair, which is uncharacteristically curled into tight springs that match her crisp arched brows, her perfect flicks of eyeliner and pink cheeks — is both protective and a symbol of being trapped mid metamorphosis, of being incomplete. There is a steely vulnerability there. As though the emphasis on the feminine (the sculpted hair, the painted face, the domestic setting) is being captured in such detail to defy any suggestion of being embarrassed by a desire for physical transformation. In Cleopatra, 1938 green is viriditas. In the way that the 12th century visionary Saint Hildegard von Bingen proclaimed: “O most honoured greening force … “. A luminous bluegreen, of the sea and of gems, glows in the background; while in front a paler iteration falls over breasts and bony collar bones into a chic halter-neck top with a long collar that tapers into two sharp points, like the tongue of a snake. Three cream buttons track down Rita’s middle and their fulsome glare matches the crescent moon of Rita-as-Cleopatra’s eye. Green is the colour of the shadow tracking her jaw to her chin. Rita’s face is in profile but her upper body is angled towards us. Her right hand travels out of frame but we can see that her palm faces up and her hand curls into a gentle skyward gesture. There could be a cigarette resting between her fingers, just out of view. The slight smile in the red lips suggests she may turn to address us, or she may not.
Clothes in the paintings of Rita Angus are transformative. They are external symbols of a spiritual, playful, multidimensional, exploratory self. They are wishes and warnings, joys and freedoms.
Sylvia and Valentine
I have a pair of brown velvet pants that I bought in Melbourne about 12 years ago. They were designed and made by an up-and-coming Australian designer and buying them cleaned out my bank account. They are high-waisted, pleated and the fabric is a dense, short-haired velvet that feels like the pelt of a baby deer. The fit of them reminds me of the word “esquire”. After all these years the seams are still sure and the fabric still thick in all the places where regular pants might start to thin after a while. When I wear them I feel like business mixed with pleasure. I picture them on one of my young female heroines in the middle grade novel I am writing. In her world, her choice of clothing signifies her bravery. When she must depart her home and all she knows for a journey certain to be perilous and unpredictable, her clothes are comfort, they harbour tools, and are a form of communication. What she chooses to wear, what utilities her garments offer, and what they might say to the unknown world through which she must travel, are important.
The writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, who lived in Dorset together between the World Wars and in the years following, were communists and lovers. As such they were deemed subversive enough to be of high interest to M15 who intercepted their letters, had them followed and blacklisted their names so that their attempts to work for the war effort were mysteriously and consistently blocked. A police constable sent by M15 to observe the couple noted that they liked to wear men’s clothing and shoot rabbits. Photos of Valentine show a tall, muscular woman with short, thick hair, wearing what looks to be fine tailored trousers with crisp white shirts and the luxurious, wide style of tie that preceded the mean, thin kind of the 60s. Her elegant, Wildean face is serene: unsmiling but not unamused.
My favourite photo of Sylvia is reproduced in colour on the cover of Claire Harman’s biography of her. Sylvia stands wrapped in an ornate fur-trimmed coat, red stockings, black mary-janes, and a flapper hat with a wide brown ribbon. Her glasses are round, like Harry Potter’s or John Lennon’s, and on her face is a Mona Lisa smile. Under her feet there is grass clipped and tidy, and behind her an almost sinister sort of wilderness of plants, and grasses and trees. Perhaps, there, in the distance is a grand house and to her left a lake. She looks both out of place and perfectly situated.
Both women wrote, and loved, and hated Nazis and championed the Communist Manifesto. Valentine wore pants, and woollen vests and sometimes plunged her hands deep into her trouser pockets in a way that reminds me of an old-school Hollywood actor. Sylvia wore shirts with frills, full skirts and puffed sleeves. She wrote novels, short stories and translated Proust. Her garden was prodigious and she was known locally for her preserves and her inventive approach to home cooking.
Now, when I wear trousers — Helen Cherry’s from the 90s, or my Melbourne velvet, or my op-shop slacks — I think of Valentine and her attempt to look like herself, and there is a complexity to my day: a hum of Valentine and her determinations. When I wear an Etsy-sleuthed vintage Laura Ashley with puffed sleeves, I evoke Sylvia. And a thread of something playful, something fearless, links me to her.
I’m not sure if I want to know them or be them.
Images of the 12th century polymath, St Hildegard von Bingen, only ever depict her in a nun’s habit. The famous Abbess of course would have existed in it day in and day out. The timeless uniform of the holy woman: hair concealed beneath a close-cut hood, the body concealed beneath a conical drape of dark fabric. A uniform has its place. Mine is a pair of leopard print leggings (athleisure, thank you very much), and a black, long-sleeved cotton top that covers my ass, front and back. This is what I wear at home on weekends where I am a mother. I’ll perch on my bed, writing, while my son cradles the phone watching Bluey. And my mind is given over to another dimension that is not separate from my material reality but is operating adjacent to it. The repetitive nature of a uniform offers its own kind of freedom.
Hildegard is famous for a lot of things — her liturgical compositions, her medical texts, her cosmology, her success as an Abbess, her assertive letters to the Pope. But it’s her book of divine visions, Scivias, with their astonishing illustrations that has translated most forcefully into our present time. You can buy Hildegard T-shirts with her cosmic egg printed on them. The oval is rimmed with flames, the inner layers speckled with stars until the shape collapses in on itself and another layer begins and the universe extrapolates. A strange grey tongue, a shape that has always reminded me of the tongue of a parrot, thrusts out once your eye reaches the central spot. The whole thing pulses like an astral predecessor to Georgia O’Keefe. When I first saw this image I was taken aback. Time collapsed. Hildegard felt so far ahead of me. Her visions bounced into my mind and affected a profound curiosity about the medieval, religious, feminine imagination. The images in Scivias combined with the immediacy of Hildegard’s language, once imparted to your own brain, blast the material apart. Yet all the while they demand we pay attention to the objects, that this paper and ink, this woman’s style, are tools of translation from one colossal idea to another. From one century to another. The most commonly used image of Hildegard is the illustration of her sitting down to write while orange and red flames of divine inspiration envelop her habited head. Uniform and explosive.
I have refrained from purchasing a Hildegard T-shirt but a Scivias fridge magnet sits side by side with Rita’s Rutu. They pin the scribblings of my child, and scripts for the pharmacy and birthday party invitations. They are like flash cards: reminding me that it might be that the frontier of my imagination is yet to be traversed. Once the washing is done.
In the end I DM’d Gloria’s Instagram account to beg for help.
“Hello! Any tips for removing oil stains from the Witches dress in Maroon Twill? Am desperate…”
“Baby powder. Rub it on the stain, then brush it off.” came the reply, “Works a treat!”
It worked so well it’s a miracle. When I put the dress on I am not entirely myself. I am a shade removed. There are options, freedoms, things to pluck and craft into a conversation, even if it’s only with a reflection. A sliver of sartorially divine inspiration sparks a game between me and the lady in the mirror.