Stories from the Dressing-up Box
As a child I used to love dressing up. It was encouraged at home, not just to keep us out of our parents' way while they did adult things like cook, argue, or lie down in a darkened room, but as a form of play which developed our imaginations.
One item remains memorable: a dusky purple cotton-print 1950s style skirt of my mother's, on which tiny couples promenaded. Under top hats and parasols, their heads were inclined towards each other, and their tiny lips bore 'we're engaged to be married' smiles. I wrapped this material cloak-like across my shoulders, fastened it with the waist-button round my neck, and immediately felt taller, more dangerous, a Sorcerer perhaps. The intensity of the purple also invoked fantasies of Rome, so that when I dreamed of worlds to conquer it became a toga; or, hitched up and rolled over at the tummy, cinched with a twice-round belt, it made a primitive kilt, suited for raids against an enemy fortress (the wardrobe).
During these periods of play there was immense pleasure in the abandoning of oneself, pretending to be fierce or noble or mysterious, not noticing the time until summoned to supper, still in costume and carrying the aura of travel. The link between clothes and identities and escape from routine was one move sideways from Robert Louis Stevenson's Land of Counterpane.
In my twenties I became an addict of charity shops. At an average of ten pence an item, you could drag home an entire ensemble from one jumble sale for less than a quid. Two deep cupboards in my room became repositories for costume. Sometimes I was Bette Davis, sometimes Annie Hall. Arranging myself inside these outfits turned me into a kind of 'tableau vivante & ambulante': dressed up, I could wander into a night club or theatre with assumed confidence, pretend not to notice being noticed. At this time, hanging out with art-student friends, life was a series of social events at which wearing 2nd-hand finery guaranteed invitation, and that half-life took the place of having to think about a real life, or indeed a career. Unwittingly, however, I was gradually finding my way towards performance.
In the meantime, I owned never fewer than six or seven black dresses at a time, and wore them frequently to parties and clubs. I remember one dress covered in rows of long tassels which shimmied spectacularly at the least shake of the hips. Another was created from whispers of mantilla-like lace over a full stiff skirt, with a deep décolletage. Another was a tight silky sheath with a wavy line of black chiffon falling off the shoulders. Another had a row of huge black grosgrain-covered buttons down the left side. Another was bias-cut crepe, ruched at the front, with diamante clips at the square neckline. Even when worn in a Leith living-room or on the dance floor of Buster Browns disco, these were garments which said 'I'm Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Claudette Colbert, Rita Hayworth... I'm someone else.'
Skip forward to the mid 1980s; I'm standing outside the artist's dressing room (aka performer's toilet and broom cupboard) of the Comedy Store in London's Leicester Square, waiting to go on stage. I'm dressed in black from head to toe: tapered 1960s slacks, black suede boots, and a boat-necked black wool top trimmed with black satin ribbon. Kohl outlines my eyes, and my lips are strongly defined in red lipstick. My hands are shaking, but as I step onto the podium and begin my act I forget myself. 10 minutes later, I discover I've survived the ordeal and am actually smiling.
Looking back, that's probably the point at which dressing up changed for me. In the stand-up comedy world, you had to show you were invulnerable or you'd be heckled off. Everything about you was fodder for verbal assassination. You dress twice for performance; once outwardly, wrapping the body in comment-resistant garb, and again inwardly, your own personality tucked behind a soft shield which deflects scrutiny. Both coverings are necessary to create comedy characters.
My on-stage persona developed into a young Glaswegian woman I named Marina McLoughlin. Naive but ambitious, Marina hadn't a clue about fashion or how to be cool, but she was eager to become a media personality. Her version of black clothing was leggings and floppy t-shirts. And beyond Marina, there were times when I inhabited or created other characters, or 'became' real people.
TV presenter Muriel Gray was famous as much for her style-sense and white-blond hair as for co-hosting seminal music show The Tube: in 1988, for a Live New Year Show on Scottish Television, I was kitted out with a 'Muriel' wig, and squeezed into the clingiest, costliest, most glamorous little black dress I'd ever worn.
Of course I looked nothing like her - our body and facial shapes are very different - but when the cue came to walk into the studio in front of the audience there were gasps, and ripples of whispered comment. I don't know if the assembled crowd were impressed by my vocal and postural impersonation; by the fact that I managed to walk in that outfit in 4 inch heels; or if they really thought it was Muriel Gray, forsaking her own Hogmanay pleasures to verbally decimate a male comedian (played by actor john Stahl) for his unthinking chauvinism.
In any case, what stays with me is the memory of that dress - of myself in a dress like that - and the later thought that it did exactly what the contemporary Little Black Dress is supposed to do. No longer associated primarily with mourning or uniform, the iconic LBD is desired by so many women in order to provoke a reaction which nothing else can bring; a mixture of 'wow!' and 'woh!': slightly scary, but powerfully seductive, a heady mixture.
When I came to write my first LBD story Alma Martyr, a tale of revenge, I remembered that dress, that blonde wig, that effect, and gave my central character similar trappings. She employs them to overwhelm her ex-schoolmates when they meet for a posh lunch at Harvey Nichols. And just like me in my Muriel outfit, she relishes the experience of stepping into a role in which, just for once, clothes maketh the woman.
© Susie Maguire 2006
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Every woman knows what a little black dress is for - seduction, mourning, revenge, celebration, perhaps even murder. It can be a sign of belonging or a sign of individuality, a way to hide or a way to stand out. 15 women offer a range of views on the little black dress.