The Perfect LBD

Finally my novel THE PERFECT DRESS is on Amazon (available for pre-order – just click on the pink link), so it seems fitting that I celebrate this milestone with a perfect dress of my own, and what better excuse than a good friend’s birthday party. Last week I returned to the ‘Wardrobe of My Mum’ and retrieved another of her fabulous BIBA beauties. This one, in near perfect condition, is a striking column of black crepe from the late 60s. My mum informs she wore it barefoot, flowers in her hair, in Hyde Park – a last blast of hippiedom before starting teaching college.

IMG_6911When I was younger I called it the Elvira Dress. It has an undeniably gothic quality. As a teenager I loved trying it on in front of the bedroom mirror. So different from my day-to-day wear (early 90s, lots of stonewash jeans and plaid flannel shirts), it made me feel like a different person, from another era, another domain. The femininity of its plunging neck and draped sleeves, combined with such foreboding blackness, was pure power. In it, I became both fearsome and elfin: a dark fairy queen.

Eventually I found the courage to wear it to a Halloween party, but that was mere costume fun; all its magnificence lost to face paint, plastic Dracula teeth and nasty punch served in plastic cups. I think it’s testament to my 40s and the ‘who cares’ confidence of age, that I’m now able to wear and celebrate such a theatrical dress just ‘because’. No need to disguise my choice with tacky fancy dress reference points. The dress is the dress: uncompromising and fierce.

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The shape doesn’t do a lot for my figure, although the fabric shifts nicely and has a weightiness that feels lush. The magic is in the sleeves: fitted around my shoulders, snug down the biceps, forming billowing bells at the wrists. They’re the kind of sleeves that make you want to hold a white dove to your breast and look wistful as you pace your castle at sunset, hoping your knights will return . . .

Of course, in reality, I sat drinking Prosecco in a suburban back garden, but somewhere inside, deep down, I promise you, I was ruling a mystical realm. All hail the escapist power of a perfect dress!

 

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WHAT’S IN A DRESS…

‘…Because it is never about how a bride looks, but how she feels.’

A few weeks ago I had the fun task of getting some professional photos taken by the brilliant @MaryRichardson. Given the images are intended for promotion of my forthcoming book debut, THE PERFECT DRESS (click to find out more), picking an outfit for the shoot felt like a big deal. After all, one cannot sell such a title dressed in jeans and a hoody. Trading standards would chase me down, closely followed by the Crimes of Fashion special unit. A dress of dresses was required – feminine and friendly, definitely not frumpy (nor too edgy), preferably flattering, respectful of my interest in fashion history, and above all, something ‘me’.

I scoured shops, sales and vintage clothing stores. I obsessed over Pinterest. But the answer came in a conversation with my mum, and her reminder that the default dress-up policy of my youth was to raid her suitcase of 60s and 70s leftovers. I say leftovers – she’s kept some cracking good dresses. Immediately I thought of the suitcase gem I’d loved most and knew that it was, in its way, my own ‘Perfect Dress’.

Louisa Leaman full length

Original BIBA, in a simple teal daisy print, with ruffles and bell sleeves and a high-low waterfall draping hem, I wore it for my sixteenth birthday, for a friend’s posh university ball, for another friend’s wedding, then forgot all about it during the practical-wear scramble of motherhood. Testament to its thoughtful design, that several decades later, after three kids, two house-moves, cropped hair and a lot of messy, outdoor hobbies, I’ve managed to zip it up again – and it feels amazing.

It’s a dress that thrills me, not just for its form fitting grace, but because of the immediate rush of nostalgia that gets me in the gut. Memories of my sweet sixteenth: blueing light, summer dusk, the sensation of dry grass beneath my bare feet, catching my reflection in a window, tipsy from vodka, and thinking that perhaps I look a little bit like Stevie Nicks, then being told by a random boy that I’m ‘cool’. All the while, uncurling within me, is the buzz and bedlam of emerging adulthood.

And that, I think, is the magic of the clothing we cherish. Perfect dresses aren’t just about style, but about heart and soul, the memories absorbed in their fibres, the truths in their stitches. Dressing up in my mum’s BIBA dress I am reconnected to the me of then – sixteen, arty, a hippy-wannabe day-dreamer with hidden fears – and it’s as powerful a marker of how far I’ve come as any.  What’s more, this dress, before I even existed, had a life via my mum – and goodness only knows what she got up to in the late 1960s, but hey that’s her story to tell… 😉