There is often a common point of recollection in childhood memories – particularly the kind found in articles and autobiographies. It is the recalling of a mother or significant female relative dressing up ahead of an evening. The events acquire an almost ritualistic quality with the application of make-up, the choosing of a dress and the brushing and arranging of hair. These memories are usually sensory, filled with the warm scent of perfume or glimpse of a spangled brooch under lamplight. Such small details preserve the scene, made vivid by the author’s words. Edmund de Waal’s book ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, as well as several pieces in Vogue and the Guardian come to mind. Reading them makes me think of occasions watching my mum preparing for a party or night out. Although what doesn’t often make its way into the nostalgia-soaked moments are the frantic calls of, “Where’s my bloody handbag?” and “Come on, we’re late!” It would, of course break the cosy elegance. I also have photos of my mum at various fancy dress parties: Rapunzel, Cleopatra and a costume based on a variation of my then twelve-year old attire for a ‘Mutton Dressed as Lamb’ themed party (the outfit involved a baker-boy hat and a denim mini skirt)!
Dressing up is definitely a ceremonial process, especially if for an important occasion. At the centre of the preparations there is usually a dress. It may appear vacuous to accord such status to an item of clothing, but I will readily admit that an evening dress has transformative qualities. Unless you are one of the incredible individuals who wear ball gowns to visit the dentist and do the weekly shop, (see the marvelous Desiree from Pull your Sox Up for a master-class) then the experience is one beyond the norms of day-to-day life. It gives the chance for a temporary transformation. In this case the dress is the equivalent of a mask – allowing escapism and a temporary stepping into the (possibly high heeled) shoes of another persona. As humans we may not be able to sprout brightly coloured feathers, but we can slip skins on and off at will – and the evening dress is the best ‘skin’ of all. This decoration of the human form - of accentuating and flattering it - goes right back to primal traditions of animal skins and body paint (these two have arguably been replaced with an antique fur stole and make-up!)
The dress pictured above was worn to a vintage ball that took place in a local stately hall. I was asked to document the evening, and turned up with my camera (complete with a heavy flash) in one hand, and a vintage evening purse in the other. The guests were greeted at the entrance with a glass of champagne, and I slunk among the groups, snapping all the time. It was an incredible sight: coral-tinged ball gowns mixing with chiffon flapper dresses and lace fifties concoctions. It was as though the revellers had emerged from a tangle of decades. But my favourite couple, and the ones who fascinated me most, eschewed traditional glamour in favour of WWII uniforms. They had matching khaki caps – and their buttons caught the light from the chandelier. If one talks of ‘hunting ground’ for photography, then this one was immensely fertile. Every turn of my gaze yielded new sights. What struck me again and again throughout the evening was the intense vitality of everyone I observed and spoke to. An elegant couple – she in sequins, he in a white dinner jacket – swept past my lens, while a mother and daughter later tapped out the Charleston. A floor view would have revealed leopard print heels tango-ing past low, patent t-bars. To see the events through a viewfinder – dividing it up into single photos and snapshots – was to try to squash the exuberance and enjoyment of the evening into a rectangle. Thus, the following images are a handful of single moments, snatched from a fabulous few hours.
My mum bought the vintage satin evening dress for me for Christmas (from a local flea market) because it reminded her of “the Atonement dress”. That particular dress has achieved near mythical status, and so I was thrilled to find this similar emerald green item relaxing under the tree. In homage to a thirties Cecilia type I wore it with faux-pearls and gold t-bar shoes – with my hair pinned with hair clips as it was drying so that it fell in waves. The photos were taken by my dad the following day, as I spent the entire night of the ball behind the camera - and forgot to ask anyone to take a photo of me!