I’ve been interested in clothes ever since I can remember, and it was very early in my life that the basic interest turned into an enquiry into why clothes are as they are, and why they vary so much throughout space and time. It’s still one of my most enduring passions. I’ve thought about it, researched, written about it, and made garments ranging from clothes for my younger siblings to wedding dresses and party outfits. I used to make costume for conventions and re-create historic dress, though now my costume work is restricted to doll-size garments. Doll clothes have certain advantages: they cost less, take less time to make and are easy to store, and the models never change size, have bad hair days or say “that’s not really my colour.” Still, I miss the thrill of seeing someone in an outfit I made.
I blame my family, of course. My mother and grandmother started telling me stories almost from birth, and they were stories from history as well as myths and fairytales; my father was a film fanatic who used to take his girls to the pictures on Saturday afternoon so my mother could have some time on her own. It all developed from there, a primordial soup of visual and verbal images that found expression in my love of fabric and form.
My earliest distinct memory is of lace. I was lying in the shade and hanging at the top of my field of vision, out of reach, was a beautiful pattern of loops and curves, white against blue, undulating gently. For years that image danced in my mind, unplaced and undated but always creating feelings of joy, wonder, warmth. I was in my twenties when I told my mother about it, and she told me that in my first summer – I was a late February baby, so I was four to six months old – I had spent a few hours every afternoon in a big, old-fashioned pram parked in the front garden of my grandmother’s house. It was usual then for babies and children to spend as much time as possible in the fresh air. To keep the sun off my delicate skin, the hood of the pram was always kept up, and my grandmother tacked a deep border of white lace along the edge to provide a little extra protection from the sun and “to give her something pretty to look at.”
So many fabrics make up the patchwork of my childhood. I remember a beautiful Kelly green dress in Irish linen, with a white collar and a band of crochet lace along the yoke. I remember a summer cotton frock with a full skirt, scattered with a design of big, colourful liquorice allsorts. I remember the paper taffeta petticoats and white-on-white flowered nylon of a dress for the May Day procession, usually called “the Walking”, a major annual event in our Catholic community when schoolchildren dressed all in white and blue walked from church to school and back through the streets and lanes, singing, behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin garlanded with flowers and carried by our fathers.
I remember all these in pairs, because my sister Eunice, just over a year younger than me, was dressed identically until I was eleven. My younger sisters came along much later, starting with Angela when I was eight, and were also sometimes dressed alike, especially as they inherited our outgrown clothes. It didn’t take long for our individuality to wear down my mother’s love of symmetry, though. I made clothes for my baby brothers, shorts and romper suits, but they soon needed clothes that could withstand the rough treatment schoolboys give.
By then I was making costumes for school plays. I started making dresses for my dolls and paper dolls very early, and loved improvising fancy dress for parties. From school and university theatre I went on to spend a few years working in theatrical wardrobe, a useful lesson in subordinating historical accuracy to the necessities of time and budget.
When I moved to London for a more conventional job, I found new friends and a new outlet for my passion for costume in science fiction and media fandom. I went to my first science fiction convention in 1974, while costume was still a very minor part of the sf con scene, but I was already active in Star Trek fandom, where it was far more significant, and over the next few years I saw those two worlds collide and eventually re-align their orbits to overlap. I also helped to set up a historical re-creation group called the Far Isles, and was very active in writing, research and making costume. My early work was very rudimentary, but practice improves most things: some of my writing is still in use and some of the clothes are still wearable.
I’m still fascinated by clothes, ancient, modern and imaginary. So I might write some more about them here sometime.