Sunday Mail South Australia column for Sunday 11 September 2011
It was easier when I was younger. Forget shops. Back then when I longed to get my hands on a fabulous frock all I had to do was head straight to mum’s wardrobe in the spare room. At the age of five I would regularly struggle into a dress I thought was the most glamorous thing I’d ever seen. It was a long, slinky, black number with a red sequin diamond on the front – very 1977. Very Ginger Grant from Gilligan’s Island. Sure when I pulled the material over my head and smoothed it down I was swimming in black but I didn’t care. Instead I swished around in that dress, mum’s cork platforms on my feet, catching glimpses of myself in the mirror whilst pretending to mix martinis and make small talk with my dear friend Baby Alive. This dress-up ritual, which occurred whenever mum and dad were out or asleep or watching Bjorn Borg play tennis, lasted right up until my brother caught me. He somewhat harshly pointed out that in his opinion I looked like Klinger from MASH.
These days trying on a fabulous frock still leaves me swishing around in front of a mirror, pretend martini in hand. Be it a strappy sundress or a sultry cocktail shift there’s something about the power of a dress to transform how we feel about ourselves. With the pull of a zip we can instantly get a bit of va-va-va-voom back into our lives. After all, it’s a dress – not trousers, not skirts – that can give you your mojo back.
With the arrival of spring, colourful dresses hang playfully in every shop window enticing me towards them as much as my mum’s cocktail dress did more than 30 years ago.
Nobody knows about the power of a frock better than Australian designer Sacha Drake whom I met in person earlier this year. Drake’s specialty is designing beautiful dresses and her creations are all about transforming a woman’s sense of self.
Which is why the designer makes a habit of gathering up a selection of dresses and heading to a local women’s hostel – a safe haven for women who have experienced domestic violence, financial troubles, homelessness and who have just a scrape of self-worth left. Many arrive at the hostel doorstep with just the clothes they are wearing.
And so, with this in mind, Drake carefully and lovingly dresses each woman in a beautiful dress. One they can keep.
“Their reactions are always very moving – both for me and for them,” says Drake. “Seeing themselves look beautiful helps these women feel they can be beautiful again.”
Yes, these women also need ‘sensible’ clothes: work clothes in particular to help them have the confidence to go to job interviews. To help them feel like they fit in. Look the part. But a dress is a present. A treat. An extravagance that can change how we see ourselves. It speaks of possibility.
Now let’s be frank. Many of us have dozens of clothes we never wear. DOZENS. What do they say? We wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time. I don’t know if that’s true but it sounds right. I have clothes hanging in my wardrobe with the tag still hanging on. Items I’ve never even worn. This is because I seem to forget that just because that luscious fuchsia dress looks kicking on the size 6, big boobed, legs up to here store dummy, it’s not necessarily going to look as good on a size 12 woman with err, a chest that looks like two aspros on an ironing board.
So next time you’ve got an empty Saturday afternoon why not pick out those dresses you haven’t worn for years and pass them on? Take them to a Red Cross or Lifeline or Salvation Army Shop. Or to a women’s hostel or refuge. Give someone else the chance to be reminded that there is more to them than stained jeans and faded t-shirts. That there is potential there still to be fulfilled. That they too can get their mojo back. Pretend martini optional.
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Over the past 25 years Rebecca Sparrow has earned a living as a travel writer, a television publicist, a marketing executive, a magazine editor, a TV scriptwriter, a radio producer, a newspaper columnist and as an author.