Image by Lee Sandwith © 2011
Dress Memory21

Rita Hayworth

I love that swimsuits used to be called ‘costumes’. The best dress-up is always pin-up.

Because fifties swimsuits hold that promise of being truly transformational. Blondes become Betty Grable; brunettes, Bettie Page. And if you’re a redhead you feel like an instant Rita Hayworth, which is one of the best feelings in the world.

I’m drawn to the fabric of this one. The tangrams of colour remind me of a cubist painting, a portrait of Dora Maar. I’ve worn it to dozens of costume parties, any time I had to pretend to be someone else.

That was always the drive: I wanted to dress up and act. I achieved my greatest theatrical success almost twenty years ago, as the Major-General in my primary school production of The Pirates of Penzance. We only did two performances, and in the first one I got a nosebleed at the start of act two and forgot my lines. I was embarrassed, devastated.

That night my older sister told me that no matter what happens on stage, you just have to keep going. Pretend every mistake is meant to happen. Incorporate it into the show.

So when my moustache fell off during the second performance, I turned to the audience and exclaimed: ‘Dear me! I seem to be moulting!’ I was an instant hit and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to make them clap that loud again ever since.

The scariest thing about growing up is that you will go out into the world and expose too much of yourself—that people will find you totally ridiculous. But that’s the only reliable thing really: that someone always, always, always will.

That endless rocking back and forth between confidence and insecurity is like a lullaby. It should be a comfort.

So there you are, gliding in to the party, confident as Gilda: Sure, I’m decent! The audience adores you. But before you know it you lose your footing and you’re flying through the air. Your skirt flips up but you try to incorporate it into the show, pretend it was meant to happen.

And then, despite all your years of drama training, you can’t help it: you become the weeping woman. Legs akimbo, maudlin from drink, you lie there embarrassed, devastated, and muse that no-one gets you or your emotional cubism but if they did they’d see you’re obviously a masterpiece, goddammit, a Picasso!

So you keep holding your awkward, uncomfortable, ludicrous pose with a defiant pout until one of your friends helps you to stand up on your feet and takes you home for a cup of tea. And that’s the only reliable thing, really: that one of them always, always, always will.


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