A winter-grey afternoon in Worthing, spent dragging bored teenagers through a great work of French lit. I am relieved to get the train back to Brighton at the earliest possible hour, and there is even a flutter of excitement as I will be accompanied by the Science teacher, whose stature and work-outs in the gym have earned him the nickname ‘Big Dick’ in the college, and a place in my affections. All the way from Worthing to Brighton, through the highlights of Portslade and Shoreham-on-Sea, I hope against hope he will invite me back to his place for a cup of tea (hope against hope because when he did invite me – once – and I took my chance and kissed him goodbye, he actually flinched…).
On Brighton station he dashes off muttering something about going to the gym…Crestfallen I head into the dark tunnel of Trafalgar Street. Something glittery in a shop window catches my eye, and I can’t resist the invitation to buy yet another vintage garment (moving to Brighton has meant casting off my M and S tweed skirts and beige Shetland jumpers and donning pink and lime green, and vintage frocks and coats).
The dress is pleasingly heavy: black crêpe, slightly the worse for wear, but completely covered in tiny sparkling beads, well, almost completely, for as I try it on, a cluster of them falls tinkling to the floor. Despite the moth-eaten crêpe, and the prospect of leaving a trail of beads behind me wherever I go, I buy the dress. It sits in my wardrobe unworn for many months, waiting for its moment.
New Year’s Eve 1985, London Unity pub, Islingword Street, Brighton
I have returned from Christmas in New York with a broken heart. The History Man has betrayed me yet again, this time in a splendidly double treachery, with a feminist friend. Consolation in the strong arms of Big Dick has not been forthcoming, and he is even talking about emigrating (I have to admit my attempts at seduction there have had rather the opposite of the desired effect). Fortunately my friend Holly is organising a New Year’s soirée in a local pub, so I have somewhere to go on this potentially fatal evening.
I decide to wear the black beaded dress in defiance of the failure of men to succumb to my desires, and to forsake all others. The heavy crêpe moulds my still slim body, and as I move, the beads sparkle. Glittery ear-rings from Top Shop, lots of black mascara and red lipstick complete the look. I dance with a man I don’t like at all, until the pain of being with the wrong person even for the duration of a dance overwhelms me. Then I fall into conversation with a gentle soul, a friend of Holly’s. He tells me how much he would like to be beautiful, and to wear a dress like that. This conversation gets me through the horror for the heart-broken that is New Year’s Eve.
In February 1986 I wear the dress again, with a peacock feather in my hair, at a 1920s themed party. I dance with the gentle soul, and he accompanies me home in the early hours, and almost stays. But the History Man is still in my heart….
The dress has remained in my wardrobe, stained with mildew and mould, its beady embellishment ever diminished. I can no longer get it over my hips, but I keep it for the memory it carries of those unhappy sparkling years. It just might, however, be time to pass it on, to let it go out into the world, and shine again…
Response, by Jenni Cresswell
September 2018, Brighton
What to do with this dress? It has languished out of sight firstly in the freezer for a week or two to deal with any remnant clothes moths and then in a box of ‘promising projects’ in my workroom for over a year.
Since receiving the Black Beaded Dress’s story however, I can no longer avoid attempting to unravel the secrets hidden within the fabric. I haul out the dress and hope for inspiration. As I lift it from its nesting place, rather a lot of beads fall from the dress and ping across the wooden floor of the lounge. Dozens of other beads are caught in the bottom of the plastic bag the dress has been stored in; most of them then fall through a small hole in the corner, and I am on my hands and knees scooping the beads up along with other detritus from the floor. Bag repaired, beads corralled, I sit back to await inspiration.
I reflect that my maternal grandmother was purportedly a stitcher of beads, taking in the dresses of wealthy women and ruining her eyes sewing the tiny sparkling glass pieces intricately across rich fabrics. I have patience for many intensive sewing methods but not, I suspect, for beading. There is a deadline for my response to this piece and the dress’s story urges me to “pass it on, to let it go out into the world, and shine again…” This pressure to create knocks any thoughts from my head leaving my mind as blank as the first page in a new sketchbook – pristine, perfect and utterly incorruptible. Too scared to sully the metaphorical blank page of the dress, I attempt to analyse my thinking – or rather the lack thereof – and turn to writing.
I could denude the dress entirely of beads, foretelling the ultimate fate of the dress, but that doesn’t seem to be the right tack. I could sew on the fallen beads in an attempt to repair the wear and restore the dress to its former glory, returning us to its heyday. But that precludes the starting point of the inherited story, and besides, I cringe at the thought of threading all those beads onto a needle.
I examine the dress again. On closer inspection it is obviously handmade and the beading even extends to the inside of the dress at the hem and the facing of the zip seams. I struggle to place the era the dress would have been made in – the 1970’s perhaps? None of this brings me any closer to unlocking the hidden stories. Perhaps I’m thinking too hard and need to distract myself with something else to allow the thoughts and feelings to percolate through my still blank mind.
On a further study, I suddenly settle on the idea of highlighting the areas where the beads have fallen off by creating heart shaped blank spaces further embellished with silver stitched words from the story. The blank spaces creating an absence, the missing desire hankered for in the story, the words counterpointing that loss. Creative crisis solved, I head off to gardening, shopping, baking and stringing onions. I mentioned the project to my partner over some joint apple juicing. He says: “Is there an image other than a heart that you could use? It feels like there needs to be a counter-narrative”. That’s what you get for asking a media studies lecturer. He’s right of course. What I’m actually doing is avoiding really engaging with the story and admitting to how it makes me feel. Memories of years of lonely romantic longings and heart breaking assignations bubble up when I read the story; times I would prefer not to remember. I recall those same thrills of being with the latest object of my desire, dressing up in some fabulous frock to be irresistible. I also recall the crushing betrayals when they choose someone else. Why was it never obvious that pursuing a certain type of person will always lead to heartbreak, whilst simultaneously failing to see the gentle soul who is right in front of you?
So how to communicate my part in this? And where does that leave all of us – the storyteller, the dress and me? Is the storyteller now happy – perhaps with the gentle soul of her tale? I no longer haunt social settings hoping to meet my soul mate. Does that mean we have both found our happy ever afters? And what of the dress? Destined to be handed from one sorrowful heart to another? I may have solved my problem superficially of what to do with the dress to meet my deadline, but I’m not sure I’ve plumbed the depths of what the dress has to say to me yet.
Photograph one (dress on bed) by Lyn Thomas; all other images and art work by Jenni Cresswell, who now owns the dress…