When I was 20 my heart started beating so loudly it terrified me. I went to a doctor and she told me I was having a panic attack and that I should try to breathe either more or less, I can’t remember which. Then, in a whimsical offhand way, and in a tone of voice that wasn’t medical, she added that next time I was freaking out maybe I could try focusing my attention on something other than the distorted white noise of my own mind: why not try—say, for example—focusing on the hem of my dress?
That day I was wearing what my friend Beck used to call my Mintie dress—green and white—which I’d chopped off and re-hemmed myself, tacking it in a clumsy schoolgirl Home Ec way. As I sat and concentrated on the wonky stitching, I did calm down. Years later, of course, I understand how this sort of tactic can helpfully disembody oneself from one’s addled brain, but back then neither I nor the doctor could have known that her excellent advice would encourage me to go and build an entire pharmacy full of hems over the next ten years: one which—to my great pride and absolute shame—now fills six wardrobes across two states.
I work as a freelance writer and editor, which means I hardly ever even need to leave the house if I don’t want to. Still, putting on a particular outfit can mean the difference between being able to focus on the work or sitting there helplessly grappling with my own thoughts for hours. I have tried to throw them out, give them away, let go of them, but whenever I do I go through such an overdramatic grieving process for a particular dress and its associated memory (sometimes it doesn’t happen until years later), that it becomes plainly, strikingly clear that I really am just a total idiot.
That Mintie dress has been re-hemmed many times since then: only once on a sewing machine properly, by my ex-boyfriend’s mum when we visited her out in the middle of Queensland. I still think of her when I wear it, as well as that first doctor in Brisbane who knew I was tumbling into a years’-long blackout before I could see it myself. The dress also makes me recall the kindness of the Qantas air hostess, who offered me tissue after tissue as I sat wearing it and weeping for the entire flight on my first move to Melbourne in 2003; also, the man who skillfully disunited me from it many years later in his bedroom above the New York bar where, moments earlier, we had been drinking White Russians.
I’m clearly not a fashion model, but any writer who pretends their subject isn’t themselves is a liar. So for this project I have persuaded my subject (sure, that’s right: she was brutally forced) into being photographed 24 times in different outfits, and thus she will appear every Friday for six months. The stories will not be chronological, and they’ll circle back on themselves many times. The things I care and think most about will pop up regularly: family, friends, books, theatrics, the delusions and mythologies I have created about my own life, and all the other sentimental attachments I don’t know where else to put except on the internet. I don’t even know how true any of the stories are anymore, but that’s the nature of memories: we rewrite them every time we remember them.
I couldn’t have made Dress, Memory without the help of many friends who all worked for free. My photographer Lee, of course, who shot these wonderful photos across two and a half days in a studio in North Melbourne: I’m so proud of what we came up with in the short time we had. Thanks also to the friends who offered their assistance without hesitation: Noe, Ruby, Alice, Shane, Elwyn, Pete and Ronnie.
Thanks to all of you for reading as well: you can add your own stories and comments to the Collection section of the website if you like.
Lorelei is a writer and book editor from Melbourne, Australia, currently gallivanting through Turkey, Spain and France.
Lee is a Melbourne-based photographer and actress with diverse experience in portraiture, event, documentary and fine art photography.