Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The ritual of an evening dress

There is often a common point of recollection in childhood memories  – particularly the kind found in articles and autobiographies. It is the recalling of a mother or significant female relative dressing up ahead of an evening. The events acquire an almost ritualistic quality with the application of make-up, the choosing of a dress and the brushing and arranging of hair. These memories are usually sensory, filled with the warm scent of perfume or glimpse of a spangled brooch under lamplight. Such small details preserve the scene, made vivid by the author’s words. Edmund de Waal’s book ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, as well as several pieces in Vogue and the Guardian come to mind.  Reading them makes me  think of occasions watching my mum preparing for a party or night out. Although what  doesn’t often make its way into the nostalgia-soaked moments are the frantic calls of, “Where’s my bloody handbag?” and “Come on, we’re late!” It would, of course break the cosy elegance. I also have photos of my mum at various fancy dress parties: Rapunzel, Cleopatra and a costume based on a variation of my then twelve-year old attire for a ‘Mutton Dressed as Lamb’ themed party (the outfit involved a baker-boy hat and a denim mini skirt)!

Dressing up is definitely a ceremonial process, especially if for an important occasion. At the centre of the preparations there is usually a dress. It may appear vacuous to accord such status to an item of clothing, but I will readily admit that an evening dress has transformative qualities. Unless you are one of the incredible individuals who wear ball gowns to visit the dentist and do the weekly shop, (see the marvelous Desiree from Pull your Sox Up for a master-class) then the experience is one beyond the norms of day-to-day life. It gives the chance for a temporary transformation. In this case the dress is the equivalent of a mask – allowing escapism and a temporary stepping into the (possibly high heeled) shoes of another persona. As humans we may not be able to sprout brightly coloured feathers, but we can slip skins on and off at will – and the evening dress is the best ‘skin’ of all. This decoration of the human form - of accentuating and flattering it - goes right back to primal traditions of animal skins and body paint (these two have arguably been replaced with an antique fur stole and make-up!)

The dress pictured above was worn to a vintage ball that took place in a local stately hall. I was asked to document the evening, and turned up with my camera (complete with a heavy flash) in one hand, and a vintage evening purse in the other. The guests were greeted at the entrance with a glass of champagne, and I slunk among the groups, snapping all the time. It was an incredible sight: coral-tinged ball gowns mixing with chiffon flapper dresses and lace fifties concoctions. It was as though the revellers had emerged from a tangle of decades. But my favourite couple, and the ones who fascinated me most, eschewed traditional glamour in favour of WWII uniforms. They had matching khaki caps – and their buttons caught the light from the chandelier. If one talks of ‘hunting ground’ for photography, then this one was immensely fertile. Every turn of my gaze yielded new sights. What struck me again and again throughout the evening was the intense vitality of everyone I observed and spoke to. An elegant couple – she in sequins, he in a white dinner jacket – swept past my lens, while a mother and daughter later tapped out the Charleston. A floor view would have revealed leopard print heels tango-ing past low, patent t-bars. To see the events through a viewfinder – dividing it up into single photos and snapshots – was to try to squash the exuberance and enjoyment of the evening into a rectangle. Thus, the following images are a handful of single moments, snatched from a fabulous few hours.

My mum bought the vintage satin evening dress for me for Christmas (from a local flea market) because it reminded her of “the Atonement dress”. That particular dress has achieved near mythical status, and so I was thrilled to find this similar emerald green item relaxing under the tree. In homage to a thirties Cecilia type I wore it with faux-pearls and gold t-bar shoes – with my hair pinned with hair clips as it was drying so that it fell in waves. The photos were taken by my dad the following day, as I spent the entire night of the ball behind the camera - and forgot to ask anyone to take a photo of me! 



Anonymous said...

I cannot think of a more enjoyable way to spend an evening Roz - not only dressing up for and attending such a ball but having the honour of being the photographer for the evening bestowed upon you as well is such an accolade! Your dress is beautiful - I instantly thought of Keira Knightley in Atonement (and how she didn't seem to appreciate all her gorgeous clothes in that film!)

'Ritual' is most certainly the correct word to describe preparing for a dance or ball such as this. I for one always allow more time than necessary to get ready purely for the enjoyment of putting on the dress and shoes, styling my hair extra specially, applying make up and adding jewellery and perfume before facing the mirror and turning this way and that to admire my handiwork! We are all guilty of this little vanity I suppose. I only wish there were more occasions for dressing up like there were in the past at dance halls and so on. I think one of the main attractions, for me, of period and costume dramas such as Downton Abbey are the vast array of beautiful costumes on show as at the time dressing for dinner was the norm!

AVY said...

It's a very pretty dress, glad that you got it documented in the end.


hiPop said...

That emerald gown is Oscar-worthy! (though definitely one of the Oscar nights of few decades ago :)

Dressing up and pretending to be someone else, just for a night is always so fun and it's great to see that all those people in photos were creative with their...should I say - costumes?

anyway <3

Lydia said...

I know the sort you mean-- I always love reading these types of memories, but I tend to find them in books written many years ago, or from the point of view of an older person remembering their own childhood. People don't dress up anymore!! They (most) don't really take the time and care they used to. It's really sad. We've just gotten so casual.

SabinePsynopsis said...

THAT Atonement dress is made for you, Roz - absolutely gorgeous. It's easy to forget to ask for having your picture taken when you're having fun :)

Wild Flower said...

You've taken some fantastic pics here of the night! Your emerald green dress is heavenly, the colour is divine. X

Christobel Amelia Hastings said...

Once again a beautiful piece of writing, I really enjoy reading your work.

You're definitely spot on about the ritualistic/transformational powers of dressing up. I've just read Adam Bede by George Eliot and Hetty is exactly that character, sitting before the candlelight looking at her reflection. I think that's why to me, the pleasure of a special occasion lies in the preparation and not necessarily in the revelling itself (quite as much)

A gorgeous dress as well, sets off your height wonderfully.


Autumn said...

Gorgeous dress!

Willow said...

Gorgeous photos (especially love that last one with the blurred movement)
The dress is really flattering and you look absolutely stunning.

- Willow

Natalie Suarez said...

this is just too too amazing! i love this! xx

Page Song said...

your dress is gorgeous! and the neck pairing is amazing :)
i also lvoe those old photos, especially the old dancing style :)

The Fancy Teacup said...

Totally spellbound by how glamorous you look in that dress! What an absolute gem.

Sylwia from the sign of design said...

Great pictures:) Your dress has wonderful colour! Mayby you'll want to follow echa other by google and bloglovin?:) Please let me know on my blog:) It'll be great for me:)

Melanie said...

Stunning. And even more stunning in front of a barn. The contrast is haunting and so right.


The soft delicate dress looks like a dream in that backgroud.
You mother gave you a perfect gift, Rosalind: a dress with a story behind.
Much love and admiration always,my dear friend.

Emily, Ruby Slipper Journeys said...

I was absolutely going to say that this looks like the Atonement dress!

I don't really have many memories of my mother properly dressing up--she did/does from time to time, but my main thoughts were always how the perfume in her make-up make me extra-carsick.

I've attended a lot of Scottish dancing balls and find them simultaneously beautiful and a little sadly anachronistic. But I remind myself that balls still do have a place in the modern world... perhaps as much as they ever did, and at least in this decade I can go to them if I wish.

Lovely photos from the night!

Fashionistable said...

Oh gosh you have me thinking of all the times my mother glamorously kissed me goodnight. The smell of perfume and the taste of left behind lipstick. And the dream of how beautiful she looked as she shimmered away replaced with how handsome Dad was in his tux when it was his turn to say goodnight too. It is fun to see an evening through the eye of a lens. Hope you had fun without the camera too. I can see why you were thrilled with your green dress. It is beautiful. No photo's of you on the night....great excuse to slip your dress on again. Xxxx

Ireland Casswell-Clarkson said...

Stunning photography, those couples are enchanting.

Kelly-Marie said...

That certainly does look like the iconic Atonement dress and that Green just looks so beautiful on you. You can tell that everyone was having so much fun in your photographs. I'm sure that even without a photo being taken that you were the belle of the ball. x

Anupriya DG said... must have been a wonderful evening! So many colors, so many textures, so many silhouettes, so much for the senses to revel in!

And of course, you look stunning as usual, my dear! :)


You look so beautiful that I can't stop staring at you!

Bella Q said...

Holy smokes- just when I think that I love ya for that gorgeous face, remarkable model's frame, or graceful sense of style, I become distracted by your talents- the photographer's eye, and your immensely incredible way with words.

Turns of phrases curl into a palpable vignette: "the warm scent of perfume or glimpse of a spangled brooch","nostalgia-soaked moments," "It would, of course break the cosy elegance," etc.

Then the photography- the captured moment, the hint of portrait in your dancehall images. For some reason the one of the couple dress up in military regalia struck me as poignant, I'm not sure why, but I felt a bit of tear in my eye, a drop of melancholia- perhaps my newly acquired sense of maudlin sentimentality got triggered. But I am wowed relentlessly when I visit this blog- so much to cherish beyond the facade of fashion, and I can't wait to be moved/awed another time.
the Citizen Rosebud

Stephanie Hoff Clayton said...

oh, it's all so amazing! thank you for sharing, roz. i like the images in black and white, for there is an air of sophistication, mystery glamour and revelry.
as for you - incredible!

Jean at said...

As the mother of a 24 year old artist and writer, I often wonder what she would say about her memories of me back in the day getting ready for a gig (I was a singer back then). I still have events that require getting dolled up, and I enjoy the process for the most part.

Your green gown is delicious and looks so lovely against the backdrop of the barn. I love the photos you took, as well. Poignant and enchanting.

I admire your parents and appreciate the glimpse of them that you provide. They must be very proud!

Love, Jean

The Foolish Aesthete said...

We are likewise transported just by looking through your posts. You look ravishingly timeless in that green gown and ladylike purse! Well picked by your mum,

You are absolutely right about the evening out rituals and the memories they entail. I still miss seeing my mother in front of her dressing table, perfumes and lipsticks scattered about while fastening the last clasp of her jewelry. I don't think I approach anywhere near the elegance of her moments, since my routines these days are more frenetic, and resemble the "where's the bloody handbag" rigmarole. Actually, who am I kidding? I haven't really dressed up in weeks since I went into Cinderella (scrubbing and cleaning) mode!

Loved your shots during the ball. Hopefully, you had as much fun as the people you captured. xxx

Thea vintage said...

Such a dramatic dress! Love the colour.

Izzy/Bella said...

That's so funny you mentioned Atonement! You strongly reminded me of that character and not even because of the dress (or perhaps subconsciously I picked up on that since consciously I didn't remember the dress from the film or the book) but in your expression. You really channeled something from another decade. Lovely photos and your change in tone in the first paragraph made me laugh.

I also loved the last picture particularly. It reminded me of a Toulouse Lautrec pastel drawing of a wild cabaret in Paris. Great post as always!

Elisa Kanagarajah said...

that green dress is gorgeous!

daisymay aka Chantele said...

Looking stunning as usual Roz! The event looks like lots of fun too
Daisy Dayz
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Thrifted Shift said...

Hello! I'm your newest follower after my friend the Citizen Rosebud told me about your blog. I can't wait to read and see more!

RETRO REVA said...

I have been a follower for a very long time...

Your images are so wonderful and honestly that is the type of photos I aspire to, but I am having so much trouble with lighting. My images are so over-exposed and washed out, though i never use a flash.

Would you be so kind as to let me know, what settings you use and type of camera? Do you have someone who takes them for you?
I'd love to learn from you.
Please give me some tips if you can.
(Do you wait for a certain time to do them?)
I would greatly appreciate it!
I want my blog to be fun again not a chore to get my photos good.
my e-mail is:
blog url:

thanks again :)

100%soie said...

what a gorgeous dress !!! you look stunning in green, I love it !! I would like to say thank you to you for your nice comments each time. it's a real honour for me te have your comments. i consider you as a real inspiration for me and my blog. Each time your pictures are perfect and you look like a godness, so thnak you for your comments and have a great day !

DaBi Vintage said...

amazing dress!kisses from Italy

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