I know this is probably totally illegal, but I can’t help it – I have to post this magazine article. Written by Sophie Ward (older sister of Aussie model Gemma Ward), she truly captures what it means to have style.
Never have I ever read such an intricately detailed article on the subject of style. Please take the time to read it; although it’s long, I promise you it’s completely worth it. Oh, and it also took about an hour and a half to type up, which clearly demonstrates how dedicated I am to this story. I clearly need to work on my typing speed…
THE DRESS-UP BOX
We were set against a rough stone wall in winter. I was two and transfixed by the state of it. The light was dark and moody. I watched it move. Much too beautiful: my mother’s mossy velvet dress against the sugared pad of my hand.
We were posing for a photograph – for a wedding in England, a place my mother had long left, with her sisters beside and me in the middle. I was meant to stay focused on a man’s eye in a black lens that I didn’t quite believe had good purpose, so I waited. I turned toward the dress between these people, the scene and the stone; toward a warm statuette clothed in something incredible.
While the fuss dissolved I know now what I felt then – that I knew something I hadn’t before. A secret or a story about the mysterious nature of style; that there was something grand and life affirming – or maybe just cool – in wearing a miraculous veil over your limbs. I wasn’t often required to wear clothes – I was two and normally naked – but frostbite in Britain was a bit different to grass-rash or sand-burn or bee-sting. Getting dressed here, especially today, meant something else. Here you wore clothes to feel alive underneath.
Ensconced upon that leg of velvet and my mind were the foggy beginnings of an image, Rorschach ink blots I’d made for myself, like the shapes appearing later to our photographer via the milk of some acid liquid. My thoughts began to swell in their own red room and arranged like bone in a baby, solidified an outline of who I thought I could be. In that etching of a moment before the photograph of it, I saw my mother differently. And in her, myself. She had something. Something powerful. And one day I would wear velvet.
Most days my sister and I would lie together chatting under the gem of the sun. Its arc held us in constant motion back home where the lawn darkens and cools in so many sudden dips. I’d read aloud about pirate mothers and giant pockets. We’d project our fantasy selves onto a dirt-brick stage and rummage through the dress-up chest – kneading with our hands a person to be. I liked to imagine myself expanding; becoming a bigger version of myself, or a different version. We had unfathomable thirst for being and worked it out through the stories we read, the clothes we wore.
Later in the evenings a languid newsreader would narrate that day’s tragic details from the television. She made our exploits seem inconsequential; it wasn’t grown-up to play, arranging puzzle pieces limb to limb. I began to think there should be more meaningful things to ponder than dressing. I found them later, in books and at class.
But I never let go of the dress-up chest. I still believe in the transformative power of it. Every choice and message sent can move mountains. I think even wars could be solved if we wore each other’s clothing more often. My mother used to tell us that, “every problem can be solved by communicating”.
It seemed that being different or bigger than myself had curious impact on what I could do in my life. Feeling a certain way changed the way life happened. I wasn’t afraid in a dinosaur suit and dressed as a nymph it seemed I could actually fly. Better things happened when I believed they could. I came to understand that what I was saying had such powerful impact on my rippling surrounds. Life has much less to do with what others tell you about it. You are who you say you are, and you can do a lot with your silhouette.
The world hears your voice in all those actions, interactions, reactions; sees your fire burning more or less with each moment and your layers being on, peeled off. I would stand square on our lawn some days, and be a girl in a bug outfit or dragon tail and then other times, finish my school work and set the table.
Dress-up chests are strongly allied with our latest inspiration, the transformative function of fashion. But there’s more to style than this. You might say that in life, without the contents of your own heaving chest you wouldn’t breathe or live properly. Without a chest full of oxygen, life would slow itself down, therein ceasing all action and animation – character. Style works in a similar way. Because whenever the dress-up chest closes so too do the characters. The costumes only had style when they were on you, when you stepped into them and they breathed into you. Style grants you life. You only move and jump alive once you’ve got it.
Style is also something indefinable, much more elusive than simply dressing. It is vital; we all want it, all the time. This urgent need for style is not so out of place if you consider it as an important, if not essential, part of your character – you couldn’t survive as an individual without it. Style is the source of the cyclic, throaty inspiration keeping you very much alive and full of character today.
For me, style begins upon realising at some foreign depth of your being that you are who you are because of what you fill yourself with. Identity has very little to do with exteriors. The power of it all explodes in your knowing what you are made of – and then turning your insides out.
Nietzsche agrees that style is: “practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature … fitting them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.” I might have been touching the inside of my mother’s vein rather than velvet, it would have been no less incredible.
I have nothing and lots to learn. My insides surprise me. It’s the tangle between knowing them and not which makes me proud. All my choices, the triumphs and sudden dips couldn’t have been any other way. It’s our entire composition with distinct style and it grows greater every day. This process is, however, just one step. The exhibition of your artwork is altogether more fascinating.
Nowhere else does life reveal itself but in the rushing present – in possibilities flying all over its canvas asking you to get whipped together like ice-cream or a twister. Identity happens in these instances, among so many flashes of “now” – unable upon impact to be mapped in a line. Because of this, those present moments exist out of the past-future continuity – outside of time.
It makes sense then that those who have “it” are timeless; since style isn’t anywhere you can pin down. Its bearers aren’t cleaved to a static past, nor in the future wanting change, but manifested in “presence” instead. There’s something magnificent about the chameleonic skill to transform with the tide of time.
Life takes committed focus when you do it your own way; finding the gates to yourself and then keys to your style. I’ve found them whenever I take heed to the world with its pressing voices, telling me to fit in or breathe differently. It’s important they know what I am going to do, who I am, where I am going. Those whispers aren’t about me, but around me, an endless possibility.
Darting along the periphery of our school quadrangle I was wary of the cool kids. These people were so laidback and so sure of themselves – which was all I was sure of. I knotted Lego through my stitched jeans, wore my uncle’s moccasins, learnt to dismiss the doubts because this was me and I knew I liked it. I unearthed a uniform later, perfectly edited to fit me in my burgeoning world. Black bootlegs and a navy polo I wore far too often according to others, beneath kohl-ed eyes and dishevelled hair. The beauty is, I still love this slightly off-kilter simplicity. The sound of your own voice lasts a long time, and it keeps you company among the gallery of others out there.
My quest to hear all voices won’t end – but I like that, because the ultimate unknown is no place more cosmic than yourself, and you are unfathomably anamorphic. How delightful that upon cementing a groove you’ll discover a predilection for veering out of it; like taking your hands off your handlebars once you’ve learnt to balance.
Sometimes your identity will learn to get up and walk around without you even noticing. It might even, as Clint Eastwood has said, wander “so far to the left you meet the same people coming around from the right”. I remember being 12 and deliberately hiking my brand-emblazoned underpants above my tracksuit. There were tense moments whenever people asked why; I had no idea. It seems rap culture has travelled far and deep, quietly while we listened to pop music.
Those less beaten tracks, particularly those you don’t even know exist yet, are where every what’s-next lies. You won’t know they do unless you play on the roads, wander around, “throw ideas up in the air and see where they land”. They land hard sometimes. But how much better to discover the keys to the promised land lying right there in the dust. Instability works – stasis on a heart monitor means you’ve stopped playing games. the ups and downs are all part of the plan.
Throughout life you’ll keep choosing what to do with each of those moments, what now, and now. You might begin to see a pattern. Whatever happens you are perpetually giving birth to your identity and that’s a long, hard labour of love. It might come out backwards. But it’s no less valid and entirely perfect. It’s called style as soon as it walks alone smiling.
Vogue Australia, December 2005, pages 66-70
If you’re interested in further reads, be sure to check out Sophie’s website here.