Dress for Life: An interview with Lorelei Vashti

[First published in The Big Issue, No 468, September 2014]

Despite being endlessly photographed in magazines, paraded down catwalks and displayed in shop windows, clothes aren’t given the attention they really deserve. We’re so concerned about the outward message they send – “Does this look good?” “Can I get away with this?” – we tend to overlook the stories they tell about ourselves.

Melbourne author Lorelei Vashti believes clothes say a great deal about the person wearing them. In 2011, Vashti published the serialised blog, ‘Dress, Memory’, and it very quickly earned a cult following. Over six months, Vashti reflected on the defining moments, and most importantly, the defining dresses of her twenties. A beautiful collection of photographs taken by friend Lee Sandwith accompanied each post, allowing Vashti to model the outfits she wrote so passionately about. Vashti has since refashioned her self-described “piecemeal memoir” into a longer, more narrative-driven paperback with the same title.

“I hope that people who love the blog will still find something in the book,” Vashti says about her debut. Similar to the blog, her book features beautiful colour photographs (this time taken by Jo Duck) and offers fans a fresh collection of dresses and their associated stories.

Dress, Memory is the product of many years’ thought about her personal relationship to her garments. “The blog started because I was trying to understand why I held onto all my clothes. I’ve got six wardrobes full of them,” she says, seemingly shocked by the number. “In my early twenties I tried to do a cull. I gave some of them away to my friends and I almost cried when I saw these clothes on other people—which is silly, I know! It’s because I put so much meaning on them, I guess.”

She points to what she’s wearing: a full-length red and green tartan dress with a white collar. “I remember eight months ago sitting in this very dress at this very table with my friend Sofija and I remember the conversation we were having. For some reason I can remember what happened in my life because of what I was wearing.”

Vashti’s love of dresses can be traced to her childhood on the outer suburban Sunshine Coast. Her mother, handy with a needle and thread, kept a large wardrobe of vintage frocks and elaborate theatre costumes. As a young girl, Vashti harbored a desire to act and loved rifling through her mother’s clothes, imagining herself the star of her own play.

Her first outfits were hand-me downs from her two older sisters but like most teenagers Vashti longed desperately to stand out. She would spend whatever pittance she made working in an ice-cream store at the local opportunity shops. She longingly refers to that time as the ‘golden age’ of second-hand shopping, when you could find amazing vintage threads for as little as two dollars. “I had this real fervor to be an individual; I didn’t want to look like everyone else. I guess that’s wearing off a bit as I get older,” she says.

No matter what, Vashti has held true to the belief that how an outfit looks on someone should come secondary to how it makes them feel. “I’m completely out of step with fashion. I don’t know if I know what looks good on me because I just blindly wear what I want to wear.”

The experience of being pregnant has given Vashti insight into one area of fashion she’d previously not considered: maternity wear. Since giving birth to her daughter three months ago, she’s realised some dresses aren’t suitable for all occasions: “I feel pregnant and breastfeeding women are done a real disservice. It’s crazy how few dresses there are for breastfeeding in the world. I really wanted to wear dresses with my pregnant belly but there are so few button-down ones; it made me realise that what you wear changes with necessity.”

Now in her mid-thirties, Vashti doesn’t hold on to as many clothes as she did in her twenties, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be emptying her wardrobes anytime soon. “I thought that in writing the book and by telling the stories and locking them into my personal history, I’d be able to let go of them. But now they’re even more important because they’ve been recorded in this way,” she says, laughing at her own unshakable sentimentality.

Vashti also has trouble throwing out books. Dress, Memory is every bit a love letter to her favourite authors. She feels love and lust in New York City with the diaries of Anaïs Nin in her suitcase and faces her own mortality in India with Proust’s novels by her side. And through all the break ups, disappointments, sad goodbyes and warm reunions with the people and cities she cherished throughout a tumultuous decade, JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey stick by her side like loyal friends.

As her newborn quickly outgrows her clothes, Vashti is faced with a new dilemma. “Now it seems really important I keep everything for her,” she says, looking down at her daughter who is peacefully nuzzling into the fabric of Vashti’s dress. “I’m already doing the ‘dress, memory’ for her.”