June 18, 2021

Emilie Collyer

I find the textile message prompts existentially confronting. What does it mean to claim something as ‘favourite’? Is it a statement piece, like this yellow coat dress I found in a second-hand shop? I’ve only worn it once, who knows how many more times it will get a run. But when I see it in the cupboard in the study (where the rarely worn garments live) it brightens my day. And it looks amazing on, doesn’t it.

Or is it a simple item worn over and over because it’s easy, because it feels right, because it fits my everyday style and personality. Or because – like many of my loved clothing items – it was given to me by my sister. She has a great eye for clothes, and more disposable income than me. She loves to treat me. Whether it’s the cute red jacket I carry with me nearly everywhere in the between weather of spring and autumn, or the stunning black beaded dress that helped me feel strong at events – including an awards ceremony I was presenting at a few months after a cancer diagnosis. Or the bag she bought me in Paris that has extra special memories because when I first met my stepdaughter she really liked it, and called it my popcorn bag.

(I keep thinking, meditating on what favourite means. I am a very literal person so I would have to say I can’t name one thing as favourite, Clare! Why would you ask such a brutal thing of me!)

I prowl through some old photo albums to see what they spark. I ruminate on my relationship with clothes and textiles. I love beautiful clothes and perhaps a fantasy of mine is to be able to afford to always buy beautifully made, even bespoke items. Trawling second-hand shops for unique items is a favourite activity. I like to find one-of-a-kind pieces from other eras that look like they could have been made for me (hello yellow coat dress).

I’m not handy. I don’t sew or knit or really even repair clothes. I have tried. I find patterns confusing and I don’t have the visual or structural patience to learn. My best effort is sewing buttons. As a poet I engage with the ephemeral, and with difficult-to-pin notions of beauty, its importance in our lives, moments and objects and people and places and clothes that make us feel just a bit more magical and true in ourselves. But I can also be pragmatic and low-key, wearing jeans and t-shirts, querying fast fashion and the status that comes with choosing and wearing clothes.

Today, Sunday morning, wearing ratty track pants and an old orange fleece zip up sweater, I come across a photo of myself at an improvisation workshop in San Francisco, 2002, wearing the same orange sweater. It’s still in really good nick actually. Target made some quality clothes back in the day. The trawl through my past stirs some very specific clothing and textile related memories. The one and only time I’ve ever had a dress made was for my Year Eleven school dance when mum somehow found a dressmaker who made me an off-the-shoulder shot-silk burgundy dress. How awkward I felt at those fittings, undeserving of the attention that came with having an item made just for me. My best friend always had much more glamourous and sexy dresses than me of which I was partly envious and partly in awe.

I travelled through and then lived in India in the late 1990s, for a couple of years. The experience made me see fabric and clothing in a completely new way. Colour. Form. Function. History. Tradition. Pattern. Texture. All of these swelled in a way they never had before. This photo I took along the Ganges river in the holy city of Varanasi is one of my favourites:

That word. It’s a favourite because I like the composition. I like what the photograph captures too; the meeting of the vibrant and the beautiful with the everyday; the sense of care and routine; the ever-present juxtaposition in India between the personal and the public I found so confronting, and then learned to love. I also liked how I felt in Varanasi. I was supposed to be travelling with my partner who was going to work as a volunteer in Delhi for two years. His visa kept getting delayed. For reasons that are now almost unfathomable to me, I went anyway, rather than cancel or postpone. Some kind of stubborn attachment to plans and perhaps to my own mild and precious unhappiness. A friend of a friend was travelling there too so we journeyed together. I was restless and anxious, checking in via phone and, in the early days of email, where and when I could, to see when my partner was arriving. In Varanasi I found a kind of peace. Whether it was the holiness of the city or that by then I had adjusted to travelling in a state of unknown I’m not sure, but walking along the ghats and through the tiny, sunlit, jostling laneways settled something in me.

Memories of India are closely linked with clothing. I never bought or wore a sari while living there, another unfathomable decision, and something I regret. However, I did take to the salwar kameez, a long tunic over pants. I bought several that I wore over and over during that year. I loved the colours, the feel of them, the slight variations in length, cut, and style. I loved how they made getting dressed as a woman something other than choosing how much of your body to show or not. I loved being complimented while wearing them; how seriously people took the choice of fabric and style. I loved putting them on, every day, how they reduced debilitating choice and replaced it with a kind of joyful, limited choice. I don’t particularly love this photograph of me but you can see the exquisite fabric and the beautiful cut of the kameez.

In many photos from that time I am wearing this little white blouse. I don’t think I bought it in India. It was comfortable and pretty but nothing special. This photograph is one of my favourites of me. That word. I see something of the twenty something Emilie. Thoughtful, self-contained, engaged with life; maybe a little wary and wistful.

This is also a favourite because when my mother saw it she sent me this photograph of her mother, saying how striking the resemblance was.

I don’t remember my grandmother that well. She, unlike my mother and me, did sew and knit. A skill that died with her. I am not sentimental about this. We emerge and evolve in different ways. My grandmother would have loved to be an accountant but living as she did in the early part of the twentieth century when women were not trained for such professions, was a stenographer instead. My mother became an accountant, she was one of the only women in her night classes in the 1960s and went on to run her own business. She, a keen sports person, would have loved to play football, but girls simply didn’t do that back then. I’d love to finish the story by saying that she has come to enjoy watching me or her granddaughter (my niece) running out onto the footy oval. But life isn’t like that. We emerge, we evolve. I am a writer. My mother is convinced I get all of my creativity from my father. I’m not so sure.

This activity has me considering questions of inheritance and adventure, taste and personality, obsession and memory. I keep thinking now of favourite t-shirts I wore for years until they were threadbare or crusted under the arms with layers of worn in deodorant and sweat. I think of the cute plastic novelty necklace with a pendant of ruby slippers that was an important creative totem for a while. I think about how I love watching Project Runway even though I can neither design nor make clothes. But something about the time pressure, the compressed creative process, the skill, the drama, and the brilliance of the contestants makes it compelling viewing for me. Which brings me to my most recent favourite item. This jacket that I bought online from one of the show’s contestants, Hester Sunshine, as a reward for getting into my PhD program. I love its whimsy and its promise, and how it makes me feel when I slip it on.

Emilie Collyer lives in Australia on Wurundjeri land where she writes poetry, plays and prose. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Booth (USA), The Blue Nib (Ireland), Live Encounters, TEXT, Rabbit, Australian Poetry Journal, Witness Performance and Cordite. She received a 2020 Varuna Publisher Fellowship with Giramondo Publishing for her poetry collection Less Domestic. Award-winning plays include Contest, Dream Home and The Good Girl, which has been produced in New York, Hollywood and Florida. She is currently under commission with Red Stitch Theatre Company. Emilie’s plays have won and been nominated for multiple awards including the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award (London), Queensland Premier’s Drama Award, Green Room Awards, George Fairfax, Patrick White, and Malcolm Robertson. She is currently undertaking a PhD, researching feminist creative practice at RMIT.

All images Emilie Collyer