August 27, 2021

Leila Lois

Since I can remember, textiles have provoked feelings of comfort, wonderment and desire.

Like most children I had a comfort blanket, a cotton sateen pillow, printed with meadow flowers; I would take each smooth, cold corner between my little finger and ring finger until I was lulled to sleep. I cannot remember living in the same house for longer than a year or so until my teenage years, as we regularly relocated for my parents’ careers as a psychiatrist and a professor, then after that, the divorce. My ‘blankie’ came with me across continent and ocean as we relocated from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the UK. My brother had a cream lamb’s wool counterpane. These swathed us in solace at every airport, motel and new home while we were in transit, moving house and on access visits to our dad.

Other early memories of the intimacy of textiles include summers when I visited my Kurdish grandparents on the East coast of the United States, each time coming home with my suitcase containing a riot of brightly coloured and heavily sequined silk dresses, hand-sewn by my Dapir (grandmother). In Kurdish sartorial culture, more is more. These contrasted hugely with my British school uniforms, and weekend dungarees and crop-tops. I was at once frightened and fascinated by the extravagance of the dresses. I wore them for photos for my grandparents but that was about the only time they had occasion to emerge, other than dress-up time on playdates.

[Image] 1970s Kurdish dresses

Kurdish dresses: haunting and reclaiming

Sadly, and somewhat inevitably, growing up so far away from my Kurdish relatives and in predominantly white suburban environments, these vividly beautiful dresses were relegated to analogue photos stashed at my grandparents’ house and the dress-up box, eventually to go missing in one of our many moves. Or perhaps I gave them away to the opportunity shop, either way it pains me to think how little I treasured these beautiful articles of ancestry, these acts of love.

Three years ago, moving to Naarm (Melbourne) from Aotearoa, I decided to hand-sew my own Kurdish dress. I had no pattern and used sequined silk from a Korean fabric seller on Sydney Road. I had no idea what I was doing but the process was intuitive and healing. I’ve since worn this dress to exhibition openings, poetry readings, and dance performances. I will never again let myself think that these dresses are ‘too much’. Just like in a medieval gown with sweeping sleeves, in these dresses I can be whatever sort of ancient princess I like and celebrate both my ancestral cultures: Welsh and Kurdish.

[Image] Dancing in my own handmade silk crepe dress at a recent opening of dance videography collaboration Jiyan bê te nina (There is no life without you)

Ballet: tulle and stretch dreams

Ballet has been a lifelong love affair. From ballet class as a child in chilly church halls to performances and now teaching, my eyes light up and my heart lifts at the sight and touch of tulle, lace, tights, and leotards. Like Kurdish dresses, more is more; you can never have tutu much tulle! Ballet being replete with narrative, mime and fantastical sets, I always enjoy researching the beautiful costumes of ballet. From Léon Bakst’s bohemian creations for the Ballet Russes to Chanel’s collaboration with the Australian Ballet, I just love seeing the exquisite ways form and flow can come together through dance costume. As well as making my own lingerie and ballet skirts, I’ve modelled for several friends’ fine clothing businesses, and always prefer clothes I can dance in and do the splits all ways with comfort and finesse.

That is my test for a garment. Can I dance in this? Can I be joyful in this? Can I feel myself? Can I express who I am? It hasn’t always been this way: I struggled with body image and an eating disorder as a teen, hence the commitment to now loving myself adorned and unadorned, my ancestries, the skin and textile I live in.

I hope that everyone is able to access joy and self-love through their chosen clothing.

[Image] Bury me in this dress… In a Zerya Boutique dress, ethically made hand-loomed silk and cotton dresses

[Image] When I have free time (school holidays, as I am a teacher) I love to hand-sew silk ballet skirts and French knickers. Here is a pair I sewed, with homemade Anzac cookies and lemonade

Improvising with a friend, in a Kurdish dress I made in 2020

Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage who has lived most of her life in Aotearoa, based now in Naarm (Melbourne). Her poetry and dance practice explore landscapes imbued with memory, loss, and a pervading sense of love. Publishing history includes Southerly, Djed Press, NōD Magazine, Next In Colour, Lite Lit One, Blue Bottle Journal, Mayhem, Bent Street, and Delving into Dance. Her debut collection is Flesh into Blossom (Girls on Key Poetry).

Images and video Leila Lois