September 21, 2021

Susan Bradley Smith

After finishing undergraduate studies in Sydney I spent the 1980s in London as a young journalist. Part of my job involved turning up at formal functions, and one lunchtime my new girlfriend from Yorkshire, Leonie, who worked in the artroom and whose sister was studying fashion took me to Laura Ashley on Kensington High Street where I purchased this balldress, with a tapestry bodice and taffeta skirt.

I often wore it with eccentricity, I thought, adding vintage Edwardian lace-up boots and fishnet tights.

All these decades later, having moved relentlessly around the world, I can’t believe I still have it. Sometimes I just lie on the bed and hold it.

My other beloved items from this era were my collection of band T-shirts, which I wore out before the twenty-first century.

In this picture you can see the Ramones, from the night I first met them backstage as a journalist, and The Primitives—so good seeing women in music upfront—lovingly handwashed in my dive of a flat in South Kensington (that’s me on the right).

I lived on my own—suddenly and strangely having won a writing fellowship—in Rome in 2016, and have gone back most years since to teach poetry. My apartment was in Trastevere, and each Sunday a few blocks away the fabulous Porta Portese Fleamarkets were held. I wandered them for hours, amazed at the tables full of traditional dirndls next to basket loads of designer leather then trashy kitchen appliances then—everything!

Each week I lusted after the vintage dresses, imagining the Italian lives they must have lived, before purchasing that weeks’ armful of (mostly) silk scarves, which cost less than one euro per bundle. 

I’d take the scarves home and handwash them, then take them on the road with me all over Europe and the UK on my reading tour. On trains and planes I’d sew them together until one, long fabulous scarf was finished. Then I’d gift this to my host.

I’ve run out of scarves now. This is my reason for needing to get home to Rome! I dream of those scarves.

I am a fan of the term hauntology, used to describe that state of being when your imagined future fails to arrive. I am obsessive about doing laundry, and am forever curious about other people and their laundry habits. In Italy I was alarmed and amazed to see so much washing hung outside of apartments, and I used to film these ghostly clothes dancing in the wind. I can remember these images more clearly than anything obvious, like famous architecture. In an earlier marriage, my European mother-in-law almost disowned me for doing a load of washing on Christmas day.

My hauntology of self is: when did my children grow up? I yearn to wash cloth nappies, I miss the multi-coloured nappies of their babyhood, and folding them after a day in the salty sunshine of subtropical Australia. I have childhood clothes preserved; the first wetsuit Ripcurl made for 2 year olds; a Paul Smith patchwork puffa jacket size 3; a Wolfmother (the band) T-shirt size 6; a Monsoon chocolate velvet 3 piece suit with matching blue paisley shirt size 6 months, worn for a christening; and much more. When I’m feeling blue, I launder these items too.

Sometimes, I deliberately fold washing with my eyes closed. If I cannot know my lived lives in clothes by touch, then I have not been paying proper attention. Laundry done like this does haunt me, because if I fail in this game of mindful Braille, what will disappear? Nothing makes me happier than pegs, and clothes, and a hills hoist. 

Susan Bradley Smith began her writing life as a rock journalist in Sydney and London and now teaches Creative Writing at Curtin University. A poet, librettist, and historian, her work is concerned with social poetics and collective cultural practice as feminist intervention towards reimagining womanhood.

All images Susan Bradley Smith