by Nadia Buick
My curated house - Rose the mannequin head and an Olivetti Valentine
I’m currently on the hunt for a new wardrobe; it seems that my current one just isn’t big enough anymore… I suppose when you have a collection of over 100 vintage dresses, this is inevitable. In fact, it speaks to my utter hopefulness that I’ve gone on this long with a single wardrobe. Most women would have had a storage crisis many times over by now. For those of you reading this who are lucky enough to have spacious walk-in wardrobes, or floor to ceiling built-ins that take up half a room, I think I should probably tell you upfront that I hate you just a little bit. Okay, so I rent a beautiful little workers’ cottage, which is certainly not to be sneezed at… except for its lack of storage space (read: wardrobe space).
I’ve been very diligent over the years at pruning my clothing collection, sending discarded beauties off to op-shops for the next vintage girl to find and love. But it’s getting to the stage now where there’s no weak-links; nothing I could really let go of. I spend a good deal of my life on ebay, searching for the next treasure. In fact, I no longer shop in boutiques or department stores, and less and less in op-shops, previously my only supply. The bulk of my wardrobe comes from far-away lands (France, the UK and the US), probably from women like me who have made the tough call and sacrificed another dress in the hope of it a) going to a good home and b) making a bit more room for that other ebay dress you’re currently bidding on.
I’m one of a long line of hoarders. On my mother’s side, my Nonna and Nonno have lived in the same big farmhouse for 50+ years and I cannot emphasise the amount of stuff they have hung on to… the place is practically a museum, which I love. My father’s father was the same. And my own childhood was spent loath-fully trudging from antique store to antique store as my mother oohed and ahhed over old washstands and china. And while I thought it was boring as a child, eventually all of that stuff starts to rub off. My house is full of objects; I have a penchant for fashion related things but I love old books, typewriters, postcards, mirrors… the list goes on. I’ve always liked mannequins, and recently I’ve started acquiring them. It began with Rose, the remaining head of a 1930s store mannequin with original glass eyes. I have a 1940s mannequin arm hanging from the ceiling in my front room. And Sophie, my 1960s full mannequin shares our bedroom, dressed to the nines in the corner.
The lovely Sophie
Did I mention I’m a curator? There’s something about selecting and arranging things that appeals to me at my very core. And while I do have a wide range of objects, I’ve never really thought of myself as a collector. I think my collection is part of an instinct I’ve always had towards beautiful things, and their display. And for me, curating is not something that just happens in a museum. In fact, the early origins of the museum was the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities; objects, usually related to natural history, that were collected and arranged and kept in private, albeit upper class homes. Looking at wunderkammer, I love the artifice of the displayed objects and the cabinets that hold them. Their owners were generally men, and I consider them early curators.
Wunderkammer, from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Thinking about fashion curation, something I spend a lot of time doing… the wardrobe is one of the spaces in which a type of curating takes place in the privacy of our own homes. What our wardrobe contains, how we arrange our garments, shoes, accessories… for me, this is a kind of curation. While many people think of clothing as a practicality, my collection of clothing is something I have built over years of hunting and gathering. And it is quite a specific collection. I have a love for vintage dresses, my favourite decades are the 1930s-1950s.
I suspect most people arrange their wardrobes according to garment type—all the shirts together, then jackets, etc.—but when you have a wardrobe that really only contains dresses and skirts, things get a little more detailed. At one end I have my cocktail/special occasion dresses. These tend to be floor length 1930s gowns; bias cut, shoulder padded 1940s frocks and 1950s full skirted floral and lace beauties. In the middle is my day-to-day wearing wardrobe, the largest section; about 80 dresses ranging from the 50s to the 80s in a riot of prints (I hardly ever wear solid colours and I’ll often layer three or four different florals into a single outfit). Finally I have my skirts, a handful of 1950s circle skirts, 1970s maxi skirts, sheer 1980s secretary skirts… and then come the coats. But if I had a second wardrobe, all of these things would have a little more breathing space. As it is right now, the doors always sit a little open because all of the fabric in all the skirts of all the dresses struggle to stay in.
All of this thinking about wardrobes; what they contain and represent, has given me an idea for an exhibition, but I’ll talk a bit more about that another day. The question is, where will the new wardrobe fit?
My miniature wardrobe collection
I have a plan but it’s reliant on so many variables that it would take a miracle to find the one perfect wardrobe. It will require a trawl through all the antique stores and op-shops (probably with my mother, proof that the cycle continues), measuring and imaging where it will go… if I can magically conjure up some space in my constant re-juggling of the beloved objects. But after-all, that’s exactly what drives the collector; that one unattainable but wholly necessary object. And when I do finally find it, my dresses will surely thank me.