• September 15, 2020

The dress that changed my life

Every girl has a different view with regard to fashion. Some don’t care for it, some live for it. Some of us are Carrie Bradshaw, others, Coco Chanel.

Do you remember a period of your life through music? The first time I heard Edith Piaf, I knew I had to go see France. Or perhaps you mark moments in your life through movies? My teenage years were filled with replaying the movie, Little Women. What about those turning points in your life that you knew something was about to change? This is about a dress that defined my view on fashion, and just like all the clothes I own, it is also souvenir from a moment in my life.

Growing up, we were not well off. I only got a new dress each birthday from my grandmother, but that lasted till I was five or six. After that, it became hard to find a dress that fit me because I was bigger than the average kid. Till today, I still remember the few dresses I owned, as if they were my closest friends. When I started school, all I wore were navy blue pinafores, white blouses and green skirts, all the way till I was 18. Outside of school, I had no sartorial sense at all, putting on just about anything that was placed in my wardrobe by Mother. T-shirts, jeans, hand-me-down clothing from relatives who were way older than I was. But you see, I was so focused on my studies, I didn’t care what I wore.

Then I went to university. No more uniforms! And suddenly I was at a loss, not sure about what to wear to school. Through working in a cafe during my holidays, I had saved up some money. Without a clue, I headed to the high street and looked for similar items that my peers wore. Speaking of originality! It was awful because I did not understand my body shape, I could not differentiate the different fabrics and I was always uncomfortable. The top part of the blouse fit, but the lower end was too loose; the jeans was snug at the waist, but was too long. Dresses either looked like skimpy sleepwear or elaborate couture-esque pieces that no one could carry off in real life. This was a time before indie brands or online shops were prevalent. Most brands I knew were imported and my references then were Topshop, Zara and Mango. I struggled to pay so much (by the standard of a student) for clothes that did not feel good or fit well. Even when I did not have much knowledge for fashion, I have always been one to know myself and my style. It was hard to find something I loved or really wanted to wear.

Then came 2006.

One sweltering afternoon, I walked into Zara, which was having a surprisingly great season that year. I recall lovely romantic pieces in cream and pink hues, accented with khaki green and a dash of purple. While I could not pull off most pieces, at the corner of my eye, I spied this dark rose pink dress, with minimal lace and painterly garden florals. The fabric felt amazing – silky smooth, soft, albeit a little on the thin side but still, for a novice who didn’t know better, this light, gossamery, beautiful splendor stole my heart. There was only one piece left on the rack but it was not my size. I took it into the dressing room, put it on, and at the risk of sounding dramatic, saw my perfect life flashed by. This was love! I had to get it even though it did not fit. On top of the hefty price tag, I had to send the dress to a seamstress to have it altered because I knew nothing about sewing. I starved for a week but it was worth it. The only dress I owned but a beloved darling it was; I foresaw it would accompany me through all of life’s adventures.

As the dress was altered to my size, it was really comfortable to wear. I wore it to celebrate turning 21. I wore it every Friday when I went margarita-drinking with my girlfriends. Each time I wore the dress, I felt transformed and sometimes even transported to another era. This dress got me to dream, got me imagining. That was a time of awakening for me. Creatively, sartorially, artistically even. That was the moment I knew I’d wear florals forever.

One day, I wore English Rose (the name I gave to the dress) to a party. There, I met a French boy, a student on exchange program. We started talking and became friends. Later, he told me I stood out because I was the only person wearing a dress at the party. Through this friendship, he hosted me in Paris when I eventually traveled there. Paris as a city left a huge impact on me, I still have not recovered from that wanderlust dream. This is the city that never fails to inspire me – as a designer, as a creative, as a writer. It is a place I call home when I need to recharge. And most importantly, it was also in Paris where I met my future husband (mais non, he is not the French boy).

I would say English Rose helped me get in touch with a more feminine side of myself. Before that I was at best sporty, though truthfully, I was just drifting along cluelessly, wearing baggy, ill-fitting clothes. With this dress, I found what I have always sought and established a sense of style for myself. Eventually the top part of my beautiful English Rose dress tore apart because like I had suspected from day one, the cotton fabric was too thin. I was heartbroken. Not bearing to throw it away, I converted the bottom half into a skirt. I learned a somber lesson that quality matters and that kickstarted a new journey of designing my own dresses and having them made with high quality fabrics. I also learned a little about dress-making and try to understand what good quality means when it comes to fabrics.

Of course, over the years, I did slowly accumulate more beautiful dresses; many still hang in my closet because they were handmade. All of them with a unique story to tell. I am also relieved to say, I can still fit into all of them. I seldom shop from what I term as “fast food fashion brands” anymore, preferring to have my clothing tailor-made. Because really, there is no turning back once you wear comfortable clothing that fits well. I would rather have lesser but better.

Now, as a writer and brand strategist who consults for clients from around the world, I view fashion as my personal outlet of expression. I work with words day-in and day-out, thus being able to design my own clothing is indeed a form of therapy for me. Shopping online also lets me explore what brands are doing out there, so I get to merge my interest with my work. I recognize how much waste fashion generates. It astounds me to see that people are willing to wear acrylics and polyester – fabrics that suffocate the skin instead of letting it breathe. Perhaps due to a lack of awareness or consumerism has gotten the better of most of us, fast fashion is here to stay. For me, I believe in seeking out well-made items that will last a long time, instead of going for instant gratification that means nothing at the end of the day.

As I gear up to enter my 40s, I am slowly realizing how my style needs to evolve, and how much more important comfort and quality is. Perhaps like many in my age bracket, the tight-fitting items will slowly make way for looser pieces. Instead of squeezing myself into a smaller label, I size up and gracefully admit that I may never return to the size of my younger years. However quality should remain uncompromised. In fact, I have started eliminating non-natural fabrics in my repertoire, gradually building a wardrobe that consists of cotton, linen, silk and wool, rotating them throughout the year as the seasons change.