Apr 17, 2024

Fashion is in my blood

This image does not depict persons mentioned within body of the story [Source Shutterstock Images].

I walked into the room of a resident I had not met before and was astonished to see what I thought was inside a boutique, not a person’s bedroom.

I introduced myself to Lilian*, who was busy mending the hem of a dress on her trusted sewing machine. She glanced up at me through her bifocal glasses and told me to sit down and that she was finishing her current garment.

After several minutes, Lilian turned off the sewing machine and leaned back to talk to me, “Like my emporium? It’s my home, bedroom, lounge, and most importantly, my workshop”, she stated.

I looked around the room at the dozens of dresses hung on padded coat hangers covering the main wall; on the opposite wall were draped with necklaces, earrings and bangles.

This once-famous Sydney-based fashion designer now aged ninety-one and living in residential care for the past five years, continues to work daily designing, crafting, and mending garments of all shapes and sizes.

In addition to the clothing range, Lilian dedicates time in the evening to designing and creating new trinkets to either give to family or friends or sell on eBay (with help from her grandson).

Although she said her eyesight is not as strong as it was, and her hands are slightly arthritic, her mind is still in the 1960s, and her heart will continue the craft until she dies.

Lilian tells me that fashion runs through her veins and has been an integral part of her life since she was sixteen. Her inspiration came from following the work of Mary Quant.

Her love affair with materials and designing started when she first wore a mini-skirt.

Patterns and designs are all pinned to sketches, with sample cloth and spools of cotton scattered all over the dressing table.

In small trays are pins, safety pins, and ribbons in all the colours of the rainbow. Lilian added that she loves colour and feels that women do not need to look like their grandmothers anymore as they age.

There is dignity in ageing without losing our style, she says, and women no longer need to hide behind drab greys and black clothing just because they are no longer young.

When do women start to dress like old ladies? So-called age-appropriate clothing is about confidence and comfort. 

Style should never be a prisoner to age, and elegance is ageless and reflects one’s personality, not what society dictates.Lilian glanced at me and said, “Looks like clutter, doesn’t it?”  I know where every pin, thread, bead or button is when I need it; they exist in my mind 24/7.

Other residents pass comments about Lilian’s room; they have been warned not to touch anything when they enter her room in case she’s unable to find what she wants later.

One lady told me Lilian had made her a beautiful two-piece outfit in peach made from pure silk for her granddaughter’s wedding, “I was as beautiful as the bride, and everyone remarked how stunning I looked”.

After that, I felt like a film star due to Lilian’s skill and expertise in her dressmaking.Lilian tells me that her mother and grandmother were dressmakers in their time.

Her mother was born in France and was a former model for the House of Madeline Vionnet in Paris during the 1920s, modelling fashionable Haute Couture. Her granddaughter Vienna is studying Fashion Design at University and hopes to create her own fashion line when she graduates.

” So it’s in the blood, you see”. Vienna is the next generation who will carry the gauntlet forward.

Walking out of Lilian’s room, I felt elated and told her I would be back to listen to more stories about her life in the fashion Industry in the 1960s.

One of Lilian’s favourite quotes about fashion is by the famous designer Marc Jacobs, “Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them”. Lilian always believed this to be the case and that matching an outfit to the individual creates panache and a certain je ne sais quoi.

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