AS WELL AS A harbour for stories and memories; dress has a protective force, guarding us as we present ourselves to the world each day. There is comfort in this, in the act of dressing that connects us with the social world.
This much and more is true for a performer, where appearance is so crucial in creating a captivating character on stage. This is something ballet dancer Ingrid Gow is all too familiar with, as well as the trials and tribulations of the life of a performer. As a ballerina in the coryphées (the leading dancers in the corps de ballet) for the Australian Ballet, Ingrid has danced in both traditional and contemporary productions by leading choreographers in her eight-year career. As the subject of this next instalment to the series ‘Speaking Dress’ Ingrid nominates her Wheels & Dollbaby leather jacket as holding particular power in her life. She speaks of retreating into the jacket after ‘that moment of beautiful completeness’ on stage, and the rigorous and constant exposure demanded of a ballet dancer, highlighting the powerful connection between self, clothes and the external world.
It was about four years ago that I bought this leather jacket. Soon after we had started to go out, my now-ex-boyfriend gave me a voucher for the label Wheels & Dollbaby; I used it to buy the jacket. I had been eyeing it off for a while, I was drawn to the toughness of it. Now I look back and think, though he barely knew me, he got the present so right!
I tend to go through quite distinct phases when it comes to my relationship with clothing. So there is a part of this jacket that will always remind me of him, but at the same time, since it has stayed with me, there are so many different memories embedded now in the garment.
I see the jacket as a piece of armour: when I put it on, I feel protected. In my job as a ballerina I am so used to wearing leotards, tutus, and costumes that allow me to inhabit other characters and perform on stage. When I put this jacket on, I feel as though I can get back to myself.
It has become really important for me to have that division – between my ballet and personal life. Ballet is such an all-consuming world that even when I take a lunch break and leave the theatre, I’ll put my leather jacket on just to return to myself. I also have to travel a lot for work, so wearing the jacket reminds me of home – I’ll be leaving the theatre in New York, and I can put it on and feel instant comfort. It grounds me in that way, since our tours overseas are quite a whirlwind; we arrive, perform on stage, and basically get back onto the plane.
I’ve never come across a leather jacket that feels like this – it’s the perfect weight; it’s tough, but not too heavy. I think being a ballerina, I am always exposed to materials with strong textures that are not necessarily comfortable – tulle, even ballet tights, so I’m drawn to the comfort factor the jacket offers, especially as it has worn in over the four years I’ve had it. Some of the other ballerinas in the coryphées have tried it on, and they all fall in love with its texture, but they can’t seem to find a jacket that feels the same as this.
There are a lot of sacrifices that you have to make for ballet – in terms of time, and energy, but once I get on stage, and I have that moment of beautiful completeness – all that rigorous training everyday, all that hard work comes to fruition on stage, so that sacrifice all of a sudden doesn’t feel like much at all. When I dance I am baring so much of myself – expressing emotion through the movement of my body – that when I stop, putting the jacket on is almost like a shell that I can retreat to. So much of our time at work is spent around other people and personalities, and we work intimately together, both physically and emotionally. It’s one of the reasons I like to live alone! Otherwise it just gets too much.
Dancing is physically demanding too. I did a particular contemporary piece for choreographer Jiří Kylián, Bella Figura, which is my favourite ballet that I have danced. This one required me to perform topless, so there was nothing that I could hide behind, it was very exposing.
But I do love the ritual of dressing up. Choosing what to wear every morning, and going through the process of adorning myself, is very important to me. I use that time to put together an appropriate outfit for how I’m feeling, or to change the way I’m feeling and to start the day off on the right foot, which is really important when there is so much training involved. It gets me into the day, and it’s the time with myself I appreciate.
When I first started wearing it, I think I projected this notion of armour and protectiveness on to the jacket, and now, it’s become the other way around. I have projected this myth onto it, so in a way it does protect me. If I were to lose it I would be devastated. Not only because it is such an important part of my wardrobe and working life, but because it has almost become a part of me.
Shana Chandra is a New Zealand-based writer on fashion and culture.
Mark Hall-Patch is an illustrator and painter from Canada.