I'll never forget my first sun dress

20:56, Jan 07 2013
Brigid Kelly
BRIGID KELLY: "It was in 1983, or maybe 1984, that I fell for, and purchased, the Colourful Summer Dress."

Fifty Shades of Summer is a series of essays on the many variations of love and romance. Brigid Kelly is a sub-editor at The Press.

I guess it was more than a simple holiday fling. I kept the object of my desire around for quite some time, but like so many passing passions, it never really fitted the rest of my lifestyle.

Eventually, it just didn't fit at all and was relegated, like old love letters, fifth-form schoolbooks and dated magazines, to a cupboard. I have a vague recollection of seeing it bundled into a dry-cleaning bag with my high school blazer and various other no-longer-wearable garments. Now? Who knows. Gone. And out of my life for many years.

But you never really forget your first, do you? I certainly never have. It still happens almost every summer and invariably turns out to have been an error of judgment.

Still, in a balmy Canterbury springtime, a young Goth's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of pretty things that will buffet gaily about in a nor'westerly breeze. And so it was in 1983, or maybe 1984, that I fell for, and purchased, the Colourful Summer Dress.

It was a sweet 50s sundress, full-skirted and tight-waisted, with shoulder straps and - crucially - a matching bolero jacket. Cotton, I think. It was the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn might have donned in Sabrina Fair or Roman Holiday, fresh and girlish with just a nod to coming sophistication.


The print looked like lollipops or colourful balloons, green and purple, against a pale grey and white ground. But the best thing about it was the buttons, which were fat, black and glossy, and deeply curved. One sat where each strap met the neckline in front, and the rest studded the bolero. I wish I'd saved those buttons.

In the early 80s, 1950s day dresses were both extremely desirable and relatively easy to get.

We ruined them all by wearing them till their ageing metal zips gave way, then made abortive attempts to turn them into pants or minis, and that's why you can't get them any more. Destroyed by the same generation that put the hole in the ozone layer with its hairspray use alone.

They also had the advantage of being unique; you never saw another person with exactly the same print or quite the same bodice detail, so one way or another we all looked the same while maintaining the crucial points of difference that made us ''individual''.

I wasn't really a Goth, by the way. I was a hairdresser in a trendy central Christchurch salon, which at that time amounted to almost the same thing. Our hair was so backcombed that you didn't  have to style it when you got up in the mornings. We would simply extricate any pillow fluff and add more Elnett.

Similarly our makeup, which was extremely elaborate, was so stencilled on to our skin that we could, in a pinch, crash at 5am and be up two hours later for work, still perfectly groomed.

I don't recall exactly when I bought the Summer Dress, but I do remember where. Because off-the-peg was anathema, and none of us had much money anyway, we scoured second-hand shops for our clothing, and we had quite the selection to scavenge.

The Gloucester St City Mission was where I found another one of my summer flings, a peach-coloured pique floral housecoat that I used to wear buttoned over black leggings and a shell-top - but that is another story.

Tasman Traders back then was a place where you bought rags by weight, and those in the know would go weekly and pick through the piles on the floor. I found a forest-green unlined silk jacket there, and wore it till it shredded.

The Summer Dress, however, was from an actual vintage shop on the second floor of Shands Emporium. A find at Dizzy Limits - that was its name - was possibly a fraction less cool than an op-shop one, since someone else had already detected its coolness before you, but it was also guaranteed to be good.

I don't remember whether it was on a hanger or on the wall. I just remember looking at it and thinking, ''I wouldn't normally go for this dress, but there's something about it that I like''.

In later years, just like everybody else, I'd make the same error about a man, or two. But at least a sartorial misfire doesn't generally end in heartbreak, or cringing, or needing to hide in a corner when it walks unexpectedly into a pub. And I was young, and sold on those fabulous buttons.

The op-shops of 1983 are gone now, both the outlets and the buildings that housed them. The place where I bought the Summer Dress stands forlorn and peeling, its roof held on by tyres. But when a warm breeze stirs and workaday clothes feel sticky, sometimes I fancy I can still feel that skirt billowing behind me.

The Press