>>I don’t know when I first noticed evening wear as a fashion and aesthetic statement, but I know when my interest sharpened into consciousness. It was about twenty years ago. I used to walk to and from work every day, a hike of about seven kilometres each way. My route took me past a Mariana Hardwick store. It had two display windows, one in which two evening gowns were presented, the other with room only for one. The window dresser changed them once a month. I used to hang out for that change with the appetite of an addict.
I saw a few superb gowns there, one of them a standout: coffee lace bodice over a wide cream tulle skirt, reminiscent of Dior’s New Look of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The coffee lace was an exception in terms of colour. Overwhelmingly, the window dresser hooked white and off-white frocks onto the shoulders of the mannequins. That was disappointing to me. I love colour. I used to wonder why the dresser wouldn’t venture into blues and greens and yellows.
Then one day, I passed the window as usual and stopped. There in the display boxes were three gowns in glorious red. My jaw dropped. Not only were they beautiful in the depth and richness of their colour, they were beautiful in design, as if the dresser had thrown off her inhibitions at last, not just some of the way but all of the way. No more creeping around in safe white. This was brazen. This was wanton.
I forgot I was on my way to work and seated myself on a bench handily provided by the city council some time ago. The designs harked back to the Golden Era of Hollywood. Forget the sex goddesses of the 1940s and 1950s. I’m talking about the goddesses of evening wear.
First up is Rita Hayworth. The gown inspired by her role in Gilda (1946) lounged lubriciously in the double window display. Gilda is one of the greatest frock operas and sexiest movies ever made. I could itemise the many gorgeous gowns she wore in that film, but that might deprive you of the pleasure of seeing them for yourself. Look at the one she wears when she visits her new husband, a man who lusts after her but also wants to control her. She demands to know why he won’t sleep with her. The shoulder-less satin number she wears is a dead ringer for the crimson extravaganza languishing in the window.
Next up is Marilyn Monroe. I’m conflicted about that actress. She’s too shamelessly vulnerable for my comfort. But I’m not at all conflicted about her evening wear. The one in the Mariana Hardwick window was modelled on a gown she wore in Some Like It Hot (1959). That monochrome film put her in radiant white for most of its length. Mariana twisted the look her own way by making it up in luscious raspberry.
Then there’s Audrey Hepburn. The butterfly evening gown she wore in Sabrina (1954) held its lovely white and garnet wings open in solitary splendour in the single window.
I hurried on to work, and when I returned later that day, I found clusters of women admiring the gowns, sometime speaking to each other excitedly, sometimes silent in rapturous wonder. Their men stood nearby, waiting patiently for the trance to fade and life to return to normal.
I thought the red gowns heralded a new policy in window displays and looked forward to more over the coming months. But when I retuned the next morning, I found the windows shattered and Sankey metal sheets fixed in place. The gowns were gone. Had some crazed fan kidnapped them? Or worse, had a vandal desecrated them? I thought kidnapping was the preferable fate. At least abduction acknowledged their desirability.
I never did find out what happened to them. All I know is that Mariana Hardwick has displayed only white and off-white gowns ever since.
Image via MarianaHardwick.com.au
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