The green dress had already lived a full life with one or two previous owners before it reached me. It was green silk crepe, a bias cut tea gown with a wonderful leaf print in orange and darker green. Tiny splashes of yellow and red gave the pattern a heightened shape. Not a leaf really, more of a 1920’s print that looks so modern even today, like those wonderful Clarice Cliff teacups, with bright splashes of colour and irregular shapes.
The green dress was in a bag of old dresses waiting for me to arrive on Barnsley Market on my Saturday forage for something new to wear that night. There were five of us to be dressed, all in rooms on the ground floor of our university hostel. We ranged in sizes from very thin, which was Oxford Fran, to rather big, which was Irish Margo; 6 foot tall with black hair, a terrified Amazon, who need rescuing from spiders. Shopping and fixing was my job, the smallest, the most fragile, but the one who knew how to deal with such things. The one who could charm the squirrels down from the tree to eat from her hand.
There was 50 pence each to put toward the dresses, so the hunt started early and would be brutal in its ferocity to succeed. The dresses had to arrive by lunchtime to be altered and repaired and then gently hand-washed by fussy Fran, who was revolted by the idea of second-hand clothes and who could afford better, but pretended she could not. The alterations were my job and then we all did the sewing on my old Singer sewing machine.
There was an old drying room in the main college, an old mansion of crumbling beauty, where we washed and ironed our treasures dry. They were hung in the warm room, while we painted and preened ourselves for the coming evening. Our long hair was dried and brushed. Jan from the Isle of Wight with her Pre-Raphaelite curls had washed hers early in the morning to make sure it was dry and under control by night-time, a weekly battle she relished and enjoyed. She would sit drying her fluffy mane on the sunny windowsill in my room, while she rubbed my hair with a stocking to make it shine like orange-red fire as she did a few years later on my sad wedding day.
Chris took no part in all the preparations, her cropped hair was washed daily and she would take her allocated dress without complaint and sliding it over her perfect naked body would return to boyfriend’s arms. She was pregnant and gone before the final year began. A victim of the final fall-out from the summer of love; barefoot pregnant and downtrodden before she knew what hit her. Hers was a golden beauty that flourished and was crushed very soon.
Back at the market and half an hour of digging in piles of old clothes, all smelling damp and disgusting, I had the five dresses and all for one pound fifty pence, leaving a pound for the cottons and lace needed to repair. This was a huge bargain. I shall never forget those dresses, they were all a good size and would fit even Margo. Some careful cuts and gathers would fit them to the thinner frames. Jan’s was white crepe with a Monet print; Margo’s was black with an ornate lace collar, an old-fashioned cotton sunflower print for Chris and an elegant blue satin for Fussy Franny. Mine was the green dress, old, beautiful and not yet faded, with delicate covered buttons and gathers at the cuffs. I loved it at first sight more than any other dress I ever owned.
I took the treasure back to my friends and basked in their praise. The poor girl had skills they could only imagine and they knew it and they needed her. We all put on our dresses, Franny over her other clothes for fear of contamination. Chris took one look and handed it back for washing; she had her own confident beauty and any dress would do. Margo worried she was too fat and had to be reassured with the promise of skilful darts at the back. Jan stood in front of the full-length mirror, claimed from the local rubbish tip and looked at herself for a long time. She was never beautiful, but had her wonderful hair so did not care. We all envied her that incredible, uncontrolled mane and loved her for her warmth and her soft, warm body to cuddle up to.
Two hours of skilful sewing and four of us, Chris having long disappeared to the arms of her lover, went over to the drying room to wash our treasures in old-fashioned lavender wash. Jan took her guitar and we sang duets, as I worked on the final stages of mending and darning. My green dress needed a little hand sewing on the delicate frayed edges and it was ready – an almost perfect dress for my almost perfect world. I don’t remember that night, but the dress stayed with me for almost twenty years – it traveled the world and finally faded to rags in a hot Australian closet. I love it still – it will always be “my green dress”.