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Vanessa Berry

1. When do you feel at your most attractive?

When I'm wearing one of my best dresses - I have a lot of dresses, enough to wear a different one every day of the year, the result of a sustained practice of op-shopping since I was a teenager. Only a few of the dresses are truly great, however, maybe 20? It's like they have almost magical powers which I don't want to expire, so I only wear them on special occasions, when I need magic beyond that of the everyday.

2. Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?

I often try to imagine people buying the clothes their wearing, especially if it's something particularly striking. Sometimes it's very hard! I just can't imagine them flipping through a rack and picking out the particular item they're wearing.

6. What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn't necessarily recommend to others?

I sometimes like to reverse the usual axiom to look in the mirror and take off one accessory, by putting on one more accessory before I leave the house.

7. What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?

My friend Natasha and I were talking about what we wore to our school prom. I didn't actually go to mine but I was saying that I hated the idea that you had to spend hundreds of dollars on a dress. She looked at me and laughed and said "I wore a nightgown I bought at an op shop for $2 to mine". I've never since thought I needed to spend a lot of money on clothes, no matter the event.

8. Do you have a unified way of approaching your life, work, relationships, finances, chores, etc.? Please explain.

Old things are preferable to new things. I like secrets, and wearing old clothes is like a secret - I'll never know the story of who bought them first time around. I get a lot of pleasure out of describing things - and dressing for me is a form of description, describing how I feel that day, or what version of my identity I'd like to be that day.

9. Are there any clothing (or related) items that you have in multiple? Why do you think you keep buying this thing?

Coats. Sydney's not even a coat city, it never gets particularly cold. There are a few days a year where I really need a coat, but I have dozens of them and wear them in winter even though it's not necessary for warmth. I like the idea of being wrapped up in something, but I need choice with my something.

10. Have you ever successfully given someone a present of jewelry or clothing that you continue to feel good about?

Not a present exactly, but one day I had a big market stall and sold a lot of dresses, including some that I loved by couldn't fit into anymore, as I'd gained weight. I loved watching girls making off with my dresses and then I'd sometimes see my dresses around town. There was one particular cornflower patterned dress which I saw months later, worn by the girl who'd bought it as she rode a white moped along a busy street. I felt happy the dress was having an exciting new life.

15. Is there anything political about the way you dress?

Nothing beyond the politics of wearing what I want and not believing it has to fit into any particular view of how a person should dress in a particular situation.

16. Please describe your body.

How I perceive my body changes depending on my mood, sometimes I'm surprised to see it in the mirror, it looks so small and pale to be the vessel for all my wild feelings.

17. Please describe your mind.

A very complex diagram left on the whiteboard from the previous class: some of it makes sense but other things are perplexing.

18. Please describe your emotions.

When I said "my wild feelings" that's a good way to do it. I feel this acutely and am a bit of a melancholic, in that I reflect often upon death and sadness, and what life means, sometimes inspired by unlikely everyday details. Then sometimes I wish I wasn't this way, as it really does get in the way.

19. What are you wearing on your body and face, and how is your hair done, right at this moment?

People came to interview me in my home today so I am dressed in a 70s woolen shirt that last week someone complimented me on (and continued to stare at me as I walked away from them - it was a woman selling vegetables at a market stall, I bought some kale from her and every time I looked back she was still looking) and I thought was a sign it was a good thing to wear. I'm wearing a green skirt my partner calls my "pool table skirt" as it reminds him of pool felt. (I was wearing it and a green cardigan the other day and he said "you look like a pool table!" I was in a rush and had no time to change and thought of it all day). My hair is pinned back from my face with bobby pins - my usual hairstyle, involving 5 bobby pins, one on left side, two on right, two at the back.

20. In what way is this stuff important, if at all?

Whatever you wear you make a choice, and that choice reflects something of who you are.

27. Can you recall some times when you have dressed a particular way to calm yourself or gain a sense of control over a situation that scared you?

If I want to feel powerful, I wear black. It's not the goth black of my teenage years but a black like the black of a killer whale. I need to dress this way 5 - 10 times a year, depending on what's going on.

29. Did your parents teach you things about clothing, care for your clothing, dressing or style? What lessons do you remember? Or did you just pick things up?

My mother spent a lot of time shopping for clothes, and my sister and I would accompany her. She frequented a store called the "Magenta Mews" and while she tried on the kinds of dresses popular in the mid 1980s - they often had belts and puffy sleeves, my sister and I pretended to be shop dummies in the shop window, along with the real mannequins. I wasn't particularly interested in my mother's current clothes at the time, I was more interested in the 70s clothes she had worn in the previous decade, and still kept in her closet. As a child I'd put on a big batik kaftan of hers and stumble around the house. By the time I was old enough to fit her clothes height-wise they were much, much too small for me. She was very petite as a young woman and her 60s and 70s clothing had the kinds of tiny waists that don't seem possible when you hold them up.

31. Many people say they want to feel “comfortable,” or that they admire people who seem “confident.” What do these words really mean to you?

I don't dress for comfort. This isn't to say that I like to be uncomfortable, but as long as I can walk and breathe and am not unbearably itchy I will wear tight scratchy polyester dresses as I believe the sacrifice is worth it. In the 1990s I read an article by Lisa Carver of Rollerderby zine (it's online here: and took these words to heart. "Uncomfortable does not mean miserable: It means accentuated living. The more uncomfortable you feel, the better you look. And the better you look, the better you feel."
The appearance of confidence has a lot to do with posture. I've always had bad posture, even as a child, and my parents were constantly telling me to sit up straight and put my shoulders back. I was a very shy child and even though I'm no longer shy as an adult, I still have bad posture. But I try to "walk tall" - I give myself the advice that my parents used to give me and that drove me crazy - and when I do this I feel like I could be wearing anything and it would look good.

32. If dressing were the only thing you did, and you were considered an expert and asked to explain your style philosophy, what would you say?

All clothes must be second hand and the dress is the basic unit of any outfit. Shoes, hair, makeup, all this is secondary after the dress. The dress is like the day's diary entry, it must match up with the balance of feelings inside me.

33. What is really beautiful, for you, in general?

Quiet things. Old things. Things that seem forgotten and make you feel as if you're the only one who noticed them.

34. What do you consider very ugly?

It's hard, because often I love ugly things. Ugly buildings, ugly design. For me to find something truly ugly aesthetically it has to be aligned with things that I find ugly ideologically - greed, or arrogance are two of those things. But there are a few things I find just plain ugly. One even has "ug" in its name: ugg boots.

35. Are you generally a good judge of whether what you buy will end up being worn? Have you figured out how to know in advance?

I wear most of the clothes I buy - and I only need wear something once every 5 years for me to justify keeping it. Even only once every 10 years! Eventually everything gets its day.
Rules include: it can't need substantial alterations. (I will never do these or get these done.) It has to fit me and not fit some version of me that is bigger or smaller - with secondhand clothes there's no choice of size.

37. What is your process getting dressed in the morning? What are you considering?

Colour is important. I have a lot of clothing and I usually start with colour when I'm deciding what to wear. Some mornings I'll lie in bed and go through all the colours I can think of to try to decide what colour I am on that particular day.

38. What are you trying to achieve when you dress?

A kind of unity with my feelings that day.

42. What is your cultural background and how has that influenced how you dress?

I grew up in a white middle class suburban Australian family in Sydney. This has influenced my style of dress in that I feel a lot of freedom to dress whatever way I want - even if people don't like it, my choices aren't restricted for cultural or religious reasons. I'm lucky to have this choice and try not to forget my privilege. When I was a teenager my mother would tell me that she only had two outfits when she was my age, and she'd have to wear her school uniform on the weekends sometimes because she didn't have any other everyday clothes. This horrified and saddened me at the time, and while things changed for my family, there are plenty of people in the world who don't have the luxury to be able to choose their clothing.

43. Do you remember a time in your life when you dressed quite differently from how you do now? Can you describe it and what it was all about for you?

I was a goth for many years and wore mostly black, as goths do. It was for the usual reasons people want to wear black all the time, wanting to be invisible (but it being the opposite).

50. Do you ever wish you were a man or could dress like a man or had a man’s body? Was there ever a time in the past?

Yes, often, even though I'm happy with my body. When I have dreams I'm a man I feel different all the next day, as if my male, dream body is still hovering around me. I often consider how I'd dress if I was a man. I wear mostly dresses and the few days a year I wear pants people always remark on it and sometimes seem quite shocked. My one pair of trousers is a pair of pale denim flares with almost ridiculously large bell bottoms. But if I was a man I wouldn't wear 70s clothes, I'd look like Marcel Proust and wear suits, and have a moustache.

53. When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?

In the worst case scenario I think of Edie the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingoes. In the best case scenario I imagine that if I didn't know myself and saw me in the street I'd follow myself just to see where such an interesting looking person is going.

55. Have you ever had a dream that involved clothes?

The night after I wrote the majority of these answers I had a dream that my house was burning down and I had to rush to save things - magically I could pick up all of my dresses in one armload (when it's more like 20 armloads). It was a surprise that I could carry hundreds of dresses but I could, and I made it outside with all of them safe.

56. What would be a difficult or uncomfortable look for you to try and achieve?

I have never felt comfortable in new clothes. I do wear the odd piece of new (i.e. bought new by me) clothing, but if I wear an entirely new outfit I can barely stand it, like I'm wearing someone else's skin.

58. Is there anyone that you are trying to attract or repel when you dress?

When I was younger and much more miserable I'd often listen to the Throwing Muses song "Green Eyes" which includes the line "I wear your clothes like armour". A lot of the time, though I'm much happier now, I wear my (or your, considering my clothes are often secondhand!) clothes like armour. It's more about protection that attracting or repelling others.

60. What do you think of perfume? Do you wear it?

I have certain perfumes I like to wear - all perfume purchases are assisted by my friend Steph, who of all people I know has the ability to choose perfume with confidence and sensitivity. She approaches scent counters with great seriousness and I love to watch her nose twitch over a bottle of scent, assessing it.

61. What are some things you need to do to your body or clothes in order to feel presentable?

If I want to seem like a serious, presentable person I take out all my earrings (4 in one ear, 2 in the other, since I was a teenager, once I took them all out "for good" but missed them and put them back in) and wear a pair of earrings instead. This, I believe, makes me into a serious member of society.

62. How does makeup fit into all this for you?

I wear makeup most days, and always if I go in to a public situation that's beyond the local shops. If I know someone well, I don't feel like I have to wear makeup around them.

64. Can you describe in a basic way what you own, clothing and jewelry-wise?

My usual description of my clothing collection is "I own more clothing than any one person should". I don't own a lot of jewellery but I do have a fair amount of earrings shaped like much larger objects, such as letters, slices of toast, or bluebirds.

73. What item of clothing are you still (or have you forever been) on the hunt for?

I'm forever on the hunt for the imitation pearl and silver brooch I lost from the lapel of my coat a few years ago. The brooch had belonged to my great grandmother and was probably the worst possible item of clothing I could have lost: I still wince when I think of it. I think I'll probably be looking at brooches forevermore.

74. What are your closet and drawers like? Do you keep things neat, etc?

Joyful disorder.

75. Were you ever given a present of clothing or jewelry that especially touched you?

It wasn't exactly a present in the usual sense, but after my best friend died when I was 19, I was given a lot of her clothes and jewelry by her parents. I still wear some of her clothes occasionally, and when I wear them it's like being inside a secret, and like it's a way of showing her the future and what the world is like now. I don't know that I believe in life after death, but I like to converse with my old friend in this way.
It's fitting in some ways because I wear mostly secondhand clothes, which probably includes a lot of clothes whose original owners are now dead (indeed before thrifting was popular one of the criticisms of it was that the stores were full of dead people's clothes).

76. Did you ever buy an article of clothing without giving it much thought, only to have it prove much more valuable as time went on? What was the item and what happened?

Often I'll find I use my "second best" item to preserve the best version of it - a black handbag, for example, or a scarf. Then I will become greatly attached to the second best item, through use, and can't bear to think of being parted from it.

77. How and when do you shop for clothes?

I only shop secondhand for clothes, and have so many by now that I could probably never shop again and have enough clothes to last me the rest of my life, including weight loss/gain scenarios. I prefer to shop in op shops, rather than specialist vintage stores, I like to search through volumes of ugly clothes to find something I like: shopping is akin to treasure hunting for me. I find most other kinds of shopping very boring.

80. How does money fit into all this?

The cheaper the better.

82. Did anyone ever say anything to you that made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

Vintage style is popular now, but it didn't used to be. When I wore 70s clothes in the 90s people would stop their cars to yell at me, stupid things like "freak" or "hippy" but then stuff like "don't you own a mirror?" which perhaps was the most upsetting (yelled by a man in a van). I tried to tell myself I wasn't dressing to impress him, but I felt hurt anyway as he called into question not my identity, but my ability to dress myself.

On a more positive note, one day I was in Berlin and wearing one of my great dresses - a black dress with big red poppies printed on one side of it, and big white polka dots on the other. My mother was with me when I bought this dress and she said "oh Vanessa!" when she saw me buying it, as if I was making a big mistake - I think of her saying this every time I put it on. Back to Berlin - I don't speak much German but I passed a woman who met my eye and had a warm, happy look in her eye and said something to me I didn't understand in words but knew she was saying she loved my dress. My dress had made her happy that day. I felt broken out of the anonymity of being in a city where I knew almost no one.

83. Do you remember the first time you were conscious of what you were wearing? Can you describe this moment and what it was about?

I had a pair of pajamas when I was around 5 years old that I was obsessed with - I made up songs and stories about them. I called them my "fire flamer" pajamas - why I don't know! Perhaps it was the colouring. They had red pants and a long sleeved top with little pictures on them, though I don't remember what of. Nothing to do with flames though. I associated the pajamas with my favourite time of the day, which was bedtime, with the lights out, as then I'd have a chance to get back to the long story I told myself every night before bed. The story moved very slowly, and featured me wearing the pajamas and having special powers.

In general, I didn't dress like other kids, and as soon as I went to school this was pointed out many times and I felt very self conscious about it. In particular, unlike what seemed to be every other child in Australia, I didn't own jeans. I wore skirts (and have continued to wear mostly dresses or skirts my whole life) and dresses - my mother had a vision of me and my sister that was perhaps more attuned to the 1880s than the 1980s. In some ways I found this embarrassing, but in other ways I enjoyed being different.

What’s your birth date? 
Where were you born and where do you live now?

I was born in Sydney at the end of the 1970s and live here still.

What kind of work do you do?

I work as a writer, artist and teacher.

How do you feel after filling out this survey?

When I started answering the questions I wasn't sure I had anything interesting to say. But it has been a pleasure to think about my style and also to think about other people filling out this survey with answers completely different to mine, people filling it in even now, at the same time I'm writing this.


Vanessa Berry is a writer, visual artist, zine maker and creative cartographer. She is the author of the memoirs Strawberry Hills Forever and Ninety9, a memoir of underground culture in Sydney in the 1990s. She is one of Australia's best known zine makers and has been making zines since 1996.

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