Dead Ladies’ Dresses A feeling for what is left behind

Text: Lo Carmen

I have always been partial to a dead ladies’ dress. That is a rather gruesome way to look at it and will certainly put a shiver down some dear readers spines, but that is the honest truth.

Most people prefer to call them ‘vintage’, and so do I, generally, but as it happens I have been called upon quite a few times to help clear out the closets of recently deceased ladies, some dear family friends, some strangers, but through this process I have come to know them so intimately that I cherish their items of clothing and love to take them out and be reminded of the woman that I inherited them from.

My first memorable experience of dressing in dead ladies dresses was when living in Bondi as a teenager, my mother came across an overflowing skip filled with general household debris and wardrobe contents of an old lady’s deceased estate. I know many of you may shudder with horror right about now, however, this was no ordinary debris and this was no ordinary wardrobe. This was the stuff dreams are made of.

My mother walked in the door cradling a pile containing a pristine meticulously stitched 1930’s maroon silk floral evening dress, satin nighties, a smart peplum jacket, numerous handknit cardigans, felt hats, beaded purses, boxed stockings and more. Amazingly, the dress was a perfect fit for me and hung like the breeze. Our hearts raced with the unbelievable excitement of finding such booty. We raced back up the steep hill to get another armload only to discover the skip now crawling with Bondi bounty hunters so we thanked our lucky stars we had got what we had and went home to play dressups. My mother at this time worked in the film industry as a seamstress, specialising in period costumes. She knew her stuff and this stuff was gold. She called them museum pieces. What we didn’t want we donated to the costumiers she worked for.

A couple of years later when I was sweet 16, a dear friend of our family was terminally ill. She was a young woman, a sassy New Yorker, a dancer and a wild girl with a wardrobe to match. I was engaged by the family to help out in any way with office and general home duties. One of my tasks was to roll the joints she smoked copious amounts of in the afternoon to help ease her pain, and then to keep her company for a few hours. A joyful task indeed, as she regaled me with mind boggling stories of her past misadventures, tall tales and true and shared pearls of wisdom that still resonate deeply over twenty years later. And then she would point to various items on her rack of clothes and get me to try them on. If they looked good, she’d make me take them home, reassuring me she wouldn’t have any need for them anymore. But I had to promise her to take them out and show them a good time.

From Suzi Sidewinder I added to my wardrobe an amazing black and red 1980’s checked wool tight pants suit with plunging back feature, fluorescent green and yellow 50’s style stilletoes, a skull and crossbones T-shirt worn so fine you could almost see through it, a super short green school tunic emblazoned with the word ‘Rebels’ that I wore constantly as a maternity dress when I fell pregnant a mere couple of years later, and that my daughter now proudly wears.

With every item of clothing came a gust of her Sidewinder spirit. I walked taller, raised an eyebrow and found a hitherto unknown strut. When I wore her shiny red plastic zip up jacket through her former playground of NYC’s Lower East Side a some months later, I stuck my hand in a previously unnoticed pocket and pulled out the mouldy remains of a sandwich crust in a paper bag, a subway stub and a hairpin. At that time she was so palpable, so present, I burst into tears on the street.

That same NYC trip I proudly sported her see through go-go boots in the snow (my first time) and much to my utter dismay the chill split them in two and I had to walk home with frozen feet and relegate them to the trash. I still have a glamorous 1960’s black cocktail dress with sequins and (slightly worse for wear) feather trim that is very Breakfast at Tiffany’s and various crazy bobble braided costumes she wore when she danced for Kid Creole and the Coconuts. I will treasure them forever.


Many years later, my father’s friend Fred asked me to help go through the contents of his 92-year-old Auntie Bub’s wardrobe, in preparation for her move from the decrepit old Darlinghurst digs she’d lived in since the 1930’s to the sunny climes of aged care in Queensland. Auntie Bub was a fabulous character, she’d done it tough and worked all kinds of jobs, including time as a brothel madam and later barmaid at what is now the upmarket East Village Hotel and was then the rough-as-guts Tradesman’s Arms, also known as The Bloodhouse.

Mainly she described herself as a ‘a goodtime girl’. She had a wardrobe to match but unfortunately for me she was not much more than 5 foot tall and teeny tiny all over to match. She had dementia and often thought I was either a nurse from the hospital she spent time in after a backyard abortion went bad, or one of the girls at the brothel, and confided all kinds of fascinating stories to me that were extremely difficult to follow, although I desperately tried. She kept looking me up and down with sharp, squinty eyes then telling me I was ‘ a pretty one, and should do alright’ before warning me over and over to be careful and not to get a backyard job like she’d done, swearing like a trooper and murmuring about ‘the blood and the flies’.

Anyway, like many women who survived the war and the Depression, she had never thrown a single thing out and her house was bulging at the seams with faded feminine glory, exquisite 1940’s Japanese kimonos and 1950’s baby doll negligees, busty cotton wiggle dresses, sadly all stained, ripped and torn.

It was heartbreaking to have to shove garbage bags full of these too-far-gone former glories, all behind her back so as not to upset her. Luckily, this wasn’t difficult to achieve as she was blind as a bat and mainly far off with the fairies. I did of course find some gorgeous little vintage treasures I could squeeze into and enjoyed sashaying around the neighbourhood in her tight crepe beaded cocktail dresses (that sat mid-thigh on me rather than on the knee…), imagining her back in her glory days strolling round the same streets.

It’s a sobering experience really to see somebody’s entire lifetime collection of clothing and accoutrements, once enviably uber fashionable, lying abandoned in ruins. As they say, this too, shall pass. It was sad to see her go off to Queensland, a brazen fast-talking Darlinghurst gal to the end, though I was glad to hear she gave the nurses plenty to gossip about in the aged care home she spent her last few months in. I took home Auntie Bub’s tiny wood and wrought-iron kitchen table with matching chairs, just big enough for two and ‘Cheers-ed’ her every time I sat down at it with a glass of wine…


Below continued from print edition.

June Cann, Script Girl

June Cann was Australia’s first female actor’s agent, as well as being Australia’s first ‘script girl’ on movie sets. A legendary, glamourous woman, the epitome of elegance, always impeccably dressed with a cloud of white hair and pink lipstick. I found it especially charming that she’d have a single glass of whiskey and one cigarette every night at 5pm. We met when I joined her agency aged 16 and years later her debonair son John, who had taken over the agency, asked me to help her go through her clothing and work out what new clothes she might need, and what needed mending etc. By this stage she was very elderly, with mild dementia, but still with twinkling blue eyes, a wicked sense of humour and an intact appreciation for her incredible closet full of designer wear, and a slight story behind every piece, although she would often trail off and stare off into yesterday’s parties as she talked. She had suits by Chanel, dresses by Celine and Oscar de la Renta, Hermes scarfs – everything similarly modest but exquisite, all in navy blue, cream, red and pink. Unfortunately, she didn’t get out much anymore due to terrible arthritis, and mainly wore soft house clothes, rendering much of her beautiful wardrobe completely useless. After carefully packing away the special items together, sending others off for mending and sending boxes of the slightly less special but still splendid items up to Arnhem Land where her son John had very close ties with the community, she was left with little but nighties (all white linen, beautiful) and dressing gowns.

We were preparing a list of what she might want when things took a turn for the worse and she ended up moving into an aged care home, where she had little need for much. After she died, a couple of years later, John asked me to take her boxes of special clothes to keep or hand on to my own daughter or any other girls that might enjoy them. Although it’s not really my style, yet, I will be holding onto her elegant loose fitting navy Chanel dress until I’m well aged enough to bring out its true beauty. And every cold winter when I slip into her cashmere cream knit secretary skirt, I feel a sudden elegant urge for a 5pm whiskey and cigarette….

Eventually I decided to turn my love of all things vintage into a business, and together with a couple of other girls decided to create The Ladies Collective, a ‘vintage home shopping party’ experience. First, we needed stock. The very first time we checked the back of the newspaper for garage sales there was a notice for a sale that very day in the dark depths of the back streets of Paddington, a wealthy, fashionable woman’s deceased estate. Not being very business oriented yet we had all slept late and didn’t make it there til mid afternoon, and we had little hope of finding much left. But, when we finally made it, it was truly a gift from the Gods.

Mountains of beautiful dresses were draped in piles across couches and kitchen counters and over chairs and a couple of hours later we had made two piles as tall as ourselves of gorgeous chic evening and smart casual wear mainly, from the 1970’s and 1980’s.. Her husband was relieved that her dresses were going to a good home and admitted to being totally overwhelmed by the size and breadth of her collection, before confiding that there was at least twice as much still upstairs that he hadn’t even touched.

We made him a deal. We offered to go through everything that remained, sorting into Salvos, rubbish, items we wanted to buy and items he could sell at another garage sale. He was very happy about this and left us to it for the next five solid eight hour days! Like those that lived through the Depression, those that were born into poverty find it very hard to part with items that are still good, and Alina was no exception. The story we gathered was that she was sent alone on a boat from Lithuania as a penniless young teenager, with the hope she would find a better life in Australia’s streets famed paved with gold. And she did strike gold, falling in love with a kind and generous millionaire. She had no problems getting to used to spending money and built a wardrobe of magnificent proportions, with an incredible set of Swinging Sixties gear from London, a fabulous range of 70’s flared pantsuits, French knits, exquisite kaftans and possibly every design Merivale ever issued… there were turbans, caps, fascinators… oh, it was an utter delight, though so much of it was destroyed by time and heartbreakingly fell apart when we tried it on or washed it.


The thing I remember most is that she had an exceptional and massive shoe collection, but lived in fear that someone would try to steal them and so she kept one of each shoe outside in the garage and the other side of the pair in her bedroom. Consequently there would be one Italian soft grey leather boot in perfect condition and the other hard and mouldy and irreparable – and there were hundreds in the same state. My size!

So much of that experience was like a knife of wasted beauty to the heart. We never even saw a picture of her but we got to know her so intimately she became like a fourth member of our business, a silent partner. The Ladies Collective was short lived but the three of us will still bump into each other at a party and give each other a secret smile as we are all sporting something from Alina’s fantastic collection.

And that brings me to Auntie Sylvie, another Depression surviving ‘good time girl’, an Inner West barmaid, who lived in her tiny Newtown terrace for over sixty years with only her outrageously large hand painted gnome collection for company, including many topless lady gnomes. My mother was walking down her street when she got chatting, as mothers do, with a lady who was bemoaning the exhausting task ahead of her of cleaning out dear old Auntie Sylvie’s house. Being a kind hearted lady with some time on her hands, my mother knew she could help her new friend decide what was worth keeping and what should be thrown out, and offered to roll up her sleeves and get in there and help for a bit.

After packing up the china and the books and the whatnots, they got into the bedroom, at which point my mother called me and said ‘I think you better get up here. Quick’. So I did. And I certainly didn’t regret it when I walked in and tripped over a floor length strapless, beaded black taffeta 1950’s gown lying in the hall, and destined for  the tip. Along with the rest of her wardrobe.  And perhaps the most wonderful thing about dear Auntie Sylvie’s wardrobe, was that as one era passed into another, she simply packed away the old and started anew.

This meant as each layer of clothing was sorted through, the next era tucked below it was revealed. So, after they had sorted through and chucked the trackies and Kmart senior wear selections of her latter years, the true jewels began to emerge, beginning with her 1970’s wardrobe, despite featuring a lot of settling-into-middle-age Carol Brady polyester and nylon there were still some pretty sassy numbers hidden away amongst them. She was a barmaid after all! But it was when they looked under the bed and discovered separate suitcases exploding with divine 1960’s sundresses then 1950’s cotton florals and cocktail dresses that my mother decided it was time I came to rescue these babies from the tip.

I swear it was like all my Christmasses had come at once and Auntie Sylvie’s niece from Shoalhaven thought it was beyond absolutely hilarious that anyone would want to wear these crazy old fashioned clothes but was glad that they would live on nevertheless. And live on they do, in fact, most of my favourite dresses have come from Auntie Sylvie, and despite the fact they came within seconds of ending up at the tip (like all her handbags and shoes already had before my mother got there!) I feel like a million bucks each time I wear one. We donated her amazing gnome collection to Reverse Garbage who made a wonderful, bizarre installation with them, dedicated to Auntie Sylvie.

I hope I don’t sound like a vulture. I feel more like a rescue worker. I hope I can keep a little bit of these wonderful women’s spirits burning bright when I take their dresses out for good time and that they can look down from wherever they may be and think ‘Oh yes, I always loved that one… ‘


Lo Carmen – Everyone You Ever Knew (Is Coming Back To Haunt You)



Sign up to our newsletter, Word on the Street, for your weekly dose of news, features, and culture direct from your neighbourhood.

* Mandatory Privacy Policy