Costume and custom are complex.
‘Exchanging Hats’, Elizabeth Bishop
At the bottom of my wardrobe: eight dresses,
tailor-made for me. It was me who scoured
the fabric shops, who unwound each bolt
so flowers spilled across the floor like spring.
I was the one who picked out each set
of frog buttons, matching roses to roses,
butterflies to wing. The seamstress bound each edge
in contrast silk piping. I eschewed the traditional
fastenings, requesting instead a hidden back zip
so I could singularly dress and undress myself,
stepping in and out of my costume with sleek ease.
She had saved fabric at the seams for the inevitable
spread of womanhood that would come with marriage
and children. Slits just long enough for a girl
to take small steps; forcing her to sit, knees together,
revealing only a length of leg to the watching men.
The higher the collar, I used to think, the more elegant
the wearer. So tight I couldn’t speak. The lady
who sewed my cheongsam died several years ago.
The woman who wore those dresses? She climbs
in shorts, she struts in trousers, she dances in skirts;
she is wholly clothed and naked in her own bright skin.
Eileen Chong is Sydney poet of Chinese descent who was born in Singapore. She is the author of eight books. Her latest full-length collection of poetry is Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry). Her work has shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.