If dresses could talk

INTERVIEW: Old dresses should be cherished not discarded, says Sorcha Kenny, who has written a play around her vintage collection…

INTERVIEW:Old dresses should be cherished not discarded, says Sorcha Kenny, who has written a play around her vintage collection, writes SINEAD GLEESON

AS SEX AND THE CITYconsumerism threatens to turn perfectly smart women into shopping automatons buying the same over-priced ensembles, Sorcha Kenny's attitude to clothing is refreshing. Not a fan of contemporary fashion, her interest has always been in vintage clothing. As an actor, she has found a way to incorporate her passion into a new theatrical project called My Life in Dresses.

“I love vintage/second-hand clothes and I have a particular grá for 1950s dresses so I try to shop in charity shops. Part of my fascination is that I wonder about who owned the dress before me, and I’ll never know, because it’s impossible to trace. I began to think about the dresses people don’t give away; the ones that are too important because of the memories attached to them.”

Kenny has written and acted in two plays with Jouissance Productions. Their debut play, The Woman Who Left Herself, won the Spirit of the Fringe award at the 2008 Dublin Fringe Festival. Last year, Jouissance debuted a second work there, Lavender. My Life in Dressesis Kenny's first solo project. The idea is to interweave the concept of clothing and memory into a theatrical narrative, based on interviews conducted with people who wanted to volunteer their stories. "When I first had the idea, I thought the stories would come mainly from older people," says Kenny. "I emailed Age Action and various OAP groups and slowly the stories started to trickle back to me."

One person Kenny interviewed was 80-year-old Brendan Clinton from Limerick, who had nursed his ill wife Phyllis until her death. He kept all of her dresses, and after various discussions over the phone, Kenny – on a hunch – got on the train and went to see him. “I spent a whole day with Brendan and it was like being on a date. He had organised lots of events and it wasn’t until the evening that he eventually shared the story of the going-away outfit Phyllis had worn after their wedding. The dresses are certainly my way in, but this is really about the relationship between Phyllis and Brendan.”

In recounting the couple’s story, there is a real sense of the relationship between storyteller and listener. Kenny is aware that trust is an intrinsic part of this, especially if she is to incorporate these stories into her play. As a work in progress, Kenny is still figuring out the details of its staging, but the stories featured will be presented in video, photography, audio and performance.

“I don’t want to write a play from the stories and I won’t be embellishing them at all because the drama is already there in people’s lives. There’s a certain aesthetic about a dress, a tangibility, a smell; you can almost feel the stories woven into them. When someone dies, we’re told to give their clothes away, to help us move on, which I don’t agree with. For me, I see my dresses as my legacy.”

This legacy forms another tangent of the project, as Kenny has started a blog about her relationship with her own dresses, which she plans to weave around the other stories. There is a dress diary, where she has given 10 friends the chance to adopt a dress for a week and document their feelings and attitudes. They are encouraged to wear it, or bring it to different locations, so there are demure shots of frocks reclining in pubs, in cars and on trains. These initial 10 dresses have been passed on to a third cycle of 10 people and are currently travelling the world. One is currently sojourning in Paris, others are in London and The Netherlands.

She tells me a fascinating story, which is rooted in New York and was told to her by Kathleen Yeates. “Her grandmother had lived in the city in the 1930s. She was from a family of three girls, and in the 1930s all three sisters were in their late 30s and early 40s, which meant they were deemed to be ‘left on the shelf’. However, all three got married in the same year, in the same month, in the same place [the Fillmore hotel, featured in Guys and Dolls] – and wearing the same dress.”

As part of her ongoing research, Kenny is still keen to hear more stories from people. This interactive element of the production is clearly important to her. “I’d love to hear from anyone who has a dress that has a very strong memory attached to it; something they couldn’t give away because it was so significant.”

My Life in Dressesopens mid-September at Dublin's Fringe Festival. If you have a story to tell about a dress, contact Sorcha Kenny at mylifeindresses@gmail.com or see mylifeindresses.wordpress.com

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