I’m not sure I can pin-point exactly where my love of vintage fashion came from, but growing up I always felt awkward in ‘normal’ clothes. I used to play dress-ups for hours at kindergarten, to the point where I had to be dragged away by the teacher and forced to play with other toys, and I absolutely hated wearing pants. I grew up dancing – ballet, jazz, tap – and while I didn’t enjoy being stared at up on stage, I loved getting dressed up and would dance around in my ballet costumes months after the performances ended.
When I was a little older, I remember loathing everything about clothes shopping. Everything on the racks and shelves looked the same. None of it stood out or looked appealing. I used to drive my mum crazy, refusing to pick up clothes and look at them, let alone try them on. What was the point if there was no difference between that top and the one next to it? Clothes were just clothes. I lived in a small country town and went to school in a small country city. We had the big mass-produced clothing brands in Myer and Target, and that was about it. Everyone dressed the same and clothes weren’t something I was interested in at all. I pretty much let mum dress me well into high school. Looking back on those photos, you can see how alien I felt in my own skin.
In high school I started taking drama classes. I remember I was maybe 13 or 14, and we were performing a play about Suffragettes. As soon as I put on the 1910s costume with the high-waisted, long navy skirt, cream blouse, stockings and lace-up black oxfords, I felt transformed. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s the honest truth. I didn’t want to take off the costume once I tried it on. I would sneak it on in my bedroom, marvelling at how at home I felt in those clothes. I wanted more dress rehearsals, more excuses to wear the outfit. However, the performance ended and we moved on to plays set in modern times.
I continued to feel like an imposter in my own body right through my teenage years, until I moved to Melbourne. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Melbourne, it is a bustling multicultural city known for its art and culture, live music and nightlife, hidden coffee shops in cobblestone laneways, street art and hipsters… basically it is a little pocket in an otherwise quite conservative country where self-expression and uniqueness are encouraged and celebrated. ‘Anything goes’. When I arrived in Melbourne at 17 years of age, it was the first time I’d ever been exposed to the idea that clothing can be an extension of your personality, of who you are and what you love. There were goths and emos, groups of people walking the street in ‘steampunk’ and ‘Lolita’ outfits… as well as people dressed in every decade from the 1910s to the present day.
I realised that it didn’t matter what decade I lived in, fashion isn’t restricted to one period of time. There isn’t some rule that says once a certain decade is over YOU CAN NEVER WEAR THAT FASHION EVER AGAIN. Really, this had genuinely never occurred to me. So I set about an awkward period of fashion experimentation. I wore a mish-mash of kookie looks, trying to find what made me feel like *me*. Eventually I discovered a clothing brand called Princess Highway, which back around ten years ago was producing dresses and cardigans in 1930s-1950s styles. I started to buy a few pieces, and slowly started to feel slightly more human, and in turn slightly more confident.
At this time, I was working in the camera department on TV shows and the odd feature film, spending around 60-70 hours a week in dirty ripped jeans, free t-shirts and the world’s heaviest tool belt. While that may not sound particularly inspiring vintage style-wise, I was fortunate enough to work on a number of period dramas. Seeing the incredible costumes and HMU designs coming onto set every day was just awe-inspiring. Walking through the worlds created for the screen – 1880s slums and opium dens, 1700s convict settlements, the opulence of 1920s mansions, dusty remote 1950s country towns or a 1960s street protest – it was magic.
I started swing dancing (1920s-1940s social dancing) and fell in love with 1940s fashion in particular. I was introduced to Foyle’s War through a film school friend and discovered all the great movies set during WWII. I started trying to emulate the looks l’d seen at work and on these shows whenever I was out with friends or at events.
In 2011, my health took a turn for the worst. I’ll talk in more detail about this in another post, but long story short, my heart was being a bit of a drama queen and the stress of that switched on all these other fun autoimmune / inflammatory chronic illnesses. I spent from 2011 to 2016 battling with my body, doctors, family and basically the entire world, trying to prove that I wasn’t a hypochondriac and making everything up. I stopped dancing and withdrew from the world for a while, stopped doing the things I loved as I became sicker and sicker without treatment, and eventually stopped working too. In 2016 through 2017, I finally got my answers: Fibromyalgia, Dystonia, Adenomyosis, PCOS with suspected Endometriosis. It took a while for me to come to terms with the reality that there would be no cure, no quick fix that would see me working and dancing again, and as my symptoms continued to worsen, I fell into a deep depression. In late 2017, I decided something had to change. I began learning to accept my new life and find peace with past years. I started focusing on finding something to be happy about every day – no matter how bad my symptoms were, or how defeated I felt. I focused on building strength in my body to help it fight, the food I was fueling my body with, but I also began focusing on something that seemed at the time a bit superficial and trivial.
Every day I used to wake up knowing that it would be a completely different day from the one before – a different location (different ‘office’), different sets, different builds, a different story, new colleagues to work with … now I was still waking up knowing that it would be different from yesterday, but wondering which symptoms would be most prevalent, whether it would be a ‘good day’ or a ‘bad day’ or a day where I just existed. This can be pretty disheartening, so, most importantly for me, I tried to focus on having fun whenever and however I could.
I started dressing ‘modern with a vintage twist’, mainly in Princess Highway 50s-style dresses, blouses & skirts or pedal pushers, with my long hair twisted up on both sides and back into a low bun. Being dressed up made me feel normal. It got the serotonin flowing and boosted my confidence when interacting with people out in the real world, something I wasn’t used to anymore.
So that brings us to the start of 2018, when I started Brighton Bacall. Initially, it was just a private account only I knew existed where I’d post my ‘good day’ photos to look at on bad days to try and focus on the fun I would have on my next good day. Eventually I plucked up the courage to make it public and started meeting other likeminded people whom I was able to learn from and share my love of vintage fashion. It was through Instagram that I learnt that there were actually people out there who dressed like those silver screen stars I’d quietly idolised in my teens. And they didn’t just dress like that sometimes, but all the time. That was just what they wore! And there were so many of them, all over the world! My mind was completely blown. It was possible.
I slowly started to learn how to wet set my hair and do a brush out, how to do period makeup, where I could find reproductions of the clothes worn in those eras, all in an environment where there was no pressure to be immediately perfect. It was ok to be learning, it was ok to ask questions and it was ok to try, fail and try again. I slowly started learning to put the perfectionist mentality aside, and do something purely for the enjoyment of it regardless of the outcome. I followed the examples of other vintage women and posted both my successes and failed attempts, which helped me take the pressure off myself immensely. It also opened the door for me to begin talking about my health in an open and honest way, and I have to say the amount of love and support I receive when I discuss my life behind the scenes of Instagram has been truly overwhelming. Being able to talk about my struggles as a little ‘in case you’re interested’ side note on my Brighton Bacall account has also helped me reach people I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. Every now and then, someone will tell me they were diagnosed after learning about the condition from my page. That alone makes this whole thing worth it.
Through my participation in the Instagram vintage community I was also able to be on the receiving end of some crucial life lessons: my choice of fashion, style and self-expression is about and for ME, no one else. I can wear lipstick and a brush out with a tight red wiggle dress to the grocery store at 9am and still be a strong female who knows her worth. (Also, and this is very important non-vintage folks – DRESSING VINTAGE DOES NOT MEAN YOU LIVE BY OR ENDORSE THE VIEWS OR MORALS OF SOCIETY AT THAT TIME. Got that? Good. Moving on.) Dressing vintage and being part of the vintage community opened my eyes to some other unexpected but incredibly powerful lessons – body confidence and body acceptance. I am learning how to see my body as something that fights for me, not something to be fought against. I really owe so much to the global vintage community, as embracing body positivity and actively practicing self-acceptance and self-love has been the key turning point in my existential crisis. I realised I didn’t have to strive to be more than I was. I was enough. Just existing and experiencing the world was enough. Everything else was a bonus to be celebrated.
So, as I started taking more good day outfit photos, falling in love with vintage style and connecting with other vintage people, I began to really regret selling my 5D and professional standard lens kit when I stopped working. Photography was something I really loved, but I didn’t have a social circle to take photos of anymore and I hated using myself as a subject. The sicker I got, the less my cameras saw the light of day. When my savings ran out and I fell into medical debt, I reluctantly sold my DSLR cameras and lenses, feeling quite honestly like I’d given away a little piece of my soul. How was my luck that a few months after selling my kit, I’d be taking outfit photos of myself on my iPhone and enter a world of fabulously photogenic people who didn’t mind having their photo taken?
A couple of months ago I was going through another serious health scare and was feeling quite stressed and depressed when I received a message from my dear friend telling me they’d just bought me a DSLR camera kit and lenses. I was speechless. And then I cried for about 20 minutes. I was happily showing them the shots I’d taken a couple of days later, when they said that they honestly didn’t expect it to make me so happy. They were expecting the kit to sit in storage most of the time, to be occasionally pulled out and played with. I was surprised by that. They’d spent hundreds of dollars on me for something they thought I might maybe use once or twice?
It was having a professional camera again and being able to combine my love of photography with my love of vintage style that prompted me to start a blog and really start seeing where this whole crazy thing could go. Having a tiny little thread connecting me to ‘the old me’ has been the final piece in the puzzle of accepting my new life. I hope you enjoy my vintage journey, whether it’s through my blog, Instagram or Facebook. I will occasionally post health-related blog posts, please feel free to disregard these and just enjoy the vintage posts if it is not your thing. BB x