Anatomy of a Dress by Juliette van der Molen

A review of the poetry collection Anatomy of a Dress by Juliette van der Molen.

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Juliette van der Molen had one idea, and heavens, did she ever run with it. Anatomy of a Dress is about dresses. Just dresses. It contains sixteen poems, mostly given titles of dress-based accoutrements such as ‘My Hem,’ ‘Dart,’ ‘Schooled Pleats,’ ‘(S)mocked.’ While one poem about a dress in a poetry collection might intrigue, a collection founded on nothing but frocks starts to seem a bit samey. Particularly given they all tend to follow a very similar pattern in terms of rhyme schemes, imagery and content.

I’d be interested to see van der Molen write something else, for there is interest amongst the lines. There’s some fine use of language and imagery. I particularly liked ‘Eye Let’ in its lyricism:

swooped swift laces
through eyelets
until I am
a puppet of flesh
squeezed in from the
middle—
to perfection

Beautiful and telling, one of the best examples of her oeuvre, but the rest tell the same story, often in language which seems to degrade rather than elevate women.

Take ‘Zip Me,’ which opens the collection. It tells of a man instructing a woman to turn so he can zip her into her dress, which she describes as feeling like “coils holding in— / all my secrets / shoved underneath” until later, alone, she struggles and cavorts her way free, secrets and all.

I get it. She’s using the dress as a way into commenting on social issues, abortion, bulimia, domestic violence, women in sport. She sets out her manifesto in her introduction, telling of the years she’s spent in museums of dress and art galleries in preparation for this manuscript. But there’s nothing here about the historical subjugation of women. All the frocks featured seem to be fairly contemporary. A poem about foot-binding or corsets might have provided some welcome variation.

Moreover, in a post-Instagram world it simply isn’t true that men don’t think about how they look and what they wear. Rates of eating disorders and self-harm among men are soaring. Men care very passionately about what they look like and what others think of them. Her assertion in the introduction that: “most men consider simple—what should I wear today?” simply isn’t true any longer, if ever it was.

We consider the garb of cheerleaders, ballerinas, schoolgirls, and how they dress to delight men. Do they though? Can men really be held accountable for the way ballerinas look? Really? Don’t they dress that way to showcase their long limbs and talent? Although doubtless she’s right to tell of the woman “standing strong / while she bleeds beauty / into a toe box” yet in the end the ballerina’s struggle with her art is dismissed with the contemptuous thought that “it hurts to be a pretty thing.”

I must review this collection within her chosen terrain. Women are perceived in a negative way throughout, as weedy weak victims. There’s nothing here to celebrate about women, their lives, or indeed their outfits: they exist and behave only to appease the patriarchy. All the poems go like this. First, there’s a garment, then some huge wandering hands appear in the narrative to tweak or grope, then the woman ends up feeling wretched. Abused, undervalued, exploited. It’s the inverse of the Mills & Boon style bodice-ripper, read by women in their millions, where a fine frock and some huge strong hands send bosoms swelling and pulses rocketing. Here, the women hate it, one and all. So you turn to the next poem, to find it features a woman putting on a dress to please a man, then feeling judged and constrained in consequence. But wait—that’s the same poem again. The frocks change, the poems do not.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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