I was on the subway, in high school, with my best friend. Above her was an ad for a for-profit college. “How bad do you want to be good,” it asked. I snickered. “How badly do you want to do well (Steve Jobs)/good (Gandhi)?” Who the hell wants to be good, anyway? I’m sure that Katherine Gibbs or whatever it was had soon tanked—on those very grounds, no less.
A few years ago, I was watching The L Word, that old bastion of realism and truth, and heard Max tell a story about crabs. Apparently, you put a whole bunch of male crabs in a barrel and they build a ladder to get themselves out, but the female crabs are the reason why everyone holds one another down. I don’t buy it, neither does Google, but I was reminded a bit of this when my favorite Tidbits sent me this Man Repeller piece on women in fashion. Why is fashion so male-dominated? Well, is fashion male-dominated? How are we defining male-dominated? Are we talking about the male-female ratio of designers, creative directors, stylists, assistants, models, editors, CEOs, the people who sweep up afterwards, WHO? Oh, we’re talking about designers. Good. Why does the Man Repeller writer zero in on designers?* Would you believe that a favorite professor has accused me of always answering questions with questions?
I find her line of reasoning problematic for a few reasons.
1. Head designers are just that. Heads. There are necks and loads of other moving parts that make a design house what it is, and while a creative director and/or head designer is a centrally important component he or she is most certainly not the only thing that is keeping the house running. Zeroing in on the head designer, an area where we happen to have a preponderance of males, reminds me of the art v. craft debates. Is being a designer the art where there happen to be a lot of males, or is designing an art because there are a lot of male designers? There are seamstresses and beadworkers and stylists and magazine editors who are wiling away at their crafts, never to ascend to the much-vaunted level of artist, of maleness.
2. There are several layers to look at here, and I think that LS scrapes the surface. Are female names being “discarded” during boardroom talks about who helms a label, or are men producing better work? If so, why? This, for me, is the central question. For years, I thought I was a literary misogynist because I didn’t like any of the work I was reading from female authors. The answer to my concerns was pretty simple. I was reading female-authored work that sucked. Plain and simple. I read better male work. Nowadays, it’s actually the reverse. We’ll talk about that another day, though. If the work is bad, why is it bad? By which rule is it being measured? Who sets the standards, and are there problems inherent in them? Let’s say it’s not about the work: Are men socialized to view ambition differently, and to assign themselves a different (say, more active) role within their self-constructed view of their careers, and thus navigate the workplace differently? Is that what this is? I read ski books all the time, and Ski Woman’s Way critiqued Skiing from the Head Down for dismissing as absurd the influence of your mother telling you that doing something was improper. Nice girls are not the ugly sort of ambitious. They are good friends, good daughters, good people, good girls. Good girls don’t ski hard. There are also probably a lot of other, useful-in-the-workplace things that they don’t do, either. It’s unbecoming, after all.
3. She’s looking at high-fashion, high-concept houses. I’m not saying that they are beyond the intellectual grasp of the everyday woman, but they certainly are beyond the means of your average person. Marissa Webb helms Banana Republic’s creative team, Jenna Lyons is at J. Crew, Lisa Axelson is at Ann Taylor. Zara was cofounded by a woman. Why focus on luxury? While they do, to a certain extent, set the tone, the Internet means that we’re moving beyond the age of Miranda Priestly’s cerulean speech.
Furthermore, the people who own the conglomerates that control luxury houses are frequently not self-made. Luxury is often the product of the snowball effect of antiquated European succession laws, (some of) which only recently shook off their gender bias. So, yes, males like Pinault and Arnault were able to head PPR (which I think is now called something else, isn’t it?) and LVMH, and now Delphine Arnault gets to benefit from selective placement the way that generations of men did before her. Let’s not even get into the influence of male perspective on the selection of which houses got bought and thus preserved, or which designers got hired. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just saying it is.
Here’s the thing: I love fashion. I’ve gotten the, “You?! love fah-shun?!” googly eyes before, and the answer is yes. I look forward to the shows every season, even the weird liminal resort and pre-fall ones, and follow fashion news with great attention. Naturally, I have strong opinions about this. When I think about the way that I break up every season, there are two camps: Shows where I think, “Damn, I want to sew those things,” and shows where I want to be that woman. The latter are usually Dries van Noten, Wes Gordon, Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, Ghesquiere when he was at Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs when he was at Louis Vuitton, and the less-celebrated Italian houses like Max Mara, Kiton, and Piazza Sempione. Also, Akris. Always Akris. I want to sew things from Lela Rose, Oscar de la Renta, Dior, Stella McCartney, Carolina Herrera, Céline, Chloé, Tibi, Milly, J. Crew, and the like. There are a lot more women on the latter list than on the former. I have no idea why that is.
Self-interrogation time. Is my aspiration to be the sort of woman presented in male-produced shows the product of my desire to reflect our culture’s phallogocentric (fancypants crit theory word drop for the privileging of the male perspective) view of women? Do I then “settle” for the feminine? Do you? I’m not sure. I need more time with it.
*The piece itself kind of hops about. Its URL shortens to female CEOs, it talks about designers, but the title umbrellas out to fashion generally. I’m not sure where the author stands, quite frankly.
Quick notes: a) I got a job for after graduation! And an internship for next semester! Let’s hope I don’t mess it up. Thanks for the advice and well wishes. b) It is usually company policy for me to reply to all comments on the previous post before posting something new. This is a conversation, after all. Well, fall semester stress has led me to majorly drop the ball on that one. Apologies! With any luck, all responses will be logged by this evening. c) I have, like, a dozen drafts that I need to polish up and get going. So, if you want to know how my sewing class went (ha!) or whether or not to press gathers, or if you’ve been puzzling over the statistical correlation between imports and clothing expenditure, I’m your gal. However, it’s really interesting to juggle writing a handful of posts over a handful of months. It doesn’t feel nearly as seamless as I’d like it to. So, I guess I’m saying the next month or two of posts might sort of suck. Completely. Apologies in advance.
Last year, I was chatting with a friend and I’d mentioned that when I was a kid, my mother taught me the difference between silk and cotton, designer x and designer y. My friend responded—and I will never forget this, so this is an exact, honest-to-goodness quote—“That’s disgusting.”
I’ve thought about that exchange a lot in the months that have followed, and realize that, in that context, it wasn’t about caring about visual ways in which we present ourselves to others, but rather about fashion. Fashion being less about self-reflection and contemplation, and more about placing yourself within a cultural moment, and using what you wear as a way of communicating something to others. I’m tempted to make the admittedly unfair argument that the relationship between clothing, designers, and status makes difficult an designer-as-artist approach.
So what are we really talking about, when we talk about fashion? Every time someone says “I don’t care about clothes,” I always want to respond, You’re sooooo smart. I’m sooooo impressed. Just about everybody wears clothes, which implies that there is a certain extent to which everybody cares about them. When someone tells me that they don’t care about clothes, what they mean is that they don’t care about a certain type of clothing. Well, next question: What type of clothing is that? You can’t look as if you care too much, because that makes you shallow. Likewise, you can’t look as if you care too little, because that would make you a slob. Apparently, we’re all supposed to wake up that way (this way? Bey? Anybody?). As if yours is fine taste so well-cultivated, that you no longer need effort, because style is reflexive and your adaptation to context is seamless. No pressure.
There are two lines of argument when thinking about this. The first is that we have a finite amount of time, so why spend it thinking about what you wear as opposed to virtue or the plight of the unfortunate or something less superficial. The second, which underpins the first, is that we should aspire to more refined taste, which transcends designers or trends, and manages to effortless reflect your self-knowledge and knowledge of the world. Both are bullshit.
When I was in the thick of the job search, I wound up getting invited to all of these pre-interview things, and always found myself Googling “What is business casual NO REALLY,” to no avail. (I followed the instructions on my first try: a pre-interview reception for an investment bank. One of the recruiters mistook me for restaurant staff, in my navy ankle-length trousers, silk blouse, and cardigan. Lesson = learned.) I may as well have Googled “What do smart/competent/together/employed people wear?”
The answer? Not this, apparently:
I’m sure by now we’ve all read or at least heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Elle piece on expectations of feminine and/or feminist dress, yes? Well, have you by any chance seen this photo from the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (or, as it’s known at my house, The Artist Formerly Known as Orange)?
These women are leaders in their field, and are writing cutting-edge fiction that not only reflects the state of the contemporary woman, but that of the contemporary world. Why on earth are you asking us to reduce them to five (and a half) sets of outfits? Well, reader, is it a reduction or a lateral move? Is refusing to discuss the clothing choices of these people, on those grounds, not just a reinforcement of the broads-and-clothes stereotype that we’re trying to dismantle? But they’re not just the clothes they wear! I hate to break it to you, imaginary not-as-sharp-as-my-actual-readers reader, but neither are models or actors or plumbers or whomever. There are entire industries built around divorcing the individual from his/her physical self, thus rendering the physical person an object and the internal self irrelevant—which is probably so many people place appearance and substance at odds with one another, and cannot afford each them the same sort of consideration.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make, which I didn’t hammer to death in my last two posts in this series, is sometimes I don’t want to wear the Pink Jumpsuit of Larger Responsibility. Sometimes, it rather sucks to be the sacrificial lamb with the gold briefcase who tosses How to Dress for Success to the wind. Maybe I’m overthinking it? I did an informational interview with an alumnus about a month ago, and we were talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He said something along the lines of, “She’s a badass woman who doesn’t give a shit.” Basically, this is the thing to which we should aspire. The actual not caring about what people think, rather than the performative effortlessness that is undergirded by sleepless nights and thousand-word blogposts.
The key here seems to be understanding clothing and presentation as a part of identity, not a separate entity that eclipses it, nor the single element that defines it, but a piece of the mechanism worth analyzing. Even Ally McBeal knows it, after being held in contempt of court for wearing short skirts.
I am offended by the fact that what is considered unprofessional is traditionally considered feminine. And, truth be told, equally offended by the fact that the traditionally feminine is either infantilizing or overtly sexual. (I have a draft called Meditations on Twee as Fuck, which we’ll get into when I’m spoiling for fight.) Now, I’m sewing with an office environment in mind, rather than my usual put-a-cardigan-on-it approach to crafting, so it’s disorienting. Yes, I am going to bring this back to sewing, eventually.
I’m going to uncharacteristically end here, because I have a dozen more drafts to finish up and post, and we’re not getting any younger. However! I’ve some homework for you for next time:
In typical horrifying style, I’m just going to name all of my blog posts after works of literature. Thank you, Jeannette Winterson.
Over the weekend (this is now several weekends ago), I went to see Titian’s Danaë at the National Gallery. I wonder if Titian painted Danaë nude because he was worried about finding the right dress to deëmphasize her midsection or he didn’t have time to head to the mall to have her colors done. Maybe Danaë spent a long time worrying about not getting enough cardio, locked up in that bronze tower. Such a pretty face, they’d tell her. That is, if they ever got to see her. I hear Lady Godiva had the same problem, you know. That’s why she rode the horse nude: she couldn’t decide what to wear.
Let’s just say that I spend a long time thinking about discourses of the body. Is there a less obnoxious term for that? Afraid not, reader. Going into reading midcentury style guides, I was worried. Concerned, really. Have you ever tried to find a vintage pattern with a 40″ bust? What about a 40″ hip? Now, I read contemporary fashion magazines and so much of it seems to be about diminishing and deëmphasis, dressing so that your body can appear to conform to a long, lean, busty, hippy, firm, pretty-but-not-intimidating, sexy-but-not-whorish, smart-but-unimposing Western ideal, rather than align with your personality traits. If contemporary discourses are so troubling, what would I think about the famously direct Edith Head? Or Claire McCardell and Adele Margolis who, while trailblazers, were unavoidably products of their time?
Gretchen over at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing wrote of being surprised about Irene Sharaff “body-snarking” Elizabeth Taylor. I disagree about body-snarking in that instance, and I didn’t walk into the texts expecting that, as Gretchen writes, “Hollywood [or dressmakers] had more realistic expectations of stars [people] in the 50s and 60s, when a more womanly figure was in fashion.” Mostly because I’m always disturbed by the idealization of the past, sure, but also the implication that women were more “womanly” in the era of distressing repression after the relative liberation of the 1940s.
Suffice it to say, I went in with some baggage. A lot of baggage. I was really pleasantly surprised, though. More background. (Don’t you love how this alleged review is basically me talking about me? Me, too.) When I first started writing this blog, I used to go back over my posts and add in a lot of I thinks and maybes, to cushion what I was saying. Now, I do the exact opposite, and go back through my writing to savagely cull all of that. Of course I think it, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, right? The point is, there’s a directness to these books that I just love, even if I was a bit taken aback by it, initially. No hemming and hawing and hand-wringing about pleasing and offending. Just the facts, ma’am. Por ejemplo:
I suggest the following, in the order I would choose if I were you. First: look at your figure. You know if you’re too fat. Consult your doctor and find out how much you can lose safely. He will be only too glad to help you and if you are really overweight he will disapprove from the standpoint of health. Your figure is adjustable—through diet and exercise. Instead of struggling from one size to another, you will save time and frustration by banishing potatoes. But be realistic. Reducing won’t guarantee a perfect figure if your bones aren’t arranged that way. Accept the fact that some alterations will be necessary and you will certainly save money if you can either do the alterations yourself or find a little dressmaker.(McCardell 28)
Okay. Now imagine Nina Garcia writing exactly those words. Specifically, “You know if you’re too fat.” She’d be pilloried. I read a lot of contemporary style guides through Scribd, and did a fair bit of flipping through others at the bookstore. The advice tends to lean more towards “Buy the right size for you.” I don’t recall a single one addressing modifying your body to fit your clothes, but all of them suggest modifying your clothes to suit your body. “Dress for the body you have now, not the one you have in your head,” they say. Actually, that last bit has been an enduring suggestion.
Let’s hear from Adele Margolis now:
If you’re size 16 [contemporary US size 10-12] or over, you’re out of luck. Some stores don’t even stock anything over a 14. Clothing buyers and store managers tell us that the best-selling sizes across the country today are the 10’s and 12’s. The largest voices and the best buys are in these smaller sizes. . . . If twenty pounds is an out-of-the-question weight loss for one who has lived enough years to consider her evening cocktail and a gourmet meal among the finer things in life, then at least one can think thin and try for ten. In the ensuing struggle, it’s a comfort to know that it is better to fit the clothes you would like to wear than to make the clothes fit what you are—especially if what you are is anything less than great. (Margolis 1-2)
Especially if what you are is anything less than great. Okay. Take a knee, grab some water, we’re over 1000 words in, and haven’t even addressed Edith Head, yet.
Okay, so there are perhaps, maybe, I think, kind of different ways of expressing these sentiments. The old man that lives within me—the one frustrated by grade inflation, the everybody-gets-a-trophy mentality, and a stifling dedication to hollow, superficial niceness—is refreshed by Margolis and McCardell’s shit-or-get-off-the-pot approach. (My will to run a family-friendly blog is flagging.) They’re basically like really nice aunts, or something, who think that what they’re telling you is for the best. I say this as someone with a cadre of aunts (and uncles, and parents, and grandparents, and elderly neighbors, and middle-aged neighbors, and maintenance people who work at school) who are far too fixated on my weight for my taste, and from whom “You know if you’re too fat” would be a reserved and tactful observation.
I’ve developed pretty thick skin, as well as a distaste for contemporary veiled body criticism. Would you rather flip through magazine editorials that school you in the dark arts of figure flattery, delivering alleged compliments about “your tiny waist! Squee!” while simultaneously telling you how to conceal your hideous, grotesque, offensive-to-all saddlebags? What is the appreciable difference between that and the two quotes I’ve given you? (Disclosure: While I’d love to tell you that I am Captain Body Confidence and Positivity, I most certainly am not. I gained two inches on each calf after a four-ish months of spinning upwards of 6x/week, and am horrified by both my calves and my response to their sudden increase in size. I am now hoping that Jesus, Mary, and Tracy Anderson will give me the “tiny dancer’s body” that is apparently my birthright as a contemporary woman. I’m not switching up my exercise regimen because of my health or personal interest. (I sob softly into my olives every time I hear a Lana Del Rey exercise remix at the grocery store, thinking of tap backs of days past. “Summertime Sadness,” indeed.) I’m doing it because I want to buy cute riding boots, and to not have to peel my trousers off of my calves. Point being, I am not immune to this line of reasoning, but I understand why it’s problematic.)
All that preamble to say, after thinking about it, I’m not sure I find what McCardell and Margolis are saying too offensive, actually. I wish I could quote the entire books for you, but it seems to boil down to, “Listen: If you don’t fall within this portion of the size range, then you could make efforts to slim yourself down to the region. You’ll still have to make alterations, but the retail purchasing life is easier if you are within this specified band. If you don’t, you’ll have to work harder to find or alter things that will allow you to project the image that you want to the people that you want.” Eh. Fair enough. Dressing, it seems, is not about necessarily thinking about what you like, but rather what you want to say with what you wear. There is a bit of a performative element to it, and while we could dress to reflect our conceptions of self, to ourselves, there are other voices in the room, and those voices are products of our culture at large. Edith Head writes in the introduction of How to Dress for Success,
The way you dress—or package yourself—is the one thing over which you have absolute control. You can’t change the size of your feet, the shape of your legs, the color of your eyes or the texture of your hair—but you can change the way you look ads easily as an actress does each times she plays a new role.
When you know what you want out of life—the areas of success you desire—then it is easy to dress “in character” to create the most exciting, pleasing, attractive appearance for your audience. . . .
Women come in a vast variety of recognizable basic types: the cute type, the majestic type, the dainty type, the boyish type, the clinging-vine type, the outdoor-girl type, the sexy type and many others. Decide right now which basic type you are. Ask yourself how big a part your clothes have played in making you that type. Would you rather be a different type? Would you prefer being chic to cute, looking dramatic to looking majestic, appearing more feminine, less mousey more striking? What you wear, more than any other factor, can improve the type you are or change your type completely.
It is of first importance that the look you long for be compatible with your success goal. Does it fit into the picture of you moving rapidly toward the role you eventually want to play? (Head ix-xi)
Why the long quote? Well, there are several important ideas here. The first being about packaging and projection. While I’m not terribly keen on the implications of the notion that most women conform to easily recognizable archetypes, I freely admit to filing people under certain categories based not just on what they wear, but why they seem to be wearing it. The best thing about McCardell and Head is that their recommendations for dress are not about you. Well, at least, they’re not necessarily about your aesthetic preferences within a vacuum. Both seem to understand that clothing isn’t solely about self-expression, but function. Function in a literal sense, with McCardell’s monastic dress and down-with-girdles attitude, but also in a very figurative sense. When you put on clothes, you are essentially advertising a version of yourself to the world. This is a major difference between books like McCardell’s and Head’s, and exercises like Wardrobe Architect or some of the contemporary style guides I ran across. The second Wardrobe Architect worksheet asked a lot about one’s personal feelings about not wearing the right thing, or what you feel when when wearing a good-to-you outfit. McCardell and Head are very much about understanding what you’re wearing refracted through others’ sensibilities and lenses of experience.
I can’t find the page where McCardell says that wearing your ladybug pin for tea with your Aunt Linda, who famously detests whimsy, is misgauging your audience. It’s not Linda’s problem, but yours. I feel most like me when I’m wearing a full, below-the-knee skirt, a fitted top (dress bodice or blouse), and a cardigan. You know what, though? I really don’t like the way I’m treated a lot of the time. I hate that people talk to me with a bit of a baby voice, and look surprised when I tell them my major and school. What’s the answer, then? Dress like the awesome Janet Yellen? The fictional and fabulous Diane Lockhart? Actually, kinda.
Function, for McCardell and Head (we’ve abandoned Margolis, as I read her sewing book), is really about goal-oriented dressing. Who do you want to be and for whom do you have to perform? Naturally, I also worry about what that means, for you as a person. If you wear the mask for long enough, does your face grow to fit it? This is where I think McCardell especially nails it. She’s not suggesting macro changes, or looking like a lost little girl wearing her mummy’s clothes. You’re not a paper doll wearing your doctor/wife/mother/volunteer/bohemian outfit, but rather understanding how to take the baseline you—with your interests, comforts, and capabilities considered—and reconcile it with, then adapt it to, others’ conceptions of the person you want to be. I took this theology class that got very hippie dippie and talked about sites of meeting and encounter. For me, the body, through what we wear but who we are, acts as a site of encounter. It is where self and culture meet—not just for you, but for people who look at you. There’s something to be said about that moment of silent judgement and assessment.
This is running long (you think?), and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of either book’s advice. Must stop making navel-gazing digressions.
I really want to address Professor Przybyszewski’s book The Lost Art of Dress at some point (don’t hold your breath), as I listened to an interview with her on the Diane Rehm Show just when I was first writing this post. (Six whole weeks ago, reader. I know.) Basically, she thinks that we’ve become a nation of slobs and that no one cares about dressing anymore, and working on a college campus drives that home for her. Well, I’ll leave you with a story. I went to CVS during finals week a few semesters ago, after midnight. There was a guy from school walking in ahead of me, wearing the dude-bro uniform—shower shoes, too-loose plaid shorts, and a t-shirt that could have used an iron. On the way in, a man had asked us for money for food, but I don’t carry cash, and am always a big fat disappointment in those situations. Bro bought two packs of blond Oreos and a Gatorade. “Typical,” I thought, because I am a judgmental shrew and was going through a [school]-loathing period (and I am jealous of the average 19-year-old male metabolism, big time). On the way out, Bro gave a pack of Oreos to the man who wanted money for food. “They’re golden,” he said. And that’s that.
Yes, my to-post queue is going to suffocate me in my sleep. I’m going to do what any mature adult would do in this situation, and completely ignore my entire drafts folder. Sue me, reader. Ah, yes, I detect the sound of you not caring.
You’ll be pleased to know that I signed up for a sewing class, at long last. No? This is not a fulfillment of your hopes and dreams? This isn’t the announcement for which you’ve been waiting? Whatever, reader. I don’t know about you, but I’m completely self-conscious about being self-taught. Well, self-, Internet-, and book-taught. Home-taught? For instance, I think I spend three to five minutes at the ironing board for every minute I spend at the sewing machine, but I’m still not pleased with my pressing results.
The people in my life think that making fabric fit a three-dimensional body is a miracle of the water-to-wine variety, so every time I ask them for criticism, it goes a bit like “Dude, you made that? Awesome!” Sigh. (Same goes for cooking. If you ever want to impress a twenty-something, I strongly suggest making pizza. Apparently, pizza is a thing that is supposed to come in a box? Way to ruin everything, Domino’s.) I’ve gotten better at a lot of things, sure, but I think a steady stream of direct critique from an expert would pay dividends.
Anyhoo, the class is at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which just so happens to be across the street from my spin studio, and ridiculously easy walking distance from my house.* I’m really, really, really excited. The instructions say that we’re supposed to bring our pattern of choice, its fabric and notions, and our tools to our first day of class. Naturally, I have worked myself into a righteous lather over what to make. 15 hours of sewing instruction! Is it like regular school, where we’re expected to do three hours of outside work for every one hour spent in the classroom? So, a 60-hour project? Does all the work happen in class? Will the sewing instructor adore me, and think I have the most brilliant project, elegant in both design and execution? (Yes, I am Tracy Flick and I have exactly no shame about it.)
I’ve got goals, naturally. The top three are improved fitting, seam finishing, and hand sewing. They’re all abysmal, right now. I think I’ve got the curse of a reader, rather than a doer. I can give you flawless instructions on how to do things that I cannot actually do. I make French seams, but my hems get kind of weird around them. I hand-sew like a six-year-old with horrendous motor skills. Oh, and lining. I try to line just about everything I make, but I’m lost when it comes to lining shirtwaist dresses or more complicated bodices, or doing a facing-lining combination that I’ve seen and loved on higher-end ready-to-wear. Anyway, I have no frickin’ idea what I’m going to bring in. I want to make all of the things. All of them. I need your help, is what I’m saying. Here are my top two contenders:
Oh, disclosure: I used to intern for a large fabric store (if you’ve been kicking around here for more than five minutes, you probably know which one) and got just about every nice piece of fabric I own from there, during and after my internship. I don’t work there anymore, and any time you see them mentioned around these parts, it’s with my usual unwelcome-but-totally-honest opinion. I’m not sure how to strike the balance between transparency and discretion, and I certainly don’t want to do a What I Did on My Summer Vacation Two Years Ago post on my internship, hence the uncharacteristic opacity. Plus, I got sick towards the end of it and had to cut it short, and I feel tons of guilt about that. So maybe there is some sort of weird subconscious bias going on?
Anyway, you’ll find a Carolina Herrera silk twill above. I can’t say enough good things about it. The green stripes are yard-dyed, while the navy are printed. It is wide as ever and has great drape. I luff it. You know which pattern ties my love for it, though? McCall’s 6696. When I started sewing, in the Paleolithic Era, all I wanted was the perfect shirtwaist dress pattern. I wanted a waistband, a collar with a stand, and a full skirt. I searched high and low, and never hit the trifecta. I bought a half dozen not-quite-right patterns, hoping to learn to love them, to no avail. Then, my Platonic ideal pattern materialized herself. Bless you, McCall’s. There are no words for how much I love this design. I am honestly considering buying one during every McCall’s sale at Jo-Ann because I am actually afraid of changing sizes or of the pattern going out of print.
Between 6696, the Colette Hawthorn (which, despite my crowing about the collar instructions, I really adore), Grainline’s forthcoming Alder shirtwaist, and perhaps a Deer and Doe Bleuet or McCall’s 6885, I’ve got at least a dozen shirtwaist dresses set to come down the pipeline at some point in our natural-born lives. What’s the point, you testily ask? Well, it would be great to learn some shirtwaist skills.
But can’t you learn shirtwaist-applicable skills on other, more ambitious projects? Would McCall’s 6696 take up my projected 60 hours of sewing time? Would I get bored after five weeks of it? Enter: cocktail dress.
So, at last year’s Lauren Comes to Town meet-up, we went to Mood. I glanced over at the silk-lace area cutting table, and saw this fabric. “Isn’t that pretty? Is it navy?” “I think it’s black,” said one of the meeter-uppers. (Meredith?) I asked Dennis and he said, “Actually, it’s more of a Prussian green; it’s one of the most exquisite fabrics in the store.” Now, if you’ve never met Dennis, I suggest that you close your computer, head to the airport, and get thee to his side. I can honestly say that the fact that he does not narrate my life is one of my greatest disappointments. If Dennis says that something is nice, you should consider yourself fortunate to be in the presence of said thing. Seriously. Swayed by Dennis’s endorsement, I bought two two-and-one-eighth-yard panels of it. Which is to say, I’ve got a lot of this fabric and it scares the living shit out of me. I don’t think I’d be able to cut into it without adult supervision and some sort of breathing aid. I’m getting a little jumpy just talking about it.
It seemed kind of vulgar to pair this fabric with just any old pattern. So, one day, I was poking around Etsy, and found this amazing vintage Vogue pattern from 1961. It is 1048, from Lanvin, and is very ambitious (for me). (There is another one floating around on Etsy, in case you want to be twinsies.) I may or may not have decided to forgo a few exercise classes and a pedicure so that I could get my hands on this pattern. It has a dizzying number of pieces, and its instructions fit on one demi-broadsheet. (Nineteen pieces, with allowances for facings and linings, plus underbodice and underskirt pieces.)
Isn’t this becoming a classic frosting v. cake debate? I generally try to make my sewing patterns come down to about $5 per garment, or one garment for every muslin made. (Kind of arbitrary, but it makes me feel better about my life decisions.) That would not happen here. The pattern was worth the outlay because of all of the nifty things I’d learn from it, were I to use it for the class. I should probably mosey around to the point: I’d make the short version, nix the ass bow (which is the technical couture name, from what I understand), in the above Prussian-green-or-is-it-black fabric and then try to wrangle a friend into a fancypants Kennedy Center evening.
Over a thousand words to say: Which one? Frosting or cake?
My absolute favorite part about this is that I’m treating it as if this is the only sewing class I shall ever take. From what I understand, the instructor teaches a demi-couture class, as well as this one, and will probably be teaching another five-week session in the fall. But shouldn’t I make a jacket in the fall? Ugh, why do I make my own decisions?
*Do you remember back when the Internet was super scary, and people took extensive precautions to both conceal their identities and whereabouts? Are we still doing that? Because, the thing is, between Instagram and Twitter and this space, you can pretty much pinpoint my location and suss out my schedule. I’m not exactly keeping any secrets. On one hand, you used to be able to look people up in the yellow pages. On the other, I’d rather not get murdered. So, let’s make a deal: You consider perhaps joining me at spin (Biker Barre, if you’re interested) or for the sewing class, but manage to refrain from causing me physical or emotional harm, please and thank you. Sound fair? We could even get a drink afterwards.
Are you ever going to post a finished garment? Meh. Probably not. I’m just going to let them stack up like firewood. Moving on!
This one is going to be quickie, on the subject of sewing books that are not targeted specifically to beginners. I checked Susan Khalje’s Linen and Cotton out of the library, and have been really pleasantly surprised. I’ve been reading sewing books and blogs for about six years now, and I’ve actually encountered new-to-me stuff in this book. I might write something resembling a full review later, after I’ve cross-referenced other books in my sewing library. Oh, and maybe after I’ve actually finished the book, and tried a few tips from it? Keeping it professional, per usual.
It seems like it takes information I already know, and moves it a step further. For instance, I learned to sew three rows of basting stitches for gathers from The Colette Sewing Handbook, but it never occurred to me to press them before attaching skirt to bodice, until I read it in Linen and Cotton. (I patiently wait for C&D letters from the Khalje and Mitnick legal teams.) (Am I the only one who is super paranoid/particular about sharing copyrighted information? I guess a tip is like ingredients in a recipe, and is uncopyrightable, but I still feel the need to send both authors and publishers a check for a nickel or something, in exchange for my disclosure.) Also, I’d never heard about sewing from wide to narrow until I’d read about it in this text. Naturally, I popped over to the Gorgeous Fabrics website, and it appears that the ever-intrepid Ann has a video up about it. Still!
Maybe I skipped over these bits in my other sewing books (hence, the cross-referencing before I write a full review), but I find this text nothing short of illuminating. I went looking for other books in the Focus on Fabrics series, and only came up with the Connie Long book on knits that Nancy K had recommended. Nothing else. What gives, Taunton? I, for one, would love a Khalje-written book on silk or lace, or a Kenneth King-written book on leather or novelty material (the man has made a jacket out of hair weaves, for crying out loud).
I also checked out Edith Head’s How to Dress for Success and Claire McCardell’s What Shall I Wear?, both of which will get the full Seam Ripped treatment the instant I get the chance. (Which is to say, a half-assed-yet-two-thousand-word post that is a pale imitation of a real review. Get excited, people.) Look at the endpapers in the McCardell text, though:
Oh, the 1950s. Oh, evidence of how conservative some libraries are about rebinding books. (At my school, we rebind just about everything. This fella is on consortium loan from Marymount or Howard, I think. At any rate, it’s a school that has its priorities in order. Pretty endpapers must be preserved for posterity! Put that on a bumper sticker, why don’t you?)
Hey there! How’s it going? Well, it is Monday, I have made four Emery muslins (five, if you count the full-blown, not-quite-there dress), and am ready to donate my bustline and dowager’s hump to science. How about we talk about what other people are saying?
– Mikhaela’s posts about barriers to sewing, and her recent UFO-busting streak, have had me nodding in absolute agreement. Indeed, if you were to replace all of the husband and kid mentions with talk of school and cats, and all of the allergy-free meal references with asides about oysters and gin, I could have written them myself. The cats have never treated me to a day at the museum, though. Ugh. Kids today, am I right?
Anyhoo, it is so comforting to know that someone else banishes their makes to the UFO pile after a roadblock. I’ve drawn up thorough notes on how to line the Hawthorn, cut out everything but the skirt lining, and have the bodice shell and lining assembled. Yet! Yet! That bloody collar’s poor directions make me want to set the entire thing aflame. (You’re supposed to sew the whole thing with a 1/4″ seam allowance, not the standard 5/8″. The instructions not only fail to mention this, but instruct you to trim down to 1/4″. This is addressed on Flickr and in the comments on the Sewalong post, but I missed it. Harrumph.) I’ve been working on it for a month! I need to just buckle down and soldier through it, and Mikhaela’s UFO ass-kickery is a total inspiration.
– This isn’t recent, but I’ve been thinking about Neemie’s New Years posts and the “Me, too!” school of pattern buying. Mimi, at Shop the Garment District, used to work for a major pattern company, and she says that 75% of patterns purchased aren’t used. That gives the me the sads. I’ve been doing a thorough assessment of my pattern reserves, and I think I have something like 60% of my patterns cut out, but given the size change I’ve just experienced, I have to really go through and have a major purge. A style cull, for someone like me who cannot picture garments on herself? Not that easy.
The difference between buying a pattern and buying a dress in the store is, well, trying it on. I can see someone wearing a cute dress from Anthropologie, pop in to try it on, decide it doesn’t work, and grab a couple of cookies on the way home. It takes, at most, fifteen or twenty minutes of time, and costs me two Baked and Wired cookies. (I go to school near DC’s main shopping drag, to be fair, and dozens of stores are literally on my route home.) With patterns, though, I have to buy the pattern, cut it out, and make a muslin (or two, or six), before deciding whether or not it works. Hours of time and a concrete monetary investment. I sometimes feel obliged to make all of my patterns work, most especially the ones that required a lot of fitting time. (Looking at you, Anna!) Anyway, smarter pattern buying would save a lot of time, here.
-Michelle just had a not-so-great experience with BHL’s Flora pattern, and posted a detailed review of it. She actually got some responses from the BHL ladies, and recently posted her final thoughts on Flora. The whole exchange is worth a read, but the most striking thing about the entire discussion, to me, is that people got testy around the idea of pattern testers being paid.* Edited to add: The root of the tension is the notion that pattern testers are being paid for endorsing the patterns, not necessarily for the act of sewing up the patterns itself, but I guess things get kind of murky when someone is paid for doing something, and then writes a glowing review. Talking about this issue is like untangling one big knot.
I made a vague comment about the “sketchy compensation issues” at play, if a blogger were asked to write a post about a make, in addition to pattern-testing. I think it may have gotten misconstrued as insinuating that there are some secret backdoor deals happening. Quite the contrary, actually. Now, I’m going to give you a long preface to my response to this. I first started reading blogs in ancient times, when I had a TA who had small children and wrote a well-received blog about motherhood. Personal blogs published by women who weren’t Heather Armstrong were only just getting taken seriously, and corporate sponsorship in this corner of the Internet was really in its infancy.
In any event, bloggers were just starting to get approached to write reviews for companies (large MNCs, in a lot of cases). At one point, though, someone said, “Sooo, we’re spending large swaths of time writing 2000-word “reviews” in exchange for. . .fabric softener?” The tides changed. There emerged a distinction between reviews (for which someone buys the product out-of-pocket, and writes about it on his or her own) and sponsored posts (when the company is involved, in whatever capacity), never the twain shall meet. I think this raises a whole ton of interesting questions about women and money and friendship and business and skill and the general grayness of the (still!) new online frontier.
Years and years on the sidelines of that community means that I would totally think an exchange of money would legitimize a sponsored post, and professionalize a relationship, rather than call into question a blogger’s motives. For me, the grayness comes when we’re drawing the distinction between pattern testing, reviewing, and sponsored posts. They’re not mutually exclusive, nor are they necessarily dependent. I do think it is telling, though, that a lot of people seem to have married the idea of pattern testing to reviewing.
– I’ve been on the fence about buying the Colette Guide to Sewing Knits. Reading Maddie’s review side-by-side with Nancy K‘s has been pretty illuminating. I’m leaning towards no right now, but would love to hear about your experiences. The thing is, my Moneta fits well enough, but I’ve got a bit of armhole gape (as I do on all knits forever and ever, amen) and would love to know what the heck is going on with it. Nancy K recommends the Taunton series, Connie Long’s Sewing Knits and Marcy Tilton’s The Easy Guide to Sewing Tops and T-Shirts. A trip to the library might be in order, for me.
– Kristin at K-Line has a marvelous post about wardrobe culling, and the seemingly Internet-wide purging cycles. I’m not afraid of my wardrobe, per se, but I am the sort of person to regret getting rid of something much more than holding on to it. I feel a sort of, not quite shame or embarrassment, but bashfulness, I guess, about selfishly wanting a large wardrobe. I am fickle, and there are days when I want to wear an obnoxious floral, and others where I want to pare everything down like Calvin Klein in the 1990s.
Also, I’m in a weird place where I have to sew, because my old wardrobe plum doesn’t fit, and I have too much fabric and too many patterns to justify a summer of J. Crew. I love reading all of these posts about simplifying while I’m amping up and feeding my fatted wardrobe.
– I loved Mary’s comment on Maddie’s post about fast fashion and fast sewing. I have a similar talk at school all the time, about politics and the golden ages of philosophy. It goes a little something like, “Do you know what my favorite thing is about my life? Not having polio. Waking up, and not worrying about getting polio. Seriously. That and suffrage. Property ownership. Small potatoes, I guess.” I’m working on an overwrought post about being taken seriously, and what that means for ye olde wardrobe, but I’ll spare you a preview. You’re welcome.
Now, I’m off to finish another Moneta (armhole gape and all) and maybe head down to the World War II memorial. Enjoy your Memorial Day, folks! Service folks and their families, especially!
*I changed the word balked to got testy around to clarify the statement. If only I could leave track changes on a blog post!
** I added some conjunctions and stuff, generally proofread, and questioned my grasp of the English language. Must hire copy editor.
Reader, what are you wearing? (Lusty opener, I know.) I am in my pajamas, but earlier today I was wearing a gauzy cotton skirt, a v-neck t-shirt, a cardigan, and brown woven granny flats. Who cares, Seam Ripped?! There is a point here, I promise. I bought the skirt when I was 14, shopping for high school. I was just making my way out of that awful Abercrombie and Fitch phase, and for once didn’t buy something because my friends were wearing it, or because I wanted to look like some topless, beach-tan, gravity-defying blonde girl. I was buying it for me. Truth be told, I was also buying the skirt for someone else: its designer. Not the company, but the person. It was as if the skirt were a coincidence of my desire and his creative leanings. (Look who’s getting all “stars aligning” on you.) Oh, good, here’s the point: It’s never just been me liking something, and picking it up. Now, I like the skirt for what it is, and what the 100+ wears I’ve gotten out of it mean to me. Yet, I still don’t wear it alone. There looms that random, but clear, relationship between end consumer and designer. It’s not bad, it’s not even less-than-ideal; it’s just a fact. Plain and simple.
Now I sew. Designer and wearer are not one, but maker and wearer are. I’ve been following Wardrobe Architect—not quite doing, more nibbling around it and making little ‘hmm’ noises, here and there—and the only thing that has really become clear to me is that I don’t have a real grip on the whos and whats and whys of my wardrobe anymore. I’ve been trying to sort out a lineage, and draw myself a cohesive-ish future path, but that’s complicated by a handful of things. This summer, I’m tasked with essentially building up my wardrobe from scratch. I think I have something like fifteen wearable dresses that fit well, and a handful of pencil skirts that’ll see me if I magically manage to shave off an inch or so of hip.
Looking at my to-sew list now, it would be nearly unrecognizable to Charlotte of 2008 (which is apparently when I started considering sewing, lord have mercy). Not just because of all of the patterns from independent companies, but the nature of what I’m sewing. Contemporary patterns! Dinner plate-size watercolor flowers! I can’t figure I start and you end, reader (writer, blogger friend). Cue soundtrack!
In 2008, most of my sewing information came from Pattern Review and the Purl Bee. I think I had just started following Erica Bunker, followed soon thereafter by Megan Nielsen. My patterns from 2008-2011 are mostly Vogue designer patterns from Tracy Reese, Michael Kors, and the like. Then something switched. I started reading Patty the Snug Bug, and I’d randomly stumbled upon Idle Fancy’s Mary on Pattern Review. I fell down a Gertie wormhole, and emerged wearing florals. A lot of florals. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t like florals before, but it is as if someone came into my closet and beat it to death with a rose-print stick.
I’ve got rather mixed feelings about this. I like what I wear, don’t get me wrong, but I wonder why I like it. It is useless trying to abstract the me from the it and from the yous in the y’all. (Pronouns for everyone!) It is also hard to reconcile my floral wardrobe with the images of the Vogue-reading, Dries van Noten-loving Charlotte of Christmases Past.
I’m not writing a book here, so we’ll continue this next week (or during a week six or seventy or a hundred months from now). Next time, we will have special guest appearances from Elaine Showalter (bomb-ass English professor, and mother of Michael Showalter, which makes her the grandmother of the book Guys Can Be Cat Ladies,Too)and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. That is, guest appearances from their work. We’re going to agonize over what the florals mean. After that, we might even talk about the person-to-person connection that may or may not exist between designer and customer, and compare it to what we’ve got going on here and now. Get excited, people. (Can you tell I kind of wish I had a paper to write?)
In any event, I totally shirked my muslining duty this weekend, and instead watched The Bletchley Circle and read The Woman Upstairs. I haven’t had two completely free weeks in something like four or five years. I am basically sucking the marrow out of this “break” thing. More soon!
A few housekeeping matters before we go on to our (temporary) regime change:
– I’m tired, so I shall catch up on answering comments tomorrow. I have things! to! say! Get your reading pants on.
– I have finally figured out that I need an FBA. The eight inch difference between my high bust and mid-bust circumference were not enough of a hint, apparently. This explains the whole “swimming in dresses above the apex” thing. I do not know how to do an FBA, and my high bust measurement puts me in a different Big 4 pattern range, so shit’s about to get interesting. Swearing makes it feel less daunting.
– The lovely Miss Parayim has nominated me for a Liebster. Is there anything I love more than winning? I shall totally do the whole trot out shebang once I figure out what questions to pose besides “How do you reckon I’d look with bangs?” or “Do you know of a great sheer lip color with hypochondriac-level SPF?” Apparently, these are selfish questions. Whatever.
Now, on to the main event. I’d like to think that I run an exceedingly benevolent dictatorship here at Seam Ripped Central. Bread and circuses, death of agency, yada yada yada, let’s see how we’d do with an election. Not a proper one, mind; I’m not the poll-posting sort of jefa. Next week is our blogiversary. (It’s paper!) Instead of making it rain like a rookie rapper in an Atlanta strip club, I’ve decided to perhaps host a giveaway.
Here’s my idea: you enter the giveaway, win it like the badass you are, and I’ll buy and send you a surprise. I’ll sniff around your blog, exchange a few emails with you (especially if you’re the blogless type), and send you something special in the post. Is this a horrible idea? Will one of you sue me over my loosey goosey standards? (I’m a student. The most you’d get is my calculator collection and one of my cats.) I have decent taste, I ship anywhere in the world, and there’s only a thirty percent chance that what I’ll send you is illegal in your country. Dreadful idea? Would you prefer it if I picked out one crazycakes thing? In the immortal words of Diddy, vote or die. (Or just get seriously emotionally maimed. Same difference.)
Hey, y’all. Long time no. . .forget about it. If you’ve had the grave misfortune of following me on Twitter, being my barista at Bouchon, or standing next to me on a subway platform, you know I’ve been neck-deep in tests for the past decade six weeks. It’s been real, as they say. Anyway, I go back to Washington on Wednesday/Thursday and start another batch of classes the Monday after that, so I’ll hold off on the grand declarations of being back, etc. It is nice to see you, puppyface.
I finished my last final last night (crossing fingers and toes), and, naturally, celebrated by buying fabric this morning. The sainted Kashi has a cat (well, his neighbors do), and if you, like me, go anywhere where there’s an animal, you should stop by and say hello. (I swear, Eric at Mood is really on to something with that fluff bucket Swatch.)
Drunk on my newfound free-ish time, I decided to lay out my summer projects. I sense a theme, you guys.
One of these things looks exactly like every other thing in the stack. Do you remember the movie 500 Days of Summer? Zooey Deschanel looks fantastic in it, and I remember reading the costume designer saying that they made a conscious decision to dress Zooey’s character in blue throughout the film. The pieces were a mix of mall stores and vintage, and I think the restrained color palette made her wardrobe seem a lot more put-together and chic than it otherwise would have. Then again, this wasn’t really a conscious decision for me. Maybe I’m just in a blue mood?
I owe you my Meringue, my hemmed Hazel, my trouser-fitting stories (the horror!), some fabric ogling and whole bunch of other stuff. Also, we’re going to try our hand at democracy here at Seam Ripped Central.
Oh! Before I jet off (to buy buttons for my seventy shirtwaist dresses), would you like to meet Clementine Bug Witherspoon?
I know that everyone says this about their adopted street pigeons, but I think she’s the very best. Also, look at how clever her parents were, making that nest. Who knew pigeons could operate document shredders?