[Thank you, Joan Didion. In your spirit (or, as an affront to it), I did not proofread this.]
I remember exactly when my shirtwaist dress obsession started. It wasn’t with Betty Draper. Indeed, it was with a three-year-old.
A really flipping creepy-looking three-year-old, at that. The Purl Bee did a now-missing post and used Liberty Fairy Clock to make a shirtwaist dress, maybe seven years ago, and I thought, “I could get on board with that.” Then I went on a mad search for a similar dress for adults and found. . .nil. I found 30″-bust vintage patterns and Big-Four patterns sans collar stands. When I caught wind of Colette releasing the Hawthorn I got super excited, but was a little (okay, more than a little) disappointed by how non-traditional it was. Then, my ship came sailing in. M6696. The Platonic ideal. My east and my west. The alpha and omega. Since then, I think we’ve been living in the golden age of the shirtwaist dress. Mary hosted the Autumn/Spring of 1000 Shirtdresses, and every time I turn around, there’s a pattern release with MOAR SHIRTDRESSES. Hallelujah.
So, when Wendy from Coser Cosas asked for recommendations, I had no choice put to shamelessly parlay it into a blogpost. You’re welcome, everyone.
I’ve arbitrarily divided things up into three categories, because I have to get up at the crack of dawn, and this is just the way I roll. Deal with it. The first is waist definition. Since I am currently doing the whole “post-surgical schmatta” thing, waist-defining dresses actually have become an independent category for me. The horror and shame, I know. Let’s talk starting from top left and moving counter-clockwise, shall we?
McCall 6891 – Everything I used to hate about shirtwaist dresses. Circle skirt and no placket and no collar band. No thanks! But, now that I have that beautiful little blue number on the bottom left, I can see the appeal of the 6891, and have bumped it up in the old queue.
Colette Hawthorn– SEW THE COLLAR WITH A 1/4″ SEAM ALLOWANCE. I don’t know if the instructions have been corrected yet, but sweet baby james, I almost pitched mine into the nearest ravine when I realized that error. Ahem. Other than that, I am rather smitten with this dress. I have PTSD from it, and have yet to sew another one, but I am jonesing for a navy iteration with brass buttons. We shall see.
Butterick 6090 – Is this a shirtwaist dress? Is it not a shirtwaist dress? You know what this is? My rodeo, and it is what I say it is. I’m saying it’s a shawl-collared shirtwaist dress. So there. I think this is one of the more interesting offerings I’ve seen on deck, but I need a good sacrificial lamb to make it up before I take the plunge.* Anyone? You, madam, in the back?
Pauline Alice Camí – So, if this dress were out four years ago, I would have lost. my. wits. It is pretty fabulous, though I haven’t seen many of them floating around. Waddup, shirtwaist lovers? Why y’all not making these up? While we’re on the subject, I’m thinking about just lengthening a Carme blouse into a dress, as if I’m the sort of person who can get away with that sort of look. Let’s just call it youth, for now.
Vogue 9077 – First off, I am endlessly amused by the fact that BMV use real fabrics for their stylized technical drawings. This guy? Was available on Fabric Mart, but snatched up right from underneath me before the sale. Curses! Anyhoodle, isn’t this a more adult version of a shirtwaist dress? I can’t decide whether or not I’ll look as if I pocketed this from my mother, though.
McCall 6696– I almost don’t even want to link to this one. How many have I made thus far? Three or four real deals, seven muslins through two sizes, one full version in voile lining. I love this dress.
The second category is a bit misleading. It’s non-traditional. Which is to say, stuff that I couldn’t shoehorn in elsewhere.
Simplicity 2215 – My school has a truly daft song that we sing for special occasions called “How Long’s It Been?” But, really, S2215, how long’s it been? I’ve loved and used this pattern for at least five years, I’d wager. Those asymmetric pleats ruined me for others. I’ve never made up the full dress version, though. Pity. I should.
Merchant and Mills Dress Shirt – I just bought this! Shall report back to HQ on how it goes as soon as I muslin it. We need to have an M&M discussion, though. I just muslined the Dea dress, it is one of the most stunning and body-complimenting things I’ve ever sewn, and yet almost no one ever makes them. I am an official fan girl convert. Plus, no zippers! One size! Cardstock! Exclamation point!
Grainline Alder – Show of hands, who among you has not made an Alder? Yes, my count is hovering around a dozen. Dozen and a half. It is a popular pattern for a reason. I thought I’d look dreadful in it, but I actually like the way I look. Gina from Feminist Stitch loves the second view, I can vouch for the first. I realized too late I messed up the interfacing on my really lovely silk, but I’m sure I’ll figure out a way around that. Optimism, etc. Where were we, before we started talking about me? Yes. The pattern. If you don’t mess up royally, I’m sure you’ll love it in any view.
Simplicity 1755 – This isn’t a shirtwaist dress! It’s not the messiah, it’s just a very naughty boy! Fine. This one barely makes it in under the wire, but I quite like Leannimal, so I had to include it. Plus, I’ve been looking for any excuse at all to make it up, and have come up with nil. Nada. Nunca. This is one of the few, “That’s just not my life, bro” patterns that exist. Even the Brooklyn art teacher patterns from Marcy Tilton can squeeze it in, should they choose. But, I maintain hope. If you live a more fabulous life than I, then this is the shirtwaist for you.
Princess seams are the last categories. First, we should review my method for doing an FBA on a princess seam. First, I use Mary or Alana’s FBA tutorial, which I am too lazy to find and link. Then, I invariably end up smashing down the 3D piece with my flat palm. Having an eff bee is not a pleasant life experience, it seems. But, these dresses make up for it. Sometimes.
Butterick 6091 – Collar stand, covered placket, seams that release themselves out into pleats in a way that I cannot explain. Can you say skill builder? I sound like I’m advertising for it. Now we know I’m getting sleepy. These are going to get shorter. No one on PR has made this one, though. Really, Pattern Review community. How am I supposed to free ride if none of you offer a ride?!
McCall 7084 – This fabric again. Princess seam dress with a v-neck and an A-line skirt. Seems legit.
Ed Note: Why the long pause, Seam Ripped? It is job-hunting season here on my happy old Hilltop. The fact that I have yet to sob, “I don’t want my cats to be orphaannnneeeeeddd” is apparently a good sign. If any of you have ever had a job, ever looked for a job, perhaps have never had a job but feel super confident in your advice-giving skills, and would care to say things about that in the comments section, I’d be very much obliged. Also! If you’ve written a comment that has languished without response, please do look back for one. (That is, if you’d like. Free country, and so on.)
I’m a big believer in going to bed angry. Huge, actually. Well, let’s back up for a second. I’m a huge believer in being angry. I come from long lines of Punjabs and Puritans, warrior goddesses and buttoned-up New England schoolmarms. After years of competing stories about walloping off the enemies’ heads and burning their blood, and the triumph of staid reserve over emotional excess, I’ve emerged with a solid belief in feeling the fury and then. . .nothing. Well, it used to be nothing, but I eventually realized that everything seems a lot less important after a long, hot shower and a good night of sleep. That’s something, isn’t it?
As I was reading Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, my jaw was in a perma-clench. Confusion, rage, reluctant understanding, grief: lather, rinse, repeat. I write this from vacation, and at breakfast with Mummy Seam Ripped I struggled between tossing the book into the hearth or into the lake. (Librarians of Lau: It’ll be returned on time, if a little scuffed up. You all know how to get rid of tire tracks, yes?) I had to step away. A lot. Take breaks. Walk around. Read other things. Now? Now it makes more sense.
Why was I getting so hot under the collar? Well—and I think this might be true for a large portion of the sewing blog-reading population—I recognize enough of myself in the movement Matchar is identifying to make the text seem personal, but am different enough from her sample set to cringe (cringe) when reading a lot of her examples. Big quote time:
“It would be laughably retro to explicitly say that a woman’s [roper place is in the kitchen, yet women like JJ and Robin and Addie feel keenly the sense that a “good woman” focuses her energies on feeding her family on the very best, purest food. If food is so important, why wouldn’t she? But in this brave new world of backyard chicken raising and homemade bone broth and hand-mashed baby food, the “best, purest food” is an ever-rising target.” (Matchar 119)
Hasn’t food always been about status, exclusivity, and, to a certain degree, about exoticism? Ditto clothing. I’d wager that the keepers of kitchen have always fretted about the best, though not necessarily the purest. From what I understand, pre-packaged foods were status items, as were the tools of liberation (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers). Now, ladies, you have leisure time. Leisure time that you can use for personal maintenance. I don’t think people stopped keeping gardens or line-drying their clothes because store-bought tinned tomatoes tasted better, or even because all of the adults in the family unit got jobs (which would happen later). I think people stopped doing those things because they didn’t want their neighbors to think that they were poor. Not even because those items cost less than a homegrown tomato, but because of the leisure that’s associated with it. In that sense, you were feeding your family the best. Were there very many women who said, “You know what? I’m doing a B+ job of this homemaking thing, and that’s all right”? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s my 21st-century perfectionism wrestling its way to the fore, but I don’t know very many people who’d be content with doing a B+ job at anything.
You know, I wrote the above few paragraphs in early August, and I mean all of it, but I’ve since walked away, returned the book to the library and bought and annotated my own copy. (See why my blog posts take so damn long?) Anyway, I couldn’t shake why I was so unsettled by this book. There are core arguments with which I agree. The economic downturn has likely contributed to the influx of artisanal this and homegrown that; young people out in the field are finding work unfulfilling; the US doesn’t yet have the social structures necessary to support upward female mobility. The issue for me is that the very premise of the book requires an embrace of the false dichotomy that led Michael Pollan to make his (outright wrong-headed) comment, “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.” It’s not an either-or proposition. By setting the artisanal movement at odds with contemporary mainstream working culture you’re forcing a choice that needn’t be made. Why is it surprising that people with “good” jobs who went to “good” schools are opening up ice cream stores and Etsy shops? Doesn’t that inherently demean their careers of choice? There isn’t really an ice-cream-store-opening school, is there? (I suppose an MBA and culinary school. Maybe some finance experience to pay for said MBA?)
For me, the simplest answer is the right one. Pink tomatoes don’t taste good. A fresh heirloom tomato sliced on some garlic-rubbed toasted bread tastes better than some cheese grated over a Trader Joe’s tortilla. The problem? That shit’s expensive. I could buy a black-market kidney for the price of an organic, heirloom tomato and a good, good loaf of bread costs almost ten bucks. Ten bones, y’all. These sorts of businesses don’t have the economy of scale that, say, Kraft mac and cheese does. So, yes, instead of blowing off steam at a bar after work, some people go home and bake bread. For other people, the opportunity cost baking a loaf of bread is higher than $10, so they buy the bloody loaf. Say it with me, y’all: And that’s okkkaaayyy.
There’s a part of me that thinks—fears, really—that I’ve missed the point of Matchar’s argument. Yes, there are people who have made a forceful exodus out of i-banking and into full-time crafting, but aren’t they the minority? What’s behind Matchar’s seeming discomfort with the casual crafters? She knits, too; why is this shocking? (I’m at school and don’t have the book, but there is one line that basically says, “In the 90s, you’d go out dancing with your friends; in the aughts, you stay in and make preserves.” And in both cases the next day you go to your job—you know that, right?) This brings us to the title of this post. (1000 words in, a record.) When I was on vacation, I read a book of James Wood’s essays, one of which is called “The Homecoming.” In it, Wood reviews a Marilynne Robinson book called Home, where the characters go back home and find it lacking. For them, Wood says, “Eden is exile, not heaven.” What if Matchar is right and we are having a homecoming of sorts? Only, the source of our anxiety is not the fact that home isn’t the same anymore since we’ve experienced liberation, but that we’ve narrowly defined progress in the creative destruction sort of way (nutshell: we’ve moved forward, created new opportunities, and necessarily have to destroy what was). Am I reaching, here? The problem isn’t that we got to Oz and realized it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, but that the very existence of the idea of an Oz makes difficult a life in Kansas. And now even I’m lost.
Time for a turn-on-a-dime segue: This is evidenced by the sewing community’s really awkward relationship with the idea of home. Hear me out. Every time I see someone hashtag an Instagram post of a garment with #handmade, I have to take a walk around the block. Now, what makes your self-made garments handmade? You used a sewing machine, a serger, maybe a coverstitch, maybe a blind-hemmer. Factories use all of those things, with loads of people. Why is your stuff handmade? If bought an industrial Juki would your garments no longer be handmade? What if you made a lot of things assembly-line style? Got your friends to help? Sold said items? When does it stop being handmade and start bearing the implied sterility and hollowness of the “other” garment? Never? By this logic, I have a closet filled with handmade clothes.
Look how many hands there are in this photo! Okay, off the soapbox and onto the point: I don’t think we use the term handmade as a rejection of the people (mostly women; mostly poor women) who make mass-manufactured garments, or an intentional dehumanization of developing-world labor, but rather the fact that homemade, in the sewing community, tends to mean shoddy, Becky Home-Ecky, happy-hands-at-home. Much as just about everyone seems to crow about the quality of contemporary ready-to-wear, it is considered complimentary to use ready-to-wear finishing techniques, or to make a garment that looks like it could have been RTW. (I have a forthcoming post about the alleged decline in RTW quality coming down the pipeline. I even have visual aids. Mark your calendars, friends.) That, and having a homemade dress might harken back to the dark days of oppression (oh, the 1950s); whereas handmade summons visions of happy hobbyists and artisans, working to bring our creativity back, well, home.
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.
I bought a cardigan in March. Merino wool, long-sleeve, paid 50-ish bucks, but it retailed for $85. (The J. Crew Tippi cardigan, if you care.) I’m considering setting said cardigan aflame.
It’s a nice cardigan, sure, but it has not worn well. I’m disinclined to blame the manufacturer, and not just because of my unholy Mickey Drexler fixation. So, what’s so different from me and the intended wearer? Well, for starters, I wore that cardigan to deff. Up to 3x/week, while walking over a mile to the Metro, carting around a 30+lb backpack (what? Wool doesn’t like friction?), letting my cat climb me like a tree, wading through 90% (rainless! Effing rainless!) humidity, being late to the draw with my umbrella when the bloody rain finally came—the list goes on. I wonder if I should have the same expectations for my clothes and shoes as someone who wears her cardigan once a week, and walks from an air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned office, and back. Mayhap?
We’re finally getting to the point: I’ve been reading a lot of vintage style guides lately (post forthcoming, after I bone up on my contemporary style guides so that I can make sure I’m not talking out of my—God, I regret vowing to clean up my blog), and they describe a lifestyle that does not resemble mine. Claire McCardell is really concerned about what I wear to the country club, because that’s where I’ll face some of my harshest critics. Edith Head seems to disapprove of active husband hunting, but is totally willing to roll up her sleeves and help me do what it takes to get a man. (Priorities, people.) Adele Margolis thinks I’m fat. (More on that, later.) None of them think I carry my groceries home on the Metro, or haul enormous stacks of books to my carrel or up hundreds of stairs (inevitably flashing something to someone). Does this lifestyle difference contribute to the expectations that I should have of my clothes? Were things really objectively better back then?
I’ve been working on some overlapping posts lately, and can’t seem to land on the order in which they should go. Per usual, I think I’ve overread. I’ll just say: When reading this, perhaps think about how it relates to the evolution of our treatment of style and its cultivation (rather than an evolution of styles themselves), the increasing commercialization of fashion (TheWall Street Journal‘s Teri Agin had written a great book on this, called The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Industry Forever), image and how our wardrobes affect the ways in which we’re treated, and [prickly prickly prickly] status, and the ever-stickifying interplay between art, money, and social class. I may or may not have a Countess Luann GIF situation all queued up for the status portion.
So glad that you asked, Countess. Some Bureau of Labor Statistics daaaaa-taaaaaa! Don’t ever say I don’t do anything nice for you, reader.
I made you an infographic, and WordPress won’t let me embed it. Then, I made you a Keynote presentation complete with interactive charts (it was awesome!), and even though that file extension is accepted media, it’s still a no-go. All right, reader. All right. Then, I made a nifty video. . . . You see where this is going, right? Uphill, both ways.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its Consumer Expenditure Survey every year, now, but until the mid-1970s, it was published whenever they sort of felt like it. At one point, cash contributions and personal insurance weren’t included, and now they are. It’s a hot mess, but I love it. I’m using the data from 1950 to present, because the first half of the century involved two world wars and a depression, market shocks that I don’t think help our cause.
After reading Sarai Mitnick’s Coletterie piece “The Decline of Midrange Clothing” and its very, very long comments section, I had some capital-T Thoughts. To my mind, there hasn’t been a decline in midrange, but rather a reconception of what midrange means. I think that consumer expectations of per-garment cost have gone way down, people now expect to own more articles of clothing, and few consumers expect to pay full price for anything. There is a reason why Ann Taylor and J. Crew so frequently do store-wide markdowns. It’s become less about getting a deal, or even thinking you’ve gotten a deal, than it has about feeling you’ve gotten a deal. Let’s see how my hypotheses hold up, shall we?
I’ve done some informal surveying of my older professors, and to their memories, there was literally Sears and Penneys, high-end department stores, and couture. Sure, Marshall Field had his basement, but it was a home for in-house knockings off of the stuff from the upper floors. Our question then becomes, are we dealing with a rise of the bottom, or a decline of the middle? No one considered Sears and Penneys to be on the lower end of the spectrum, though. Most middle-class families shopped there, for one reason or the next, and if you were less fortunate, you’d buy fewer things. Also worth noting is that there weren’t really sales that often. One professor says that he only remembers there being a 26 December get-rid-of-all-the-crap blowout (his words!) at Field’s, and that the reset of the time sticker price was sticker price. Teri Agin, in the Marshall Field section of her book, notes that it was really in the 1980s that Field’s started running crazy cakes sales.
Let’s look at the data. In the charts below, you’ll notice that in 1950, apparel had an 11.5% share of consumer expenditure, but now it hovers just above 4%. Average family sizes have also changed from 3.0 (though some sources say 3.7, I’m sticking with the BLS on this one) to 2.5, and there’s been a rise in dual-income families.
Here’s the same story, but on a nifty, partially cut-off table. Only the best for you, reader.
So, people expected to spend a larger share of their income on clothing. Bee-eff-dee, Charlotte. Get to the damn point. Fine, reader. What were they buying, really? How much of it were they buying, too? I can’t find any good data on, say, the number of trousers owned by a single household, but damn I wish I could. I will say that it was mildly surprising to read Claire McCardell endorse a focus on quality, rather than quantity, in 1956. I generally think of this argument as a product of the boom-boom eighties, but nope, McCardell thought it applied to America’s nascent middle-class. In her book, McCardell advocates holding out for a $30 sweater, rather than buying some piece of lord-knows-what on sale. $30 in 1955 is supposed to have the same purchasing power as $266.31 in today’s dollars. For that, you could get an Eric Bompard or Brora cashmere sweater at the end-of-season sale. You know what you (probably) couldn’t get? A sweater from Pringle of Scotland, or a cashmere sweater from many of the marquee-name fashion houses. Why not? Well, I’m afraid that inflation doesn’t tell the whole story.
I’m sure you know this, but I’ll give you a refresher course. We measure inflation, in real terms, based on the consumer price index. Basically, inflation is the change over time in the amount of money you’d need to buy a basket of goods and services that offers a certain standard of living. The composition of the basket has changed over the years—no iPads in the 1950s, I’m afraid—but the standard of living is supposed to smooth out. The BLS has a nifty tool where you can isolate different segments of the CPI basket, and chart their inflation independent of the whole shebang. I downloaded the data for apparel, then the data for the whole basket, and used my good friends Excel and Keynote to make you this fly-as-all-get-out chart. The whole basket is in green, the apparel portion of it is in blue. One of these things is not like the other.
So, the years 1982-1984 = 100, and are our base years, and what we’re doing is looking at the relationships between apparel and general, relative to the base years. Our answers lie in the rates of change, basically. It doesn’t matter how much purchasing power you have, if you’re not going to spend it. Also, relative prices change. I remember reading that compared to Americans of 1895, contemporary consumers are 60 times richer in mirrors, but 10% poorer in fine silverware, partially because demand for the latter has gone down precipitously and prices have gone up.* (Not necessarily in that order.) It seems we’re richer in clothes, when looking at the graph. You’d only need 25% more money to buy the 1982-84 apparel portion of the basket, versus needing over 120% more money to buy the whole basket. Ruh-roh. Here’s the evolving price of the dollar, for the curious. Read it as one USD in [blank] would give you the same purchasing power of [blank] in contemporary dollars.
One last piece of statistical data before I go grab some pancakes. I was reading the Agin book last night, and she mentions that in 1994, a quilted Chanel bag was priced at $960. Assuming she’s writing about a small, classic flap bag (the one with the interlocked-C lock and the metal-and-leather chain), that same bag retails for $4200. $4700 after this year’s mandatory Chanel price increase. Reader, America is not projected to have 10% inflation this year, and neither is the Eurozone. There’s something afoot, but we’ll talk more about it when we get to the status piece of the puzzle.
Why the protracted lecture? I just wanted to toss this stuff out there before doing my alleged “review” of the McCardell, Head, and Margolis texts, and comparing them to contemporary style guides, because, for me, the econ side of the equation was/is pretty important going in.
I’m going to come back and a) catch up on comment replies and b) insert some hyperlinks for the labyrinthine BLS website after I’ve had some breakfast. Oh, and I might even proofread.
*Oh, I read that statistic in Charles Kenny’s Why Global Development Is Succeeding.
** I should probably thank David Sedaris’s Hugh for the title of this blog post.
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?)
Is there anything quite like losing a blogpost to really get the blood boiling? Actually, yes, there probably is. So, one more time for the cheap seats in the back, we have your humble host performing “relatively inconsequential prose that you could frankly live without. . .preposition check!”
I had rather long day. It was fabulous. My aunt is a chain store refugee and I don’t think she’s too keen on the District yet. I have to explain to her than quilting cotton < garment cotton < Italian-made garment cotton < garment cotton of angels and saints (i.e. one Mr de la Renta, swoon).
The absolute worst thing about having a blog is that no matter how short your memory is, you’ve got a written record to back it up. My mum treated me to a fabric splurge, so the two-cut promise was shot. It was shot at Metro Textiles, home of the nicest man on the face of the planet, but shot nonetheless. (More on that tomorrow, with photos and all that jazz.) For now, we have to talk about how I was absolutely, positively charmed by Chic Fabrics and Fabric/s for Less. (Both of which are owned by the same super-nice man. He has a mustache. Need I say more?) (Parentheses!)
It all started with a specific fabric. Doesn’t it always? Three or four months ago I stumbled across a lovely Ascher print online. See, before I go into Paron, I stalk manhattanfabrics.com because, um, they are exactly the same place. For serious. The “warehouse” is in Paron’s basement. Anyway, I found it, it found me, it was $16.50 a yard. Ouch. That’s pretty dear for cotton poplin. Nice cotton poplin, but cotton poplin nonetheless.
Gertie made a dress out of the yellow colorway and another out of a kind of similar pink. Each day, I would waffle back and forth between yellow and white. Finally, today I woke up with the intention of buying three yards of the white and calling it quits. Decisions, man. They are empowering.
So I was browsing the wares at Fabric/s for Less, trying not to die under an avalanche of linens, when my mum told me to come quickly because she found a fabric that she knew I would love. You sense where this is going, don’t you?
(Huff. Squarespace is being a beast tonight. This image refused to resize. Pretend it is of a dignified size, will you? Also, see if you can spot my pajamas. Banner day here at Seam Ripped Central.)
Anyhoo, you haven’t heard the best part. I got them for $4/yd. I got eight yards total for less than I would have paid for two at Paron. I have spent my whole career biased against 39th Street because the racks at B&J are just so dignified and everyone at Paron is so friendly and Mood has such a gorgeous selection. I feared I didn’t have the Turkish bazaar attitude required to dig and negotiate. My mama does, as this fabric was originally $5 a yard. (For the record, I am kind of anti-negotiating in the Garment District as the area is struggling. For the other record, every single person who walked into Fabrics for Less negotiated. The owner told me that he expects it.)
Think about all the money you free up when you have savings so big. Hell, I could make a dress and insert hand-picked RiRi zippers and line it in the finest batiste. I could buy Rit dye and color said batiste to match or contrast or do whatever the heck I want it to do. It would still clock in at less than I would have paid elsewhere. Isn’t that something to think about?
At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I think that every store in the Garment District has its place and deserves our business. Mood is like Macy’s, an egalitarian flagship. B&J is like Bergdorf’s, hoity of the toit. Paron I have a hard time categorizing. Some of my most exquisite fabrics come from them. Were I not with the Ladies Who Hunt (for Bargains), I would have spent an hour ogling their chillingly beautiful silk prints. Hmm. I love them, but I obviously have to widen my net.
Anyway. I have to be up early as I am moving next Thursday and am still in the throes of packing. Everyone is pitching in.
I give up on image resizing. Squarespace can kiss my grits. Also, there is a better way to blur out my address, but I am plum ready to pass out.
(Okay, this one is totally post-Squarespace updated and from Labor Day weekend. Whatever. He’s in my suitcase for crying out loud.) I have turned into one of those parents who constantly post updates on their children. Lo siento. A muslin update is the horizon, does that compensate for it? Not at all? Fine.
This is really just a blog about sewing machines and fabric at this point. I went to two sewing machine dealers today and had two wildly different experiences. There is a round-up post on the horizon, complete with a table detailing prices, pros, and cons. Look at that, something to which you can look forward. (Prepositions can kiss my grits.)
City Sewing was really not a fantastic life experience. They have a repair shop across the street from Mood’s 38th Street entrance, so I just walked in. Everything about it screams, “You won’t come out with both kidneys.” Whatever, man. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a tough broad. I can do this.
I can’t do this. Ain’t no test-driving at City Sewing (whose retail location is separate from its murder-and-organ-harvest location). I maybe spent ten minutes in there just marvelling at the plastic-sheathed machines and cramped quarters. My favorite part was when the shopkeep told me that the Berninas had a five-year warranty. When I asked about the standard twenty years? He launched into a schpiel about what your warranty really means twenty years from now (short story: bupkes).
Then, I hoofed it to Queens (QUEENS!) to go to Sew Right. I proceeded to have a religious experience which totally compensated for the two-trains-and-a-bus situation. I should probably open by letting you know that I was there for two hours. Yes. I was planning on forty-five minutes, tops. I spoke with Harvey, the presumed owner or maybe just a dude with bossman vibes. He was awesome. He has a mustache, though. I think that may have somehow colored my assessment. As I’m buying my dealer more than I am buying my machine, it must be said that the whole mustache-patience-expertise combination is winning.
They answered all of my questions and then some. I actually walked out feeling like I knew something about bobbin cages and feet. For example: There are new feet and old feet but the snap-on feet exist independent of this equation. SAY WHAT? I could have probably found that out by trolling Pattern Review boards, but I always leave more confused than enlightened. Y’all. I know so much about presser feet now and the adjustable pressure business that everybody keeps carping about. Harvey even clarified some not-so-accurate information I got elsewhere. Win.
However, there is a problem. Sew Right introducted two more sewing machines into this equation. Aretha can’t handle this. (I am Aretha, in case you were wondering. It’s like Beyonce and Sasha Fierce. Doesn’t everybody have an alter ego? No? You need to get on that.)
I inquired after the Aurora because that seems to be the full-sized machine of choice amongst my sewing friends. Apparently that’s a sucky idea. However, the Bernina 530 is a full-sized machine that is perfect for the garment sewer.
There wasn’t one on the floor, so I have no idea how it rides or sews or whatever. It’s about $2000, less than the Aurora but more than my beloved 1008. Also, it’s pretty. Apparently, people who are great garment sewers will eventually need a computerized machine. Something about the customization of functions, I think. Oy.
Then he showed me the 380 and explained the difference between 3/4 and full size. Point: Negligible if you sew garments. Other point: One of their frequent customers purchased it as a class machine then returned it. Her used machine on sale for $1199. New it’s $1799. Well, then. Multiple buttonholes, knee lift, other stuff, I don’t know.
Their trade-in policy is phenomenal. Within a year you get back 100% of your purchase price to apply towards the sale price of a machine of at least double its value. Does that makes sense? Sale price not MSRP, and no you can’t exchange an Activa for a 330.
With that said, it looks like I’ve actually made a decision. The 1008 it is. If after a few months I find that I’m aching for fancy buttonholes and those damn snowflakes, I’ll trade it in for the 530. May I just give one nitpick about the higher-end Berninas? I hate that effing natural light. It’s apparently good, but I’m not one for the forfeiture of control. I find it distracting as all hell. I want darkness or an Ottlite, for the love!
I’ve been really good about sewing output recently. For serious. I average about 2-3 yards per dress and have made four dresses, two dress muslins, a blouse muslin, and a skirt muslin in the past month. Not half bad. (These are totally monthly updates now, which is more than half bad, but I say we just overlook that.)
June Output, sans muslins: four dresses, ~11 yards.
June Intake, sans lining and muslin: 6.5 yards
Can we say victory? No? Fine.
I’ve been trying to curb my fabric spending while I save for a new sewing machine. I know that I’m too far gone to actually give up cold turkey, but I do think I need a step-down approach. I’ve been over to the fabric stores on 39th Street, which is basically a methadone clinic on every level. My beloved Paron has moved there (and is not included in this assessment). Baby Jesus. It is a truly overwhelming experience. I used to think that Metro Textiles was a bit cramped and overflowing. Uh, no. I left after two days longing for Metro’s organization. I only bought from one place, It’s a Material World.
I feel that if Cathy likes something, it must be good. Also, I totally own an iron, but this was just out of the wash.
I had a big wheely-trolley thing from work and couldn’t navigate the labyrinthine aisles at Material World. God, that makes it sound almost glamorous. More like: I was deathly afraid of being crushed by fabric or beaten up by one of the bargain-seeking grannies because of my schlepper wheely. All was well, I found the fabric easily, I wasn’t asphyxiated, and a man who gave off boss vibes waited on me. I got 3.5 yards for $17.50. The boss man’s guest joked with me, everyone was in a good mood and all ended wonderfully. The end.
I went in today, unburdened by mah wheels, because I thought I’d be able to find some interesting fabrics on a dig. On my first visit, I thought that there seemed to be really lovely florals and some Ascher to be had. I suppose there were, but the sales associate kind of followed a bit too close for my taste. This is a store where if you are anywhere but clear across the room, you are a lover’s distance from the customer. I decided to choose the first fabric that really jumped out at me (lobsters!) and flee.
The clerk told me that only chiffons were five dollars a yard and that this cotton was six. Um, signs and precedent and oh whatever. Sigh. I forked over my card and, oddly, the charge only rang up as $4.77 a yard, for a grand total of $14.80 charge. Wow. Three yards of voile and a trip straight out the door. Huzzah!
There’s no cutting table and they seem to be pretty exact about their yardage. Kashi at Metro doesn’t have a cutting table, he has this big stick-thing (technical term) and he plops the bolt onto it and cuts evenly with at least a little extra. Do with that what you will.
The stash check-in turned into a review. Oy. That was totally interesting for everyone. Intrigue and mystery and new horizons explored. No, it was actually boring as dirt and further evidence that I am basically sixty. Hey, it’s something. Moral of the story: I think Material World and I are kind of done for now. I might stick to the greener pastures of labelled bolts and knowledgable sales associates. Not before I pop into A&K.