My niece A. and I are officially winners! If you click the picture you will find that the dress she designed and I sewed were chosen as one of Craftster’s Best of 2012. I’m very flattered to be honored by my crafty peers. I haven’t told my niece yet, but I assume she’ll take it in stride and say, “of course we did.”
Tag Archives: fashion
As a sunburn-prone person who doesn’t drive, but walks everywhere, summer is a time when I think about hats. I try to plan my day so that I don’t have to be out and about at midday, but sometimes these things are unavoidable, and as I roast in the sun I think, “if only I could wear a hat, something with a wide brim, to protect my neck and face.” But I’m not quite ready to go full-on neo-Farmer Ben in order to wear a straw hat, and I don’t want to be a “hat guy” either. Famously, hats ceased to be obligatory in the 60’s (they say it was JFK who killed the hat, but I say it was the automobile culture), and I sometimes believe that fashion obeys the dictum of the ants in The Once and Future King: ANYTHING NOT COMPULSORY IS FORBIDDEN. Certainly, in the decades since the disappearance of the hat from the mainstream–perhaps especially since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out–hats that aren’t baseball caps or knit winter hats have accrued a range of meanings and associations. For some people positive, but I think for more people negative.
This clash of tastes has recently resulted in some semi-notorious tumblrs: You Shouldn’t Wear That Fedora, Fedoras of OKC, and Fedoras: Forever Alone. Their target is not really the Andre 3000s or even Justin Timberlakes of the world, but the more commonly-encountered fedora-wearing geek, who perhaps wears their hat with a Zelda T-shirt or long unkempt hair or a scruffy young-Tom-Waits goatee, with a smattering of frattish ‘dudebros’ mixed in there. Naturally, I’m against this kind of Fashion Police nonsense, but after all, I literally suffer rather than associate myself with their targets, and I want to understand it. (If the Internet had existed when I was in college, I might easily have been one of their targets: with a kind of sublime unconsciousness, I wore a Halloween-costume felt bowler hat thing throughout my freshman year, over long greasy hair dyed all kinds of colors, and wondered, of course, why the girls I liked never seemed interested in me.) The “Forever Alone” tumblr features a kind of mission statement: “A fedora speaks volumes about one’s character. It implies that he is a basement dwelling, live action role playing, no social skills having, complete and utter geek in the worst sense of the word.”
Gaming journalist Leigh Alexander elaborates this thesis by introducing a new angle: “The problem is that the fedora has become a go-to accessory for a peculiar subculture of love-entitled male nerds whose social inexperience and awkwardness manifests in a world rocked by a gender revolution—a tectonic shift in the makeup of formerly cloistered, rule-bound clubs.” She associates the fedora with the Nice Guy Syndrome, a feminist concept which is too valuable and therefore controversial/derailing for me to get into (click the link instead). There was something about this that bugged me, though, and I got so into clicking around for more reactions that I ended up reading an unbelievably long comment thread on Metafilter, one of my least favorite sites of all time. (My irrational pet hate.) It was reading the increasingly strident recital of the Rules For Hats which put it together for me: this is fashion prescriptivism.
Since learning a little (in strictly amateur dilletante terms) about linguistics I’ve been convinced that fashion, in the macro “what people wear” sense, is very much like language, to the extent that I might even say that it is a subset of language. Like human languages, it’s emergent and subjective–it bubbles up from the mass of humanity, rather than being handed down from above, and it’s completely meaningless without a human observer. These facts about language do not prevent some people from getting incredibly angry at so-called “grammar mistakes” (rarely mistakes and rarely even grammar-related) and raging about them in an interesting, half classist, half quasi-moralist way. People who use the singular they, or the passive voice, are not just ignorant but actively bad people. There is an objectively right way to write and speak, determined by tradition and logic, and everything else is barbaric. The rules they cling to, however, usually have no historical or logical validity, and the worth of neither an argument nor a person is determined by their use of “that” or “which”. There are actual grammar “rules” for every language–in English, “Car the backed up did” is comprehensible but ungrammatical–but these rules are rarely ever broken and unconsciously followed by speakers of the language.
I think these Fashion Police things come from a similar anxiety about the Heraclitean river that is fashion. I can think of a few “rules” of fashion comparable to (real) grammar “rules”–don’t wear shoes on your hands, don’t walk around with your dick hanging out–but everything else is, intolerably enough, just a matter of taste. You can invent rules about stripes and patterns, brown socks and black socks, width of tie and width of lapel, but all these “rules” only come down to “this looks good/bad to me“, and, even more intolerably, what looks good to you today is not what will look good to you in the future. Like slang (I say fashion is a kind of language, but really, being a clothes person, I believe language is a kind of fashion) it will come and go. That’s what makes fashion exciting. Still, quasi-moral character judgements are constantly heaped on people who dress in a way displeasing to the judge, whether the abject conformity of the “suit” or the decadent privilege of the hipster. When not moral, the judgements are usually classist–“she looks cheap”, that kind of thing. Just like prescriptivists snarling at the semi-literate rubes. At its ugliest, it comes out in saying someone “dresses like a thug” or “speaks in ebonics”.
Of course there’s a lot of information encoded in our clothes. As it is a kind of language, it communicates. But I think the idea that someone who dresses in a way you don’t like is a bad person is a step too far, into a just-world fallacy kind of place. It would be very convenient if villains were always ugly and good people always beautiful, but that of course is not the world we live in.
Alexander notes that at least some of the people hating on these hat-wearing geeks seem to be geeks themselves. I think that possibly explains the vitriol; at any rate it explains why I don’t wear a hat. At some point, I looked around me with a horrified recognition, like the hero of a tragedy by Sophocles: those guys who look so lame in their hats….I look like them! I think, I hope, I’m getting old enough to give my little teenaged self a break about it, but for a long time the shame of that recognition kept me from almost any kind of sartorial adventures. Now, at 33, looking at these tumblrs, reading these articles and comments, I find that the dorks in hats don’t look any better, but my fears of looking dorky have strangely evaporated.
Any change in personal style, if it comes from within, is always a good thing. The winds of change are blowing through my life right now. Perhaps, for all I know, they will bring hats with them.
Along with “I have a great idea about how we can make money together,” my least-favorite thing that people say to me when they hear I make clothes is the title of this post. Project Runway is about the last thing I would ever want to do. I’m pretty private and introverted and I hate arguing with people, so I wouldn’t make good TV. I need a lot of sleep and take a long time with my sewing, so I wouldn’t make good clothes. And I pretty much hate the *F*A*S*H*I*O*N* kind of thing–the “glamour” and the “cutthroat world” and anytime someone says “the industry” and all that. I have, at the same time, a higher and a lower opinion of fashion than “the industry” does–I think it’s an art, capable of expressing exactly the same things as music, dance, painting, poetry, which is something designers and editors always seem to resist; but on the other hand I don’t think it’s that big a deal. I don’t eat, sleep, and breathe fashion, or any of that. And all these things seem to be a big part of Project Runway, its mystique, its allure, its raison d’etre.
But the biggest reason is just that I think these judged reality shows are bullshit. No, I don’t mean I think they’re fake or secretly manipulated or whatever. They might be, what do I know, but even assuming everything is on the up-and-up, they’re bullshit. My sister and I have talked about it a lot, and in her blog she lays out why:
If Buffi’s design had been perfectly realized and executed she still would have been cut and that makes me angry. Buffi wasn’t brought into the competition to win, she was brought into the competition so Michael Kors could make “clever” quips about her outrageous clothes. . .Kors and company want sophistication — as defined by them. Nina wants everything to look expensive because she can afford it. Heidi wants everything to be sexy because that’s what she wants to wear. Fashion has always been a game for the aristocracy and Project Runway tows the line but good.
Even more egregious than Project Runway is Top Chef. There have been 9 seasons, and only one female winner. That woman, in the final episode, was up against another woman and one man, Richard Blaise, who was asked back for Top Chef All-Stars, and we were constantly reminded that he “choked” on the final challenge, so we all would remember that he didn’t lose to a girl, he lost to himself! Essentially, the judges (to be frank, especially Tom Colicchio) are egregiously sexist, and it comes out in their judging. Then there was the even-sillier Work of Art, which is Top Chef/Project Runway for “fine art”, in which everyone seemed to be rewarded or punished in proportion to how much their works expressed whatever stereotypes and prejudices the judges immediately formed upon seeing them. In the finale of the first season, the three finalists were described as conceptualist, feminist and “someone who is maybe taking on issues of race.” Guess which one’s the white dude!
Now, all this is kind of a lot to talk about when someone gives me the compliment of thinking I sew/design well enough to do well in a competition. I understand what they’re saying, and it’s a nice thing to say. But it’s kind of like wishing my worst nightmare upon me. So, thank you, but I really would rather not try out for Project Runway. Also, while I’m on the subject, I also would rather not sew the T-shirts that you design the graphics for. I’m sure it will be as big a moneymaker as you say, but I’ll let someone else get that payday.
Last entry, I talked about the “be true to yourself and you’ll be fabulous” rhetoric of fashion, and how I believed it. If I believed it for much longer than I should have, the reason is probably Isabella Blow. I’m not privy to any of the shifts in business and politics within the fashion world, and I can’t say necessarily that anything has changed. But it certainly feels like it has, since the days when she was walking through that world, so beautiful and strange. Looking at photos of parties, or the front row of runway shows, no matter how bland everyone else looked, there would be a towering hat somewhere, reminding you that there was life and weirdness in the world.
It’s my birthday today; I remember when she died, a week or two before my birthday in 2007. I felt, with no justification, like I’d lost a distant but dear relative–an aunt or older cousin who I only saw once a decade or so, but who would tell wonderful stories, give me the perfect advice, and tell me to stop acting like an idiot and get to work already. That’s the kind of message I found in her outfits, her hats, her position as fashion’s oddball-empoverished-aristocrat-in-chief. (I love the story of how she bought Alexander McQueen’s entire St. Martin’s degree collection for £5000, but she didn’t actually have £5000 to throw around, so she had to pay him £100 a week for 50 weeks. I always tell my clients that they can pay me in whatever installments they have to, inspired by this tale.)
Like so many people I love and admire, she suffered from depression; and she died from drinking weed killer, after several previous attempts. I hope she’s happier now, and I hope there will always be people out there like her, keeping life strange and lovely.
Kat Asharya, the great writer at NoGoodForMe, posted today on Kristen Stewart as Fashion Icon; and in doing so, she notes, “NOGOODFORME.COM completely destroys any cred-slash-pretense to being a somewhat normal fashion blog!” And it’s true, because fashion blogs, as a group, are mostly devoted to posting pictures of people (famous or otherwise), with a more-or-less “snarky”/”bitchy” commentary about whether it’s in or out, fug or fab, whatever; and Kristen Stewart usually falls on the negative side of that line. As Kat says, she pretty much wears a hoodie & jeans all the time, which drives Fashion Police types crazy.
This is why NoGoodForMe is the only fashion blog I can stand. And it’s partly why I decided, after years of soul-searching, that I didn’t really want to be a fashion designer after all. There were a lot of reasons; but ultimately, at some point I realized that I didn’t want to tell people what to wear, which is what a fashion designer does, and instead I wanted to make people’s dreams into reality, which is what a dressmaker does.
There’s a certain kind of rhetoric, or there used to be, about fashion, and how it can be used to express yourself, fill the world with beauty, and all that. How the most stylish you can be is when you’re really being true to yourself. I used to naïvely take them at their word–it’s one reason I got into this stuff in the first place–but the older I get, the more it seems that such platitudes are about as true as the one that says in America, anyone can become rich and powerful. Supermarket tabloidy magazines, “what not to wear” and “fashion police” TV shows, are obviously not at all about enhancing each person’s separate, unique tastes, but rather hammering them into the bland styrofoam nothing of corporate marketing-approved “style”, with strict instructions to buy a new batch of featureless styrofoam nothing in six months. Years ago, I saw a TV show where women were ambushed by their “friends”, told they looked like shit, and forced to endure some professional stylists dictating what they’re allowed to wear. My stomach still churns when I think about the episode I saw: not only did they steal this woman’s favorite clothes (she liked a kind of punky, stripey style), but they cut them to pieces to stop her from ever wearing them again. It was incredibly violent, and while I am a pacifist, I don’t think I could really have blamed her if she’d responded in kind, and smashed their fucking TV cameras. I think I would have, in her situation.
Fashion exists, and is constantly changing, such that some things move “in” and “out” of vogue as time goes by; this is surely true. It’s a much, much bigger topic than clothes–everything from music to philosophy is subject to it–and it’s certainly a fascinating thing to study. But it’s nothing to enforce.
That’s the mission of most fashion media, these days, though–to enforce “the rules”, or rather, to get their audience to do it to each other. That, I think, is the real goal: so even if someone like Cate Blanchett or Tilda Swinton manages to eke out a thumbs-up from the Fashion Police in something weird, they make sure to say Only Cate, Only Tilda can get away with this. All the other women, who aren’t incredibly rich, beautiful, and talented, are not allowed. Even if they’re confident enough to ignore their fashion-media-consuming friends calling them fugly, dated, matronly, or whatever, they’re still stuck with the corporate-dictated, featureless (but for whatever superficial ‘trend’ doodads have been stuck on them) clothes they can find in the mall.
But maybe they can learn to sew, or they can come to a dressmaker like me, and get the thing they’ve dreamed of. The one that’s not in any magazine, the one that’s them and only them. It might be weird, it might be completely at odds with anything on TV, it might get them called names. But it’ll be theirs. And that’s why I do what I do.
Fashion design has many facets, and depending on talent and inclination, different designers tend to focus on different aspects. You can be a draftstman, working in precise lines, like Coco Chanel; you can be a painter, balancing color harmonies, like Yves Saint Laurent; you can be a sculptor, creating volumes and textures, like Balenciaga. Madeleine Vionnet, for me the greatest dress designer in history, was an engineer.
She is always associated with the bias-cut (that is, hanging the fabric at a 45-degree angle to the grain), but that’s only the most obvious result of her methods. Rather than starting from traditional basic patterns, cut to the shape of the body, and then adding or altering, she got down to the radical starting point and designed, and designed with, the structure of the dress itself. She designed with seams, not embellishments, and to do so she reinvented how seams worked, where they would fall–if you look at the dress pattern (a kind of schematic or blueprint for a dress) of a Vionnet, it looks nothing like the patterns which had been used in Europe for centuries. Those patterns, drafted on paper to begin with, look essentially like the body part they’re supposed to cover. Vionnet’s, on the other hand, were created directly in fabric–she worked by cutting and pinning muslin on a half-scale mannequin–and can be completely abstract, squarish or triangular, because they’re not constrained by 2-dimensional thinking, or our cognitive perception of “front” and “back”. And yet these strange shapes, hung on the body, don’t look strange or particularly avant-garde, but sleek, elegant, and simple.
Everyone after Vionnet was influenced by her, and yet few ever approached her focus on the fundamentals of dressmaking. (Partly because fashion moved on–her method can’t easily accomodate 40s shoulder pads or 50s under-structure.) For me she has been one of my foundational influences–I tend to think of clothing design in Vionnesque terms, as a matter of pattern cutting first and foremost. I tend think of cut first, and things like color, texture, embellishments and decorations, are all subordinate to it.
Of course in costume design subtleties of cut are basically invisible on stage and therefore usually a waste of time, so designing costumes is a very different proposition. And it’s been a very helpful corrective to the rather austere “rigorous” version of Vionnism that I used to subscribe to–after all, Vionnet herself did plenty with color and texture and especially beautiful sewing, like embroidery and her exquisite pintucks. But I’ll always reserve my greatest admiration, and ambition, for perfect and unexpected pattern cutting.
A handful of great Vionnet works under the fold.