One year of Fashion on the Ration ended on Saturday!
It’s been an interesting and informative year. If you’re hungry for more FOTR action, go see Ali at The Wardrobe, Reimagined, who’s taken up the torch. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her year shopping and sewing on the ration.
Meanwhile, Imma go buy me some SOCKS!
Having figured out what clothes I don’t like, it’s time to figure out what I do like. And near the top of the list must be bright colors.
We’ve entered the most miserable time of the London year — January, February, March. The gray, wan months, when there’s nothing left of Christmas but the credit card bills and nothing to look forward to but SAD, vitamin D deficiency and the distant, dubious prospect of summer. Every other person has a toxic cough. Every third person has a face like a slapped arse. And day follows dark gray day.
The confusing thing is that clothing manufacturers’ color palettes tend to be equally dark and subdued in winter, when what this season really needs is color. Thanks to my old pal GK Chesterton, I’ve come to see gray days as an opportunity to shine.
The enemies of grey…are fond of bringing forward the argument that colours suffer in grey weather, and that strong sunlight is necessary to all the hues of heaven and earth. … It is true that sun is needed to burnish and bring into bloom the tertiary and dubious colours: the colour of peat, pea-soup, Impressionist sketches, brown velvet coats, olives, grey and blue slates, the complexions of vegetarians, the tinge of volcanic rock, chocolate, cocoa, mud, soot, slime, old boots; the delicate shades of these do need the sunlight to bring out the faint beauty that often clings to them. But if you have a healthy negro taste in colour, if you choke your garden with poppies and geraniums, if you paint your house sky-blue and scarlet, if you wear, let us say, a golden top-hat and a crimson frock-coat, you will not only be visible on the greyest day, but you will notice that your costume and environment produce a certain singular effect. You will find, I mean, that rich colours actually look more luminous on a grey day, because they are seen against a sombre background and seem to be burning with a lustre of their own. Against a dark sky all flowers look like fireworks. There is something strange about them, at once vivid and secret, like flowers traced in fire in the phantasmal garden of a witch. A bright blue sky is necessarily the highlight of the picture; and its brightness kills all the bright blue flowers. But on a grey day the larkspur looks like fallen heaven; the red daisies are really the red lost eyes of day; and the sunflower is the vice-regent of the sun.
—GK Chesterton, “The Glory of Grey”
Inspiration #1: Holi
In what is definitely one of the awesomest ideas for a holiday ever, Holi is a Hindu festival held at the end of winter where people light bonfires and fling colored powder and water all over each other. Just looking at the photos makes me happy.
Inspiration #2: The Caribbean
I went on a lot of Caribbean holidays and cruises with my parents when I was young. Caribbean tourism is pretty squicky in a lot of ways that made me uncomfortable even at that tender age, but what I did cherish were the bright colors — houses, birds, fishing boats, clothing.
Inspiration #3: British seaside towns
What better illustration of the power of color under dark skies than the classic British beach house?
The problem with bright colors is that because the delight lies in a multiplicity of tones, it’s difficult to replicate the joy by picking just one color. At least, I find it difficult.
What are your color inspirations?
Why do I sew? I started purely from a childish love of playing dress-up. My first sewing project, at the age of 12, was an abortive princess gown with train, stitched together from mismatched sheets. When I returned to sewing in my 20s, it was still pretty much about the make-believe, although dignified with a veneer of historical authenticity — Regency muslin frocks and complicated corsets and Victorian underwear and Viking dresses. Even today I love playing dress-up. Most of the fun I have with my closest friends involves us dressing up in ridiculous costumes and taking photos of each other.
At the start of the Fashion on the Ration project, my sewing was about exploring history by reconstructing 1940s clothing, much as I like to walk the streets of London and imagine I’m crossing the footsteps of Boudicca, Thomas de Quincey or Samuel Pepys. I did it as a hobby, just for the hell of it, and made random garments too flamboyant to wear for work and too uncomfortable to wear for play. This was because I mentally divided my clothing into Normal Wardrobe (modern, sensible, boring, inconspicuous) and Dress-up Chest (anachronistic, colorful, exciting, impractical). Normal Wardrobe clothing was, obviously, too boring to sew myself or otherwise pay any attention to.
But as the year on the ration unfurled and I began confronting gaps in my everyday wardrobe that needed to be filled, I started thinking differently about this supposed divide. Fabric, time and money were precious — why should I waste my coupons and labor on a fantasy piece I wouldn’t wear? And why did I assume everyday clothing had to be boring — too boring to sew myself or spend much money on? Everyday clothing is, after all, what I spend every day in. Didn’t it deserve the kind of attention, imagination, enthusiasm and budget I’d formerly reserved for my showier sewing projects? Shouldn’t I be able to look and feel good at the office, around town, on the couch? Wouldn’t it be great to open my Normal Wardrobe every morning and see a bunch of garments I could get as excited about as the stuff in my Dress-up Chest? Being on a ration forced me to put way more thought into my everyday clothes than I’d done for a long, long time.
Starting from scratch, I’ve studied up on what styles, colors, fabrics and eras suit my shape, coloring, personality and lifestyle and resolved to bear those firmly in mind whenever I sew or shop in order to keep my wardrobe wearable. There have been some surprises and some disappointments — for one thing, I’ve discovered that the puff-shouldered 1940s dresses and wiggle skirts I love so much do absolutely nothing for me — but it’s reassuring to see my own sense of what I like and what suits me emerge slowly. It’s now much easier to resist a 1930s pattern, for example, by repeating to myself the mantra that we will not be happy together because the strong shoulders will make me look like a linebacker.
My ambition for 2011 is to sew 90% for my Normal Wardrobe without letting my projects lose the magic and fun of sewing for my Dress-up Chest. This will probably mean incorporating and adapting a lot of vintage elements, and treating myself to deluxe fabrics and construction methods whenever possible. I think it’s pretty amazing that we live in an age of unprecedented sartorial freedom and have all of human history from which to draw style inspiration, so I still get to roam happily through decades — even centuries — of fashion. But from here on in my sewing and shopping — 90% of it, at any rate — will be street-wearable. (Which, in very conservative London, is more stringent than it sounds.) Hopefully it will make me as happy as my first bedsheet princess gown did.
A whole year looking hard at the clothes I wear, sew and buy. So much learningks.
Because everything I’ve bought or sewed in these 12 months has had to pull its weight, probably the #1 most important thing I’ve taken away from FOTR is the 90% rule: 90% of my wardrobe needs to equip me for my real life, not my fantasy life. Therefore, no matter how fun it is to perv out on patterns for 1930s bias-cut evening gowns and whatnot, I need to focus 90% of the money, time and effort I put into sewing and shopping time on clothing for my real life. This has been a hard lesson to internalize.
Living on a clothing and fabric ration has forced me to look hard at what clothes I actually wear in order to make every clothing purchase and sewing project count. It turned out that I’d bought and sewn a lot of clothing I never wore because it didn’t suit me or wasn’t comfortable. Mostly I’d bought or sewn it out of wishful love for for the fantasy lifestyle or body shape it suited.
[You mean I will never actually wear that pink chiffon ballgown with 6-foot detachable train??]
For most of the year, this clothing sat in my wardrobe moldering gently.What I reached for, day after day after day, was clothing that fit a few basic criteria:
It must keep me warm and dry. This meant layers, natural fibers and, for most of the year, wool. Underneath, merino tights and base layers were a clear winner, as were cashmere sweaters on top and wool skirts and trousers. I fell madly in love with wool this year, actually; it really is the secret weapon against the cool, damp, changeable British climate, and generations of grannies were right about the invulnerability conferred by wearing wool next to the skin. Single violin: the legions of pretty cotton frocks, summer sundress patterns and sleeveless blouses my fellow bloggers model so beautifully will never be practical options while I live in the UK.
It must allow me to go about an average day in comfort. Unless you are Kate Middleton and can afford to take taxis everywhere, daily life in London throws a lot of unexpected physical trials your way. You can end up freezing at a bus stop, smothering in a Tube tunnel, struggling with a load of grocery bags, running for a bus, cycling on a Boris bike or standing for hours in queues, trains and crowded pubs. Your clothing must be able to cope. I love darling little heels and pretty dresses as much as the next girl, but they can become instruments of torture if worn incautiously. The vast majority of the time, comfortable shoes and warm, layerable pieces carried the day. Single violin: this effectively rules out most heels higher than kitten height, or ever leaving the house without a sweater.
It must be versatile. I adore my 1940s jitterbug dress and it is one of the prettiest things in my closet, but the situations in which I can wear it are few and far between. The two Jalie tops I made from ivory bamboo interlock, on the other hand, I have worn over and over, with skirts, work trousers and jeans. Unsurprisingly, the most mixable items got the most wear. Single violin: farewell to most of the really drool-inducing sewing projects on my wish list, like the 1870s cuirass bodice and skirt.
It must suit my coloring and actual body size and shape. Harder to accept than it sounds, especially if you’re an inverted triangle who’s just spent hours painstakingly sewing a dress designed for an hourglass. Single violin: the wiggle dress, she and I will never be right for each other. Ditto obi belts, ruched sleeves and anything orange or purple.
It must be low- to medium-maintenance. This means no uncomfortable underpinnings, pantyhose, painful shoes, anti-static spray, elaborate hair and makeup or tit tape. The outfit must not be excessively vulnerable to wind, rain or red wine. I know this rules out huge swathes of women’s clothing, including the vintage looks I love, but what can I say? I will probably go to my grave an unregenerate tomboy. Remember Britches Dottie from the Great Brain books? That’s basically me. Single violin: Even on my super-motivated days I still don’t look as ladylike as Casey Brown phoning it in.
It must suit my actual personality. Frills are out — way out. As is pink, soft pastels, chiffon, ballet flats, Mary Janes, Alice bands, floral prints, puffed sleeves, super-slutty looks or anything uncomfortably juvenile. Like I said… tomboy. I do like feminine looks, but I like them womanly rather than girly, and with a strong spike of the masculine. (I’m digging Steph’s current interest in androgynous women’s fashion in Weimar Berlin. )
Although these basic principles have long been floating murkily at the back of my mind, it feels good to make them explicit and start altering my behavior to follow them. I feel like the 90% rule will focus my efforts and save me a lot of time and money in future sewing and shopping.
Only 5 days left to go!
It’s been a while! I’ve been concentrating on other things for the past few months, including career and other life changes, but I’m happy to inform you I’m still alive, back at the crafting and extremely pumped for 2011!
As the end of the ration approaches (only 10 more days to go!), I’m happy to report I’m still on target. This is all the clothing I’ve bought since my last update:
- 1 pair boots (Cole Haan Brookings — tomboyishly chic! waterproof! walkable! You can pry these boots from my cold dead feet!): 5 coupons
- 1 moss-green pashmina (65% pashmina, 35% silk) to combat chilly neck issues and add a splash of color to a black coat: 2 coupons
Seriously. Seven coupons. That’s all. Which leaves me coasting into the end of the year with a startling 15 coupons to spare.
WTF? I was expecting more drama. Crises over pantyhose runs! Weeping in front of shop windows! The anguish of self-denial! It’s been anticlimactically easy not to buy clothes. Why?
For one thing, being on the ration didn’t change the fact that London doesn’t make it fun to shop for clothes. It’s crowded, hectic and exhausting, and much of what’s on offer is of only fair-to-middling quality, variety and value for money. Meaning that on the occasions when I had a day off and some cash in my pocket, I could usually think of half a dozen things I’d rather do than head out to Oxford Street or Covent Garden in a quest for a decent sweater. I comfort myself with the thought that time-pressed and cash-strapped women shopping for clothes in wartime shortages must have felt much the same.
Being on the ration also made me think hard about the quality of the clothes I bought. Probably much harder than the consumer for whom the typical garment is made. Every time a twinge of attraction pulled me towards a garment in a shop, I started asking myself all sorts of fatal questions. This may be the only new top I buy all year. I will have to wear it maybe twice a week, in various situations. Is it well-made? Is it worth the money? Does it suit me? Will it keep me warm? Can I dress it up and down? Will it go with other things I already own? Much of the time, the answer was No. Being on a ration made me demand a lot more from my clothes — maybe too much for me to keep shopping in the usual way.
Once I started thinking about style and quality in clothing, it also became impossible not to notice that in London it doesn’t really matter if you’re well-dressed, because Londoners ignore each other religiously. This has both advantages and drawbacks. I am profoundly grateful not to have to put up with the kind of ugly street harassment women in America regularly undergo, but I’m not sure I enjoy being Ms. Invisible either, especially in social settings like bars and parties where mingling is half the fun. It’s great that I can stagger around un-made-up and with my unwashed hair in a ponytail without attracting comment, but on the other hand I could also step out every day looking like Coco Chanel without attracting comment. It does take a certain amount of wind out of the sartorial sails.
The nicest discovery was that I already had treasure in my closet. Being on a tight clothing budget forced me to look again at what was in my wardrobe and see what I could restyle or refashion. As a result, I salvaged a lot of garments I might otherwise have thrown away — unflattering T-shirts, shapeless sweaters, tired tops, not-so-successful previous sewing projects etc. Some of them are now wardrobe staples I wear weekly or more.
I’ve learned a lot in my time on the ration — I’ll be posting my year-end reflections shortly.
It’s nice to be back!
Regular readers may know that Simplicity patterns and I don’t get along. Well, my loss is your gain. I’ve finally got around to de-Simplicitifying my vintage pattern stash, and my discards are all up for grabs on Etsy. Head on over to the CargoCultCraft shop!*
* Don’t worry, I’m not setting up as an Etsy tycoon… this is just my online garage sale.
Highlights of the Great Simplicity Purge include:
- The Rocket Age dress pattern (Simplicity 3580)
- The Blitz blouse pattern (Simplicity 4139)
- This lovely two-piece dress with peplum and gathered bodice:
- …and some other random patterns I’ve decided to release back into the wild, including vintage kids’, nightwear and plus-size patterns.
Hope to see you over there!
Warning: enabling ahead.
I’m a massive fan of sewing gadgets — things you never knew you needed until you get them into your craft room. Miniature darners? Hem markers? Loop turners? Yes, yes and yes. The only problem is that the UK market seems to lag a bit behind in gratuitous gadgets, probably because everything is so expensive here the Brits can’t afford to be as gung-ho about New Shiny Things as Americans.
But now I’ve discovered Sew-Quick, importer of foreign sewing shinies to the UK! In the finest tradition of UK online shops, Sew-Quick is practically undetectable by Google search. I only stumbled across it while looking for a Perfect Pleater (curse you, Wearing History!). My jaw slowly lowered as I clicked through their product list. Snapsetters! PerfectFuse, stay tape, Steam-a-Seam! Mini vacuums for cleaning your machine! Individual issues of Threads! And a panoply of the delightful little gadgets collectively known as notions.
Sew-Quick are located in Scotland and emphasize their customer service and shipping speed — I’ll be interested to see how they stack up against other domestic sewing supply businesses, some of which take several days to dispatch and/or backorder items for weeks without telling you. Warning: Do not compare Sew-Quick’s prices with what Americans are paying.
Another place to waste an hour and £50 is Shibori Dragon, a US online shop that specializes in Japanese sewing and tailoring supplies. Superfine pins (they make ordinary pins feel like nails) and the satisfyingly precise Chakoner marker are available, as are Omnigrip rulers and, oh dear, a whole bunch of Japanese fabrics, threads, quilting kits, stencils and more.
Just won the lottery or looking for somewhere to spend the kids’ inheritance? The Thimble Society sells exquisite antique thimbles, pincushions, needle cases, sewing sets and more. They would probably recoil in horror if you announced you planned to actually use them.
If you really want to lose yourself to lust, try Googling “sewing chatelaines”. A chatelaine was an early, feminine version of the Swiss army knife — a metal clasp that attached to a woman’s belt and from which she could hang small, useful items such as thimble cases, scissors, needle and thread holders, bodkins, memorandum books, spectacle cases etc. They started in the middle ages as utilitarian objects, but quickly became decorative. Some could be stunning, like these 18th and 19th-century chatelaines from the V&A:
Where do you go for your favorite shinies?