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Fashion on the ration: looking back, part 1

January 17, 2011

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. )

This is how frilly makes me feel inside.

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!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. Marie-Christine permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:04 pm

    Your jitterbug dress is a masterpiece, but I can see how a girl can only dance so much… I’m totally with you on the wonders of wool, especially in the British climate. I have a small addition to your rules, to allow for modern life, and which I figured out in NY. Thing is it used to be you could just pile on the sweaters, but now even the British have heating, and heating in cold countries can easily tip into too hot. But it can be ankward trying to strip a layer of long johns in public :-). And I find that it’s much easier to ventilate from the top.

    So I first try to be very warm in my bottom layers. A layer of silk or rayon between the merinos and the wool pants can add a lot of warmth for those truly freezing days, and a glide that makes the whole more esthetic. Then I go for a very warm coat, which means no nonsense about short sleeves or open collars, but something which goes at least to the knees and can be battened down in a gale. But it also needs to be fine hanging open. And then I layer the top like crazy. So I can at least take off the hat and open the coat in the subway, and then peel off the scarf and the cardigan and at least one more layer on top, possibly ending up in practically a camisole, so I can survive the crowded pubs and whatnot. Most flexible approach for me..

    As to cute summer dresses, my sister (who spent all her childhood summers in Wales) recommends the white cardigan. A totally British invention, that :-). Keeps you warm, but the color says you know it’s summer. Sigh.

  2. Geogrrl permalink
    January 21, 2011 5:49 am

    All of what you’ve listed are things I’m finally realizing. There are things that work for me and my lifestyle in this climate and things that don’t. In addition, my personality doesn’t suit “ultrafeminine”. I just look bloody silly in lace and ruffles. I’m just too no-nonsense for it.

    I’ve always called the style you describe as “tailored feminine”. Like you say, women’s clothing with a spike of masculine. I like to add one quirky element–brightly coloured shoes or blouse, an unusual brooch or necklace, or an unusual element in the styling.

  3. January 19, 2011 7:39 pm

    It’s so liberating to read this kind of honesty– a sort of clothing manifesto . I too live in an extreme climate and I know I must look so much better when I can walk across the ice in comfortable boots, rather than hobble around in inappropriate shoes. I’m really trying hard identify what clothes I really feel comfortable in and create them. Thanks for keeping me focussed on the real deal.

  4. Tessa permalink
    January 19, 2011 3:15 am

    Frilly makes me feel like that too! I live in Sydney, which has a few more weeks of wool than Brisbane, but not many. I totally agree with you on the practicality of clothing – for me, if it makes me sweat too much as I walk uphill to the train station, then it’s out.
    Please keep blogging. I really enjoy your wit – and your obsession with 1940s London.

  5. January 19, 2011 1:23 am

    I work to be happy in my real life and everyday home, not pine all year for one fancy vacation. This is another version of that; I enjoy all the tactics you and the other commenters mention.

    Or, on the other hand, when I realize that I spend weeks on end thinking about fancy dress, maybe that’s a sign that I should arrange a life that includes wearing it. (In my case, that’s learning how to waltz and polka and mazurka.) Sometimes this works! Sometimes my subconscious really wanted to be the cynosure, not just dress up. That’s harder to arrange.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 19, 2011 1:28 pm

      You can never go wrong with learning to waltz, polka and mazurka. That’s the Dress-up Chest infecting your life with its magic!

  6. Linnet permalink
    January 18, 2011 5:35 pm

    I missed your posts! As usual, I recognise myself a lot in those point. I can’t abide frills, but some part of me would like to be able to… I think I’m very conflicted in my dressing habits, as I’m very tall : I feel I can’t wear too girly clothes (frills, girly colours, etc.) because it feels like a ridiculous costume, yet I’m also wary of dressing to “manly” because I might actualy be taken for a man (NOT the point of gender bending, oui?).

    Right now I’m awkwardy blending some “strict secretary” style into my wardrobe (pencil skirts, horay!), and so far I feel it’s working, but still…

    Looking forward to part 2!

  7. January 18, 2011 3:58 pm

    I think what I’m most impressed about with your FotR challenge is that you were able to discover something about your wardrobe! I’ve gone through a bit of a “reality check” myself over the past year in regards to what I actually wear versus what I’d like to wear. In my fantasy world, I’d wear beautifully draped 40s dresses in rayon and tight little 50s wiggle dresses and heels. In reality, while I am still very much a dress girl, it’s more about skirt that I can pair with a variety of things and dresses that allow me to move (bonus points if I can throw them in the wash too!). Even my footwear has changed over the past 6 months; I still have a lot of heels but am slowly adding more flats into the mix too. I think finally I am becoming a bit more practical and choosy about what I make and buy for my wardrobe. Yeah, I still buy vintage cocktail dresses if I find them for a song, but in reality do I ever have a chance to wear them? Nope. I’d much rather devote my precious closet space to more floral skirts and interestingly-draped tshirts and cotton day dresses than things I maybe wear once a year. That being said, I like what you said about sewing bringing a little of that “dress fantasy” into our lives; hence why I just bought 3 yards of silk to make my Swing Dress up in. *ahem*

    I had to chuckle a bit over your comment about how I look on “off” days… Today I’m very much under the weather and lazing around on the sofa looking pathetic… in my jammies. Forget pencil skirts and blouses; I just want to sleep and feel better! haha.

    ♥ Casey | blog

  8. Rosesred permalink
    January 18, 2011 3:55 pm

    Fun post! I can certainly relate to the need for practical footwear being at odds with the need for actually prettty shoes. If you commute though, it’s pedi-suicide to wear heels!

    Apart from genuine partydresses of silk, sequins and satin there are not a whole lot of dresses that are too pretty/unique to wear daily, imo, and it doesn’t take a lot of energy or dressing up. I have a bunch of brightly colored vintage dresses, all of which look just fine if you combine them with leggings, long-sleeve, boots and cardigan, all in one color if you can manage. (Everything basic I buy is brown, which helps) Looks pretty and feels like an comfortable uniform.

  9. January 18, 2011 2:15 pm

    You are absoloutely right… and yet…. part of me wants to embrace the fantasy and have beautiful things! Maybe the solution is to make practical “tomboy clothes” with exquisite handstitched details?

    • January 18, 2011 3:26 pm

      Roobeedoo, I’m with you. Well, perhaps not the exquisite handstitched details as I don’t know that I’m yet capable of such things. ;) But I’m concentrating right now on sewing some blouses which will be worn with trousers or my favorite, overalls. (And knitting cardigans and short-sleeved sweaters for the same purpose). I always think I’d love to be a dresses and skirts girl but really, I’m just kind of not. I do intend to attempt at least a couple of dresses this year if for nothing else but the sewing practice (primarily why I’m going to do the Elegant Musings Swing Dress Sew Along), but I know in my heart of hearts they won’t get rotated into my actual wardrobe much. I need to think more practical, think things that will actually get WORN regularly.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 18, 2011 3:48 pm

      Yes! That is why we sew, isn’t it? To bring a little of our frock fantasy lives to our everyday wardrobe?

      My big realization was that I was spending tons of time, money and effort on making and buying garments I never wore. From now on, I’m only putting that much effort into stuff I know I’ll wear. (90% of the time, that is. The other 10% it’s all bias-cut evening gowns.) So yeah — tomboy couture for all!

  10. January 18, 2011 10:41 am

    Can I quote you on this? Because you just so accurately described my situation it’s eery. I seem to have a Sewing Princess Syndrome that I need to attend to, I mean there are no red carpets in the vicinity!

  11. January 18, 2011 7:39 am

    Great job analyzing your situation! A very thought through post, loved reading it. Wool is my best friend here in Sweden, as well, but I occasionally pair it with silk, and linen for summer. GO natural fibers!

  12. January 18, 2011 4:13 am

    Thanks for this post. I’m thrilled to find another tomboy who dresses for comfort and practicality! Waterproof Timberlands beat heels for me any day. I love the look of vintage but it just doesn’t work for everyday.

  13. January 18, 2011 2:09 am

    Hi Susannah, I’ve popped in a few times last year and somehow managed to miss your incredible Fashion on the Ration challenge. So inspiring! I’m tempted to shamelessly copycat your efforts this next year, as I’d like a challenge that helps me focus on my real life (as you point out so eloquently!) and that inches me closer to have less, but higher quality items in my closet. Any words of warning before I embark on a similar adventure?

    I look forward to part 2!

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 18, 2011 3:53 pm

      Oh my. Words of warning? Here’s one: Be prepared to discover garments you really can’t make yourself, buy secondhand or go without. Running shoes and bathingsuits, for instance!

      Here’s another: Be prepared to spend a lot of time in shops looking closely at clothes and roaring with frustration.

      Also, if you try to bone up on what styles suit your body shape, be prepared to welter in a sea of conflicting advice.

  14. January 18, 2011 12:00 am

    I don’t know if anyone looks as great as Casey phoning it in. Lucky for her she’s nice. :) If I weren’t snowed under with work sewing at the moment, I’d get to it on the Weimar, though I want to look around at some books first.

    You’ll still be blogging after the ration’s over, right?? Right?

    • January 18, 2011 12:02 am

      And you might envy light blouses and sun dresses, but I wish I lived somewhere that would allow me to wear wool. I LOVE wool and can’t wear any but the very lightest weight. We could trade. You come live in Brisbane, I’ll go live in London.

      • Susannah permalink*
        January 18, 2011 4:27 pm

        Aren’t water wings more appropriate right now?

        Four seasons! Is that too much to ask??

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 18, 2011 4:28 pm

      Oh my yes. As long as I need others to validate my compulsive fabric and pattern shopping, and people to help me with my ludicrously elementary sewing difficulties, I’ll still be blogging.

  15. January 17, 2011 10:38 pm

    Excellent post! Very thorough and thought-provoking. I’ve really enjoyed following your progress. :)

  16. January 17, 2011 10:09 pm

    Certainly food for thoughts about my sewing plans ’cause I do agree with you. Thank you for this post.

  17. January 17, 2011 9:58 pm

    Lots of very practical information you’ve learnt, a lot of truths I’m trying to come to terms with here in Wales (despite the last vestiges of hope that chiffon can be worn in Winter). I’ve loved following your posts throughout your self-imposed rationing, thank you for bringing us along with you!

  18. January 17, 2011 9:10 pm

    Ive had fun following your blog! Thank you!
    This post was so honest, well done you! Its hard changing habits isnt it… Ive been doing the same over the past year and its quite enlightening what you dont / shouldnt need. Wishing you a happy new year! Ren x

  19. January 17, 2011 8:54 pm

    Wow, can I ever relate to this post. I live in Chicago and we have drastic extremes in weather. Ridiculously cold in winter, ridiculously hot and humid in summer, snow, sleet, rain, everything in-between. Yucktastic, a lot of the time. I’m trying to keep that in mind with my sewing and knitting this year. So pretty much every criteria of yours above applies to me as well! With the exception of wool here in the summer, that is the only time I don’t wear wool, although I still may wear a light wool short-sleeved sweater on occasion. But wool is one of my best friends the rest of the time.


  1. Finished project: Blenders blouse | By Gum, By Golly

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