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Fashion on the ration: looking back, part 2

January 18, 2011

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.

Red and White Queens

 

Bowling with bear-mauled Sarah Palin

AND THEY CALLED IT ZOMBIE LOOOOOOOOVE

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.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. rosemary higgins permalink
    June 6, 2014 10:23 pm

    I have just discovered your website and loved reading your blog. It made me feel great about what I do and the length of time it takes me to make a garment. Most of the sewers I know sew at the speed of light and say, oh that will do. I take ages sewing a garment together with no shortcuts. Once I’ve finished the garment I do wear it and i get lots of really great compliments, which makes me feel really good. I love your dress and blouse. I’m going to try a find similar patterns for myself. Sharing what you have learned on your journey is very helpful.
    Thank you
    Rose

  2. Marie-Christine permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:14 pm

    OH, I totally agree, the Sarah Palin mauling outfit is in exceedingly bad taste :-)! A John Waters award for you…

    You’re right, it’s both great and slightly confusing that we can wear so many different styles these days. I have a bit of a shortcut in deciding what’s suitable for you: when was your body fashionable? You can best wear styles of that period. Then again, you don’t have to wear the canonical vintage stuff of that period, as seen by modern eyes. If you’re a bit of a tomboy too, you can wear Poiret day tunics instead of beaded chiffon if you’re a 20s androgynous girl, beach pajamas instead of bias-cut evening gowns if you have a tall shapely 30s body, you can wear Rosie the Riveter outfits if you’re an energetic curvy 40s girl, you can wear capris and sailor t- shirts if you’re a luscious 50s girl, or slim pants instead of miniskirts if you’re a twiggy… You just need better documentation than the modern take on vintage which tries to force you into skirts and that fluffy kitty look, and I particularly recommend movies about the working class. Then there’s always Katherine Hepburn :-).

  3. dawn s permalink
    January 23, 2011 9:55 am

    I think the “Sarah Palin Mauled” costume is in exceedingly bad taste.

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 23, 2011 7:40 pm

      I apologize, but I couldn’t get the pics of my Sexy Suicide Bomber costume to upload.

      • Geogrrl permalink
        January 24, 2011 6:50 am

        Bad taste…. Funny…. Poh-TAY-to, Poh-TAH-to.

        Really, it’s in no worse taste than many other Halloween costumes I’ve seen.

  4. January 21, 2011 4:41 am

    Another fabulous post. Love the photos :)

    This was my fave: “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?”

    Yes! That’s it. There’s an amen echoing across a continent and an ocean.

  5. Nicole permalink
    January 20, 2011 9:54 pm

    “Bear-mauled Palin” is an awesome costume. And from the profile there was a striking resemblance. Though the similarities end there, I’m certain.

  6. January 20, 2011 2:09 am

    These last two re-cap posts have been great! You have tidily summed up some of my very own thoughts about dressing for the life one actually lives. Thanks, it’s like additional mental support. I’ll be eagerly following this year’s progress.

    Oh, and clicking through links, I came across your link to B. Sterling’s last Viridian Note and was very intrigued. There too were echoes of my own thoughts, expanded, very intriguing.

  7. January 19, 2011 6:29 pm

    I’ve really enjoyed these last couple of posts! The first one especially struck some major chords with me – both in terms of shopping and making clothes that fit into a very marginal part of my life. Let’s hear it for the everyday-wear!

    Participating in Self-Stitched-September last fall was really helpful in terms of not only pinpointing “my” style, but also what is lacking in my wardrobe. I have so many solid-colored things, which are great basics, but I can afford to have many more interesting pieces. Interesting in terms of maybe having a pattern, or some extra detailing like pintucks or gathers, but still very usable, non-offensive clothes.

    So happy to have you back, I so enjoy reading your posts, and I can’t wait to see the practical and tangible results of your year-long experiment!

  8. January 19, 2011 4:34 pm

    I really enjoyed these thoughtful summaries of the difference between fantasy and everyday wear.

    I think a lot about how the everyday can be enriched – rather than escaped from – through creativity. Your fashion project for 2011 sounds really life-enhancing and affirmative and I look forward to reading about how what you learned with the amazing “Fashion on a ration” project will expand your appreciation of everyday wear.

  9. January 19, 2011 1:30 pm

    I love this 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. I’ve still got to learn what does and doesn’t suit me, a slow process with lots of procrastination but I’ll be stealing your mantra if I discover strong shoulders don’t suit me either!

    It’s been really interesting following your progress and reading your thoughts on the evoloution of your attitude towards everyday clothes was enlightening. I can’t wait to see what you make this coming year!

  10. January 19, 2011 12:38 pm

    Your experience of London confuses me: my daughter will only wear her “out there” clothes when she visits her dad in London, because she says it is the only place where you can wear absolutely anything and nobody stares at you. Mind you, her only point of comparison is a small Scottish market town, so perhaps it feels different to someone more worldly-wise!

    • Susannah permalink*
      January 19, 2011 1:26 pm

      I grew up in the American equivalent of a Scottish market town, so I feel your daughter’s pain — tell her everything improves once you get to university!

      There is some great street style in London, but on the whole I’ve noticed it isn’t as wildly diverse as in some other cities I’ve visited and lived in. (And it’s no Tokyo, that’s for sure!) Self-expression through appearance here tends to be subtle rather than exuberant or flamboyant, probably because screaming “LOOK AT MEEEEEEEE!” is deeply, deeply un-British.

      Also, to provide some context, I work in Parliament, which is probably not one of the best places in the city to start experimenting with kooky workwear — as in any other stuffy gentlemen’s club, you can be denied entry for inappropriate clothing (no tie! bare arms!! jeans!!!).

  11. January 19, 2011 6:22 am

    That Zombie loooove picture has some serious chemistry going on. I started sewing at a similar age for the exact same reason. Too bad we never lived down the street from each other.

    I think you’re right on about magical every day clothes. You might be surprised what you can get away with in daily wear type clothes.

  12. January 18, 2011 10:16 pm

    Awesome to hear your thoughts on sewing and your new mindset for the new year! Very excited to see what you make in the wake of your acquired self-knowledge. I think it’s very interesting that lots of sewers (myself included) seem to be coming round to the idea of slower, more concious sewing projects, favouring quality over sheer quantity. Hope 2011 also means we get to meet in the flesh! xxx

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