Fashion on the ration: looking back, part 2
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.