I started sewing again as an adult with the purpose in mind of being able to sew interesting and inexpensive clothes that fit well and covered my body enough to meet my personal and religious standards of modesty. But as I've sewn more seriously for the last seven years and blogged about it for the last four, I've found two other reasons to continue to sew my own clothes: fairness and responsibility. I didn't know very much about the environmental and human rights issues in the fashion industry when I started sewing and buying my clothes and fabric secondhand. It was a practical decision, based more on saving money and being able to find things that were more to my taste than what I could find in stores. As I've become more aware of the many problems that beset the creation, consumption and disposal of clothing, it has given those old habits a new value. Buying second-hand clothing and fabric and using my own time and energy to sew and mend them offer me a way to wear clothes without feeling a profound sense of guilt.
That profound sense of unease and guilt over personal enjoyment of fashion causing harm to other people and to the environment is at the heart of Clare Press' Wardrobe Crisis. Press works as an editor at Vogue Australia, and has worked all of her career in fashion journalism. Her inside-view of the fashion industry strongly shapes her book: much of it focuses on high end fashion and the way that it trickles down into fast fashion. She looks at the fashion cycle in great detail, and also delves into the history of fashion through the 20th century and into the 21st, showing how the fashion industry has changed and how it became a globalized behemoth worth $2.4 trillion a year at the time this book was published in 2018. One of my favorite bits of fashion history that she included in this section was the surprisingly Utopian ideal behind the development of shopping malls in America. What was meant to be a social center like the marketplaces of Europe became instead a vehicle for manipulation of customers by companies. That feeling of becoming lost in the mall and shopping mindlessly is now known as the "Gruen transfer," ironically named after the disappointed socialist who had so hopefully created the first malls.
While packed with facts and written in a conversational tone, sometimes the first half of the book could feel very irrelevant and distant from my personal experience, focused as it is on high end runway fashion, furs, labels, and money. There is much in the book to feel melancholy about---much to feel depressed by. The second half of the book felt more widely relevant because it covers quite a bit of the science behind the production of clothing and why it is so toxic to the environment and to the (often poor) people who turn the fabric into garments. The chapters about the history and creation of different fabrics like rayon and nylon is especially eye-opening. It made me realize how important it is to be very careful about our fabric choice as sewers, because sewing our own clothing is not quite enough to make those garments ethical or environmentally sustainable.
The last chapter, entitled "Can We Really Change Our Ways?" looks closely at the conundrum of clothing: it is harmful to over-consume it, but it is also empowering to have choices and enjoy what we wear. Buying second-hand or dead-stock----anything that already exists----is our best choice to clothe ourselves without harming people or the earth further. Tamara DiMattina, the founder of "Buy Nothing New Month," points out that there shouldn't be any stigma about wearing pre-worn garments: "when you book into a luxury hotel, you're not given brand new sheets, are you? You are using a towel that's been used by someone else, then laundered... No one goes to a restaurant and thinks, ewww, that cutlery has been used before, and yet people think it's gross to buy it second-hand..." She goes on to say: "I am no expert in sustainability. I'm just one person who thinks that through some very simple changes we can do better by ourselves and the planet."
In some ways, this was a tough library book to read because so much of the information in it is so disheartening. But I agree with DiMattina, and with Press that it is worthwhile to try to make those "simple changes." There is a saying in my church that "by small and simple things great things are brought to pass," and I do believe that if we each individually change our relationship to clothing (and food, and public transit, and so many other things that we make choices about daily) that we can make a difference together, and make this world a little better for everyone to live in.
Berthe Morisot Pasie Sewing in the Garden oil on canvas 1882
by Hazel Hall
The wind is sewing with needles of rain.
With shining needles of rain
It stitches into the thin
Cloth of earth. In,
In, in, in.
Oh the wind has often sewed with me.
One, two, three.
Spring must have fine things
To wear like other springs.
Of silken green the grass must be
Embroidered. One and two and three.
Then every crocus must be made
So subtly as to seem afraid
Of lifting color from the ground;
And after crocuses the round
Heads of tulips, and all the fair
Intricate garb that Spring will wear.
The wind must sew with needles of rain,
With shining needles of rain,
Stitching into the thin
Cloth of earth, in,
In, in, in,
For all the springs of futurity.
One, two, three.
It likes both to enter and to leave,
actions it seems to feel as a kind of hide-and-seek.
It knows nothing of what the cloth believes
of its magus-like powers.
If fastening and unfastening are its nature,
it doesn't care about its nature.
It likes the caress of two fingers
against its slightly thickened edges.
It likes the scent and heat of the proximate body.
The exhilaration of the washing is its wild pleasure.
Amoralist, sensualist, dependent of cotton thread,
its sleep is curled like a cat to a patch of sun,
calico and round.
Its understanding is the understanding
of honey and jasmine, of letting what happens come.
A button envies no neighboring button,
no snap, no knot, no polyester-braided toggle.
It rests on its red-checked shirt in serene disregard.
It is its own story, completed.
Brevity and longevity mean nothing to a button carved of horn.
Nor do old dreams of passion disturb it,
though once it wandered the ten thousand grasses
with the musk-fragrance caught in its nostrils;
though once it followed--it did, I tell you---that wind for miles.
--Jane Hirschfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt
When looking for inspiration for sewing projects, where do you like to turn? Pinterest, blogs, and magazines are obvious resources for collecting interesting imagery, as are fashion and art museums---but have you considered the library?
I checked this Dover book out from our local library, curious to see what ordinary American women were wearing in the early 1920s, and found that clothes of that era had a much more interesting variety of trims and embellishments---and that it was full of lots of ideas that could easily be used for sewing projects today. Since I don’t want to cause any copyright trouble, I just took a few detail photos. The book itself replicates an entire Philipsborn’s catalog, so it is quite large, with lots of ‘models’ on each page. For more books like this, try checking the Dover website. They have a large section devoted to historical fashion, and their books are always moderately priced.
Do you have any favorite books for sewing inspiration that you have found at the library?
All of these blouses use a contrasting ribbon bow at the neckline.
I like the idea of doing an oversized collar and cuffs of a blouse in eyelet and then trimming them in lace. Doing embroidery in two colors along the neckline and sleeves of a blouse is also an interesting idea.
It may be unusual to see special lace or cutwork collars added to shirts now, but they add a lot of visual interest. I noticed that many of the blouses have long sleeves with turn-back cuffs, sometimes cut in interesting shapes. This seems like a simple adjustment to draft using your favorite long sleeved, cuffed blouse pattern.
I’ve been reading Anne Hollander’s book ‘Sex and Suits,’ and while I don’t always agree with everything she theorizes about clothing, I find what she writes unfailingly interesting. One quote that struck me is about fear of fashion:
“People uncomfortable with taking full responsibility for their own looks, who either fear the purely visual demands of social life—‘appearance’ or ‘appearances’----or don’t trust the operation of their own taste, feel threatened and manipulated by fashion, and have called it a tyrant. The constant element of fiction in it makes it smack of inauthenticity, pretense, and pretention; and it is indeed obvious that fashion is a perpetual test of character and self-knowledge. . .”
I recognized myself in her description. I certainly feared fashion when I was younger, and felt intense dread and helplessness about being judged on my appearance, and anger that we are judged on appearances more rather than the substance of our spirit. But as I have grown older I’ve realized that external appearance and internal states are connected, and although we cannot control our face or body shape to a great extent, we can still shape our appearance through grooming, posture, and clothing choice. I use my sewing now to try to bring my external appearance closer to my internal perceptions of self. Although I am still not certain that I pass the “perpetual test of character and self-knowledge” that fashion presents, as I feel that my understanding of what I like and what suits me is still deveoping as my skills at sewing and what materials are available to me continue to evolve.
Have any of you read any of Anne Hollander’s books about fashion theory and clothing history? What do you think of her ideas about why people are afraid of fashion? Do you recognize yourself in any part of her description too? Do you believe that fashion is a “test of character and self-knowledge?” Does it really matter how we look and present ourselves to the world, or is clothing only superficial and cannot be relied on to reflect personality?
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.