Category Archives: Closet Encounters

Selective Memory

Picture a 1920s dress and hat, trying to imagine the style, fabric and color.

What comes to mind as you picture the dress? Does it have a drop-waist? A hemline that stops just below the knee? Is it sleeveless? Is the skirt fitted, gathered or pleated? Does it have a straight hemline or an uneven one?  Is the dress fabric you’re picturing rather light-colored (pastels?) and floaty, like silk chiffon? Or maybe black, adorned with beads or embroidery?

How about the hat? Did you picture a round cloche? Was it a summer hat made of straw or raffia? Or a winter hat made of wool?

Where did your image of the 1920s dress and hat come from? Did you draw from images from the film The Great Gatsby (and then, 1974 or the 2013 version?) or maybe the HBO series Boardwalk Empire?

Did the dress and hat you imagined look anything like this?

 

1921 pattern 1.JPG

1920s hat.JPG

I’d like to have something to wear to a 1920s-themed event, like the Jazz Age Lawn Party or to a speakeasy bar.

The pattern pictured above is a genuine 1921 pattern. The hat is a 1920s hat that I’ve had for years, displayed in my sewing room in a clear hat box. I’ve purchased linen fabric in the yellow-cream and light orange that matches the hat’s embroidery.

Yet I find myself hesitating to cut out the pattern pieces. I keep thinking, “Does the pattern really look 20s enough? I mean, aren’t those exaggerated wavy lines in the design more mod 1960s or 1970s than 1920s? And what about that skirt on the dress? Doesn’t it read more 1930s? And isn’t the skirt kind of frumpy? Does the hat look enough like a cloche?”

And here I am caught up in the irony of having genuine 1920s articles, and wondering if they look “authentically” 1920s.  I’ve been thinking of making the pattern with a different skirt style – maybe pleated or handerkerchief – in order to give it a more “20s look.”

I’ve been reading Heike Jenss’s book Fashioning Memory: Vintage Culture and Youth Style and it’s helped me understand why I’m questioning the “20s-ness” of my pattern. It turns out we have a selective cultural memory of what 1920s (or any past decade’s) style is. My 20s patterns doesn’t look 20s enough because I’m drawing off only the most iconic images of how that era has been reproduced in popular culture in films like Midnight in Paris or the television series Downtown Abbey.  Costume designers regularly allow present styles to influence how they reproduce the past. So, for example, the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby features much more fitted versions of flapper dresses than actually was the style. It’s no surprise – every vintage store owner I’ve ever talked to about wearing 20s  has told me that most women look terrible in the flat-chested, straight-sided, sack-like dresses of that era. But like most vintage enthusiasts, I’m highly influenced by the present in my imagining of what constitutes “the look” of the past. And so, just like a costume designer, I’m highly likely to alter the pattern’s style to give it a more shapely look that I can more easily wear in the present day. And then my altered “authentic” 20s dress will continue to shape how we today imagine the 1920s.

 

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Filed under Closet Encounters, Good Books, Sewing

Taking A Count of What We Already Have

 

fiber labeled

I’m not a big fan of Black Friday. I’ve never been one to get up in the morning and take part in a shopping frenzy. In fact, I’m not a fan of early morning at all, so perhaps my aversion to Black Friday reveals that I believe retailers should give me expensive electronics and cash to get me out of bed on a holiday weekend before the sun is shining. That still might not be enough of an incentive to leave my cozy warm bed for vicious crowds and over-the-top consumerism.

Here’s what I did instead for Black Friday (after a late brunch, of course). I counted my clothes.

I’m taking part in an assignment I also gave my Intro to Sociology students. We are reading Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where Cline begins her exploration of the fast fashion industry by counting her own clothes that she had accumulated through years of bargain-hunting. She had 354 items of clothing, most of it cheaply-made fast fashion produced in Asia.

In order to not make the clothes-counting task overly burdensome for my students on Thanksgiving weekend, we are only counting our clothes that are currently in circulation – if it’s in a drawer, hanging in a closet, piled on the floor or hiding in a laundry basket, it gets counted. If it’s in a storage bin, it doesn’t get counted. Ditto for underwear, accessories, shoes, scarves, mittens, hats. That means our clothing counts are conservative. Besides just the total count of clothing items, we are also keeping track of what country of origin each item came from, for the sake of appreciating the laborers who made the shirts we wear on our backs. For my own personal interest, I also recorded brand, fiber content, whether I purchased the item locally or from a national retailer, and whether it was vintage or non-vintage.

Part of my motivation for giving this assignment over Thanksgiving weekend is I proposed it could be a fun family activity if my students could convince parents, siblings or cousins to help with the count.  So with my honey filling out an Excel spreadsheet while I went through drawers, closet, and laundry basket, the count began. The results were interesting.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ll present my results with pie charts. Pie charts are like little festive Christmas ornaments for sociologists. Feel free to print them, cut them out, and hang them on the tree!

Here is a pie chart illustrating the different types of clothing items in my closet, the grand total of which was 186 items of clothing (and that’s a conservative number, given I didn’t count storage).

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I was curious to see what proportion of my clothes were vintage. I have a passion for vintage, yet my vintage garments have to compete with the many t-shirts, jeans and skirts that form the staples of daily dressing. Indeed, I found that the non-vintage items dominated my wardrobe.

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A breakdown of my closet by brand and/or origin of purchase reveals why non-vintage makes up the largest proportion of my closet (by the way, this would be the prettiest of the festive pie-chart Christmas ornaments if I were judging purely on an aesthetic basis).

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I also checked the proportion of garments I had purchases locally, in non-chain shops. I thought my results were respectable, though non-local purchases did dominate.

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What I found most interesting was the breakdown of my wardrobe by country of origin.

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The largest proportion of my clothes were made in the U.S.A., followed by China, and Scotland (huh, Scotland? Yes, Scotland).This is where my wardrobe tells a story about the U.S. fashion industry that Cline details in her book. The high proportion of USA-made items in my closet mostly comes from garments that were made before 1990. Combined with new clothes I sewed, and a few pairs of USA-made jeans and leggings, this explains the strong showing for USA. Made before 1990 also explains the curious position of Scotland in third place. I live in a cold place, and I have a thing for vintage cashmere sweaters, almost all of which were originally made in Scotland.

But all my new t-shirts with their various sleeve lengths, in a rainbow of  colors, my cheap pants and dresses from various fast fashion retailers were produced in Asia or Latin America. Embedded in this data is a historical story of how the fashion industry moved from being located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere before 1990, to moving into the Southern Hemisphere due to companies outsourcing for the sake of finding cheap labor and lax regulations on working conditions. Recoding country by Northern or Southern  hemisphere in my closet, here’s the proportion:

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I’ll be curious to see what the results of my students are for this same exercise. I am guessing that China and other Asian countries will account for a larger proportion of clothing in their closets. And I am sure it will generate a discussion about the labor conditions in the countries where most of our clothing is produced, as this is an compelling theme in Cline’s Overdressed.

And I also hope that by counting clothes over Thanksgiving weekend, everyone felt thankful for what they had and maybe Black Friday held less enticement than in previous years.

– Nancy L. Fischer

All pie charts created on SPSS by Lars D. Christiansen. Thanks!

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Filed under Closet Encounters, Made in USA, Vintage Clothing, Worth Reading

Out of Sorts: Closet Encounters of the Emotional Kind

Closet

“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray……” Actually, the sky might be gray right now, but the leaves are a bright mix of green, yellow, orange, red and brown. This week, the telltale chill and crispness entered the breeze, signaling it’s truly fall. Here in Minnesota we have four distinct seasons dictated by the weather, and most inhabitants who are able shift what they wear with each season. Yes, we layer summer’s t-shirts, but the sundresses and tank tops vanish. Out come the long-sleeve t-shirts, sweaters, caps, jackets, scarves and darker colors.

Today I ushered my closet through its seasonal shift from summer to fall. I got up from breakfast, coffee in hand, feeling energetic and ready to undertake the task. I put on some music, bring out the storage containers and start sorting through what can be packed away and what will stay, awaiting supplemental layers. I will complete this task by lunch, and then move onto others on my to do list. This is the attitude with which I always begin a seasonal sorting of my closet – ready to go, resolved to efficiently undertake the task with enthusiasm.

And then I notice that it’s already 2:30, the cat is desperately trying to get my attention because I’ve forgotten his lunch. When I notice his cries, I realize I’ve been staring into space for 5 minutes, a heap of clothes piled over my arm. Where did the time go? Why am I unable to efficiently move forward and complete the task at hand?

It occurs to me that this has happened every single time – every season. It’s never as simple as putting away the sundresses and replacing them with sweaters. The sorting process is not as rational as establishing one pile for clothes that need repairs, others that need a wash, a third that will go to Goodwill.

Why does the seemingly simple process of sorting through my clothes become so emotionally fraught? As I contemplate my lost afternoon, I finally realize this is an inherently emotional task.

There are the moments of regret, when I think “What was I thinking? Why did I buy that?” These items are the easiest to dispose of, the offending item pulled off the hanger and into the pile for a local charity.

Torn Hawaiian shirt

I get a deeper stab of regret and loss as I realize some garments are at the end of their “life cycle,” (at least in their current form). I ripped my beautiful blue Hawaii’ian shirt on a tree branch this summer – I don’t think I can repair it, so do I cut it apart and incorporate the fabric elsewhere? If I put it in the sewing room, will I be able to bring myself to take the scissors to the shirt? It now makes me a bit sad.

Sorting my clothes into different piles also leads me to occasionally hop aboard the guilt trip express. I encounter garments that represent failed aspirations. I intended to repair that dress, but here it hangs, in need of mending. This 1940s peplum jacket from Dayton’s still fits, but I’ve never had a skirt to match it; I’ve been intending to find or sew one since, well ………maybe 1986.  late 40s jacket, Daytons

And it hangs next to this blue silk swing jacket that I purchased in the late 80s because I loved that it had such a specific geographic location on the label, “Just Opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay” Like the 40s peplum jacket, I have never been able to match the silk jacket. I don’t have the heart to give either jacket away; they are last two examples I have of the first vintage clothes I ever purchased. So here they remain, old friends that haven’t received their fair share of attention, still waiting for me to find them appropriate acquaintances so that we can all hang out together in public. Silk jacket from Bombay

And speaking of guilt, what do I do with gifts? Some clothes I acquired through the thoughtfulness of others but they really don’t fit that well or suit my tastes. Wouldn’t it be wrong to put them in the Goodwill pile? And what if gift-giver goes to Goodwill and sees it hanging there? I pack the item away for now, ensuring that I’ll be taking another little guilt trip in spring when I re-encounter this particular storage bin.

Sorting through my closet also leads to wistfulness. As I make my way through my closet, I inevitably encounter ghosts of bodies and selves past. The dashed hopes that one day I will lose enough weight to fit back into my beloved mod arrow dress. Even some of my newer clothes fit in all the right places a season or two ago, but now I must face that age and gravity have taken their toll.

E.C. Star Arrow Dress

Thankfully, not every emotion of entering the closet is negative. As I near the end of my task, things begin to look up. In storage bins, I rediscover favorites of my fall wardrobe and smile, as if encountering old friends who are dear to me and make me feel good when I’m in their presence. It is these familiars who now move to front and center, giving me a nod of reassurance whenever I open the closet door.

It’s almost late afternoon now, the laundry nearly done, the newly cleaned clothes that survived summer are now packed away. There’s a grocery bag full of items ready for a local charity shop. I’ve put my torn and stained clothes whose fabric I loved in my sewing room – perhaps I will learn to quilt and they will once again bring me a smile in a new form.

I sit with a cup of hot tea, looking out at the October gray sky, finally feeling emotionally settled, my closet encounter perhaps having helped me, for now, to come to terms with bodies and selves of times present.

– Nancy L. Fischer

photos by Nancy Fischer

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October 6, 2013 · 5:17 pm