Category Archives: Sewing

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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Ethical Dilemmas in Refashioning Vintage Clothes

vogue jacket

My mother was an excellent seamstress when I was in high school. I didn’t have much incentive to learn to sew myself since I could never make anything that was as high quality as what my mother could produce. It was a love of vintage clothing that eventually brought me into the world of sewing decades later. I was walking by St. Paul’s awesome fabric store Treadle Yard Goods and noticed a 50s style dress that bowled me over. It turned out to be the diamond dress pattern from the retro pattern company Decades of Style. I went in and bought the pattern even though I didn’t even own a sewing machine. I’m now on my second sewing machine (a vintage Bernina) and I have accumulated a mini-library of vintage patterns (ironically, I still haven’t made that diamond dress!).

Learning to sew has expanded what vintage items I can buy and successfully wear. I regularly make routine alterations such as hemming, letting out or taking in seams. I think of these alterations as uncontroversial. I never even cut the hem when I take up a skirt so that if the next owner is taller, she’ll have something to work with. And I normally avoid trimming seam allowances I’ve taken in for the same reason.

Where things get a little more ethically uncomfortable for me is when I’m permanently altering the garment in ways that it can’t return to its original state. I’ve altered a maxi into a mini. And if I really love a long vintage skirt that has a tiny waist (I comfort myself with the thought that they wore girdles back in those days, right?), I’ve cut off the waistband and re-sewn it with a contour waistline (mark the new waist-line using a pattern if you’re trying this at home). The contour style waistband-less skirt is not authentic to the time period, but it fits me comfortably.

And re-shaping a waist is one thing, but what about a complete re-fashion? I adore Charity Shop Chic or Jillian Owens’ blog Refashionista where fantastic seamstresses take thrift store finds and makes them into cute clothes for a night out on the town. They, of course, work with cast-off clothing. What about cutting into a vintage garment and refashioning it into something more contemporary? I’m probably treading on vintage ethical thin ice, but I’ll admit I’ve done it. I love 1950s novelty print skirts like this brown one below, but they usually have the tiny waists I was referring to above.

Venice skirt 3

This leads me to the story of my first novelty skirt I found. It was a lavender novelty print skirt with a 23-inch waist. When I cut off the waistband in order to create a new one and shorten the skirt, I discovered over 2 yards of fabric tightly gathered in that tiny waistband!  I ultimately decided not to make it into another skirt – I had enough fabric for an entire dress and made the one you see below.

1950s skirt is now a dress

IMG_2534 (1)

And the jacket at the top of this blog post? The herringbone section made up a bulky skirt that I watched hang unloved in a local vintage shop for two years before I bought it and turned it into the 1960s Vogue jacket pattern.

But should I have made the cuts and re-worked the skirts?

I never really thought about the ethics of altering vintage until I had a conversation with a Ph.D. student from the University of Minnesota’s Design-Apparel Studies program. With her training in textile conservation, she brought up how altering vintage clothing posed a real dilemma – the conservationist in her wanted to leave the clothes un-molested, but the fashionista wanted to alter and wear. Re-fashioning old clothing to re-shape it into new styles is an old practice. Patricia Allerston in Reconstructing the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in Sixteenth- and Seventeen-Century Venice reasoned that there are few surviving examples of Italian Renaissance clothing because the fabric remained valuable after a particular style faded, and old garments were re-worked into new ones.

So does that mean (gulp) that when I remove a genuine 1950s tiny waistband that I’m contributing to a world where no one will know what these waistbands look like or how small 50s young women once were?

It’s possible. That’s why I’ve felt a little nervous about my past vintage refashions.  Yet, I will say that losing examples of 1950s skirts seems less probable than the loss of surviving 16th- and 17th-century Venetian dresses. The Venetian textiles remained valuable because they were rare, painstaking handcrafted by expert weavers, and so they were sewn into something else. The 1950s fabrics are high quality but mass-produced – not the same type of high quality as Venetian brocades. Finding examples today of 1950s textiles is thankfully not that difficult. Moreover, because we are more fascinated by our recent past than the Renaissance Venetians probably were, people keep their high quality old clothes. Museums and historical societies regularly collect antique garments – from haute couture to everyday wear – as part of their conservation efforts. And today’s grand dames of fashion are willing to ensure that the iconic clothing of past decades is conserved (for example, I recently watched the documentary Iris about Iris Apfel, who was donating her clothing to the Peabody Essex Museum).

I definitely haven’t taken the ethical high road of conservationism when it comes to making my vintage clothes work for today. I do keep alterations to a minimum rather than frequently engaging in a full-scale re-fashioning. And I should note that the designer garments I own are off-limits for anything but hemming – their value is retained through minimal to no change. But in the end I rationalize that re-fashioning old styles into new garments is also a part of our Western heritage and is a tradition that I’m carrying on, for better or for worse.

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Sustainable Fashion Design Exhibit at the Goldstein Museum of Design

Redefining Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability

January 19 – May 26, 2013

Goldstein Museum of Design

admission is free

The principle of sustainability describes not using up more resources than can be replaced from generation to generation. Sustainability is not usually associated with the fashion industry. The concept of fashion – as opposed to clothing – is about novelty and change. When we pursue fashion, we seek new clothes because we want a new look, an innovative change in design. That means we may discard garments that are still perfectly wearable from a use standpoint.

This raises the important question of whether one can make clothing choices that are both fashionable and sustainable, or are the two ideas inherently antithetical?

New fashion designers are taking on this issue. They have come of age during an era when “green” consumer choices have become more prevalent, and recycling (rather than trashing) has become a habit. This has led to thinking about how creating new looks can take less toll on the environment.

The new exhibit, “Redefining Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability” at the Goldstein Museum of Design is a fascinating exhibit for those who are interested in exploring the possibilities for sustainable clothing design.

Curators Marilyn DeLong, Barbara Heinemann and Kathryn Reiley have categorized the exhibition entries according to five sustainable design criteria:

Alternative Construction & Techniques

Emotional Connections

Repurposed Materials

Versatility

Valuing Resources

The exhibit features many fun garments that are made from repurposed materials. Most eye-catching is the colorful dress made out of repurposed soda can pop-tabs. If you don’t fancy wearing aluminum, there are dresses and jackets made from discarded linens and clothes that were once donated to Goodwill – if you have sewing skills, it might spark the imagination.

I found the clothing made from using alternative construction techniques intriguing. Before visiting Redefining Redesigning Fashion, I had never really thought about how much fabric goes to waste simply by being cast off the cutting table because bolts of fabric are rectangular, while bodies (and therefore patterns) are curved. One of my favorite items on display (you can see it in this photo) is a gray “tent” dress designed to minimize the amount of fabric that is cut away from the pattern and discarded.

The inclusion of the category “Emotional Connections” is often overlooked in sustainable design but it is very important. With Emotional Connections as a criteria of sustainable design, we are asked to think more consciously about our emotional attachments to our clothes. Whenever I visit a vintage shop, I’m aware that someone held on to their dresses, sweaters and suit jackets and perhaps lovingly cared for them even when they were no longer in style or they no longer fit. It’s that emotional connection that often leads us to preserve our clothes, keeping them safely packed away for years, rather than donating or discarding them, where they may make their way more easily to a landfill.

The exhibit also implicitly begs the question of whether the fashion industry can be sustainable. Everything on display is hand-sewn and unique – only 1-2 items could possibly lend themselves to mass production. Thus like the slow food and localvore movements, sustainable fashion may be a practice that asks us to think globally and act locally with our purchase power.

If you live in the Twin Cities and have an interest in ethical fashion, I highly recommend visiting the Goldstein (rhymes with “design”), which has free admission to its gallery where this exhibition is showing. There will also be a free lecture by Sandra Black, an expert on sustainable fashion from London on Thursday, February 21st at 33 McNeal Hall on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Making Mends

It’s Labor Day weekend, and for many of us, a new school year is about to begin. When I was a kid, the month of August meant shopping for a few new outfits and a new pair of shoes for school. We lived in a rural area and so back-to-school shopping was an all-day affair – getting up early in the morning, driving two hours to Fargo, spending the entire day in West Acres Mall, and then driving back at night. It was both fun and tedious as the day wore on.

I don’t do much back-to-school shopping now even though I still work in education. Without the problem of growing out of pair of shoes or facing the prospect of going to class wearing “high-water pants,” there is less incentive to shop in late August.

This Labor Day weekend, I’m trying to start a new back-to-school tradition by going through my closet and identifying which pieces I’ve been ignoring because they are currently in need of a little attention. I was inspired by an article on Ecouterre about a chic little sewing machine designed to encourage consumers to “Make Do and Mend” their clothes.

Make Do and Mend Poster WWII

“Make Do and Mend” has a history. It was the motto of a British 1940s war rationing campaign that encouraged women to conserve their family’s clothing and ultimately to purchase less fabric, which was gravely needed to make military uniforms. Women were encouraged to reinforce seams, patch holes and make new garments out of men’s old trousers or ill-fitting suit jackets, as seen in this helpful video of the time.

As the Ecouterre article indicated, the idea of mending clothes is making a comeback as a matter of ethical fashion. Clothes that receive repairs have longer lives in our closets and are less likely to wind up in a landfill. While we might assume that the pants missing the button are perfectly fine for a Goodwill donation and that someone else will repair them, the truth is Goodwill customers are also likely to pass on it in favor of clothes that are literally ready to wear. Mending clothing means they have longer lives for us and the future wearers of our donated clothes. And, as during war rationing, mending encourages us to consume less (and save money) by getting more value from our existing wardrobe.

My own Make Do and Mend project that I’m tackling this Labor Day weekend involves reinforcing the seams of a vintage dress. The seams have become badly frayed over the years. The dress is made from a soft, coarse basket-weave cotton with a print that for some reason reminds me of the graphics of  The Partridge Family theme song. There’s no label in the dress, so I assume it was originally home-sewn.

The Partridge Family theme song graphic

the print of my vintage dress

Here’s the problem. The seams in some places have frayed right down to the thread-line. If I continue to wear it this way, the unraveling will soon break through the seams, and the dress will be difficult to save without making it significantly smaller.

Badly frayed seams

I am a novice seamstress, so I sought help. I went to a local sewing store near my house and asked for advice on how to fix the problem. It turns out that I need to encase the seams in bias tape. This make the seams subject to less of the friction that causes them to fray. I left the store with several packets of black bias tape in different widths for the project.

First I clipped away the frayed edges so that I could get the bias tape close enough to encase the part of the seam that was still intact. I used a thin bias tape where the seams had almost disappeared, and a wide one for where they were mostly intact.

I have to admit that this wasn’t exactly the quick little project I had hoped it would be; it took me an entire afternoon. It was, however, worth it to me to save a loved 40-year old dress that is one of my favorite summer frocks.

Finished seams w/bias tape

The mended dress

I thought to myself (after sticking my finger during the pinning process) that I wouldn’t do this for just any dress.

And then I paused to think about why that is the case. Why wouldn’t I go to this effort for any dress in my closet?  This realization reminded me of a point that Elizabeth Cline makes in her excellent book Overdressed, and in her blog The Good Closet: that if we find ourselves easily willing to discard articles of clothing in our closet, then maybe we’re not investing enough in clothes that are of high-quality and that we truly love in the first place.

For now, as fall gets closer, I’ll make do and mend the clothes that I have and build on my sewing skills. And maybe I’ll get some of those rubber thimbles.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Sewing, Vintage Clothing