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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

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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Filed under Ethical Fashion, Secondhand Worlds, Sewing, Vintage Clothing

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

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