I’ve been in a slightly unexpected funk with sewing and clothes over the last week or so. I finished an assignment for my Open University degree in Psychology and thought I’d relish the opportunity to get more creative and less academic. But I’ve found myself doing the most mundane of mending tasks and even struggling to choose an outfit in the morning.
My own clothing choices have been almost entirely based on practicality of late. Husband and I have spent a good chunk of lockdown living on his parents’ farm, which has been alarmingly successful. We must all be absolutely delightful people. But the combination of several boisterous dogs, muddy fields, rainy northern weather, and a lot of outdoor exercise and farm-based activities (such as shifting logs and building climbing walls, you know, standard stuff) has meant the most eclectic items of my wardrobe have not really been called on for active duty.
Part of me has loved this. The part of me that despairs at the whole idea of fashion, clothing, and style has been drunk on the freedom to live in the same pair of jeans and handful of t-shirts on rotation for the best part of a year.
Let’s face it, so much of what has been called fashion over the years is undoubtably batshit crazy and practicality appears to have been a token afterthought. History of fashion books are simply bursting with bonkers examples of how the rich and powerful have used their clothes to show how important they are.
Only someone with too much time and money could afford to dress like a fashionable Elizabethan on a daily basis. Those ruffs don’t come cheap and that arsenic infused white face paint won’t apply itself. Let’s also hope you’ve got wide enough corridors for your French farthingale. A skirt with that kind of diameter isn’t going to work in peasant accommodation.
No amount of money, style, or layers of heavily embroidered fabric can make you impervious to ridicule though. Caricaturists and satirists have had a fruitful and extended field day when it comes to opportunities to take the piss out of what people have adorned or altered their bodies with over the years.
Whether it’s stacking hair up to improbable heights, strapping so much framework to ourselves that we’re at risk of catching the wind and blowing away, or wearing skirts so tight they ruin the simple pleasure of sitting down. They've all been tried at some point in history and the results have been suitably mocked shortly after.
I’ve chosen historical examples of how ridiculous we can be with clothes because I have absolutely no idea what the cool kids are wearing these days. Being a crotchety old millennial, I’m sure I wouldn’t approve of it anyway.
In a previous post featuring a brief rant about the inadequacies of women’s pockets I pulled some quotes from Clothes: Pleasures of Life Series by James Laver and I’d like to do so again. Though the author of this text continues to dazzle me with his misogyny and stick-up-the-butt style of writing, he’s managed to pull together a splendid collection of fascinating musings on the subject of clothing. The following poem pleasingly captures the absurdity of the fashion industry.
The poem, by an unknown author, takes the form of a discussion between Beauty and Fashion. Here’s Beauty tearing some strips off of Fashion and making, in my opinion, a very valid point:
“Then of late, you’re so fickle that few people mind you;
For my part, I can never tell where to find you;
Now drest in a cap, now naked in none,
Now loose in a mob, now close in a Joan;
Without handkerchief now, and now buried in ruff,
Now plain as a Quaker, now all of a puff;
Now in shape in neat stays, now slattern in jumps,
Now high in French heels, now low in your pumps;
Now monst’rous in hoop, now trapish, and walking
With your petticoats clung to your heels, like a maulkin;
Like the cock of the tower, that shews you the weather,
You are hardly the same for two days together”
To summarise, fashion changes too fast for anyone to keep up with it and just when you think you’ve cracked it, you’re out of date again.
That being said and despite my current slump in enthusiasm, I struggle to remember a time when I didn’t love clothes. Husband often says I could get emotionally attached to a brick if you put googly eyes on it and this instinct certainly kicks in hard when I find an item of clothing that I love.
In the video in which Leena Norms taught herself to sew (which I reviewed in a previous post) she said something that really struck a chord with me. She talked about having . . .
“. . . a lot of clothes that I’ve loved for a long time and don’t ever want to say goodbye to. So I want to learn how to mend them so I don’t have to be parted from my friends.”
This is not the same reason that I got into sewing but it has been a happy side effect of an otherwise ill-conceived career choice. I lament having to replace items of clothing I’ve formed a strong bond with as all I want is an exact replica of the trusty garment that is now sadly beyond repair.
Take this jumper for example:
I absolutely adore this asymmetric, slightly bobby, and misshapen collection of polyester knit.
I bought it at least seven years ago and it’s been a staple of my wardrobe ever since. It’s got enough Camden Market style about it to not be a simple boring black jumper but the sleeves are a practical length and the knit isn’t so loose that it snags on everything that comes within two feet of it. It has pockets that you can actually fit things in and it’s warm as heck. It’s a big toasty gothic hug and it’s kept me physically and emotionally warm and fuzzy in cold theatres, insufficiently heated accommodation, and on freezing modes of transport.
I’ve stitched up a few holes in the sleeves and given it a good de-bobbling to keep it looking as fresh as possible. But the trim on the fasteners is starting to peel away and I’m not sure how I’ll repair it. It’s not at the end of its life, by any means, but I know it won’t last forever and, no matter how hard I Google, I can’t find an exact replacement.
These blue tartan trousers are another significant chapter in the romance novel of my life in which I and a small but significant collection of clothing play the title roles. I fell in love with these trousers the second I clapped eyes on them in a little shop in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006. They did not fit but why should piffling details like the size of a waistband stand in the way of true love? I bought them even though they were about 3 inches to small and vowed to use my reasonably newfound sewing skills to make them fit.
I did a terrible job of it.
I hacked the outer seam apart, cut straight through the waistband, and bodged in a very wonky black strip from the waist to the hem. If you lay them out flat you could see that my efforts had left the top edge of the waistband anything but even. The back half of the trousers sat at a jaunty angle to the front and, of course, none of the edges of the fabric were neatly finished. But they fit and I loved them and I wore them everywhere.
I continued to wear them in this hacksaw style state until late last year when I finally had to admit it was time to deal with the mess my sixteen-year-old self had created. Thanks to a combination of working in an unforgiving industry and taking up rock climbing, I’ve changed shape a lot since I bought these trousers. I’m now at the point that they would have probably fit me in their original form. As I’ve lost weight and toned up a bit, the trousers have sat lower and lower, I’ve shredded more and more of the hems and my fifteen-year-old bodge has frayed more and more with every wash.
So, at some point in lockdown I decided enough was enough and it was time to deal with the consequences of my own actions. I removed the black strip, re-cut it to a more appropriate width, overlocked all the edges that I’d formerly left to fend for themselves and breathed new life into my trusty friend. Fingers crossed this has put off our inevitable and painful parting for at least another 15 years.
My past and present wardrobe was and is full of stories like this. Of clothes I've loved and lost and clung on to for longer than was probably reasonable.
I still get giddy at the thought of a trip to Camden Market. I drool over costumes in Tim Burton films and try to ignore how impractical it would be to wear those outfits in real life. And I’m terribly excited about the prospect of going charity shop scouring again now such activities come with a lower risk of infection and death.
Because no matter how hard the practical side of my brain tries to convince me that anything other than jeans and a t-shirt is a pointless waste of time, I continue to find something uniquely joyful in a truly treasured piece of clothing. For me, there’s a sense of contentment and confidence that comes with finding an outfit I feel so at home in that it feels like a natural extension of my physical form. Like the skin I have been wearing all my life has become a little richer.
Throughout history, the rich and powerful have attempted to maintain control of others by restricting their clothing choices, acknowledging that the basic freedom to dress and look as we please is indeed a source of strength.
“Kings have been subdued and overcome, races have yielded to continued and strenuous pressure, and all the bigger forces of nature have been defined and kept within limits; but every time that law has come into collision with costume, the greater has been beaten by the lesser. Every attempt to guide, control, or modify its freedom, has been a signal failure. The only laws that have never had a shade of success, that have always been obliged to withdraw their pretensions, and have become dead letters in the statute-book almost before the ink had dried in which they were written, have been sumptuary laws . . . Human nature has laughed at these attempts to regulate a taste so universal, and which even in its excesses, cannot be called criminal, or even vicious; and Fashion has always been stronger than legislation.
(Dress by Mrs. Oliphant, 1878)
Now, I’m not a historian or a lawyer so I cannot confirm or disprove the claim that fashion is impervious to legal will. But the sentiment makes sense to me. Even children sent to school in exactly the same uniform will inevitably tweak the length of a tie, the turn of a sleeve, or the tuck of a shirt to suit their own style. Uniforms are only as uniform as the people that wear them.
The act of forbidding styles of clothing for the sake of decency also seems counter-intuitive, as another chap from my book of many quotations points out:
“We have to thank the Early Fathers for having, albeit perhaps unwittingly, established a mode of thinking from which men and women have developed an art which has supplied them with so much agreeable entertainment, so many satisfying substitutes for Nature’s omissions, and so many novel means of exciting the sexual appetite. Prudery, it seems provides mankind with endless aphrodisiacs; hence, no doubt, the reluctance to abandon it.”
(Why Women Wear Clothes by C. Willett Cunnington, 1941)
To once again inarticulately summarise a well-made point, there must be something terribly exciting under all those full-length skirts, baggy trousers, and high necklines, otherwise why would our wise overlords feel the need to make us cover them up?
So, yes, fashion can be stupid, and I often find myself with little energy for dressing up when the call of comfort and convenience is loud and persuasive. But the lure of a well-fitting blazer, a snuggly jumper, or a brash pair of trousers will always tempt me back to the dark side. I may be in a bit of a style slump right now, but it won’t last. Once I get back into the swing of expressing myself through my clothes again, I know I’ll remember what excellent fun it is.
I’ll leave you with part of the second half of the poem I quoted before, in which Fashion gets a right of reply to Beauty’s taunts. I think Fashion is giving themself a bit too much credit here and finishes on a particularly savage note. Nevertheless, the point stands that life would be a little less pleasurable without the opportunities that clothing presents to us and I will do my best to remember that when staring blankly into my wardrobe in the morning:
“For I hope, my fair lady, you do not forget,
Though you find the thread, that ‘tis I make the net;
. . .
Like the diamonds when rough, are the charms you bestow,
But mine is the setting and polishing too.
Your nymphs, with their shapes, their complexions, and features,
What are they without me, but poor awkward creatures?
The route, the assembly, the playhouse will tell,
‘Tis I form the beau, and finish the belle;
‘Tis by me that these beauties must all be supply’d;
Which time has withdrawn, or which you have deny’d;
Impartial to all, did not I lend my aid,
Both Venus and Cupid might throw up their trade,
And even your ladyship die an old maid”
I’d love to hear about your relationship with clothing and whether you think fashion is a giant waste of time or not. Feel free to drop a comment below and share this post with the fashion conscious or fashion couldn’t-give-a-fucks alike!
Clothes: Pleasures of Life Series by James Laver
Images from Wikipedia