The House of Tatterdemalion

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I wish Threads would run articles like this. . .

May 23rd, 2007 by tatterdemalion

I found this article to be fascinating and informative. It’s all about how sheep-breeders are milking the hype over super-fine wool (you may have heard them referred to as Super 120, Super 150, Super 180, etc). At the end of the article, it kind of points out that all of this super-fineness has it’s downsides, namely in—and you’d think this would have been obvious to begin with—durability and elasticity. The English Cut blog was much more blunt in simply saying

To qualilify as a good, hard-wearing and attractive wool worsted, it must be rated at least in the upper 80’s and 90’s.

The Super 120’s and higher are beautiful cloths, but there’s a price to pay, and not only financial. Although they do feel wonderful, the simple fact is they don’t wear very well. They’re simply not as durable as their lesser-numbered cousins.

This whole deal vaguely reminds me of food processing. There was a time when “refined” white flour was simply the best of the best, and now everyone telling you it’s horrible for you and you should eat whole wheat. I don’t think it should really be a surprise to anyone—either that the more you take out of food, the less there is in it, or that the more you breed for fineness the less you’ll have in strength.

Nonetheless, this is the kind of educational article I wish Threads would run. I nearly cried the time they ran the article on which pins for which purposes, because I don’t think I learned anything I didn’t already know from reading the back of the pin packages and the signs in the notions aisle in JoAnn’s of all places. Such rudimentary and easy to find information, and what I’d really like to be seeing is the harder to find, technical types of articles like this one. Especially on different types of cloth, because the cloth is such an huge percentage of how a garment will turn out, and the more understanding you have of your cloth, the better you will be able to use it. And dyes; I’m fascinated by them as well.

I just wish that Threads would take sewing more seriously. It certainly takes itself as a magazine very seriously, and there’s a lot of emphasis on photography and layout and graphic design, but really? The content is a million times more important to me than the layout, and I want content that takes sewing seriously. (It doesn’t have to be Threads, but honestly, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of choices.) All this lightness and fluff. . .is like Super 180 wool. It might feel good at first, but it wears out really, reallly fast. I’d like a magazine that isn’t quite so pretty but is more long-lasting and hard-working.

Please.

Posted in Articles, Cloth, Contemplations, Technical | No Comments »

So What Does 'Couture' Mean, Anyway?

May 6th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

That’s the title of an article that ran recently (Tuesday, April 26, 2007, Personal Journal) in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve talked about this subject before; this article, written by Christina Binkley, basically said the same thing I did, in it’s own words.

We Americans have bitten off yet another tasty French concept, and chewed it into submission, thereby revealing the extent of our naivete. “For you it means ‘expensive,'” Pamela Golbin, curator of the Louvre museum’s costume collection, told me a few months ago, with a smile.

In the most technical, literal meaning, “haute” means “high”, and “couture” means sewing. Which means it’s really funny when the article points out that there is now “couture” paper, and “couture” paint, showing just how obviously (and to what extent) people are chewing up the word “couture” to mean whatever they want it to mean.

The French government has the phrase “haute couture” regulated to death, and so most people just say “couture” and give the word it’s own meaning. For myself, the meaning I’ve always given to “couture” is about the highest level of sewing, custom made to a particular person. It’s the parallel to, say, fine wood-working. The craftsmanship the highest of it’s kind. While this definition doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the official meaning of the phrase “haute couture”, it does say a lot about me, and what I’m looking for.

Likewise, the meaning that the majority of Americans have attached to the word might not have much to do with the official meaning, but it does have a lot to say about Americans. While I focus on the concrete aspects—workmanship, and actually having something to do with sewing—most people focus abstract aspects—the prestige, the exclusiveness. As the article notes,

. . .the term couture has been stretched beyond accuracy for years. But lately, as America’s love affair with luxury goods reaches a fevered pitch, the word has become ubiquitous in the U.S. The only term that may be even more abused is “luxury” itself.

This desire of Americans to have all that is exclusive was further highlighted by two other recent WSJ articles. One, from the May 2, 2007 Marketplace, was titled “Liz Claiborne’s Unexpected Stumble”. (Liz, by the way, recently bought Juicy Couture.)

. . .middle-market retailers like J.C.Penney Co. and Kohl’s Corp. are demanding exclusive brands that can’t be found elsewhere.

“This is a big-picture conversation. There is a major change in channel dynamics,” Liz Claiborne Chief Executive William McComb, who joined he company in November from Johnson & Johnson, said in an interview. “Neiman’s doesn’t want to carry what Bloomingdale’s carries. Penney’s and Kohl’s are in a bitter battle. They all think they can press the vendor world for exclusives.”

That’s putting huge pressure on Liz Claiborne and its rivals to rethink the way they do business.

Does anyone see any issues with everyone being exclusive? Yeah. The other article is called “In Praise of Less Praise”, by Jeffrey Zaslow (May 3, 2007, Personal Journal). This article was a follow up to the author’s previous article on praise in today’s workplace. His last example in this article touched on this issue.

Readers wrote about soccer leagues that don’t keep score to avoid hurt feelings; so the kids keep score in their heads. And parents have to pay “trophy fees” before sports seasons even start. Kids know these trophies are bought and not earned.

Several readers sent me dialogue from the 2004 animated film “The Incredibles.” There’s a scene in which the superhero mom tells her son, “Everyone’s special!” The boy mutters: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

Naturally, your average consumer doesn’t want to believe that everyone is special. They just want to believe that they are special, or exclusive, or whatever term you want to use. And if that will get more customers, than the companies want them to believe it. So the companies want everyone to believe that they are special, so everyone will by from them, so they pretend to be exclusive. (Got that?) Hence, the newfound popularity of the word “couture”, which is being used to basically mean, “you’re special person if you (can) buy this product.”

And how is the French-government-regulated haute couture doing? Well, not so hot. There are only 8 or so companies that still meet the strict rules, and the number declines every year. Binkley comments,

Perhaps because their profits aren’t threatened by rock-‘n’-roll T-shirts and cotton baby-wear, haute couture designers seem resigned to our culture of couture this-and-that.

Basically, in my words, Americans aren’t killing the meaning of the word, so much as that couture is already dead anyway.

Participants see themselves at the forefront of new design, without the tug of crass commerce. But they acknowledge that while their work is prestigious it is largely unprofitable.

I read: Since they assume themselves to be so high-class, they think they can make ugly gowns that no one wants, simply for art’s sake. I mean, would you pay $50,000 for this? Or this? No? Not even if the dorky metal-squished-grasshopper-headpiece was included? Oh, you have no appreciation for art. No one is sophisticated enough to appreciate couture any more. The tragedy, the tragedy.

You know, at the founding of couture, the Great and Famous Charles Worth himself made clothes that were meant to be worn. I know, I know, it seems like such a foreign idea to haute couture these days, but really, he did. As Secrets of the Couturiers (by Frances Kennett) says,

. . .one of his customers describes: ‘For a private fancy dress ball at the Tuileries last Monday, Worth made costumes to the tune of 200,000 dollars, and yet there were not 400 ladies invited’. Given the increasing competition among new couturiers in Paris (largely generated by his own efforts) it is unlikely that Worth made more than 100 of the 400 models. . . But there had to be short cuts or new techniques to cope with the volume of work.

If modern couturiers have artsied themselves out of an audience, they’ve only themselves to blame. There’s plenty of people willing to spend mind-blowing amounts of money on clothes—as the ubiquitous references to $700 jeans can attest—but you have to make clothes that people are willing to wear first, you know. This just ain’t gonna cut it. I mean, I might wear that if you paid me, but certainly not the other way around.

So people slap the word on things that people will wear. Like velour track-suits, and cotton t-shirts. Hey, I like cotton t-shirts!

And I know I’m special.

Just like everyone else.

(But I won’t pay $700 for a pair of jeans. Sorry.)

Posted in Articles, Contemplations, Couture, WSJ | 2 Comments »