The House of Tatterdemalion


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Somebody cue the music—here it comes!!

July 26th, 2008 by tatterdemalion

Which? What? Pictures and stories of my first ever self-drafted dress! That I finished last year, and never told you about, and finally now am gracing you with it’s presence! It is, basically, proof-positive that I finished Pattern Drafting 101. Taught be me. I was at the head of the graduating class. Which was only me.

Anyway, this is post is dedicated to Bridget. It’s all her fault. No, not really. Really, I could “Thank You” to a million people. Not really. I don’t know a million people. But there is the author of my one-and-only text book (Elizabeth Allemong and her wonderful book European Cut), and my sister who patiently took all my measurements a half-dozen times, and my aunt who introduced me to the world of sewing (but she’d probably die a million deaths if she realized she was responsible for starting me down this path, because for heaven’s sake you’re not supposed to take hobbies so seriously!), and my parents who borned me into this world in the first place—but I’m dedicating this one to Bridget.


‘Cause otherwise I wouldn’t have finished it, and it doesn’t matter how well you start if you never, ever finish. Oh, I guess I probably would have finished it. Eventually. Sometime. Maybe. But I was getting so sick of this project. I had reached ultimate saturation. I didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to work on it. And every time I looked at it, it seemed like it looked worse than it had the time before. And I was, like, 90% of the way there! It just needed finishing up, hemming and boring stuff like that. But instead, it had been tossed into a corner and was just sitting there. Bridget gave me the encouragment, that yes, actually, it’s coming along quite nicely indeed. So finish it.

Also, she kept me company while I cut, sewed, pressed and hemmed 177″ of bias binding. You really, really, really need company when doing something as tedious and mind-numbing as that.

Besides all that, you’d never being seeing this post except for her. She helped me cull through the over 130 photos my (very wonderful) sister took of me wearing the dress (yes, the same sister who took all my measurements!). It’s really no fun looking at over 130 photos of yourself. Then again, maybe she didn’t have fun looking at 130 photos of me, either, but she did it anyway. A true friend (but I’m sure the brownies didn’t hurt, either. . .they were really good brownies).

Anyway, yes. The dress. And me. Brace yourselves!

The Front

The side


The Back

You simply would not believe the tedious hours that went into making this dratted thing. The 177″ of homemade bias binding hem is just the beginning.

The hem

Besides the hem in this picture, you will note a couple of other things. For one thing, the whole dress is underlined. Interlined. Regular old lined. Something. Having bought this fabric way too many years ago when I was young and foolish, I failed to be deterred by the fact that it was rather thin. Very thin. Thin enough it really needed something more to keep it decent. This caused some disappointment to me later on. It may have needed two layers of fabric for opacity’s sake, but those two layers make it much, much warmer. Not so great for wearing during already-quite-warm-enough-thank-you-very-much weather. Everything I have ever read has claimed that building a dress like this will make it less prone to wrinkling, but the whole thing is 100% cotton, so I doubt you’ll see much of a difference on that count.

A second thing you will notice is all the orange thread-tracing lines. Techincally, now that the dress is done, they should be taken out. But that’s fuss and bother, and you can’t see them from the outside, and I’m quite finished working on this. I’m not in the least bit repentant of doing all that thread tracing, though. It was extremely useful for getting the pleats to line up right, and the darts and everything else. It is a time-eater, but if I ever have pieces-that-must-line-up, I would do it again in an instant. It was very reliable, didn’t go away until you wanted it to, and then did go away when you did want it to. It was Precise. I liked it.

inside detail

This is the inside shoulder; you can see the back shoulder dart. If you look close, you can see my hand stitching securing the muslin underlayer shoulders to each other. I was really doing quite the hybrid. I sewed a lot of the dress treating the muslin and the “fashion fabric” as one—the darts, and most of the seams. But where ever it tickled my fancy, I did it otherwise. The side seams were sewed together, but the inner and outer skirts were hemmed seperately. The muslin was treated as a lining at the neck and sleeve ends, sandwiching the (self-made) piping in between. And here, I sewed the “fashion fabric” shoulder seams seperately from the muslin, and descreetly hand stitched the muslin shoulder seams by hand. It made for a nice smooth finish.

Not that it was all so fine. Most of the time I just zig-zagged the seam allowances. I didn’t have a serger at the time. . .

inside scoop

Yes, you do see a waiststay. I was very ambivilant about putting it in. They say it’s supposed to support the weight of the skirt, and keep it from straining the rest of the dress. Having a hem that was 127″, and double layers of fabric, I thought that maybe it was necessary. But it’s rather uncomfortable, and I’m not sure at all that it makes any difference in the least. Especially since this was supposed to be a casual dress. Maybe if I was using fine, delicate fabric, I would be more worried. As it is—-it’s cotton. It’ll survive. Or not. I’m not too worried about it.

I say it was “supposed” to be a casual dress. It was. It was supposed to be the kind of dress you could host a picnic in—unfussy, but nice. The only reason I thought I could get away with such a fitted bodice is because I very cleverly added an ease-pleat in the back of the dress.

ease pleat

See? Very clever. I even precisely matched the print. Only problem? Sorry, Miss Knucklehead. You need your ease further down than that. As it is, I nearly burst a seam when I try to scoop ice cream, which means that whenever I wear this dress, I feel formal. And by “feel formal” I mean, I feel like I’m good for nothing but standing, prim and proper. Or maybe walking. But not doing anything that involves my reaching with my arms, with eliminates a startling number of activities. Half the time I ignore the “don’t move!” feeling and get on with my life anyway, but it is just not the casual do-anything dress I’d invisioned. I feel like such a failure. Kind of. Not really. The fit is really good, but I’m still pretty annoyed with this dress.

shoulder fit

Oh, well. At least I remembered to put in a pocket, and that’s once less annoyance.


The dratted back ties—they’re dratted because (1) I can’t tie them myself; I never mastered bow-tying behind my back, and (2) I cut it on the bias, which made it very difficult to sew without distorting.


Why did I do that? I don’t know. I think I thought the ties would be more fluid and coopertive when tied. Maybe they are. . .


Its loose in the back, but stitched down in the front, along the bottom edge. By hand. After tediously sewing it on by hand, I got it into my head to measure my stitches in their regularity and size. . .

Whoa. 1/16th of an inch, square on, everytime. Freaky. I guess maybe all my hand-quilting is paying off? Somebody go tell the atliers I’m readying for hiring!

I put a lot of silly stress on myself while working on this project. I just felt like it had to be perfect. It was a like a thesis paper, or something. It had to be the proof that I really truly had been learning, did learn. That I could draft to specific measurments and produce quality sewing. As such, how could I ever be fully satisfied with it? Every little mistake seemed like a disaster, completely obscuring the view of the rest of it. Instead of being pleased with how much I had accomplished, I wound up just being disgruntled with every little place where it didn’t seem to me to be perfect. Maybe that’s why, having drafted basic slopers that would enable me to make any dress, skirt or top I could possibly imagine, the only thing I wanted to do next was figure out how to make pants. Instead of feeling like I’d accomplished dress-making, I felt like I couldn’t measure up, and wanted to divert my attention elsewhere. Thankfully, I’ve relaxed (at least a bit), and my pattern drafting has continued.

Besides, in the grand scheme of things, the dress works:


me in front of a tree

here I am

in a tree

(Yes, you can climb a tree in this dress. If you’re detirmined. Or pig-headed. Take your pick, but I think I have a fair dose of one or the other!)

still in the tree

what do you see?

somewhere else

the other way


Besides, till this dress, I had only made 4 pieces of clothing for anything other than children. 3 of them were jumpers, and none of them came close to fitting.

I do believe I shall give myself a passing grade.

[Tune in next time, when I discuss my thoughts that went into the design of this dress. I have always been frustated by people who will tell you what they did, without giving any hint as to why they did it. I shall. And it will be fascinating. Sort of. Anyway, I’m out of time for it for now, because I’ve got to wash dishes, which is just loads of fun.]

Posted in Completions, Contemplations, Couture, Projects | 3 Comments »

In the news. . .

November 17th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

First off, I’d like to draw your attention to an article in Thursday’s (November 15, 2007) WSJ, entitled Inside a Salon That Serves the Logo-Phobic. As usual, it has been written by Christina Binkley, and as you might have guessed I am highly amused by the traditional couture houses putting themselves out of business while small places like this cater to the people who really are interested in couture.

The article opens by profiling Ms. Markbreiter, who says that “To me, logos speak more of mass merchandising.” When she recently bought an Oscar de la Renta handbag, she removed the logo tag! Horrors! It’s a full-fledged back-lash against pushing of “couture” on the mass market. As the article says, These women want exquisitely made but subtle clothing and accessories that don’t shout “fashion.” What?! People who are interested in quality clothes that don’t want to be gaudy trend-followers and name droppers?! Perish the thought!

It seem so amusing to me because the description of this boutique sounds nearly identical to descriptions I have heard of the couture world in its “glory years”. Intent on chasing larger audiences and making statements and being artistic, the couture world largely alienated its original clientel. So those costumers who are actually interested in some of the properties of what I call “the original couture”—namely, things like quality of workmanship and materials, longevity of design and fabric, personalization in fit, and custom design for individuals—are going elsewhere with their business.

Ms. Powell scours Paris, London and New York for designers–mainly independent of the big luxury chains–whose attention to detail, fine fabrics and workmanship set them apart, in her opinion. She then demands that they work with her by altering their designs or supplying extra fabric for alterations.

Ms. Powell is no stranger to the couture world.

Ms. Powell, a Sweedish woman who speaks seven languages, is a veteran of the Paris-London-New York fashion scene. As a student in Paris, she was hand-plucked by Hubert de Givenchy to work in his atelier, and she later ran the Givenchy franchise on Madison Avenue for 13 years, until Mr. Givenchy retired.

Not only do Ms. Powell and her assistant fit everything to the individual costumer, they are not at all adverse to not sticking with the original designers sacred inspiration—two examples given were taking apart a dress and turning it into a camisole and skirt, and turning a coat into a dress. In some ways, it almost sounds like a second-hand atelier—not that the clothes have been previously worn, but that instead of starting with yardage, they start with garments.

This type of costumer shuns brand names and superfluous amounts of clothing (which is usually a result of trend-following), but instead seeks quality and, perhaps even more rare in today’s clothing world, dignity.


In other news, I recently read the latest HotPatterns newsletter. Although this company produces patterns of which I am most definitely not the target audience (can anyone say “trendy”?), I was interested in seeing how this small, independent pattern company would grow. Or not, depending on the way things went. People did seem to be quite taken by the designs, which were originally quite different than what was offered elsewhere. And they were certainly taken in with the advertising, the whole attitude that the pattern company was selling.

Personally, however, I have been less and less impressed, as each new collection only seems like a tiny variation on the one before it, and often times what designs are not stylistic repeats are very, very simple and basic pieces. If you’re going to buy from HotPatterns, you had better like straight skirts, neck-ties and gathers. And the words “super-stylish,” “totally gorgeous,” “funky,” “fabulous,” and the like, because you will be getting a lot of them.

However, I continue to keep half an eye on HotPatterns, and now I am also (thanks to the newsletter brining it to my attention) keeping half an eye on a new eMagazine, SEWN. Freshly, newly, just barely launched, there isn’t really much on the site yet (which is why one needs to watch to see what this will develop into). This is from their about page:

Why should knitters and quilters have all the fun? Garment sewists demand a magazine of our own. We want something less crunchy than the DIY stuff on the Web, but we don’t want Art to Wear either. We want designer inspiration, designer resources, and ideas for using patterns that are available commercially. We want great fabric even if we live in the middle of nowhere. We love vintage but still need to get dressed to go to work in the real world, not some costume drama. We want to learn great techniques without the schoolmarm tone. If we can get some style and makeup stuff too, that’s fabulous.

This is SEWN Magazine!

This is the fashion magazine for people who make their own fashion. We are big fans of what works. Because of that, you may see things done a little differently here than the way you were taught, if you were ever taught at all. Most of us are trying to squeeze sewing time in between the laundry and a nervous breakdown. So while we can appreciate the artistry of a Gallianno gown, we are not sewing one and don’t get us started on trying to drive to dinner in one. Fashion as an industry is a little catty and very opinionated. And so are we. We’re blunt but we’re more like the battle-axe with a heart of gold than truly mean. You’re going to get the unvarnished truth.
The writers who have been kind enough to allow us to use their work are given credit, even if at this point they aren’t getting paid. What that means is that we are fiercely protective of their work. Everything here is published under a Creative Commons license that does not allow publishing to commercial sites. If you would like to use something on your blog, contact us and we’ll ask them.

Fasten your seat belts, because we are going to be moving fast. This mini-issue is just the start of something big!

Um, how can I not be interested in keeping an eye on a magazine that describes themselves as “a battle-axe with a heart of gold”? Also, it is always a good sign to see someone using a Creative Commons license.

And also, I wonder if I’m going to get in trouble because I didn’t ask before I cut and pasted from their about page? And also, is it common now for people to actually schedule their nervous breakdowns? I always did them rather spontaneously, myself, but I suppose anything is possible in this day and age. I hear some women schedule c-sections because they’re too busy to risk going into labor at a time that doesn’t fit into their schedule.

Kind of curiously, the part of that whole about section that made me stop and consider was the line “still need to get dressed to go to work in the real world.” In that phrase, I heard lash-back against the super-expensive couture and the super-trendy couture. It was rather akin to saying “Hello?! We live in a real world! We want to make real clothes, not trashy novelties or in-your-dreams designs!”

While I very much understand this sentiment, it does lead to the question of what counts as living a real life, and what are real clothes?

I recently had a very similar discussion while knitting with Bub, as we discussed knitting patterns. Although the meaning was mostly the same, the thought in question was “What is Classical?” Because she says she likes clothes with a “classic” style, and I say I like clothes of a “classic” style, and yet I know perfectly well that we are drawn to totally different styles. “Classic” all by itself, does not really communicate much. For instance, you can say you like Classical Music. Naturally, most people would take this to rather evident what it means, but at the same time, people are not at all adverse to using terms like “Classical Rock” or “Classical Country” or any other type of music.

While I was willing to grant that there were several elements that tied us together—for example, simple lines, being understated and subtle, not gaudy or trendy but maybe with a bit of a sense of humor—but fundamentally, our ideas of what constituted “classic” had different roots. Although we both claimed classic taste, we disagreed on everything from shape, neck-lines, texture and formality. Our basic disagreements came from our attitudes toward clothing.

Her idea of “classical” is based on her early life, a life that involved cocktail parties. She would be what I would describe as “Chanel Classic”, of which, as I have mentioned before, has very little appeal to me at all. I, far more comfortable being sweaty and dirty and working hard than I am in any sort of semi-formal or formal atmosphere, much prefer what I would refer to as “rustic” or “country” classic—clothes that would be utterly out of place in cocktail party, even though they would maintain the same “classic-ness” of simple lines, understatement, etc. I would call something like this classic, while her mind is still stuck on a little black dress and a strand of pearls.

So in other words, while everyone might be cheering to hear of something based toward real people with real lives, it is at the same time utterly undescriptive.

Still, we might guess.

But we might be quite wrong.

So we will just have to wait and watch.

Posted in Articles, Contemplations, Couture, Fashion, Magazines, Websites | No Comments »

'Fashion Shows Are No Longer About Clothes'

September 15th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

I am sometimes a little afraid of sounding a bit like a broken record. But it’s been more than a year since I did a post like this, so I think I can comment on Thursdays (Sept. 13, 2007) WSJ article, “Shunning the Runway at Fashion Week”. I have long felt that my interest in design clothes was at complete odds with the fashion industry. This article by Christina Binkley completely reinforces that. In it, she says,

That’s because fashion shows are no longer about buying and selling clothes. Instead they have become major marketing events to generate buzz, establish images, and win good play in the all-important fashion magazines.

The public-savvy Marc Jacobs could be the poster child for this tactic. . .The collection that the exuberant Mr. Jacobs showed was Dali-esque—heels protruding horizontally from the sole at the ball of the foot, strips of fabric draped over satiny lingerie that evoked the 1920s rather than today’s engineered brassieres. It was romantic, artful and thought-provoking—but exactly the sort of thing that would scream “fashion victim” if worn on the street.

Emphasis mine. Reading that big about how it was “romantic, artful and thought-provoking” makes me once again realized what a drooling, uncultured barbarian I am. Not that it makes me even a tiny bit sorry that I am, mind you. Here is the collection in question. If you are a drooling, uncultured barbarian, look through it at your own risk; you will find it painful on many levels. If you are cultured, enlightened and modern, no doubt you will find it romantic, artful and thought-provoking. Being the uncultured fool that I am, I am quite willing to give up romance, art, and anything thought-provoking if it will spare me having to looking through this hideous montage again.

Binkley continues,

Asked backstage if his clothes weren’t inaccessible to most consumers—the ones who have made him rich and famous—Mr. Jacobs said, “They’re supposed to be—nothing is for everyone.” Yet the collection did its job. Its shock value received admiring reviews, and the glam attendees and after-party generated big publicity for the Marc Jacobs label.

To me, asking someone who is interested in sewing if they’re going to be part of fashion shows is like asking a writer if they hope to write trashy tabloids. The goal for each is shock, ‘glamour’, and partying, after all. But quite honestly, I think that everyone agrees that to ask someone who was interested in seriously pursuing the craft of writing if he would be “honored” to write a tabloid would be just plain insulting. Even if that was the way he’d get the most amount of readership. So why is it assumed that it would be an honor for a seamstress to have her work going down a runway?

Oh, and about that glamour.

Increasingly, the New York fashion shows have become events not just for fashion companies but for those hoping to be associated with the glamour of fashion.

The thing is, I can never find any glamour in fashion. Or else, as an uncultured barbarian, I’ve given up on glamour, too. But to me, all the models always look like chemotherapy patients. I find no glamour cancer. I’ve known enough people who’ve had it; some who survived and some who didn’t. But I can tell you that there is no glamour or beauty in cancer, or chemotherapy treatments. I find it greatly disturbing to see so many people being paraded about who look seriously ill and depressed—and that people laud this as “glamour”. The models look ill-treated and abused. If it means I have to be uncultured and give up glamour to feel compassion towards the women and revulsion towards those who tout this as a look of beauty, I am all too glad to give it up—culture, art, romance, glamour, fashion, enlightenment and anything else which glorifies it as any sort of ideal.

There are still, apparently, a very few designers who agree with me. Or at least one, anyway. Elie Tahari has “eschewed fashion’s runway shows for more than 20 years,” though with his goals for expansion he fears he might have to begin. He confesses to preferring women who actually, well, “look like women”. (Which, when you put it that way, makes you wonder exactly what sort of creature the women on the runways look like.)

Should Mr. Tahari begin holding runway shows, he’d need to fundamentally alter his buiness. Since runway models are very, very thin, Mr. Tahari, who designs for real women, would need to cut another set of patterns to fit the six-foot-tall, size-2 women. “If I were to do a show, our entire fit would have to change,” he told me this week. “It would affect the whole psychology of how I do business.”

Here is Mr. Tahari’s Spring 2008 collection, which is much, much less likely you to leave you screaming and tearing at your eyes in an effort to relieve yourself of the horribleness of it all.

I do understand how, in some ways, clothing can be an art and can be used to express things. Isn’t that what costumes are all about? But even costumes have to fit and be worn by real people, in all different shapes and sizes. Fashion is simply absurd. I suppose people would say it is an art, just an art categorized under modern art, which I believe is defined as “that which is harsh on the ears, hard on the eyes, unpleasant to the taste, and widely admired by those who wish to feel superior.” The art of the common man, the un-modern man, the barbarian, is so accessible as to be uncouth. Particularly smirked upon is the work of the folk-artist, the one who actually uses the pieces of art one makes. The intricately pieced quilt, capable of not only being a breath-taking study in color but also of keeping one warm through the winter? How quaint. Baskets hand-woven in pleasing and practical shapes? How droll. These things are not high art.

And so it follows that the “high” art of clothing must also be ugly, uncomfortable, unsuitable, and unpleasant, and those clothes which are both becoming and practical to be scorned as “low” and unworthy work. Yet I still cannot help but think that latter takes more skill and effort than the former—and if I am wrong, it is twice the tragedy, that so much should be spent on so little.

Interested in sewing and in clothes that I am, you won’t be seeing my work on the runways. I am far too uncultured for them, which I do not regret.

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

'Coco'—continuing "The Secrets of The Couturiers"

June 7th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

I have tried hard to like Chanel’s work, but I just have never quite managed it. People would say her work was the epitome of luxury, the definition of chic elegance, that she had the perfect taste. I tried to see it, but I couldn’t. The “classic” Chanel jackets simple looked like an old couch we once had, square, scratchy, and totally un-special in every way. Her “typical” clothes reminded me of stuffy people who put on overly-dignified airs.

All the proclamations of perfection made me wonder if I was the only one who saw the emperor had no clothes, or if I was really just so different from everyone else. It didn’t help that they insisted she knew all there was to know about looking good, and yet in the first picture I saw of her she looked a good deal like a pickled frog (something like this, only perhaps even more so).

I have done further research into Chanel since then, and even though I know she did more than that infernal tweed, and even though I agree with some parts of some of the things she has said, I still can’t find anything in her clothes that appeals to me. (Though I have found that once upon a time she was quite pretty.)

Perhaps the greatest surprise to me was how greatly our outlooks clashed. It was a bit of an awakening to me how much our philosophies affect our work, which sounds positively obvious when I write it. And I guess it is. But I never looked at Chanel’s work and loathed it for what she was saying. I never even stopped to consider what her thoughts behind it might be. I just knew I didn’t like it. In reading the piece about her in The Secrets of the Couturiers (a book by Frances Kennett), I discovered I disagreed with her thoughts as much as I did her work.

As I said, that should have been obvious to me. But when one reads of someone’s thoughts, and then sees the work, one has already made up one’s mind on their opinion of the work. They will see the thought reflected in the work. It was very interesting for me to do the reverse—to see a work and find it unpleasant (without even considering what it was saying), and then discover that it flowed out of thoughts I also disagree with.

You see, Coco was a feminist. And I am not. Even though I am female. This can seem unheard of, as though of course if you are female you are a feminist; to do otherwise is to betray the core of your being. But to tell you the honest truth, most feminists make me ashamed of being female. Or at the very least, highly embarrassed. If being female means you have to be a feminist, I’d rather not be female. But if I can be a female, without being a feminist, I am perfectly okay and at home with that.

And that is my first point of contention with feminists. They aren’t perfectly okay with being female. They are not perfectly okay with accepting that men and women are different. They make a huge, ludicrous scene, marching out and declaring “Women are just as good as men in everything!”

And that just makes me want to crawl into a hole and die.

First of all, it’s a blatant lie. And if you really, truly honestly believe that, you are so ignorant and unobservant you need nanny and a seeing eye dog. Men have their strengths, and women have theirs; and we both have our own sets of weaknesses. Neither is the same as the other. We are different.

Secondly, they are admitting defeat before the battle has even begun, and so it is no wonder they’re the laughing stock of men. To say that you are just as good as someone else is to already admit they are better than you. Why else would they be used as the standard of goodness?

Chanel, in her own way, commits both these crimes. Secrets of the Couturiers quotes her biographer Marcel Haedric as saying:

Her stroke of genius was to transpose the masculine English fashion to the feminine with taste that precluded any ambiguity, as she had already done with hats. She transformed everything she touched—her jackets, her blouses, the ties on the blouses, the cufflinks at the wrists, everything she borrowed from men became ultra feminine through her magic.

But why? Why even bother “borrowing” from men in the first place? It’s like trying to make a dog look like a cat, or vice versa. Sure, they both have the same number of limbs, but what’s the point to it? If you want a cat, get a cat. If you want a dog, get a dog. Why try to make a cat look like a dog? Even a catty looking dog? Isn’t the cat good enough as it is? Why mimic the dog?

Some of the descriptions from her earliest shows sound as though they may have been more interesting.

Her first collection, 1922, showed Balkan embroideries on black crepe de chine; in 1924, she showed gorgeously drooping chiffon with floating sleeves and long loops of glass and cut steel beads.

But the things she famous for. . .

In 1925 she revolutionized ‘separates’ with her cardigan jacket two-pieces. In 1926, her straight-hanging jersey dresses epitomized the look of the Jazz Age. Square-necked, or adorned with simple white collars, the bodices hung straight to the hips, modified by careful seaming to give the eye interest. From the hips, the dresses would break out in easy pleats as the wearer moved, but the overall silhouette was one of sleekness, an uncluttered elegance. Topped by the ubiquitous cloche hat, it was a look that women of all ages (particularly young ones) could wear from morning till night. Plain, quite drab colours, beiges, fawns, greys, navys and even black, in spite of recent enforced wartime use of the colour—became ultra smart.

This style of dressing changed hardly at all through Chanel’s long career.

. . .were for the most part, shapeless. And with the tweeds she used, they constantly bring to my mind a burlap sack. Utterly straight cuts are generally most suitable on utterly straight bodies. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that the majority of women are not utterly straight. (Though, I will grant that Chanel appears to be.) Men are straight. We curve. That’s who we are. Why try so hard to get a straight line out of a curved body?

This shapelessness is usually defended as practicality and freedom.

Possibly Chanel was thinking of Courreges’ structured creations when she said:

Men make dresses in which one can’t move. They tell you very calmly that dresses aren’t made for action. I’m frightened when I hear such things. What will happen when no one thinks as I do anymore?

Well, you certainly won’t see me sticking up for Courreges. And her complaint does hold a certain grain of truth. As the book mentions in a later chapter, p. 85,

It is no coincidence that all the women featured in these profiles of the couturiers have injected a strong note of practical innovation in their designs. There is an appreciable difference of approach between male and female designers.

To be sure; female designers have the added caution of having their bluffs being called. One who makes clothes for their own gender is expected to wear such clothes; one who makes clothes for the opposite gender does not need to face that danger. But there is a difference between being practical, and being ugly and unflattering, which, even if it is my own opinion, is what most of Chanel’s designs are for the average woman. (I do consider the fact that her cut of clothes was perhaps a tiny bit more suitable to her body-type. But even so, there is the problem that the majority of women claim that Chanel’s clothing is the epitome for a well dressed female, and it is there I strongly disagree.)

And Chanel’s complaint, ultimately, is not against the male designers, but the females which flock after them. I assure you, there are a plenty of women who were quite capable of action all throughout time; they just weren’t always the “glamorous” or “fashionable” women. One who is willing to give up her freedom for the sake of looking modern is going to be at fault regardless of what the designers are thinking.

But the thing that bothers me about Chanel’s “fear” over “un-active”, or perhaps one might say, un-independent, woman is the hypocrisy of it all. Chanel didn’t get her business going by her own independence or action, unless you count the “action” of “bewitching her lovers”: from her first boutique to her couture house, Chanel was funded not by the work of her hands and the sweat of her brow, but by the rich men she liked to hang out with.

. . .At around the age of 20 she had a job as a nightclub dancer at Pau, in the Pyrenees, where she met a young English man, who subsequently set her up in business with a small hat shop in Paris. . .During the First World War, Chanel moved out of Paris to Deauville, to work for the Red Cross. The next step in her career is so well known that it too seems almost legendary. Based in a little boutique (supplied again by some bwitched lover), Gabrielle watched the war efforts of the wealthy, at this most fashionable seaside town. . .After the war, Chanel returned to Paris and opened her salon, this time under the auspices of a wealthy English peer—the Duke of Westminster.

Don’t worry, she did have some morals.

. . .The English peer, though married, offered to divorce his wife and marry her, but Chanel refused when he made it a condition that she would have to give up her work and live a more suitable life. On the brink of considerable independent success, such an idea was not attractive to her, in spite of the inevitable loneliness which became part of her life.

Sadly, hypocrisy and a willingness to compromise everything for fashion are also things that bother me about feminism as well. As Claire Shaeffer points out in Couture Sewing Techniques, p. 17,

Poiret. . .introduced his infamous hobble skirt. Although so narrow that it had to be worn with “hobble garters” to limit the wearer’s stride and keep her form splitting the fabric, it was popular among fashionable women, including suffragettes.

Arrgh. I can just see it now. “We are intelligent!!” Hobble, hobble. “We are capable of making discerning and insightful decisions!!” Hobble, hobble. “We won’t be dragged about on senseless whims, but will make practical and productive choices for our country!!” Hobble, hobble. Not that men are without their hypocrisies and even horrible and pointless fashions, but geez, ladies, what a way to present your cause. I think I shall die of mortification just thinking about it.

To me, there is nothing appealing about nearly all the work of Chanel. You might say it’s because I don’t like tweed. (Which would be true.) You might say it’s because I find straight boxy cuts completely unflattering. (Which would also be true.) But I would say that, despite all her talk of freedom and independence for women, she never really treated women with enough respect. A woman who truly respects herself need not chase after every man and all of his fashions. A woman who feels no need to apologize for being female need not worry herself comparing herself to men; she will consider herself and who she is, not to men and how she measures up to them.

Since I am entirely comfortable with being female, I feel no need to wear men’s clothing. Even if it has been touched with Coco’s feminine magic. It offers me nothing.

Except to remind me of an old couch I used to do somersaults on.

Which was fun.

But not worth wearing tweed for.

Posted in Books, Chanel, Contemplations, Couture, Design, Fashion | 3 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 »

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