The House of Tatterdemalion


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Why I did what I did

August 31st, 2008 by tatterdemalion

I believe in taking responsibility for my actions. No denials, no excuses!! So here’s what I was thinking when I made the infamous cherry dress.

I’m sure you were all hoping for something much more scandalous, but no. In my own quest to better my design skills, I have attempted to read all sorts of materials on design. Mostly, they don’t say what they were thinking; they just throw out vague mumbo-jumbo that roughly translates “you just kind of wing-it, and hopefully it comes out good”. Or else they apply such strained concepts and methods that the end result is something that would be worn down the runway, which is to say, no sane human being would ever willingly, mindfully wear it.

So I may not be any great, grand designer, but I can at least show you the thought process I went through as I made this dress. You may not ever want to make anything remotely like it, and that’s okay. The idea is to be able think more consciously about what you are doing and why. This is necessary when it comes to that all important step called “editing”. You will not be able to figure out what you need to add or take away from your design if you have no idea why you ever starting making it the way you did in the first place. An idea, that is, besides the altogether much too vague statement of “Because I like it.” (Not that such a statement doesn’t have it’s uses—it does, and I use it regularly—but when one is trying to improve something, one really needs to have much more focused thought.)

So, the dress.

I started with this pattern (note the “start”. I wound up drafting my own pattern from scratch, to my measurements).


I liked it because it had such clean, flowing lines. It was a neat fit at the top, but with a nice full skirt. It wasn’t fussy, though it could be elegant if it were made in the proper fabric. I liked how the darts in the back of the bodice turned into pleats in the skirt; I liked that vertical structural line, because I’m doing just fine in the “short” and “wide” categories, and I think it works better with my proportions to encourage vertical movement.

Short side note: Note I say “my proportions”. I am no proponent of us all looking alike—far from it. I don’t hold to an ideal standard that all women must aspire to. But you have utterly no artistic ability at all if you can’t differentiate between proportions that are pleasing to the eye and proportions that aren’t. Some people refer to this as “phi” or the Golden Ratio. Some people have noted that children seem to have an innate sense of balance in their drawings. Some people study the shapes and proportions in nature. Architects (or the good ones, any way) are hugely concerned with proportion. To pretend that pleasing proportions is something that relates to everything the world except the human form is just plain silly.

The job of the clothes designer is not to say—this is an awful form, bring me another one, preferably a size 2 1/2, with high cheekbones. The job of the clothes designer is to trompe-l’oiel, to fool they eye. Anyone who firmly believes seeing is believing hasn’t been seeing well enough how he’s been fooled. Guiding the eye to believe what it is seeing is the job of any artist.

For a most basic example of this: grab a pen and a piece of paper, and draw a square. Don’t use a ruler, or any other measuring device. Now turn the paper sideways. Does the square still look as square? Probably not. The eye tends to squash things. You probably drew your square taller than it ought to have been. When you turned the paper sideways, this was revealed. Now that you have your paper turned, it looks a little more like a horizontal rectangle and a little less like a perfect square. You can search for geometric optical illusions, and you shall find fifty hundred other examples. The point is this: Your job is not is not to fault the form, but to simply present the form in it’s most favorable light. You can change what is seen simply by guiding the eye as you choose—leading it ignore some things, and focus on others. You can make anything look awful if you abuse it enough, and nearly anything will strike the eye if it’s presented properly.

And all of this is to say, I want to hear nothing at all along the lines of protest when I say something isn’t flattering to my proportions. This isn’t about rules, and this isn’t about standards. All this means is that you, as the designer, have the power to lead the eye. Make a conscious decision to do so.

Now, back to the dress.

This is the fabric that I chose.


I chose it because it had my two very favorite colors in it—red and green. It reminded me of the most wonderful part of summer. It was cheerful and full of life. It was meant to be a picnic dress—the sort of dress you can wear when you are celebrating the chance to relax, and the sort of dress you can get muddy without worry.

Hear comes the first design issue. The background color of this fabric is much too similar to the tone of my skin.


Everything needs a good strong frame. Look at paintings, look at windows, look at gates. Nothing looks so awful as something that bleeds into its surrounds, without the dignity to stand up and be proper about it. It weakens whatever it is, to have the edges fade off in a sickly sort of way. So the first order of work was to contain this fabric, so it didn’t bleed away into me. The goal of this dress is NOT to make it appear that I am wearing nothing more than a few vines with red berries on them, thank you very much. The garment is separate from me.

Enter the piping at the neck and sleeves. This creates a line distinguishing the dress from me.


Having placed that red at the sleeves and neck, you can see why it was a necessity to put it at the bottom as well. In part to keep from having the dress fade out weakly at the bottom, but in a part because continuity demands it. The eye is very disappointed when what it expects to see is simply missing. It’s like missing a button off your shirt, when all the rest are very regularly spaced. Your eye just wants it to be there. It should be there. It’s the logical conclusion. Not putting a band on the bottom now would be like writing a story with no resolution. It would be most unsatisfying.

This is what we have now:


Do you notice any problems?

The eye is attracted to strong colors; it moves from similarities to similarities. (You’re going to be hearing a lot about the “eye”, just so you know.) The eye doesn’t have much initiative, it likes to be led. So it is dutifully following where it is being led, jumping about from cherry to cherry to cherry. But the eye is also lazy; it really doesn’t like all this running around. It wants to rest. This is utterly too much work. It would rather look away than keep moving around on this crazy surface.

And so, the waistband. It needed this solid block of color to give the eye a rest. There are those, by the way, who inform you with rigid rules and firm rebukes that you should never ever ever never ever have a belt, waistband, sash, etc unless you have a size 2 1/2 waist. Because, they say, this draws attention to the waist, and unless you have the most beautiful waist ever in existence, it’s basically a sin to wear anything that draws attention to the waist. I would maybe go so far as to caution that I think it’s generally more flattering to wear a dark, receding color, if it’s going to be at the waist like that. A bright, light color looks bigger than a dark color. If you’ve ever seen a black refrigerator, you’d know what I mean. Not that I subscribe to dark colors all the time, every where, by any means, and of course every rule or guideline is meant to be broken, but that’s my two cents.


I suppose at the this point you might be disagreeing with me.

You might be saying you preferred the dress without the waistband. You might be saying that the waist band chops me half, that it totally defeats the purpose of trying to encourage a more vertical leaning of the eye. You might be saying, that darn band is the first thing that pulls your eye, and it makes you look short, short, short.

You may have a point.

I still hold that the fabric I chose demanded that treatment, but therein lies the problem. This is why you can’t just design off of ideas separate from people. This fabric, on someone else, could have been wonderful. I still love this fabric. Just, as a table cloth, or curtains, or something else besides on me. The flaw of my design was not my design, per se, just that I really had no idea what it would look like on me.

In retrospect, this fabric doesn’t suit me. Even with the solid bands of color, the eye simply does way too much moving around, and usually the more your eye has to move, the wider things appear. Since I am already short, adding in more horizontal eye movement is only making me look shorter, and my frame just can’t handle all that busy-work.


What works better for me is solid colors, like this:


It’s not to say that I can’t use textures or details, but over all, I am more flattered by simple shapes and solid blocks of color. See?


(I made the wool skirt. I did not make the wool blend sweater, but I did accidentally send it through the dryer once. It doesn’t drape as nicely as it once did. . . )

You will note that when we compare those two pictures side by side, your eye is instinctively drawn to the the picture on the left. You will also note that as soon as the eye has looked to the left picture, it also goes immediately to my face. If you make yourself look at the photo on the right, you will notice that your eye does indeed get stuck on the red sash. For one thing, it is the largest solid block of color. Your eye wants to rest, and that’s a good place. For another thing, my face is still basically the same color as the background of the dress. It fades away into the background. When I wear the cherry dress, your eye is not instantly pulled to my face. It forgets about my face and pays attention to the dress. This is a problem. Well designed clothes do not draw attention to themselves, they draw the attention the the wearer.

The outfit on the left understands this; it grabs your attention with its large blocks of strong colors, and then promptly shoves all the attention to my face. The dress on the right doesn’t understand this, or else is simply being willfully selfish, because it isn’t interested in sharing any of the attention. Your eye can get distracted jumping from cherry to cherry to cherry for a good five minutes, but it your eye is extremely unlikely to be interested in paying attention to my face. (This is most obvious in a still photograph. In real life, the eye is attracted to movement, and as I’m nearly always running my mouth off, that would give my face a chance to be noticed. Or my mouth, at any rate.)

Does this mean that the pattern draft was a waste, and that I should burn it and never look back? No! I would still like to make the “cherry dress” pattern again—just, with a few modifications and a solid color of wool crepe. The lessons here to be learned are:

(1) Good fabric stores ought to have full length mirrors in them, so you can better approximate how a fabric will look on you, and

(2) You can’t design clothing apart from the people who will be wearing them. The idea might sound perfectly grand on paper, but in real life is where it counts. On paper, this dress might sound wonderful, but in real life, I feel uncomfortable and awkward wearing this dress. Because I worked from ideals without seeing how it would work in reality, I failed to meet my ideals that I started with.

Posted in Design, Projects, Technical, Tutorials | 1 Comment »

Clippings of Miscellany

February 3rd, 2008 by tatterdemalion

Today I made some attempt at cleaning up, my constant struggle, and found a lot of clippings I had meant to comment on. It seems only fitting to start with the review I ripped out of The Economist (January 6th, 2007). The book under the microscope is called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. No, I am not making this up.

One of the things this review taught me was the varying difference on what constitutes organzied. It says:

. . .A rough storage system (important papers close to the keyboard, the rest distributed in loosely related piles on every flat surface) takes very little time to manage. Filing every bit of paper in a precise category, with colour-coded index tabs and a neat system of cross-refrencing, will certainly take longer. And by the end, it may not save any time.

Indeed. I thought that what they refer to as “a rough storage system” counted as being organized. Color-coded index tabs and neat systems of cross-refrencing border on a mental obsession. (Not that I don’t know people who have such systems; I posit that mental obsessions are a lot more “normal” than most people are willing to accept.) “Disorganized” is when there is no system of storage; “organized chaos” is a perfectly acceptable storage system.

On the whole, it seemed like the book made a half-way decent case for not being a control freak and not worrying about or planning every stupid little thing, of which I whole-heartedly agree. One cited example was how America’s Marine Corps never make detailed plans in advance, because leaving the details to the last minute reduces the risk of wasting time on things that may ultimately prove not important at all. They also note, as I have, that disorder and creativity are closely linked. The book argues that all the hype and fuss about being organzied and neat does more to spread guilt, not boost productivity.

In the end, though, the reviewer gets the final word. For one thing, it was noted by the reviewer that the case for tidiness in some environments is overwhelming—surgery, for example. Yes, indeedy, I would like anyone doing surgery on me to be to be very exact, and to have all my files neatly filed with color-coded index tabs. While it might be very creative to do a hernia repair on someone needing their appedix removed, it would hardly be humorous or helpful.

And also,

The other thing is that the book is a bit repetitive and disorganised. Even readers who leve mess in their own lives don’t necessarily like it in others.

Ha. Isn’t that the truth.

The subject as a whole reminds me of a qoute I saw once—People who are organized are just too lazy to look for things.

I think one must be careful to avoid being extreme in either direction. It is not pleasant to live somewhere where everything must be just so, cleaned and organized to the point that one is afraid to breath for fear of messing up the intricate order of the air. It’s also not pleasant to live in some place that is so cluttered and disorganized nothing can be found or accomplished. I would never go so far as to say it is morally repugnant to not be roughly organized, but being roughly organized certainly makes for more pleasant living, and yes, greater productivity. I’ve yet to see, though, much benefit to highly detailed filing systems. The person I know who is most detailed in their organization has to spend about as much time trying to remember which file she filed something in than I would fishing it out of my loosely organized pile.

There is a need for moderation in all things—disorder and order both. They ought to balance each other out, not stifle everything else around it.


Moving on, I discovered a clipping I took from the WSJ (September 27, 2007) on anorexia and the fashion industry. It was disturbing on many levels—those suffering from anorexia, those who seem to need to be told that anorexia is disturbing, and the layers of hypocrisy from so many in the fashion industry.

A fashion label had decided to run an ad campaign, using “images of an emaciated 27-year-old woman, nude, with the line, ‘No. Anorexia.’

Already I am disturbed. How is this an ad campaign? How is this supposed to make people want to buy their cloths, to show a naked, starving woman? And what does it mean by “No. Anorexia.” What on earth are assumed to be thinking when we see that? “Gee, I wish I was that skinny”?

The article goes on to say that the managing director who O.K.’ed the ad campaign was shocked when she first saw the photos. Why? What is more shocking about seeing a nekkid anorexic, instead of a scantly clad anorexic walking down the runway? Personally, I’m more appalled by by the scantly clad anorexic on the runway—what kind of sicko wants to have their work “complimented” by starving woman? Clinically, it’s the same body whether it has designer rags on it or not cloths at all on it, and practically speaking, it’s not that much more covered when it’s wearing those things called high fashion. So what exactly is the distinction that makes it shocking when it’s not on the runway?

Someone protested that “This girl needs to bein a hospital, not at the forefront of an advertising campaign” I don’t quite understand how it is presumed this must be mutually exclusive. In my understanding of the article, the woman was fully aware of her anorexia problem, understood what the photos would be used for, and gave her full consent. Two pictures are all that are being used of her; for all I know she was laying in a hospital bed while the ad campaign stirred up fire and brimestone. Again, the thing I find troubling is that someone would find anorexia a desireable way to sell something.

The same person also complained that the campaign “glorifes a woman who is sick and could lead others to be sickly thin because of all the attention.” I am still trying to figure out how a nude, 5 foot 5, 68 lb woman with words ‘No. Anorexia’ counts as “glorifying” anorexia. I understand that anorexia is on display, but there is a big difference between displaying something and glorifying it. One can display something in a glorifying manner, or in a mocking manner, or in a disgusted manner, or in a shocking manner, or in a factual manner, or in a million other different manners. I do feel a good deal of pity who is in such desperate need for attention they would be tempted to starve themselves for it, because they are very miserable people regardless of wether or not they actually get tempted into such things. You don’t need to be anorexic to be starved for unconditional love.

Someone else stated they were bothered because it was being used for commercial purposes. I agree, but so are all the anorexic models, so where, again, is the difference?

Ms. Bertoncello dismissed comments that her company is seeking to profit from a deadly disease. “The campaign sets off an alarm, and it’s a loud one,” she said. “I am happy the ad is being talked about. whether it’s positive or negative, at least the issue is getting some real attention.” Nonetheless, she doesn’t deny that he main purpose of the campaign is to market the Nolita brand and acknowledges that all her models are thin.

Not to bad for a lady who claimed earlier in the same article that the ad “laid bare a hypocrisy that she says still lurks in the fashion wolrd. ‘If you don’t think there is a problem with some of the models working in our industry, then you have blinders on,’ she said in a telephone interview. ‘The fashion industry glorifies sickly thin models and it has to stop.’

It is pretty sick, but I’m not referring to how thin the models are. I’m referring to the people who want models that thin. It’s sick that there has to be organizations trying to restrict hiring anorexics and models—it’s sick that there is a market for people who are or appear to be anorexic.

A designer was qouted,

“I don’t agree with it,” she said. “It’s not something that we need to see—to show that body like that, that’s really sad. That kind of thing is so personal we don’t need to show it—we all know what [anorexia] is, we all know what it looks like. There are so many ways to get the message across without such shock value.”

That’s a mixed bag. I understand what she is saying; I’ve seen gratitious pictures of grief that make me feel the same way. You feel sick someone would intrudes on such personal pain for the sake of a bit of shock value. And I’m sure the guy who developed this campaign was far more interested in shock value than in compassion on those suffering from anorexia.

But on the other hand, it seems to me like she is simply uncomfortable with the hard truth of the matter. That body in that way. Is the only distrubing thing the way “that body” was shown? Would you be happier to see it on a runway in designer rags? Do we know what anorexia looks like? How come? Maybe because we see it walking down the runways all the time? Yes, it is awful to see. Does that automatically make it wrong? Does it mean we shouldn’t ever look at things that show suffering? Should we just pretend that nothing is wrong, that it’s not that big of a deal? Should we whitewash the problem, sanatize, make it all nice and neat and oh-so-much more palatable? Form committes to talk about the problem?

I have a hard time figuring out where all the “shock” is coming from, except maybe that someone just called a spade a spade, pointed out that the emperor has no clothes, so to speak. I understand that maybe lot of designers don’t like the implication that they are doing this to people. Since this anorexic has not been shown as “glamorous” but as the wasted-away human she is, it makes the designers look cruel and heartless and rather sick, instead of edgy, arty, sophisticated. That’s bad for the image of the designers; why would they want to face it up? And I understand how those campaigning against anorexia are upset that this is, after all, meant to be an advertising campaign to generate sales for a clothing company that itself is encouraging anorexia by the very models they choose to hire. That’s sick, too. And I understand being upset that some guy wanted to take picture of a naked anorexic, just to see how much he could stir up the pot.

But I don’t understand why a picture of a naked anorexic is more appalling, upsetting or shocking than those that want people to look like anorexics, than the “designs” that people put on anorexics, or the fact that people in the fashion need to be told that it is upsetting to see starving people being paraded around as clothes hangers for “high fashion”.


And finally, I found a page from the September 27, 2007 WSJ entitled When Bloomers Don’t Cut It. I’m not quite sure why I saved it, except to mock the designer (Graeme Black) who complained “Being too practical is limiting from a design point.” I would like to tell the whiner that any knuckle-head can imgaine alternate universes where perpetual motion devices really can exist; it’s the people with skill who are willing to engage the real world with all of it’s practical restrictions and make something that really works. Practicallity can indeed be a designing challange or difficulty, but I hardly think it needs to be a restriction except for those who only want to play, not work.

Or maybe I wanted to applaud the designer (Tomas Maier) who said “I like a woman who doesn’t actually like overpowering clothes. I want to see her face.” Though the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if maybe he just knows which side his bread is buttered on, and knows how to say the things people want to hear.

To be fair, the article named both designers as some of the rare few who actually designed clothes women might actually want to wear.

And also that 6267 made a big splash for a lot of people; it was also mentioned as designers who made clothes someone might want to wear, and even as being able to get a crowd weary from 12 hours of runway shows to burst into cheers. Actually, probably the biggest sign of how noteworthy 6267 is would be the fact that they even caught my fashion-hating eye. Trust me, no one was more shocked than myself.

Not to overstate the case. I just went and looked through a slideshow of 6267’s September showing, and while there were several long, full skirts that caught my eye, I was largly distracted from paying much attention to the clothes for all of the starving women.

Posted in Contemplations, Design, Fashion | 1 Comment »

'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 »

Prada and Fashion Phobia

January 20th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

In the January 18th, 2007 edition of the Wall Street Journal, an artical was run in the Personal Journal section entitled Prada vs. Prada: Overcoming Fashion Phobia. I found it interesting. For one thing, I had no idea there even was something called Fashion Phobia, and I certainly didn’t know that Miuccia Prada, the grand ol’ designer herself, has had Fashion Phobia.

In a nutshell, the article describes Fashion Phobia when they say “. . .Many of us can’t seem to get over the bias that equates a love of fashion with a low I.Q.“. Some symptoms were described as “being hooked by the irrational allure that makes a Louis Vuitton handbag of cotton and polyurethane worth $1,500“, “buy[ing] Vogue [a fashion magazine] at the airport where no one sees them” and “claim[ing] they bought a Chloe handbag half-price, even if they paid the full $1,300“.

As for Miuccia Prada, she initially resisted the whole fashion industry, instead pursuing a degree in political science. The article quotes her as saying, “I thought fashion was stupid because I thought there were more intelligent and nobel professions, like politics, medicine or science.

I found the article frustrating, though, because they made no distiction between fashion and clothing design, and to me there is a huge, cavernous difference between the two.

Prada also said in the article “Some say it’s about seduction, but I think that’s limiting. . .what you wear is how you present yourself ot the world, especially today when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language. ” Well. . .yes, and no. I think she is right that clothing design can express a whole lot more than seduction, but fashion? Educate me: Exactly why is $1,500 worth of cotton and polyurethane necessary for expression? That’s fashion, not clothing design.

She continues, “Why aren’t people embarrassed to buy beautiful furniture or art for your house? what you wear says more about you than what you put in your home.” Very true. If I changed my house decor and furniture everytime a new issue of Vogue came out, I would be endlessly embarrassed. If I bought dinner plates simply because of the designer’s name etched in the back, I would be embarrassed. Why should it be any different with clothes?

She would seem to agree with me. “That’s why she scoffs at those who fall victim to logos instead of developing their own styles. “Buying a $5,000 handbag just because it’s a status symbol is a sign of weakness,” Ms. Prada said. “Daring to wear something different takes effort. And being elegant isn’t easy. You have to study it, like cuisine, music and art.”” But that, my dear, is not fashion–that is clothing design. Fasion is all about status and seduction and high price tags for nothing more than names and logos. The pursuit of fleeting clothing trends is frivolous. You have made no argument at all to embrace fashion, but rather to flee it. Has anyone even looked up the word “fashion” lately?

Do you mean to be a fashion designer, or a clothes designer? Consider carefully; those goals are much further apart than they can appear.

Posted in Articles, Design, Fashion | 1 Comment »

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