Friday, 12 December 2014

Wardrobe Planning II: In which I digress into discussion of the role of sewing in my wardrobe plan

My last post about wardrobe planning was really just setting out a bit of my history with clothes and being bad at wearing them, which is rather emotionally fraught. The tl;dr summary up to this point is this: having felt I had few good choices in clothing for a very long time for various reasons, and experiencing some negative work consequences as a result of being badly dressed, when I started sewing garments I decided that the answer to suddenly having almost completely free choice was to begin to plan my wardrobe. In this post, I mainly want to talk about why starting to sew prompted a mini revolution in the way I think about clothes and why this lead me to try to plan a wardrobe.

For me, personally, I feel that sewing and wardrobe planning are inextricably linked. To a large extent, this is because sewing represents a significant investment of money, especially initially, but also time and energy and above all, creative thought for me. This might come as a surprise if you read this blog as my 2014 sewing has hardly produced a scintillating array of outstandingly creative garments. However, no matter how modest my claim to interest and originality in my actual output is, the fact remains that for me at least, sewing a garment involves a whole slew of decisions and choices and time investment that I didn't have to make before when acquiring clothes. I suppose my natural inclination is to make all that effort really count, and the way I have hit upon to do that is to have some kind of over-arching direction to my efforts. As a result, I don't have a sewing plan that is in any way distinct from my wardrobe plan.

Almost as soon as I first started sewing garments in 2012 (having initially made nothing but bags and other accessories for about 9 months) I decided that the most critical thing a sewing/wardrobe plan could achieve would be to help me to figure out a way to make more deliberate clothing acquisition choices that somehow add up to a more organized and cohesive wardrobe than the hit-and-miss hodge-podge that I tended to accumulate in the past. Partly, this is about getting the most from my efforts in some kind of value terms, but partly this is about wanting to have a wardrobe that says something about me in a more general way.

Quite often, I think that the idea of being deliberate in my clothing acquisitions is the best thing that taking up the old needle and thread as a hobby has given me, the other pleasures of sewing notwithstanding. For me, the idea of being deliberate becomes important mainly because of the relatively arduous nature of sewing vs. buying combined with my own cheapskate thrifty, personal-time-valuing habits. Even though I seem to sew relatively quickly (which is probably more a product of the amount of my leisure time I dedicate to it than actual speed) sewing is still a slow and not necessarily inexpensive way to acquire clothes compared to the alternatives. Every time I choose to make a garment I am really choosing to invest quite a lot into the whole process of producing it: far more time and effort and probably far more money than I would need to buy something similar. Since my time and money is limited, it makes sense to me to pick projects reasonably carefully, to get the maximum value from what time and money I do have.

The question of what makes a project have the right might amount of value though isn't entirely straightforward or objective. I tend to describe myself as a utilitarian sewer: more inclined to cake, in the popular sewing phrase, than frosting. Regular readers will know that I tend to make mainly (very boring to read about) everyday basics. But my reasons for doing so are only partly classically utilitarian. I genuinely enjoy the actual process of sewing (except for cutting out, which, yuck) and since I dislike shopping there is some immediate value to making ANY clothes compared to buying. I also find wearing hand-made clothing more rewarding as well. In fact, I make everyday basics in part because in doing so I make sure I get a tiny little frisson of happiness every day from wearing things I've made. I can't buy that one second hit of joy, and I like it too much to restrict it to the vanishingly rare occasions when I wear a party dress. I certainly can't put any kind of objective value on the fact that putting on something I made myself makes me smile in a morning.

The smile comes mainly, I think, from the opportunity provided by sewing for creativity and self-expression. I am surprised by, but totally accepting of the fact that I love wearing the things I make, the products of my own brain and hands and labour. I feel like every time I put on something I made, I am shouting at the world: I like this! I made this! This is an example of my taste and my eye and my skills and how I spend my time! This is who I am!

Of course, anyone who gets dressed every day could make precisely the same claims. However, as I described in my last post, for most of my life so far I would say that clothing and clothing choices were very far from a source of joy and very rarely a means of creative self-expression for me. Clothes were mostly the subject of pragmatic concerns (is it clean? am I covered?) and sometimes of anxiety and sadness (is this appropriate? why can't I find anything that fits?). Being creative and self-expressive in this way, using clothes to shout This is who I am! was something I felt was more wisely left to other women: thinner women, prettier women, younger women, and above all, women who perform their femininity in more socially acceptable ways. Women who weren't me, in other words.

The fact is, of course, that if people are trying to interpret who you are through what you wear (or more generally, how you present yourself visually) they are going to be doing so anyway, no matter whether you declare yourself loftily above fashion or simply pretend that it isn't happening. I was already saying something about myself with what I wore, although probably more at a whisper than at a shout, and perhaps not with any great precision or comfort with the language. Pre-sewing, I felt that most of the time the degree of control I had over that message was very limited, particularly when I was in the largest sizes I ever wore. My choices narrowed with every size I went up. "This top, or no top at all" means wearing butterfly tunics to work, no matter my feelings on the subjects of butterflies, whimsy in the workplace, and the appropriateness of long flowy tops in a job when I might have to go walkabout on the factory shop floor. In more mainstream sizes, I still found myself confined to someone else's message: someone else's idea of how long or short my skirt should be, someone else's idea of what colours should be available this year. I was at the mercy now not of the desire to drape fat women in metres of fabric in the name of concealment, but of fashion instead.

The idea I've come to embrace, that clothes are a legitimate source of self-expression, even for me (not thin, not pretty, not young, often not performing anything like traditionally feminine characteristics in my behaviours or interests or work, not "fashionable") is in some ways a quite radical outcome of something as seemingly trivial as starting to sew. My sense of control and personal investment is much greater than when I am buying. I see a value in clothes that I didn't before in expressing to others who I am.

I think a great deal of that value, for me, comes from the fact that the things that I make are an opportunity to be unique. If you buy RTW, even beautiful, well-made RTW, ultimately you are wearing someone else's good idea. When I wear things I've made myself, I smugly congratulate myself on my own good idea. Of course, in reality, my garment is from a pattern that untold numbers of women have access to, from a fabric that came in a many-hundreds-of-metres roll from a factory. Though I try my best, I am hardly an expert seamstress so my efforts rarely rise above the standards of fast fashion in terms of quality. However, all these limitations aside, the fact remains that the likelihood that anyone will create exactly the same thing as me is vanishingly small. Whereas as a non-sewing person my options for self-expression were limited to the assembling of outfits, as a sewer everything about my hand-made garment, down to the positioning of individual threads holding it together, is all my choice and it all says something -- not necessarily anything very interesting, but still something -- about me.

Perhaps my new-found interest in what my wardrobe says about me boils down to this: I feel in control of it in a way that was more nebulous or unacknowledged when I was simply choosing between the same garments in the same High Street shops as every other woman in Britain. I would say overall it's more of a source of entertainment and happiness to me than buying clothes has ever been, even with the added stress of wondering if my clothes look "home-made", rather than "hand-made". It is also, of course, to some extent a new source of anxiety as well. My concern has shifted more specifically to what I am saying about who I am, and whether these are consistent with what I want to say, and whether the conversation I have with my clothes is coherent. I find myself wanting to develop something like a consistent personal style, something that is identifiably me even though the individual garments change.

Wending my way back to the topic at hand, then: because of these factors, it has come to seem perfectly natural to me to pick my sewing projects very deliberately and in line with a larger plan. I choose to make things that I know I will wear often, just because I want to wear my hand-made clothes often. From a wardrobe planning perspective, to maximize wear, it helps if any new garment fits in with what I already own. And the things that I make need to say something, to me at least, that I interpret as meaning "This is who I am!", and to do so in a way that is moderately coherent.

Thus, the last philosophical step in my wardrobe planning process has been to figure out how it is I want to dress, and that is what I will probably talk about next.

ETA: Part IIIa is now available to read, and is on the subject of wardrobe size.


  1. I just love reading your writing around all of this, and I identify with a lot of what you wrote. Although I never had my options limited by my size, I did live somewhere that my retail options were very limited and I always had a strong reaction against what I was supposed to wear/look like as a female and had that same impulse to opt out of the whole thing. It's weird that now I can make my own clothes I do make the occasional dress or lacy thing. Something about me making it changes it's internal meaning to me. I do however struggle with the idea that I'm in control of all the aspects of what I make. I often have an idea of a clothing item, and have to settle for the nearest available shape in patterns. Even then when I make it up I might find it's not what I was expecting. If I had that experience in a changing room, I would just put the garment back. Now that I really don't buy any clothes at all, I might end up wearing something that didn't turn out as expected anyway. All this is to say, you often comment that your writing is boring or longwinded, and I heartily disagree. Keep it coming!

    1. Thank you! I do agree with the level of control being still somewhat elusive, but it's still so much more control than I had over what I bought, I think. I definitely think though there is a degree to which you persevere with wearing something you made that didn't come out as it was in your mind's eye than something you shop for, which is easier to reject and walk away from.

      I have SO MANY more of these posts lined up, it's quite funny. Definitely more to come!

  2. Great post! Thank you. I aspire to the planned wardrobe but actually it generally goes more like: I need to sew some black pants. Search stash for fabric, remember pants are hard to fit, get distracted by something more interesting, sew it up, fall at the final hurdle (hem, take in side seams, etc), leave it unfinished for six months, decide I need some black pants... And so on. So you can be my inspiration. Ok with that?

    1. Ha! I am amazed actually by how much of a completist I am with my sewing. I tend to work on exactly one sewing project at a time and either finish it or abandon it as a wadder. I have very very few WIPs, and most of them, if I'm honest, are not so much WIPs as disasters-I-have-yet-to-acknowledge.

      Always happy, although also slightly uneasy, to be an inspiration! ;)

  3. I very much enjoyed these posts. Your personal fashion history sounds a lot like mine. In my case, I've also realized that my mother was The Beautiful One and that trying to look good was internalized by me as Bad--as stealing from her. I'm finally, at nearly age fifty, realizing that that subconscious programming was there, and telling it to shut up. Now that I no longer feel morally obligated to be ugly, the next step is to stop thinking that I am ugly. Whee!

    Anyway. Enjoyed the posts. :)