About 8 years ago I was working at a clothing store that specialized in modern retro and rockabilly styles. Think 50s circle skirts with fluffy crinolines, brightly coloured 60s wiggle dresses, and polka dot everything. I’d always had a soft spot for mid-century fashion, particularly the glamour of Audrey Hepburn and the sophistication of the editorial photography of John French, but had never previously adopted the clothing into my daily life. As I worked there, surrounded by beautiful dresses and co-workers who lived the look, I started to dip my toes into the style myself. I became obsessed with acquiring new pieces, both new and vintage. Wearing a crinoline became something that happened on a semi-regular basis rather than just at a costume party and I learned more than one hair roller set. But as I did so, it became increasingly clear that there were places where I was excited to go full on Pleasantville and other times where I couldn’t imagine leaving the house in anything but a basic tee shirt and jeans.
This internal debate made me feel like a poser. If I didn’t feel like I could wear the retro look in all aspects of my life, then I mustn’t *really* be into it, right?
One late summer weekend that year, I had a family barbecue approaching and I was torn between wearing a new brightly patterned fit and flare dress, or denim shorts and a tee. On one hand, I wanted to wear the dress, because it was a) fabulous, and b) It was the perfect weather to wear it before it got cold. But on the other hand, I had a feeling that it might welcome comments, perhaps like “wow, where are YOU off to?” or “someone’s fancy tonight!”, and figured it might be easier to catch up with my relatives without that getting in the way. Maybe it would be easier to connect if I could just blend in with the crowd?
As we are wont to do in this day and age, I took the question to social media: “Would you wear clothing considered more “out there” to a family function if it might mean it becomes harder to connect with people?”
Naturally, and as I expected, all the answers were something along the lines of “Of course! You do you and don’t care what anyone else thinks!” “Dress how you want to!” “Don’t let the haters bring your style down!”.
Which, to all those people, I completely get and support! We should be able to embrace what we love and express ourselves visually the way and not feel pressured to suppress ourselves for the comfort of what others deem appropriate.
It also got me thinking about how we use clothing as a communication tool. We all know about dressing for the situation as is applies to your environment; you dress nicer for the office that you do for a Saturday on your couch, you wear sneakers for running and old jeans for painting, but what about your social environment? How does it change depending on which crowd you’re with?
For me, it really boiled down to who I was expressing myself to. I use my clothing often to speak for me. I will dress down to create ease around other people, to blend in so we can just relax and play lawn games. I’d pull out my funkiest pieces for an event catch the attention of people I admire to invite small talk to break the ice (“oh I love that skirt!”). Sometimes I’d dress a little extra to stand out as an authority in a situation that other people can look to as a host. But mostly, it’s communicating something about myself that I might be too shy to say outright (“I’m fun and creative! Trust me! Look at the crazy patterns I’m wearing!”)
I started thinking about this again as we all went into isolation last year. Until I began taking photos for Me Made May, I stopped coloring my hair. A part of me felt like using my somewhat-expensive purple color conditioners would be a waste. Why would I style my hair if no one would see it? It wasn’t until I was regularly taking and sharing photos that I started to wear more than the 3 outfits (sweatpants) I had on rotation. I started to play with my expression but even I had to admit it was completely for the presentation of other people. And I know this because as soon as the month ended, the 3 sweatpants ensemble reigned supreme as of June 1.
Why could I not feel that I owed myself purple hair and fun dresses? There are parts of my wondering that soars straight down the patriarchal-beauty-standards rabbit hole. To go really deep on the topic I recommend this Jessica DeFino article (I have fallen in love with her writing over the past year). But on a lighter level, how does this affect my sewing practice and personal presentation?
As sewists, we create to have control over our self-image. Either by making fantastical things no one could ever buy, or just preferring to have more say in what colours, fibre types or fit we prefer our clothes to have. Yes, it is a hobby that takes skill, precision and creative thinking, but we WEAR the output of that endeavor. Over the years I have found that I don’t wear the clothes I make or feel as comfortable in them as something I picked up at the mall (or more recently, Poshmark) in most situations. Not because they aren’t made right or fit poorly (okay, in my case it is sometimes the fit, but I’m workin’ on it), but because the clothes I make are usually the most distilled version of myself in my head. She’s glamourous, artsy, fun and cool. She takes risks and wears weird clothes! But in a word designed to make us feel self-conscious most of the time, I rarely actually feel like that person. Is it disingenuous to express what I don’t feel? Is that what makes me feel like a poser?
I am working to steer my wardrobe and sewing practice to a place that meets somewhere in the middle. Not totally look-at-me, center stage, neon yellow lace but not boring back-of-the-closet t-shirts either. Things that can be cozy and casual and still capture the light of who I am to someone I’ve never met. And maybe being mindful of which environments I feel like I can let the guard down just a little and feel a little more of the “ah screw it, I’ll wear it anyway” energy.
Now more than ever it’s so interesting to think of our clothing and why we dress the way we do, especially as we are emerging into this new social world. I know I am STILL wearing my Hudson pants most days, and I doubt there will be many non-stretch fabrics in the winter months to come. But here’s hoping there are more opportunities created where we can all express the most sartorial parts of ourselves shamelessly, and grace for ourselves in the times when we don’t.
Photos by Dallas Curow, a total throwback to our first shoot together in 2016 and the beginning of a beautiful friendship.