Archive for June, 2007

Liz Claiborne

June 28, 2007

has died. She was 78.

Her company was the first founded by a woman to be included on the Fortune 500 list, and in many ways, her design aesthetic was all about women breaking into a man’s world.

At a time when conventional wisdom — and John T. Molloy of “Dress for Success” — had businesswomen dressing like slightly curvier men in gray flannel suits and floppy ties, Claiborne created clothes that were appropriate, stylish, but also feminine. They were fashionable but not trendy. And most importantly, they were priced so that both the executive and her secretary could afford them.

It’s thanks to her that we don’t all have to wear blouses with foufy bows at the collar (the early “feminine” take on reinterpreting business clothing — specifically neckties — for women).

You can read her obituary here.



June 27, 2007

My grandmother was born in Glasgow in the 1920s. She was a bright and intelligent girl, but any family funds for sending the children on to higher education were reserved for her brothers. In this photograph, she is about sixteen years old, and she had probably been in the workforce for a year or two by then.

Flora Gebbie, 1938

During WWII, she served in a women’s auxiliary unit. From her descriptions of that time, I realize that I envision her experiences of the Second World War as a sort of giant Guide camp. Her stories were all about sleeping in tents and managing to cut twenty slices from a single tomato.

She was married just after the end of the war. In her wedding photographs, she is wearing a 40s style navy skirt suit, cut to minimize the amount of fabric needed.

My mother was born in 1949. During her childhood, my grandmother was a successful businesswoman who ran a dress hire shop in Glasgow. When I was a child, whenever I was shopping with my grandmother, she was adamant that dresses were to be tried on by pulling them over the head, never, never by putting the dress on the ground and stepping into it. I have one item saved from the dress shop — a sixties era floor length bottle green velvet cape. It’s gorgeous, albeit of limited utility, but I have in fact worn it (to a midwinter wedding), and plan to again.

My mother was the first generation of her family to go into higher education, but my grandmother was not far behind her. When she was in her fifties, she enrolled in the Open University and finished a bachelor’s degree by correspondence. By the time I came along, my grandmother was a highly educated successful businesswoman — but of course, that’s not what I remember from my childhood.

I remember a woman who used to mix lemonade and ribena for me and call it a “Grandma’s Special”.

I remember my brother taking what must have been some of his very first steps, across her kitchen, with her right behind him making sure he didn’t fall.

My family lived for several years in various parts of Africa when I was a child. My grandparents came to visit us for two weeks on a sugar plantation about two hundred miles south of Khartoum, Sudan. As if that wasn’t adventure enough, I managed to come down with a case of malaria while there were there. So I remember my grandparents loading my brother and I into the back of a Toyota and heading out in the middle of the night to find my parents (who I think had taken up an offer of babysitting) while I sweated through a fever in the back seat of the car.

I remember a woman who cautioned me against falling for the charms of American men (I have always suspected she was worried about my having my head turned by a few pairs of nylons and a Hershey bar), but who welcomed Spouse Phor into the family, declaring him to be “very well spoken”. (Spouse Phor, by the way, still owes me some stockings.)

My grandmother died on Monday night. She lived well. She will be missed.

Sewing on TV

June 25, 2007

TLC just debuted their latest offering “I’ve Got Nothing To Wear”. The show is pitched much the same way as “What Not To Wear” and “I Was An Ugly Duckling Until A Fabulous Gay Man Taught Me How To Dress”. The premise of the show is this: a woman is offered a wardrobe makeover with a twist. The show’s stylist combs through her closet and picks out items to keep, and items to go to the “chop shop”. The chop shop is staffed by a crew of design students, who are required to cut up the reject garments and recycle them into something new.

The debut showing featured two shows back to back, with two separate women, and two distinct sets of designers. The designers are under the charge of George Simonton, a professor of fashion design at FIT, who unfortunately but perhaps unavoidably is bound to be compared to Tim Gunn — and nobody can ever be another Tim Gunn. The designers are given somewhat short shrift here — we only get to know them by first names, and because the designers switch in every show, there’s no real chance to associate any personality with them.

In the first two episodes, we see a variety of transformations: a pair of pinstriped pants is revamped into a bustier; a loose-fitting knit tunic becomes an off-the-shoulder asymmetrical dress.

An oversized sweater is turned around, and refashioned with waist darts and a plunging back neckline — I thought this one was a neat trick, and easy to do at home.

I would of course love to see more of the design process, especially for projects that would be easy for beginners, but that’s difficult to market (and encouraging people not to buy stuff is not exactly a show that makes it easy to sell ad space).

I’m also hoping to see a more diverse range of women on the show. Both of the women in the episodes I saw were young and slim, and I suspect recycling is a bigger challenge for women who are less inclined to wear micro-minis and/or who look for high quality and cut in the garments they buy.

The show did, however, have me running to my closet looking to see if there was anything interesting I could do with various things that persist in hanging around despite my never wearing them. I didn’t find anything that called out to be retooled. What I did find, however, was a pair of lollipops that had turned into some sort of liquid goo in the pocket of a leather jacket. Clearly snuck in there by vicious imps, since why the hell would I go around stashing lollipops in my pockets?

Crocs and Socks

June 22, 2007

The Washington Post’s fashion correspondent, Robin Givhan, took some flak from feminist bloggers in the past for her coverage of Nancy Pelosi and Condaleezza Rice.

Givhan’s beat is to write about clothing and fashion (although not necessarily both at once), and I get the impression that although she gets a kick out of covering the latest catwalk shows in Milan, she’s not interested in only writing about haute couture*. One of the topics she frequently takes on is to analyze the social significance of clothing — and because she’s a DC based writer, she analyzes the social significance of clothing vis-a-vis power. It’s extremely difficult to write about the social significance of what powerful women are wearing, because for a very long time, there weren’t any powerful women, only women in supporting roles to powerful men. Because one of the jobs of those women was to be decorative, it was perfectly acceptable to write about their clothes. So when you write about the clothes of powerful women, you have to be careful not to imply that you think the women should have a decorative function.

Givhan succeeds at this in no small part because she is equally as likely to deconstruct the fashion choices of powerful men.

Hence today’s article on Bush’s choice to pair socks with crocs.

Givhan’s major focus is on the shoes.

The shoes can look cute on children. But all those adults walking around in Crocs, going on about how comfortable they are, look like overgrown children. They are like the workday Peter Pans who carry backpacks in the city. Not grown-up leather backpacks, but the kind made of nylon with water bottles stuck inside a web of bungee cords and a canister of Bear Be Gone hanging off the side. They have mistaken their walk to the office for a climb to the summit of the Grand Tetons.

Why, oh why, must people assimilate perfectly reasonable, functional and cheeky sports attire into street clothes? Why couldn’t they keep their Crocs on the boat or in the garden?

Oddly, she barely touches on the socks, merely commenting that crocs were originally designed as boat shoes, so socks are superfluous, and that “[t]he combination makes one think of an old man on his way to the beach.”

In the UK, socks and sandals are a fairly potent signifier. They are worn by people who in Australia would be called dags. The critical core of the stereotype is that the socks-and-sandal wearer is socially inept, unaware of the norms of sartorial behavior (which is quite different to a stance of being aware but not caring, which is to be admired). The closest US equivalent signifier that I can manage to bring to mind is the pocket protector, and even that has achieved some level of geek chic — although I suspect these folks are trying to bring something similar to the s&s brigade:

Is that a great photo or what?


*Even when she is writing about the rarefied air of Snooty Fashion Week, she manages to keep her feet on the ground. She looks to runway shows as predictors of what will translate to accessible RTW collections and thinks in terms of how ordinary women will react to their translation to street wear. She’s also been critical of the CFDA’s “voluntary” health plan to combat eating disorders in the modelling industry.

DC Shopping Guide: Intern Version

June 21, 2007

So it’s intern season again in DC, where a horde of well-scrubbed and earnest young people descend on the city for a summer of working for peanuts. It can be hard to pack for a professional wardrobe, and harder still to shop for one when you get here — especially if your are a veteran thrift-shopper — so in the spirit of welcoming you to our fair city, I give you the DC Shopping Guide: Intern Version.

First, some ground rules:

1. Stand to the left.

2. Do not wear flip flops to the office.

3. Do NOT, on pain of DEATH, come into my local and play Journey on the jukebox. I stopped believing years ago, quite possibly the year in which your boss was a fresh-faced intern and played that song one too many times. Also? I have it on good authority that there’s no such place as “South Detroit”.

The rules of the Shopping Guide are easy. Everywhere is accessible by metro; everywhere that I mention is a place where I’ve acquired a piece of professional clothing for less than $30. DC is not a town where it is easy to find thrift stores. I’ve included a few consignment stores on the list; you shouldn’t expect thrift store prices from these. You’ll also need DCists excellent Google map/metro mashup.

Recycled Sewing — Some inspirations

June 20, 2007

From the L.A Times, a piece on how to revamp an old cashmere sweater.

From Wardrobe Refashion‘s flickr pool, a sharp striped shirt repurposed from menswear:

and a capri-sun bag:

World Day Against Child Labor

June 12, 2007

Today is World Day Against Child Labor. Care estimates approximately 218 million children worldwide are involved in child labor. This year’s focus is on child labor in agriculture, which is the sector in which the majority of child workers are to be found; almost 70%.

Particularly egregious is the cocoa industry. In the Ivory Coast, labor rights advocates estimate that around 10 000 children are enslaved to work in cocoa plantations. The major cocoa corporations drafted a voluntary Cocoa Industry Protocol aiming to eliminate child labor in the industry by 2005 — the deadline has passed, and still children are working in cocoa fields.

In the garment industry, there’s recently been a focus on child labor in China in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  PlayFair 2008 released a report entitled “No medal for the Olympics on labor rights” — as of writing, I can’t find the report on the net, but it’s been widely reported on by various news outlets. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that four companies with contracts to produce licensed memorabilia for the games — including hats, bags, and stationery — have been found to be violating minimum wage laws and employing children. The contracts have since been cancelled.

Finished Object: Gold silk dress

June 11, 2007

I managed to smooth out the puckers in the gold silk dress thanks to the good folks at Pattern Review. I clipped the zigzag seam, then washed and ironed the dress, and the puckers are (mostly) gone.

Here’s the finished product:


Finished gold silk dress

Links to previous posts on this garment:

Oh, Pucker!

Problem Solving

New Project

How globalization causes camel toe

June 6, 2007

From Fashion Incubator, who runs a fantastic blog about commercial clothing manufacture. Her stuff is often a little too advanced for a home sewist like me, but it’s a great read for insights into the industry.

Part 1

Part 2

The short version, for those of you who might not be quite as fascinated by the industrial standards for pattern making: This fashion misfortune is entirely due to bad cut — you can get more pants out of a bolt of fabric if you make the crotch curve shallower. And if you are testing your factory prototypes on models of a different size and shape to the people in the market that you are selling to, you will never notice the, erm, misfortune.

Oh, pucker!

June 4, 2007

So I did some more work on the gold silk dress today.

I rechecked that I had the waistline in the correct place, and then I marked a 1 inch seam allowance. You can see the fine blue line below the elastic in the picture below.

mark and pin

Because I didn’t want the fabric to slide around on the cutting table, I cut this directly on the dressform. Notice the line of pins about 3″ below the cutting line; those are there so that the cut-off fabric does not hang down and weigh the upper part unevenly.


My next step was to determine how long I wanted the skirt to be. So I stood on my trusty bathtub ledge and measured the edge of the bodice to my knees. (That’s 25″, if you are playing along at home.) I took another measurement at the side (26″) and figured I’d make the back 27″ for luck.

Then I laid the excess fabric on the cutting table, and cut it from the hem to fit. There was about a nine inch strip of fabric over, which is intended for the shoulders.

It was at this point that I realized that this fabric is not cut on the bias. It’s a knit!!!! I was looking at my excess strip, trying to figure out how to square off the edge while keeping the bias true, and I couldn’t see any diagonals. It’s a very, very fine gauge knit, shiny on one side and matt on the other. And as far as I know, it’s 100% silk, although I haven’t done a burn test to check.

I spent a lot of time pin-fitting until I decided on where I wanted the gathers. I finally went with a flat front, with tiny gathers* beginning a couple of inches behind the side seams. Then I spent a lot of time basting. Once I finally set in the real waist seam, I was pretty pleased with myself, although I had a lot of cleaning up of loose ends of thread.

I pressed the garment and tried it on, and I thought it looked good. Then I set about finishing the interior seam with a zigzag stitch. This might have been my undoing, because now I have a bunch of puckers at the front of the waist seam that no amount of pressing will get rid of.


*Here’s how I sew a gather. I hand-baste two rows of stitching inside the seam allowance on the longer pattern piece. At one end, twist the loose ends around a pin. Pull the threads from the other end until the gathering thread is the same length as the shorter pattern piece, then twist the second end around a pin to secure. Then just even out the gathers created by pulling on the thread.