Shaping fashion: the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A

Balenciaga topper

As soon as I found out that the V&A were staging their ‘Shaping Fashion’ exhibition of the work of Cristóbal Balenciaga, I had mentally booked my rail ticket. My knowledge of Balenciaga’s designs was embarrassingly patchy but  enough to know that this was a ‘must see’ exhibition. His is a name that appears in most discussions of 20th century fashion; images of his designs fall into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ category. However I’d never quite reconciled his later sculptural designs with his more traditional tailoring from earlier years.

As it turned out, not only did this exhibition tie all of these together into a cohesive whole, it also made me wonder that this was the first opportunity there’s been (in my memory at least) to see his work gathered together.

In fact the “Shaping fashion’ exhibition does far, far more than simply collocate Balenciaga’s designs. In the way that only the best exhibitions can, it draws you into another world and despatches you afterwards  with a sense of revelation.

I’m not going to even try to repackage here all the biographical and historical context – there are plenty of websites and books that will do that. What I will do is try and explain why this is an exhibition worth the rail fare (even if, like me, you end up paying twice for the return journey – thanks very much, Virgin East Coast…)

Upon arrival…

I thought it might be fun to take a look at the grandly titled Exhibition Road Quarter, which as of last month, provides access to the Museum across the porcelain-tiled Sackler Courtyard. The courtyard café and the ‘Oculus’ view to the gallery below seem small in comparison to this pristine white space. As a visitor you feel the need to scuttle across to the entrance beyond, rather than pause and appreciate your surroundings.

Sackler courtyard en route to Balenciaga exhibition

The new Sackler Courtyard leading from Exhibition Road

It’s a space which feels as if it hasn’t yet properly been relinquished by the architects – but it is an exciting space which boldly announces the contemporary aspects of the V&A. Inevitably it delivered me into the museum slightly confused about where I’d entered. Once I’d reoriented myself with the help of a nice chap in black, I happily trotted off to the Fashion Galleries.

Adjustment and immersion

There’s a point in every exhibition where you not only step into the gallery space – but you mentally divest yourself of all distractions. For those of you who know the V&A, the Balenciaga exhibition occupies the central ‘core’ of the main costume display space, extending over the ground and mezzanine floors. On the face of it, not a massive space – and indeed that process of initial adjustment is a little uncomfortable as the entrance area by the ticket desk is a little awkward, channelling you into a small lobby area with some timeline information.

Reading this was difficult amid a muddle of people figuring out which way to go and a whispered soundtrack of ‘oops’, ‘so sorry’ and in my case mortification as I stepped back from the first gown (an extraordinary three-tiered number in vibrant green silk) and literally trod on a tiny woman who had clearly been trying to escape my size eights as they reversed towards her. Cue then a parental phone call vibrating in my pocket and a near-flooring of another visitor with my bag as I turned; surely now I was about to be ejected with a discreet tap on the shoulder. Not before time I retreated into a corner and gathered myself with a couple of deep breaths.

Setting the scene

From my refuge I read that Balenciaga trained as a tailor; what set him apart from many designers was his mastery of the different stages of creating garments, from design through cutting, construction, fitting and finishing. Speak to any fashion student and you’ll learn to your surprise how little they are taught of the technicalities of garment-making. Extra-curricular practice, training and apprenticeships are essential to acquire those skills as explained recently by Stella McCartney in her recent Desert Island Discs appearance.

One of the most wonderful things about this exhibition turns out to be how well it demonstrates Balenciaga’s accomplishment across all these areas. Only the ground floor of the exhibition space is devoted to his creations; this itself in a section of a larger gallery. Yet the creative approaches used by the curators to reveal and explain Balenciaga’s skill and inventiveness are diverse and wonderfully effective. They draw on education, design, conservation science and traditional curatorial practice across the board.

Shape & construction

Balenciaga Envelope Dress

Balenciaga’s ‘Envelope’ Dress from 1967

The ‘Envelope dress’ from 1967 is immediately recognisable from much of the exhibition’s publicity. It represents the climax of Balenciaga’s experimentation in garment shapes, stepping away from the body as a template for form, using it instead almost as a display stand for his sculptural creations. A note on the display emphasises this, explaining that the design of the dress made it difficult even for the wearer to go to the bathroom due to the extreme narrowness of the bottom of the dress. This process of abstraction had begun as early as 1957 when his ‘sack’ dress contravened the prevailing fashion rule of the hourglass silhouette at the time, anticipating the simpler shift dress designs of the 1960s.

In other areas of the exhibition, garments are positioned in such a way as to reveal cleverly-positioned darts. Mirrors are used to reflect different aspects of garment shapes and some mannequins are placed on turntables, enabling us to see them from all angles, as with the ‘Tulip’ dress made for Ava Gardener in 1965.

Based on close inspection and even X-ray analysis, as well as the copious notes and drawings on display, a copy of the dress was made and a video produced to explain how the different pattern pieces were shaped and assembled. This in-depth analysis is deployed on a later garment too, providing a fascinating insight not only into the garment, but also the extent of Balenciaga’s inventiveness and experimentation.

Balenciaga tulip dress

Drawing for the Tulip Dress

This silk taffeta evening dress from 1955 was similarly analysed

In some instances as with this silk taffeta evening dress from 1955, the garment has been X-rayed to reveal the internal construction.

Silk taffeta evening dress, 1955

and this is the X-Ray that reveals the complex internal construction.

Xray-fuchsia balenciaga exhibition

X-Ray of the same garment by Nick Veasey

Later in the exhibition, there is a video showing how one of his couturiers went through the process of fitting an entire suit from toile to final fitting – the (very long-standing in every sense) customer commenting how she was ignored as an individual and was simply used as a template – even customer service coming second to the supremacy of the tailoring and fitting process itself.

Fabric

Balenciaga’s desire to innovate extended beyond garments. When the Duchess of Cambridge was married, it was in a dress of silk gazar – not a fabric that I was familiar with at the time (I don’t ‘do’ weddings) however I recall being intrigued by it at the time. We learn in this exhibition that silk gazar was developed through a collaboration between Balenciaga and Swiss manufacturer Abraham in 1958. It’s a lightweight yet stiff-woven silk that Balenciaga used extensively to achieve the sculptural shapes that many of his garments were known for. He worked closely with other fabric manufacturers and was known as a demanding and knowledgeable client. The exhibition explains that for Balenciaga, the fabric was the true starting point in a design; he is quoted as declaring:

It is the fabric that decides.

I’m as much a stranger to elaborate embellishment as I am to elaborate weddings, however even I took pause watching how this extraordinary fabric was produced at the Lesage house in Paris for the most breathtaking evening coat.

Commercial sophistication

We have come to appreciate that to succeed at any creative endeavour in the real world, then you probably need to be something of an entrepreneur. Balenciaga was no exception – but the sophisticated range of commercial activities his company engaged in was extensive. For example the exhibition shows us the order book for his garments at Harrods, which had a special department dedicated to making copies of his garments under strict licence and quality control, using identical fabrics.

Harrods order book for Balenciaga

Harrods’ order book showing the fabrics and designs used for their copies of Balenciaga’s garments

Other forms of department store licensing existed too – and Balenciaga also had a sister label, Eisa, based in Spain, which he used to serve the Spanish market. Details such as these were a vital part of Balenciaga’s story – a reminder that he had a good head for business as well as for creativity and innovation.

Creative play

It’s clear that the creators of the exhibition took the spirit of experimentation as seriously as Balenciaga himself. They recreated one dress in order to understand the role of ties underneath the skirt of the gown. By trying the gown on a model and using the ties in different ways, they discovered that when these ties were attached around the lower legs they caused the skirt to balloon out, catching the air and creating the distinctive shape in Balenciaga’s original design. Similarly, a garment that can be tied around the wearer as a skirt or a cape is reproduced for visitors to try. I didn’t put them on – but I had as much fun watching as two fashion students capered around in them – learning as they played.

Legacy

Upstairs there are some 40 outfits from a range of designers all of whom have demonstrably drawn inspiration from some aspect of Balenciaga’s work. These include a stunning tailored suit by Elsa Schiaparelli through to the futurism of Courrèges. Included too are contemporary designers who play with shape and volume, such as Gareth Pugh; the genetic connection obvious once pointed out.

(An aside at this point – I was struck by the delectable scents also on offer here – one spectacularly-suited gentleman in particular having a marvellous personal aura of mossy cedarwood – it occurs to me that perhaps all exhibitions should have an olfactory dimension.)

At the end of the exhibition upstairs was a personal favourite of mine – but it was a revelation to see this Issey Miyake piece in the context of Balenciaga’s work. The sculptural shape, the sleeves, the obsession with fabric – I now appreciated a familiar garment in a completely new light.

Miyake at Balenciaga

Issey Miyake pleated dress by Naoki Takizawa, 2001

So…

… do go, if you can! If you have the means and the opportunity, then it’s well worth the effort. It’s true that £12 (plus a train fare) is a not-insignificant amount of money to spend on an exhibition which on the face of it, occupies only a space within a gallery. However when that space is used as intelligently and creatively as this, with so much to learn from and to be inspired by, then it’s difficult to begrudge. If you’re craving more, then the permanent fashion display is waiting for you as you exit. In my opinion the sophistication and thought underlying the Balenciaga exhibition is well worth the time and money. Tickets are timed and despite my initial gauche clumsiness, the staged arrival system works well in terms of managing the flow of visitors.

Inevitably my stomach dictated my departure after almost two hours of enthralment and so I headed off into South Kensington in search of food. On my way out through the main entrance hall however I was diverted by an exhibition on plywood. Another 20 minutes of pleasure ensued (the scent here: birchwood!) and I was entertained by the sight of two older women guffawing at a video of a 1950s housewife holding up a piece of ply (in full skirt and lipstick) while her manly husband set to with a hammer and nails. I suspect they would have been more than happy to teach him how to use a nailgun.

Their spirit – and my diversion in the face of hunger – tells you all you need to know about the enduring capacity of the V&A to capture hearts. I finally parcelled up the little piece of mine that I leave there for safekeeping – and stepped through the revolving doors.

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The Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 18th February 2018. Click here for all the details!

Have you been to a fabulous exhibition recently? Do let us know – we’d love to share the joy!

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Last-minute make: ‘Aurora’ slip dress

So here’s the scenario. I’m away for the weekend with friends. Hurrah! I’m in need of something a with a little summer elegance to it and which doesn’t involve jeans or black jersey, however my Style Crisis programme hasn’t really catered for that eventuality. (Weekends away? Perish the thought…) The thing is, a fabric has just arrived that I adore, want desperately to use NOW, and which is screaming ‘summer frock’ at me. Add to that the fact that certain colleagues are on holiday this week – and we have a time crisis on our hands. And yet, and yet, that urge…

I share this dilemma over a morning cup of tea.

‘Well’, comes the helfpul response. ‘You could make the dress during the week – because your sewing machine is here – then you could take your laptop anywhere and do your blog later’.

I point out that the purpose of going away for the weekend is to experience something called a ‘break’.

‘Well yes’ comes the reply. ‘But I’m just saying, you could blog anywhere, couldn’t you? You don’t have to be here’.

And repeat. Several times.

Many of us are fortunate enough to have people like this in our lives. For reference, this one is called David. Wisely, he decides to go on for a morning run.

I mull the situation over and decide, with some maturity, that indeed yes – I WANT MY FROCK!

However I also decide that in order to justify this indulgence I should still post about it, even though it’s going to be a little bit of a rush job and (did I mention?) I’m going away.

I should say at this point that I usually indulge in taking my time over my projects where possible (mostly in order to avoid sewing sleeves on upside down). I’m firmly committed to slow fashion and I revel in the delight of a garment that has been lovingly created over many hours, if not days or weeks, even. However we all find ourselves in situations where we need a quick fix – and so please excuse this inaugural ‘Last-minute make’ post. There will be others, inevitably – but I promise not to make too much of a habit of it. Here goes.

The fabric

‘Aurora’ soft taupe and lavender printed viscose fabric Wonderfully draping and perfect for the job.

Lavender printed viscose fabric for last-minute make

The pattern

Slip Dress 09/2013 from BurdaStyle. Chosen because it had a just a bit of detail at the front, as opposed to being totally plain. Also it was cut on the cross and would (I hoped) make the most of the drape in my fabric.

BurdaStyle Slip Dress for last minute make

BurdaStyle Slip Dress 09/2013

The inevitable tricky bit

That would be the detail at the front. The dart angles are critical, as is the need to keep a really straight line over those tucks. Also, it’s cut on the cross as mentioned. I did take the time to make sure the grain was straight but it slowed me down a tad.

The result

Achieved within the day, and styled (yes indeed, styled) with a plain white tee. I have plans for a short sleeved shell top to layer under it but that will have to wait.

Last-minute make slip dress

About to dash off…

I’m well aware that the dark colour, mostly neutral colour of the fabric doesn’t confirm to my most recent Style Crisis objective but sometimes the comfort zone is just too close to resist. Ideally I would have found a pattern that had some darts too as the shape is pretty undefined. However it looks better with a defining layer on top (e.g. my leather jacket – in my opinion at least) and it moves beautifully – if I say so myself.  I promise to get back on the programme ASAP.

And finally…

Here’s our slip dress post from last year, including lots of styling and pattern suggestions and details of our Slip Dress Pinterest board, too!

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Style crisis: getting practical – a Selja Knot Tee

Selja Knot Tee knot shot

At the end of my last Style Crisis post I mentioned that I was contemplating a navy linen shirt – probably as an unconscious reaction to the doubts I had regarding the print pattern on the shirt I’d just blogged. One of our customers called me up: “Noo! Don’t make the navy shirt!” she pleaded. “Blimey” I thought. “She must really mean it. Maybe I’ll think again”. So I did – and here we are with the ‘Selja’ Knot Tee by Named Clothing.

I had two concerns here.

First – to get back on the horse as quickly as possible. I had a day without any commitments at the weekend and I wanted a quick result.

Second – I was determined to have another go at colour and pattern. That navy shirt might still be on my list but I’d been well and truly warned off retreating to my comfort zone before time.

A top to go with jeans (in the first instance at least) was still top of my list on the basis that it would get plenty of wear and immediately give my daily ‘uniform’ a lift. The priority then was practicality – plus a quick win was what I needed.

The pattern

I was brought up a ‘Vogue Patterns’ girl. In the days before YouTube I was taught to sew by my mother, my grandmother and the instructions in Vogue patterns, as well as a healthy dollop of ‘make it up and try again’. Stepping into the burgeoning world of independent pattern publishers has been like stepping into the unknown for me – but I’m inordinately excited about some of the designs out there and am steadily working my way through the different publishers. I’ve liked the look of Named Clothing’s Selja Knot Tee for some time and we’ve suggested it for a number of our single knit jersey fabrics.

Selja Knot Tee by Named Clothing

Selja Knot Tee pattern by Named Clothing

The simplicity of the cut appealed to me – as, in this instance, did the apparent simplicity of the make. Single knit jersey fabrics are perfect for playing with stretching and draping – and this design seemed to allow for just that – but without too much fuss. Fitted on the shoulders, the knot helping shape it just enough with an interesting asymmetry, but without too much fabric swinging around.

I had one concern in that on the model, the top appears to sit on the upper part of the hip which is never a good place for me.

(Is it for anyone? Really? Surely I’m not the only one who picks up the cardigans in M&S and just cannot comprehend why they cut them like that. Square, down to ribbing which sits on the top of the hips; no shaping; folding inelegantly around the midriff like a toad flattened under a stone. In my opinion.)

I just hoped that the asymmetric drape of the Selja Knot Tee pattern design would avoid any such toadiness.

The fabric

Obviously it was going to be a bit of a drag, sifting through the ClothSpot jersey collection, *rolls eyes* but happily I had snaffled an offcut of our ‘Shadow dance’ red, blue & grey floral viscose jersey fabric a few weeks ago. It still has a soft tomato red in it, but also blues to pick up my denim and lots of subtle neutrals to calm the horses. Based on my previous experience it also seemed appropriate that the print pattern was a much larger scale and more abstract in nature.

This is a particularly soft-handled viscose jersey fabric with some stretch in it – helping with the drape as well as the fit. Perhaps a little bit more ‘gentle’ than my usual work clothing but I decided to be a grown-up and give it a go.

The making

I’m a latecomer to sewing with jersey and so still getting to grips with what my machine can do. Its predecessors were unpredictable and stretch fabrics would often end up being consumed by the feed dog – however my current machine and my overlocker made sewing this fabric as easy as pie. Of course I still managed to make a mistake – I was distracted while stitching the side front seam and took it all the way down to the bottom instead of stopping level with the hemline to leave the two ties free to knot. Doh. I can now tell you with authority that unpicking a stretch stitch on relatively fine jersey doesn’t work. Shamefully, two more front pieces had to be cut and re-sewn.

Aside from that debacle, it was all plain sailing. Aside from my re-cut, the top would have easily come out of the 1.4m of fabric required – in fact I could have got away with less as this jersey is quite wide and there are only 5 pattern pieces to contend with.

Selja Knot Tee cutting layout

I used a decorative stretch stitch to sew the neckband (although that probably wasn’t my finest hour) and the only point where I (respectfully) disagreed with the pattern instructions was to overlock the inside edge of the neckband and not turn it under before top-stitching. I figured this would make for a flatter finish and indeed I think it did.

Slja Knot Tee chest shot

More practice required…

I had toyed with the idea of lengthening the sleeves to above the elbow, but decided not to. Partly because I was working with an offcut of fabric; also because it was warm and I thought I’d see how it looked once finished. I might reserve the right to fiddle in that department with a future version.

The wearing

I was pleasantly surprised at how practical this top is – and how comfortable I was wearing it. Starting at the top, for a round neckline, it sits at just the right point – not so high as to cut my neck off or make me feel throttled. It was a warm day and I didn’t feel overly hot either – the relatively light weight of this jersey helping there. I liked the sportiness of the sleeves – and the fit across my broad shoulders was just right – so for reference the sizing is pretty true-to-size, perhaps bordering on slightly generous.

The biggest relief was the fact that it sat nicely around the lower part of my hips. There was no M&S cardigan toad factor and that angled drape even managed to do something rather elegant across my middle. I was probably least enamoured with the length of the ties – they were a bit dangly for my liking but that’s just an issue of personal taste and easily remedied.

Selja Knot Tee mannequin blog

The acid test was that I went to put it on again the next morning – it did two days on the trot. It even weathered a photography session, which involves me attaching my fabric clips to the hem of whatever I’m wearing. For that reason, dresses are a pain on photography days – but tops are handy – and this one worked a treat.

I still got the inevitable knowing smirks from my colleagues – but they were tempered with (apparently) genuine noises of approval – and I even received a compliment from someone who didn’t know that it was a Style Crisis experiment. (And yes – I admit it was my mother – but it still counts – she’s not short of a direct opinion as previously noted).

The feeling

In terms of a learning experience on the style front, this top taught me lots. I’ve learned that I’m definitely more comfortable with larger, more abstract print patterns; also that my fit preferences (close on the shoulders, a bit of shape through the middle) work well for me. I will also keep an eye out for garments that work some asymmetry into the torso – since they make the most of my wider upper body and bring a sense of movement. (The side front seam in the Selja Knot Tee is a subtle design element but it definitely adds something).

I also learned that I have pushed my tolerance for drapiness just about as far as it will go. Floating sleeves, for instance – or any additional frippery on this design, would have pushed me over the edge. I like the sportiness of the upper half of the top which allows me to feel OK with the draping and knotting around the hips.

I enjoyed the punchiness of the red in among the subtler shades of blue and grey and could easily have coped with more on the colour front. Most importantly though, I felt like me. Admittedly it didn’t elevate my sense of self to ‘creative superhero’ level – or break any new ground – but it fulfilled the ‘practicality’ brief as well as teaching me a good deal too.

The decision

It’s a keeper. It might not sum up every aspect of my inner style self – but it’s easy to wear, has a bit of character and probably a bit more elegance than I am used to. I haven’t tried it with my jackets and although I’m keen to see if it works with those, I’ll definitely do a re-run in due course.

Alice in Selja Knot Tee

Oh, go on then…

However having done two tops, I am now feeling the need to cater for my bottom half. Primarily because even I can’t live in jeans forever and my pants collection isn’t really worth of display. Also, though, because my making is beginning to feel a little piecemeal and I’d like to try coming up with a whole outfit. It might just be a dress – or it might be time for summer trousers. Or both!

Do let me know what you think – as I discovered last week when I was redirected from that navy linen shirt – opinions and guidance are not only appreciated, but apparently, necessary…

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View from the Farm Café: In my style tribe

Farm cafe - Style tribes

This week at the Farm shop I’m wondering whatever happened to fashion sub-cultures. Do they exist any more? And if not, does it matter?

Scroll down too for some pattern news – as well as a reminder that Stella McCartney was well worth a listen on Desert Island Discs.

Also just in case you’re wondering, that’s a kale, banana and lemongrass smoothie. It was delicious – but don’t worry – I didn’t go without my coffee.

Where are the style tribes?

The younger members of the extended ClothSpot family are used to being cornered and interrogated by me on a range of subjects that I feel the need to understand. These might range from the finer points of Instagram etiquette, their views on a new fabric/style/magazine, choosing shoes (a conversation usually terminated at their first downward glance and mention of ‘flippers’), as well as the inevitable reality TV (‘Why?’)

Probably the most frequented topic however is that of ‘style tribes’. As family and employees have returned intermittently from their first ‘proper’ jobs or from university – especially if from some distance away – I’ve enquired about the prevailing styles. Specifically, any ‘style tribes’ that might be emerging. Fashion cliques, trend groupies – call them what you will – I’ve been interested to know how what they are and how my interviewee might identify with them. The answer usually is in the form of a blank look, a tilted head and a raised eyebrow. I explain further and the response is usually either ‘that’s not really my thing’ or alternatively, references to high heels, contouring, fake tans and the occasional mermaid fascination.

‘But where’ I might persist, ‘are the goths, the rockabillies, the punks – or whatever you have these days?’ Again – I draw a blank and give in.

Am I missing something, or is it simply the case that these style tribes just don’t exist any more in the same way? And if not, then is that a bad or a good thing? Does it matter?

It’s difficult asserting your sense of individuality and style as a teenager or as a young adult. The V&A Museum first explored youth culture and style in their ’14:24 British Youth Culture’ exhibition in 1986, revisiting the subject in ‘Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk’ exhibition in 1994. Tracing street style from trends such as ‘Ivy League’ and ‘Zooties’ in the 1940s through Hipsters, Mods, Glam, Goths and Ravers, they produced this intricate web of connections through time.

Style Tribes chart

Diagram of Style Tribes through time from the ‘StreetStyle’ exhibition at the V&A Museum, 1994 click to enlarge

Of course there are plenty of subcults not even on that map – but it illustrates just how numerous they have been, and how significant they were in defining identity. As Alison Lurie points out in The Language of Clothes:

Just as the average English-speaking person knows many more words than he or she will ever use in a conversation, so all of us are able to understand the meaning of styles we will never wear. To choose clothes, either in a store or at home, is to define and describe ourselves

Many of us have toyed with more than one of these styles – and in due course, we’ve later developed a sense of our own personal style (in theory, at least…) which may, or may not, be informed by those early group experiments. We’ve moved on with varying degrees of success and comfort – and indeed some choose to stick with their formative style experiences and continue to use them to define themselves.

Anita Corbin is a photographer who documented many of these style tribes in the 1980s, and whose photographs are now touring the country, paired with current images of the women as they currently are. You can find out more about her ‘Visible Girls Revisited’ project here, as well as view further intriguing ‘then and now’ images here.

Style tribes 1980

Helen de Jode (left) and Emma Hall, Photographed by Anita Corbin in 1980 for the Visible Girls project.

But what of today’s style tribes? Interviews with participants in the ‘Visible Girls’ project reveal how much girls enjoyed feeling as if they were part of something. Are today’s girls and young women missing out? Or has social media redrawn the map completely? Now that young girls are linked digitally by their social media networks, has that removed the need to signal their identity visually in the same way? Have they lost something that we might have had in the past – or are they now free to be far more individual, avoiding the need for a visual herd mentality? Were style tribes an opportunity to explore creativity – or did they just encourage getting into a hard-to-escape rut?

What, too, of the tradition for youth rebellion (if that’s not a contradiction) and the role of fashion within that? In the 1980s I could spot a person’s likely political agenda at 50 paces – but how does a young Corbynista, for instance, spot a likely kindred spirit across a crowded room? That might be We’ve heard much about the age divisions within British society following last year’s referendum – and while young adults certainly don’t have a monopoly on unaffordable housing, uncertain employment and low wages, many of them are very definitely at the sharp end of those experiences. Yet to my knowledge there’s no equivalent of the ‘Hard Times’ fashion scene from the early 80s, for instance.

The face hard times style tribes

The Face magazine, September 1982

Of course that doesn’t mean that people are any less committed to their causes – but I’m just intrigued to know whether fashion is any longer part of that picture.

Did any of you belong to a style tribe in the past – if so, then which one? (Pictures – pictures would be fabulous!) How did that experience affect your style today? Have you spotted a contemporary fashion subculture that I’ve missed? Or are they simply no longer relevant? Here at ClothSpot, the likes of Becky, Evé, Freya, Kerry and Lizzie would be grateful if you let me know – it might just give them a break…

Pattern possibilities

On the sewing front, my thanks to Anne P. for drawing to my attention the fact that Style Arc patterns have extended their range of PDF patterns on their main website. We get such great feedback from their patterns in terms of fitting (trousers, in particular) that we thought that might be worth sharing.

Style arc tunic

The ‘Autumn Dress’ by Style Arc patterns

Also if you haven’t taken a look at The Pattern Pages, then you might want to – it’s a free quarterly digital magazine with lots of updates on new patterns in particular.

Stella tells it how it is

Finally, many of you will have caught up with Stella McCartney’s interview on Desert Island Discs last week – but if not we encourage you to drop in on the BBC iPlayer site and catch up.

Stella McCcartney

Stella McCartney on Desert Island Discs

Kirsty Young introduces the discussion from the perspective of McCartney’s preoccupation with ‘Why we wear stuff and how it makes us feel’.

How is what you’re wearing, influencing how you’re feeling today, Stella McCartney?

Which of course, is right up our ‘Style crisis’ street… Interestingly too, she talks about the connection between fashion and music during her formative years – taking us right back to the top.

Have a great weekend!

 

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Style crisis: You say ‘tomato’, I say ‘shirt’

Tomato shirt topper

In an ideal world, this is the post where I would swan into shot on my newly-minted vlog (Ha! Don’t hold your breath…) sashaying elegantly to a tall stool. There, poised and articulate I would announce myself transformed; an accurate representation of my stylish inner self, only slightly distracted by the sound of my alarm clock going off…

Nope – not happening. No surprise that the reality is a little more prosaic. I have dipped my toe into the waters of my new personal style adventure and come up with – a shirt! Now – hold onto your hairpieces there, people – I know it’s not the most inventive of directions but the aim here at least in part, was for me to understand a bit more about me and my style. I’m sure I won’t be challenging Stella McCartney any time soon – and frankly you could probably drape me head-to-foot in Dior and it wouldn’t stop me behaving like a Duracell bunny with an inappropriate sense of humour.

A shirt was the first thing on my list – something cool (in the practical, rather than stylish sense – let’s be realistic) to wear with jeans in the summer. Not only did I make it – but I road-tested it for the day, too. Here’s how it went.

The pattern

Tried and tested, all over the Internet – Vogue Pattern 8772. Minimal agonising here – I had it to hand, knew it just needed a small bust adjustment (SBA) and I liked the idea of a no-sleeves, tunic length version.

Vogue Pattern 8772

Vogue Pattern 8772

Plus, it has a little bit of dart-shaping – enough to give it a bit of shape but not so much as to be too fitted. So off we went, with View E; sleeveless, tunic-length, proper collar, no bow.

The fabric

I’ve had my eye on our Coral-floral printed purple cotton lawn fabric for some time. It first arrived last summer and the colours cheered me up right the way through a long, dark winter, glowing in the cotton store. I wanted to try a cotton lawn for the shirt – and was already inclined towards it for this project when comments on my last Style Crisis post suggested purples and tomato-reds as being colours which might work well with my colouring.

I needed no further encouragement. Stepping away from black and grey was a definite goal for this project and not only does this fabric feature a background of purple and a print pattern of tomato reds – upon closer inspection those red berries almost looked like little tomatoes. Or pomegranates, perhaps? Rosehips? Who knows – tomato-ey enough for a decision to be made.

The making

I think this has to be the cheeriest make I remember. I knew that something was different when I realised that my black/grey/navy/white overlocker threads weren’t going to do the trick – and rummaging in my thread box I found a set of red ones. Red – I ask you! Unheard of hereabouts.

Tomato shirt overlocking

Cheery red overlocking!

Overlocking pattern pieces prior to construction is one of my pleasures in life – it makes me feel in control, organised and tidy. Not a feeling that ever lasts long in my experience – but it served to launch me into my Happy Place with a smile on my face. And in fact, that smile stayed put throughout.

Having shortened the back length by 1.5cm and reduced the bust darts down a size, I risked going without a toile having made the pattern up once before as a sample and knowing it was fairly true-to-size. For once my judgement was fairly accurate; a quick try-on after the main pattern pieces were assembled was reassurance enough on that front.

Rather than hope for an entire day to make my shirt (another entry in my ‘favourite dreams’ catalogue) I spent a happy wet Sunday afternoon followed by a few hours here and there later in the week. I’m a great subscriber to Lladybird’s belief that ‘little and often’ is the key to getting a sewing project done and although I do need a fair run at a project to get it going, I’m fine picking it up in shorter sessions thereafter. (Just in case anyone was wondering, running ClothSpot doesn’t magically conjure up lots of sewing time – quite the opposite.)

Happily however there were no disasters to report. (Something to do with no sleeves to sew on back-to-front, I imagine.) Top-stitching the collar reminded me that I really do need to do more practicing – one collar point requiring a couple of re-runs. My only pattern gripe was with the sleeve binding method. It’s not the first time I’ve had an issue with patterns instructing me to create binding using the main fabric and sew my binding strips in a circle prior to attaching to the armhole. In my experience, the binding strips always, always end up too large, necessitating much unpicking and re-sewing. Any suggestions as to why would be greatly appreciated.

The fabric however was a dream to work with. Stable and well-behaved, it kept its structure throughout (even while unpicking and restitching the aforementioned collar point) and pressed up a dream. My machine (a Janome Atelier 3 which I still think of as ‘excitingly new’ nearly two years on) created 10 perfect buttonholes with ease (oh, joy!) and we were away.

Tomato collar close up

Loving a proper shirt collar

The wearing

This is where it all gets a little weird. I happily went to it on the Monday morning with my (increasingly dishevelled) jeans and my brand new orange clog sandals. Orange is a new shoe colour for me (as I suspect it would be for most) but I felt an infectious jolliness from my shirtmaking when I ordered them with my birthday money. On went the shirt and off I nipped to the local shop to pick up milk and ClothSpot’s traditional Monday lunchtime soup. Walking into the shop, a polite chap stood back from the door to let me through and smiled. Not in a dodgy way – just a cheery smile. Then at the checkout the store assistant commented on my scent and told me all about the perfume her husband had recently bought her. Definitely not the kind of reaction I usually expect – not that people aren’t friendly  round here – quite the opposite. It just seemed…different. My ClothSpot colleagues were enthusiastic (although one of them should know that I caught that look of amused scepticism that she flashed around the workroom).

Alice in tomato shirt

The big reveal. (Ignore the hair. Apparently I did…)

It all went a bit downhill when we had a rescheduled visit from a supplier in the afternoon. My usual habit is to make a selection of fabrics then play with then on the floor so I can decide what works and how. The clogs came off as their wooden soles wouldn’t flex as I squatted on my knees. I then discovered I’d over-cut a buttonhole on my midriff which annoyingly refused to hold onto its button. Finally, kneeling on the floor for half an hour rendered my holey jeans even more so. As a work outfit then, this clearly wasn’t the ‘killer app’ I’d hoped for

The feeling

In my last Style Crisis post I listed all the ways I’d like my new wardrobe might make me feel more like me. There are some feelings I was searching for that my red and purple shirt delivered on; I did indeed feel ‘fresh’, ‘lively’ and ‘energised’. Partly to do with the colours; also the sleevelessness of the shirt worked for me on a hot day. I was cheery and jolly – and, apparently, so was everyone else around me. I’m suspect they weren’t responding to my shirt; is it actually possible they were reacting to the liveliness and good humour that I was projecting, partly as a result of wearing vibrant, happier colours? The jury is still out…

I’m less certain that this is a garment that made me feel ‘inspired’ or ‘connected’ however – and I’m pretty certain that it doesn’t fit my definition of ‘sophistication’, ‘elegance’ or a number of other criteria that I’d set for it. And as it turned out, my outfit as a whole wasn’t particularly practical either – certainly not for the job in hand that afternoon.

The colours I loved, actually. It was just that I had a sense that the scale and style of the print pattern were perhaps less ‘me’. I’m not so used to wearing such a small-scale, delicate print – and just maybe I should have warned myself off wearing actual tomatoes, as opposed to the colour. In addition I think that a longer tunic shape might have worked better in a less crisp, more flowing fabric. So – I might well have another go at the pattern – but possibly with a more draping fabric in a simpler design.

The decision

Keep or give away? Well – it’s hard to contemplate abandoning so quickly a garment that I enjoyed making and which in part, I enjoyed wearing. I’m going to hang on to it for the summer to see if it’s the kind of thing I might like wearing on a holiday road trip or to the seaside. I think it might cheer any of those – but if it doesn’t get that opportunity, even during summer weather like this, then realistically it’s not the style for me.

Opinions are welcome as as ever! Meanwhile a new shirt pattern has just arrived from France and I’m eyeing up our ‘Café Bleu’ rippling navy blue Irish linen fabric

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Style Crisis interlude

I’ve been looking forward to regaling you all with my experience of wearing my first Style Crisis make. It’s all done – I promise – and road-tested too. However the events of the last few days have rather put a stop to any sense of fun that I might have felt in sharing that with you. I am a great believer in carrying on regardless. However the enormity of the fire at Grenfell Tower has proved just too overwhelming to make light of – well – anything, really. I know from conversations with customers, friends and family this week that this disaster has affected us all, however far removed we are from the event itself.

I spent my teens in eager anticipation of moving to London. I lived, loved and worked there for fifteen years. In my first three years I lived at 10 different addresses, cycling everywhere. I knew London, I miss it, and love visiting – but I also know how much it’s changed since my first solo shopping trips in the 70s; since I moved there in the 80s. If housing was difficult to find and expensive then, it’s beyond ridiculous now. Like many I’ve assumed that situation couldn’t continue. A city needs people to run it as well as live in it – and so many have either been forced out or compelled to live in appalling conditions. However not in my worst imaginings did I contemplate an event such as this.

It’s becoming clear that individuals, families and a significant swathe of a community are likely to have died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Some of those affected had already lost everything once, having arrived as refugees. The local community has pulled together, demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of devastation. For those of us at a distance there may be little we feel able to do. Of course we will donate if we are able – and the British Red Cross has established a national London Fire Relief Fund for that purpose. However like me, you may be left wondering what on earth the world has come to if a tragedy such as this can take place in Britain, in 2017.

Political change and practical actions will clearly be required to make sure such a thing can never happen again. Those of us in a position to help lobby, raise awareness or support individuals will surely do so. However right now, many of us remain at a loss.

Beyond donating and expressing my sorrow and outrage, what next? How is it possible to talk about apparent trivialities such as a new shirt, for heaven’s sake, in the knowledge that others have lost everything?

For what it’s worth, I’ll be trying two things.

First – I’m going to make sure I connect with the people around me. Many of us are fortunate enough to have families, friends and communities to support us and to give us a sense of safety, of belonging, of home. We know there are those who don’t necessarily experience that connection with others – and events such as The Great Get Together, inspired by the death of Jo Cox, a year ago today, are inspiring in their determination to bring people together. I’m not the best at organising parties and get-togethers but I know people who are, and I’ve been saying ‘yes’ to invitations for coffee, tea and even a barbeque this weekend, ignoring my bookish and box-set urges.

Second – we all know and love the process of sewing. We know the pleasure of creating something with our hands; of being in our ‘happy place’. Psychologists call it being in a ‘state of flow’; being captivated by the act of creating. I’ve heard many of you describe the sheer joy of sewing, warning off family and housemates and becoming completely absorbed in the creative process. You can find out a bit more about why and how that happens in this TED talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who helped define that state of pleasure.

I’m hoping then, that finding time to do some sewing will allow me to reflect and also to clear my mind a little.

I’ll also be counting my blessings, as will we all. Following the extraordinary example of the student who sat her Chemistry GCSE the morning after escaping from the fire, normal service will be resumed next week. I’m fortunate enough for that to be an option and the Grenfell Tower disaster has reminded me of that. This is a community I feel privileged to be a part of and if Ines Alves can get on with her GCSEs, then the least I can do is crack on too.

Any suggestions as to how we might all do that are as ever, most welcome.

View from the Farm Café – a Draper’s Holiday?

sweet william draper's holiday

I have been getting on with my first garment as part resolving my Style Crisis I promise! However it’s not quite finished – and besides I was beginning to fret that you might all think I was totally obsessed with my clothes, all the time – which isn’t the case at all. There are times when I am quite happy to put on something quite skanky and head off into the distance withouth being in the least bothered about how I look.

Like many of you I love to go for a run. It reconnects me with the countryside where we’re lucky enough to live – and as I remind myself on tough mornings – I always feel better afterwards. I know I’m not alone in this – Handmade Jane was blogging about sewing and running just a couple of weeks ago – and I’ve had similar conversations with our customers too. For about 15 years now, my trainers have usually been the first thing to be packed on a business trip or a holiday – ClothSpot was even conceived with my running buddy around the trails and riverbanks in the area!

It occurred to me on a recent run however that although I might be looking at a fairly industrial (if at times, breathtakingly beautiful) farming landscape – it’s not as far removed from the ClothSpot workroom as I might think. In fact it’s a bit of a busman’s draper’s holiday. Take the field of flowers that bloomed over the road last year…

flax crop draper's holiday

…the field full of hazy blue had been planted with flax – nowadays used as a break crop to produce seed for oil – however in the past taller varieties were grown for linen production in the area – as evidenced by this building (en route to the Farm Café as it happens)…

Flax mill draper's holidayThe roadsign is the giveaway…

Flax mill sign draper's holiday

It sits right by the river – an important water supply when it was in operation. Built in 1851 during the Industrial Revolution, it ceased production before the end of the nineteenth century, with a brief period of use at the end of WW1 when it produced linen for uniforms and aircraft.

Elsewhere on my run there are other fabric producers – not only the sheep that wander around nibbling at old brussels sprout stalks during the late winter – but these characters, newly shorn.

alpacas - draper's holidayThey’re alpacas – huge eyes following me along the river bank as I run by. This pair  are a couple of miles further down the road – still waiting for their haircut and back-to-back looking for all the world like Dr. Doolittles ‘pushmepullyou’

Alpacas 2 draper's holidayAlpaca fleece is wonderfully soft (we have it as a wool mix occasionally). It contains no lanolin – so is hypoallergenic.

I encountered a less traditional fabric while on a run in Yorkshire a few weeks ago, visiting my sister outside Harrogate. Heading down a steep hill (a novelty for a Fenlander) I crossed this lovely stream…

Crimple river draper's holiday…and noticed this sign nearby.

Crimple meadows sign draper's holidayIt reminded me that the stream was the ‘Crimple’ and that I was in the Crimple Valley. In the 1960s ICI used to have a headquarters nearby, as well as a production centre for fabrics including Terylene and – you guessed – Crimplene! For those of you who grew up after the 1970s, this might be a bit of a mystery item – however those of us growing up during the 60s and 70s will be only too familiar with this (indestructible) textured doubleknit fabric, used for trousers, dresses and more besides. The mainstay of the M&S children’s department and many a market stall besides, you could say it was the ponte Roma jersey or scuba of its day.

Here’s a fabulous piece of archive film all about Harrogate from 1970-1971. Pulled from the Yorkshire Film Archive, it’s worth a coffee break I promise you. My personal highlights include the male fashion show at 4m 18s, culminating with a white-cloaked poseur at about 4m 50s. You might also notice that the boardrooms and business meetings are full of (dreadfully important) gentlemen – whilst the research and product developers (9m 06s), production supervisors (9m 20s) and dyers (10m) are almost exclusively women.

For the full film do take a look at the YFA archive. Meanwhile – if you’re running or going for a walk over the weekend do keep an eye out and let me know what fabric finds you come across down your way – I’d love to know!

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Style crisis – time to get personal

Style crisis couch - getting personal

Hard at work, analysing my style crisis

A favourite pastime of certain acquaintances is to see how quickly they can prod me into an agitated diatribe on a contentious issue. I’ll know precisely what they’re doing – even that I’m probably being timed – yet eventually the red mist will descend. Moments later I’m surrounded by folded arms and smug grins – with realisation finally dawning that I’ve fallen off the deep end into a well-laid trap. Again. Add to that the fact that my entrance into a room at home is frequently heralded by the theme from Jaws (I mean, really) and you’ll understand why I was so gratified (taken aback, even) at an email response to the full wardrobe disclosure in my last post.

Alice, you have such a sunny personality and you’d never guess that from your clothes!

When I’d finished basking in the warm glow (how lovely was that?) I took another look at the pictures I’d posted. True enough – the black, navy blue and grey on display there was pretty overwhelming and not at all how I feel about myself. Although I’m not sure that even wafting around in a fascinator, butterfly bra and a tulle skirt would silence my provocateurs (once they’d picked themselves up off the floor), I’m convinced I can do better at projecting the real me. As the next stage in resolving my style crisis then – it’s time to get personal.

How do I really feel about what I wear?

Time to get personal – analysing my style

Before I lean back on the style analysis couch, I should say that what follows started off as a vague list of questions I thought I should ask myself. In an attempt to add some structure and detail I remembered the Wardrobe Architect by  Colette Patterns – which in turn references online resources such as the Curated Closet by Anuschka Rees. They provide a far more rigorous (and I think, very useful) framework for analysing your personal style. I’m never one for re-inventing a perfectly good wheel and would recommend dropping in on those sites. What follows here are my responses to questions posed there – as well as the odd preoccupation of my own.

Facing up to my wardrobe reality

I am forced to confess that until I saw all my clothes together (or at least a representative selection of them) as well as pictures of me in (or with) my clothes – I would not have been able to answer these questions. If you want to confront the harsh reality of your own style crisis, that you might want to do the same. I’m not of the generation or inclination to have a personal selfie history on Instagram or Facebook – but if you are, then it might not be a bad idea to review it.

How do I feel about my clothes?

How do I feel about how I look now?

Frankly, shocked at how dark, shabby and plain tired my clothes make me feel. I just hadn’t realised. My everyday clothes seem very utilitarian in a baggy sort of way – with the odd bolt of colour looking out of place, as if it’s trying too hard. I feel like a roadie, lurking to the side of a stage of a gig in a dark black-painted pub, waiting for the lights to come on so I can start packing the gear up. There’s spilt beer on the soles of my trainers making them stick to the floor; the dry ice is making me sneeze and I’ve run out of tissues. It’s hardly a style statement.

How do I want to feel when I get dressed?

I want to feel energised; fresh, lively and as sparky as I feel (most mornings at least). I want to feel as if I’m in touch with the wider world – and I want to feel inspired by what I’m wearing but not dominated by it. I’d like to feel a little bit sophisticated and grown up – but with a bit of rebellion and practicality thrown in there too. I want to feel comfortable and ready for action but sharp and (at least a little bit) well-groomed. Would graceful and elegant be to much to ask for in the middle of all that?

How do I not want to feel when I get dressed?

I don’t want to feel stiff or formal – and I don’t want to feel ‘dressed up’. I don’t want to feel girly, posed, traditional or staid.  On the other hand I don’t want to feel like a rock chick, an extra from Sesame Street or someone who’s trying too hard to match or contrast all their clothes. I don’t want to feel as if I’m decked out in this week’s fashion fad – but neither do I want to feel out of touch and dated.

What silhouettes do I love and hate?

I know that my body shape tends more towards the athletic (although that might be pushing it as a description) than hourglass or pear. I have broad shoulders, a high (but not well-defined) waist, narrow hips and long limbs. In general I’d prefer ‘tomboy’ or ‘geek’ to ‘Marilyn’ or ‘Stepford Wife’ any day of the week. Frills, flounces and general frivolity are not my bag; I prefer long, simple lines. Similarly I prefer angles and clean shapes to drapery although I do like my clothes to move and hang nicely. I love the style of sleek late-mid-century tailoring but recognise the impracticality of wearing it.

Necklines – boat-shaped or V-shaped. I prefer higher necklines to have collar stands; I like jacket fronts to be cut deep. Round or scooped necklines don’t work so well.

Getting personal - good t-shirt

A good T-shirt shape for me – fitted around the shoulders, cutting in from a wide neckline to a semi-fitted waistline

Tops – better when semi-fitted or fitted – bagginess or volume gathering into the shoulders tends to make me feel like a 1960s maternity advertisement or an American football player. A little bit of shape or fit helps.

Getting personal - bad t-shirt

A bad T-shirt for me – no shape, round-necked and baggy from the shoulders

Sleeves – I’m small-busted and strong-shouldered so cap sleeves don’t really work for me as they give the impression that a garment is too small. Halternecks and even sleeveless shell tops (I think) are fine – but a short, baggy sleeve is not. Fitted sleeves ending just above the elbow are good – 3/4 or bracelet sleeves make me look like an orang-utang who has outgrown its clothes. I usually add a few inches onto full-length sleeves in patterns to make them fit properly. Frilly and fluted sleeves make me feel daft. Experience tells me I usually manage to trail them in food, ink or worse.

Time to get personal - bad frills

My idea of a frilly, short-sleeved, crop-topped nightmare.

Waistline – Empire line dresses work for me – as does a longer line or perhaps a bit of shape cut into a tunic, dress or jacket. Gathering into the waist – are you joking? Belted volume and cropped tops makes me look (and feel) like a toffee apple.

Getting personal - bad skirt

Might make me cry

Legs and length – my legs are relatively long and I like shorter dresses, tunics and short skirts – happily these also tend to lengthen my relatively short torso. However the widest part of my calves is not much less than my thigh (which tells you more about my calves than my thighs) and my size 8 feet are attached to strong and serviceable ankles. Anything that stops mid-calf on me is never going to work – whatever this season’s trend for longer dresses might be according to Vogue.

Time to get personal - bad dress

Probably cause for a tantrum

Shape and volume – shapelessness around the shoulders or chest really doesn’t work as I have a broad shoulders and chest so without some fittedness there it’s easy to give the impression I don’t have any shape at all. Longer tunic lines and anything that lengthens my torso are generally Good Things. Garments look better if then terminate or fit further down my hips than on or above them. Volume at longer lengths is fine as it balances out my shoulders (and I don’t mind a bit of drama).

Getting personal - good skirt

Now we’re talking skirts…

Colour – what’s not to like?

It occurs to me that any non-neutral clothing items I have seem to be ‘statement’ pieces from a colour perspective. They work (if you can call it that) against black or denim – but I don’t have many (any?) non-neutral-coloured items of clothing which work with other garments which are also colours. I adore colour – working with it is one of the many things I love about ClothSpot. So why can’t I incorporate it into my wardrobe?

I know enough about colour to know that I tend to suit typically ‘autumn’ shades – but that I can also wear some brights and even some pastels. Bottle green and dusky pink make me look as if I have food poisoning. Rich petrol or teal blue cheers me up no end and the right shade of cream can make me feel quite elegant.

I like the idea of strong neutrals such as (the right) navy blue, dark brown, charcoal and even black. However I expunged most brown from my wardrobe a few years ago as it made me feel very ‘samey’ from top to toe and I can now see the danger of my over-using any colour of this type.

What am I frightened of?

I have many fears when it comes to colour. These include (but are not limited to) the following:

– If I take the plunge with a garment in a decisive colour then it might not work with anything else I have;
– With limited time or money to spend on lots of different garments (especially having weeded my wardrobe so ruthlessly) anything new has to work with as many other things as possible;
– It might make me look too old;
– It might make me look too young;
– If I wear too much colour then the overall effect will either be too matchy-matchy. I don’t want to look as if I’ve fallen in a vat of dye;
– If I wear too much colour then the overall effect will be too scattergun. I don’t want to look as if I’m presenting an episode of Rainbow or Play Away.

Style crisis - time to get personal

Worried I might Bungle my colour choices…

So – nothing much to worry about there, then.

Pattern

I am happy with the idea of abstract patterns in any scale – as you can tell from my blue and gold shirt that looks as if it was thrown up over on a heavy night out.

Style crisis - getting personal - Patterned shirt

Apparently quite comfortable about wearing all my favourite colours at once. Not scary at all…

I can just about cope with more abstract or digital florals on a small or medium scale. However I don’t do animals or objects. Flamingos, buttons, monkeys, giraffes in balloons and what have you – not for me.

My next job…

…is to translate all this personal baggage into something coherent in terms of actual clothes. The weather has warmed up and I am getting desperate. In an ideal world I would construct a detailed plan that resulted in the perfect capsule wardrobe. I’d have it made by the middle of June and the summer would be my lobster. However the more I’ve thought about that, the less likely I think it is to happen – if I wait any longer before leaping into action, it’ll be October before I knock out a single T-shirt.

Based on my analysis, I think I’m quite confident about my preferences in terms of garment style and shape – however I need to be more decisive  in terms of colour.

I think a practical approach would be to queue up a couple of garments that seem to reflect those preferences and begin to challenge my colour fears. Low-investment garments (in terms of time as well as expense) that will bear re-making in different fabrics if they work. My hit list includes:

– A cool shirt that I know will work with jeans

– A skirt that’s easy to fit

– A top that will go with the skirt

– A dress that will give me an instant outfit

– A pair of summer trousers (non-jeans)

That’s my plan. Any other suggestions? Are there other considerations I need to take into account? What would you start with? Advice and suggestions welcome as always!

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Style crisis decisions – opening the dressing-up box

Style Crisis - dressing-up box or wardrobe

One of my earliest school memories is of a big hamper outside the classroom belonging to the third year infants’ class (that’s Year 2 in new money). I remember rummaging in it and finding an extraordinary long red dress, full of ruffles, lace and shininess. It called out to me every time we crocodiled past. I was hauled out of this magical hamper on more than one occasion and it remains one of my life’s regrets that we moved away in the spring of my second year – just months away from Dressing Up Heaven.

In my new school there was no dressing up box *mournful face*. My clothing-related memory there was taking a stand during PE lessons. Girls had to wear pants (dark green and elasticated in my case), vests and plimsolls for PE. Boys on the other hand were only required to wear pants and plimsolls. This seemed unfair to me so I argued that the girls should also be able to exercise vest-free. I don’t remember any of them wanting to join me but the boys seemed to think it was cool and I got to play football with them – until I moved schools again at the end of the third year. (Was it something I said?)

Fast-forward almost half a century and the story hasn’t really changed – except I do wear my vest these days. The impossible dilemma of whether to dress like Lorna Doone or Peppermint Patty is resolved on a daily basis by resorting to a uniform, just as it was back in the late ’60s. Usually it’s jeans, T shirt and trainers rather than a grey pinafore – but the principle is the same and something needs to give. I need to work out my style and incorporate that into a whole new wardrobe.

The magnitude of making a decision for a whole wardrobe is even greater than deciding on an outfit for a day but I’m on my penultimate pair of hole-free jeans and no clothes are being made or purchased until the deed is done so here goes.

Everyday dressing

My focus at this point is my wardrobe for every day wear, rather than for special occasions. At this stage I’m aiming for minimum effort when averaged out per garment wear. Plus – I agree with Alyson Walsh of thatsnotmyage when she suggests prioritising clothes for ‘casual glamour’ – or in other words, what she terms ‘the midpoint of the 24 hour scale’. She argues that carefully-selected daywear  can perform dual service for all but the most formal or (downbeat!) occasions that may arise outside of daily routine. This sounds like a workable approach to me – and I do like the idea of wearing clothes that feel special enough to feed me some energy every day – not just being ‘saved for best’.

I’ve done my research, read all your comments and taken soundings with friends – now it’s time to take myself to task. I think I need answers to the following three questions in order to help me prise open my figurative dressing-up box – and decide what I’d like to find inside.

Question 1: What do I usually wear now?

I’ve had lots of clear-outs of things I don’t wear any more – I’m very good at throwing things away. My constant weeding has left me with the following items, many of which are over 10 years old. Of the more recent garments, most have been made by me except for the jeans, jersey items and knitwear which are replenished from time to time from the high street.

Style crisis dressping-up box - my uniform

Well, hello!

This is my daily uniform. Jeans, plimsolls, T-shirt, layer over the top (in this case a much-abused jersey jacket (see below) – other days it could be a shirt.)

Garments in my wardrobe

Various jeans, two pairs of which don’t have a hole; one of which I actually wear.
Three pairs of trousers (including one pair which fits!),
Four dresses (1 summer frock, 2 long jersey vests, 1 shirt dress)
Three tunic dresses (2 winterwear only)
Ten shirts/blouses (half of which are lightweight georgette/chiffon affairs, made or bought for ‘going out’. Sigh.)
Two skirts (Two summer, one winter).

Dressing-up box - skirt collection

Welcome to my extensive skirt collection

An unlined jersey jacket. (Purchased from UniQlo about 8 years ago. Worn incessantly. See above.)

Garments in my drawers

A large-ish number of jersey tops, T-shirts and vests. 20% of these are worn 80% of the time.
A drawer full of leggings and lycra mini skirts which are my go-to lounge wear
A fair number of knitwear items in various states of (dis)repair. That’s two drawers, a blanket box full and a pile at the bottom of my wardrobe. What can I say – I feel the cold and we live in the Fens.

Other stuff

I’m not counting outerwear for the purposes of this project – except to say that I do have a black leather jacket which gets lots of wear. I have a collection of jackets as outerwear – suede, denim, tweed, vintage, me-made, you name it. The same goes for coats. I’ve never had a problem with dramatic cover-ups.

Clothes I actually wear

If I’m going out in the evening, the jeans get upgraded to a pair of trousers (unless it’s a gig, in which case it’s ‘stick with the jeans’ or switch to leggings/lycra skirt). The top is switched for a ‘posh shirt’ or tunic and the leather jacket goes on.

Leather jacket - dressing-up box going out

My ‘going out’ uniform

On hot days I have my summer frock, my summer skirt and a vest top, or my long jersey vest dresses layered with T-shirts.

Shirt and summer top - dressing-up box

For that day when the sun comes out

For a serious daytime occasion I have my navy wool shift dress (complete with misaligned darts), one of many vintage scarves and a coat or the BLJ.

If all else fails – white cotton shirt, rolled jeans and red lippy.

Finally in this section –  a word about shoes. I love a heel occasionally – but spend most of my time running around up and down stairs that look like this…

Stairs to dressing-up box

Not a place for Jimmy Choo

…in a building where some of the doorways are well under 5 feet high (Yes – FIVE – that wasn’t a typo). Also I have seriously-serviceable size 8 feet. I do own a pair of platform sandals and a couple of pairs of classic heels but in the interest of keeping out of the local A&E, most of my shoes are F-L-A-T. Which tends to be my starting point for most outfits.

Question 2: What do I spend my time doing?

A recurring message I took from blog comments and my reading was to dress for the life I actually have now. I can’t believe that it never really occurred to me to think about my clothes that way – (or at least not in the last few years, apparently.) No longer do I commute long distances or cycle to work. No formal meetings, presentations, papers or interviews. So no real need for the formal workwear of years gone by. My average week might include:

Work

Photography (quite active – draping, pinning, bending and stretching; early start in the cold; sweltering when the sun comes round)
Admin, PhotoShopping, writing (desk-based or at a computer – it can get cold)
Filling in with some orders  (cutting and packing – up and down; lifting and stretching)
Unpacking, checking and storing new fabrics
Meetings with suppliers (Back on the floor with samples)
Supplier & business meetings & research outside the office (need to feel cool & confident as well as comfortable when travelling)

Outside work

Errands (Shopping, bank)
Visiting family & friends
‘Going out’ usually the odd meal out, film or band
Sewing, reading, box sets

I’m excluding here clothing for specific activities such as exercise, gardening, draining the washing machine, sawing down trees or painting the ceiling etc. I have a box of grungy gym kit and other choice garments for that kind of faffing around. You really don’t want the details.

Question 3: What do I wish would magically appear in my wardrobe?

In an email response to my first blog, one correspondent suggested the answer to most wardrobe crises was quite simple.

‘Why don’t women just make a note of what they wish they could find when they open the wardrobe door before getting dressed – and go and make one?’

Which sounds too simple to be true – but for anyone like me who stands and sighs at the wardrobe rail, resplendent with dripping hair and a bath towel – it’s actually a point well-made. So I did just that this month – every time I got caught short, I asked myself what I would find in my dream dressing-up box. This was the list I came up with.

A YSL tuxedo jacket (well – I did use the words ‘magically’ and ‘dream’…)
An ivory silk shell top
A button-up silk shirt (or three)
Black cigarette pants that don’t stick on my calves
A fresh printed cotton shirt
Ankle-length summer trousers in lighter neutral colours

What next?

Apologies if this is all TMI. However it seemed appropriate to explain my Style Crisis starting point and I decided to bite the bullet. My homework now is to do two things.

First, look at the reality of my wardrobe (seeing it all on a rail was a bit of an eye-opener) and come up with a list of garments that it seems to be missing or which need replacing.

Second, I’m going to have a good think about how I feel in those different garments. I’m going to go back to my Pinterest boards and imagine augmenting or replacing my wardrobe with some of the styles, colours or garments in there, taking note of my answers to Questions 2 and 3.

Any thoughts would be very welcome – perhaps you’ve gone through this process and can suggest other steps I might consider taking? Also, what would be in your dream dressing-up box – if not your wardrobe?

 

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View from the Farm Café

Farm café

When you’re running a business (or a family, a department or any ordinarily-complicated life rubbing up against bills and deadlines…) there can be a constant sense of failing to achieve. Items are added to to-do-lists far more easily than they’re crossed off – and it’s easy to forget the trail of ‘jobs done’ receding behind you.

Finding a moment to take stock of all that frenetic activity can be difficult – but I thoroughly recommend it. Last year I was persuaded to find a regular spot to do just that – and so every Friday morning I head off to the café at the local Farm Shop. Away from the distractions of the ClothSpot workroom it’s an opportunity to catch up on the fashion press over (excellent) coffee before plunging myself into a specially-saved-up project. Sometimes it’s as mundane (albeit essential) as organising my to-do lists; another time I might get to be a geek for a couple of hours, delving into databases and spreadsheets to analyse sales data.

Farm café

Most of all though, it’s an opportunity to reflect without anyone asking anything of me. Such is the predictability of my farm café routine that the staff know my breakfast and coffee order – the only query being the timing of my hot chocolate later on in the morning if it’s nippy. Local ladies are chatting and sipping; new mothers are sandwiched between buggies and their own mothers in turn. Once a month a pair of retired chaps in bright Lycra and clonky cycle shoes rattle in with their helmets and rucksacks; the occasional funeral party wanders in from the newly-built crematorium up the road, all tense relief; silently courteous. When the café starts filling up for lunch (and the smell of fried fish filters into my headphoned seclusion) I beat a grateful retreat (though not without a slice of cake for afternoon tea).

It’s my favourite time of the week – and one which is highly productive too. Always so in terms of tasks accomplished – but at least as significantly in terms of getting some perspective on everything. It’s a chance to take a breath, acknowledge achievements and plan for what’s next. It feels like a luxury – but in fact it’s an absolutely essential part of my week. It’s not rock ‘n’roll; it’s not Soho – but it works. If you can find an equivalent for yourself then give it a go – it’s worth the effort I promise.

Perhaps you already have your personal version of the farm café – do tell if so.

A frequent by-product of that precious time refuge is a flurry of Post-It notes. Stuck to pages torn from the fashion magazine of the day they hold ideas for blogs, reminders, passing inspirations, references… Many are just snippets but it occurred to me that sharing them in a post every couple of weeks might be a lark (and it will keep the clutter out of the Style Crisis blogs too). So just as a warm-up, here we go with…

…this week’s obsession

Yes – I readily confess excitement at the fact that Bananarama are back together – I was there too (in the early Siobhan years). Soaped-up big hair (no ‘product’ in the shops back then), Ray-bans, layered cut-up sweatshirts and dungarees from the DIY shop. If we’d had Instagram back then I’d drop a picture inhere – but we didn’t so I can’t.

Following the announcement of their return last week there was a little bit of excited hopping in the workroom (not just me) and the weekly ClothSpot photography session kicked off with ‘Robert de Niro’s Waiting’ at full volume.

For good measure we added the whole of Deep Sea Skiving to the Spotify feed. Half an hour later, our Weekly Discover playlist followed – and a track called ‘Long Time’ began. Not really paying attention – but bouncing, strutting, singing as I pinned, tucked and draped – the world was right again. And then the penny dropped.

Was this…Blondie?

Was this a new track?

Yes indeed!

Every couple of decades, in she storms, uninvited. ‘This is how cool it is to be a proper grown up.’ Except it’s not any kind of ‘grown-up’ we’ve been encouraged to be.

In 1978 she inspired my white high-heeled mules and a tight-as-you-like scarlet pencil skirt (from Chelsea Girl on the Kings Road FYI – at that time a four-and-a-half-hour train ride away for a teenager in a decidedly uncool corner of Yorkshire). The teachers on the door to the school dance didn’t recognise me and my heart swelled.

In 1999 she helped wave goodbye to my ‘proper’ career as an employee,  a carful of us cruising round Parliament Square with the windows down, belting out ‘Maria’ at top volume.

And now here she is again.

And in a flash I knew just what I wanted to do with the purple linen I was draping – and where was that silk crepe –  and where’s that jacket pattern I saw last week? And BANG! New wardrobe alert!

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

So yes – wonderful to see Banarama out and about – we all need some Fun Girl Three. But when it comes to figuring out the next steps in life, you need someone to show you what’s possible, in ways you hadn’t imagined. As Claudia Winkleman observed recently,  ‘there has to be some middle ground between raving all night in Hoxton and beige elasticated comfort pants’ (I paraphrase but you get the drift).

Deborah Harry does it for me. Who does it for you?

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