Thursday, 28 June 2018

The Mindful Makers: Sustainability and Style

There is an urgency to the issue of sustainability in the fashion industry. When you hear Swarovski’s sustainability expert saying “our lifestyles are not sustainable”, you know the message is getting through, and brands, large and small, are going to have to start addressing their role in the industry’s darker side: are they part of the problem or part of the solution? 

The Lone Design Club, a collection of fashion and lifestyle brands with a focus on traceable, mindfully-made products, organised the Mindful Makers evening to discuss sustainability and its importance in the design world. 

Rachele Gonzaga from Swarovski spoke about the ways in which big brands can use their money and influence for good, describing the responsibilities that these companies have to the communities where they operate. Reducing pollution through clean water initiatives and improving worker empowerment through education are priorities for Swarovski, as well as a commitment to sustainable innovation.

Rachele also talked about her work as a personal stylist, where she encourages people to think about what difference they could be making at an individual level. 
I very much approve of Rachele’s method: she suggests looking through our wardrobes carefully, working out what we aren’t wearing and why, and having old pieces upcycled or altered to suit our current personal style. She also suggests buying less but buying better, looking for seasonless, versatile clothes. I’m not the biggest fan of a capsule wardrobe for myself, but I agree that we are all buying more than we need and we need to reflect on why we buy. 

Rachele also pointed out that no brand is going to be 100% ethical, so rather than worrying about not being perfect, we should support the brands that focus on the issues that are important to us, whether that’s worker’s rights, sustainable or recycled materials or zero-waste design. 

Olivia Pinnock, a freelance fashion journalist and lecturer, spoke about the ways that sustainable brands can communicate the benefits of the way they operate to consumers. There is compelling evidence that consumers do care about sustainability; there was a 30% increase from 2017 in online engagement during Fashion Revolution Week, with customers asking brands “Who Made My Clothes?” However there is also evidence that sustainability doesn’t attract customers, it retains them. The product has to be appealing in its own right. 

Olivia emphasised the importance of clear communication with a positive emphasis on the advantages of sustainability. She suggested creating a community of shared values, telling a story rather than talking down to people. 

She also explained the importance of transparency: it levels the playing field and improves customer trust, while greenwashing hurts everyone. Certification (e.g the FairTrade label) can be a good way of communicating a brand’s values to customers, but this can be expensive, so endorsements from sustainability community leaders can also be a good indicator of a brand’s commitment to its values. 

A selection of swatches from Offset Warehouse

LDC’s Mindful Makers event showcased brands that have sustainability at the core of what they do, while creating beautiful and desirable products. Bourgeois Boheme have sleek and stylish vegan shoes, with smart formal styles as well as summery sandals. Gung Ho's statement sweatshirts and printed wrap dresses are very Instagrammable, as well as carrying a serious message about wildlife. Ware London's jewellery is eye-catching and futuristic, with gorgeous sculptural pieces created from vegetable tanned leather, and recycled rubber and silver.

Shoes by Bourgeois Boheme

Sophie from Gung Ho, Alicia from Bourgeois Boheme and Emma from Ware London were joined for a Q&A session by Charlie from Offset Warehouse, who source ethically made and sustainable fabrics.  The panelists talked about how they hoped their products could help customers to shop in line with their values, and how their brands could encourage people to see sustainable fashion as an aspirational lifestyle choice. 

Jewellery by Ware London

Sophie described Gung Ho as a brand for people who are “more than just a pretty face.” Our clothes are one of the first things people notice about us, they ought to show our interests and the things we care about. Alicia spoke about the extra research she does to make sure she is using the best factories and materials. Shoe construction is really complex, but they are constantly working on ways to make their products as sustainable as possible. Emma is living her brand’s values by living mostly off-grid, but still questions every decision when it comes to her products. I agreed wholeheartedly when she said that we have lost our connections to our surroundings. Sustainable fashion that uses interesting and unusual materials, like Pinatex, eco-stone or bicycle inner tubes can bring our attention back to the origins of the things around us that we take for granted. 

Gung Ho's print dresses and embroidered sweatshirts

The panelists agreed that legislation was needed to stop the overproduction and waste generated by fast fashion, but sustainable fashion brands could point out the shortcomings of the high street by emphasising their own selling points. For example, advertising jewellery made from FairTrade silver will alert curious customers to the fact that other brands are not using FairTrade materials. 

Gung Ho's signature embroidered motifs

The issue of the high cost of sustainable fashion relative to high street fashion came up in the Q&A, with different panelists having interesting takes. Olivia pointed out that although prices are higher than the cheapest end of the high street, they are actually comparable to mid-range retailers, and considerably cheaper than designer labels. Drawing those customers with plenty of disposable income away from the high street would be a sensible marketing strategy for brands who specialise in sustainable luxury. Sophie sells her Gung Ho designs at different price points to attract a wider range of customers, and Rachele pointed out that buying a lot of cheap clothes that you aren’t satisfied with, rather than a few pieces you really love, works out more expensive in the long run.

LDC are running a pop-up concept store, showcasing innovative independent brands, from 4th-24th July in Covent Garden. If you’re curious about
sustainable fashion, this would be a great opportunity to meet designers and find out the stories behind their products. Imagining the stories behind clothes was what drew me to start shopping for vintage clothes as a teenager, and has driven my passion for costume making, so finding a community where the story is a key part of the product is a constant source of delight for me.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

The joys of being overdressed

I’ve been wanting to write something about dress codes, or the expectations surrounding the way women dress, but every time I start collecting my thoughts, I realise the topic is a thesis, not a quick blog post. (this post had only been live for a few hours before a seriously offensive jacket made international headline news and I wrote an extra chapter of my masterwork in my head). So I’ve thrown caution to the wind (along with “sensible” clothes) and indulged my penchant for some fantastic frocks! 

It’s probably a bit odd to have a favourite obituary, but I think about Vicki Woods’ tribute to fashion journalist, mentor and muse Isabella Blow, published in Vogue Magazine, quite often. Woods describes seeing Blow crossing a busy London street near the Tatler offices: 
“She was dressed for work in a silk-satin mini-crini (Vivienne Westwood, knicker-length, hooped like a bordello lampshade) and a white satin bra (Rigby and Peller). Apart from Maud Frizon evening shoes with crystal balls twinkling at each heel, that was it... her impressive cleavage shivered like mounds of buffalo mozzarella.”
Instead of being met with jeers or catcalls, Blow’s appearance stunned the street into silence. What can you say to someone who is wearing that outfit with the utmost confidence? 

I visited an exhibition of Isabella Blow’s extensive wardrobe at Somerset House in 2013, and her love of dressing up was evident from the state of her clothes. These outrageous, one-off outfits hadn’t been museum pieces, she had worn them out and, by the look of some of the scuffed shoes and rumpled jackets, had one heck of a good time in them. 

We often cling to the idea that women (and especially older women) are covering up inner turmoil or tragedy by dressing in a flamboyant or eccentric way. It’s been an ongoing trope in the fictional depiction of women too, from Dickens’ Miss Havisham to Star Trek’s Lwaxana Troi (I wrote about her amazing costumes here). But one look at popular culture and we can also see women of all ages dressed to the nines and having the time of their lives. Think BeyoncĂ©’s pregnancy photo shoot, Rihanna cosplaying the Pope at the Met Gala, 90-something Iris Apfel and her incredible, enviable wardrobe. 

Yes, there are definitely days when putting on a great outfit gives me the confidence I need to deal with a difficult situation. Stepping out in bright colours is a real mood-boost on days when the whole world feels grey. But I also just unironically love clothes. I’ve spent fifteen years learning how to make them, perfecting my skills, learning about fashion history, visiting exhibitions and building up my own collection of vintage treasures. 

It can feel like there’s a constant pressure to play it cool; to downplay your love of something, or to do it ironically (why? At the end of the day, you’re still doing the thing, so the joke’s on you). Celebrating your love of something can be made to feel self-indulgent; especially for women, and especially when it comes to spending money. The media informs us that we have to spend money constantly to improve our appearance, while pop culture mocks us for being vain shopaholics. We can’t win! 

What happens when we stop worrying about what other people think and start dressing for ourselves, or for the person we want to be? It might not be the answer to all our problems, but I’m not going to pretend that the idea of being a bit unsettling because I’m not dressed the way I’m “supposed” to isn’t appealing. I refuse to become invisible to pander to someone else’s idea of “normal”.

I’m not suggesting you subject your wardrobe to a whirlwind of debauchery (although please don’t let me stop you), but why not try taking some of the outfits you bought “for best” out for a spin? Not only will it alleviate any worries about owning clothes you never wear, but if you’re wearing your best outfit you just might find that you are living your best life. 

Thursday, 14 June 2018

I'm giving sleeves the cold shoulder

It all dropped into place as I was watching the film “Hidden Figures”. As Taraji P Henson’s character, real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, climbs a ladder and raises her arm to begin writing on a huge blackboard, her dress just... stays put. The hem doesn’t lift awkwardly, the fabric of the bodice doesn’t bunch around her shoulders and neck. She looks focussed and poised, her dress an eye-catching flash of bright colour amid a sea of grey as she formulates the safe return of a person from space. 

The success of a dress can hang on its sleeves, and, once again, fast fashion is letting us down. 

As a woman in my mid 30s, the perceived wisdom is that I should be desperate for clothes with sleeves (presumably to cover my unsightly upper arms and armpits in case they are *gasp* sweaty or *double gasp* hairy). In fact the exact opposite has happened, and you will rarely find me sporting a sleeve. While I may not have the perfectly toned arms of an A-List star in a red carpet gown, I see no reason why my completely average arms should be a source of shame. If you are bothered by my (mostly shaved, but sometimes stubbly) armpits, perhaps worry about something else instead of policing women’s bodies? 

But I’m not just going sleeveless as a gesture of defiance against oppressive beauty norms, I’m not wearing sleeves because they just don’t fit properly. If you’re wearing a non-stretchy fitted top or dress, lift your arms above your head. Does the whole garment follow you? Does it stay rucked up when you lower your arms? Doesn’t that annoy you? Sleeves have become a complicated part of a garment, and fast fashion just doesn’t seem to be getting them right. 

I don’t blame pattern cutters; I’ve had trouble with sleeves ever since I drafted my first (terrible) sleeve pattern in my first term at uni. I’ve had years to practice drafting sleeves of every shape and size, and my initial pattern almost always needs tweaking. The difference between my pattern cutting experience and that of someone who sends their patterns off to a factory is that I have to take into consideration any requests from actors or private customers for better freedom of movement, and I usually have the luxury of time (or at least more time than the few seconds a factory worker would be given to sew a sleeve). 

The “factory method” is to machine the armhole with the garment lying flat first, then machine the sleeve seam and side seam all in one. This means there is very little ease in the sleeve head, not so much of a problem for people with a flatter chest, but not ideal for those with a full bust. The method I use for a couture garment is very different; I machine the side seams first, place the garment on the stand and then “balance” my sleeve, pinning it in place to check that it hangs correctly. I don’t always line up my sleeve seam and my side seam; sometimes setting the sleeve seam a bit further forwards can give some extra ease for a larger bust (this ease can help to prevent gaping on a button-down shirt. So can proper button placement, but that’s a rant for another time). I sometimes add a (historically inaccurate) grown-on gusset to certain styles of historical costume (or modern clothing) to allow for more underarm movement, but there are plenty of examples of historical sleeves where this simply wasn’t a problem. 

Up until the 19th Century, men’s shirt patterns were a simple series of squares and rectangles, with a diamond shaped gusset under the arm to allow plenty of movement. The creative pattern cutting of post-war mid-century fashion revisited this idea.  Despite its ubiquity in fashion photography, many women weren’t fans of the ultra-feminine New Look. After experiencing the freedoms afforded by paid work and practical uniforms during the Second World War, they were reluctant to go back to restrictive clothing. 

I found some great examples of the compromises made by enterprising dressmakers in the ladieswear department of the costume house in London where I work. These smart dresses all have cleverly constructed sleeves or underarm gussets to allow for movement in an otherwise fitted and demure dress. Compared to my high-street fitted dress with sleeves, the waist seam on these vintage dresses barely shifts when I raise my arms and I didn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable in a 70-year-old dress as I did in a modern one. 

We look at historical clothing in museum collections and marvel at how restrictive it must have been. But unless we are wearing stretch fabrics, our modern clothing isn’t much better. As the cost-cutting measures that enable fast fashion’s artificially low prices restrict the amount of time spent adjusting patterns and stitching garments, we are literally restricting ourselves in poorly thought-out clothes.

In this day and age, we pride ourselves of finding creative solutions to improve efficiency (even when, sometimes, these solutions were there all along). Maybe we need to take a more creative approach to pattern cutting and garment construction to provide the freedom we expect (and need) from modern clothing.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Top to toe alterations: how to hem your clothes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a short woman in possession of several maxi dresses must be in need of a good hemming tutorial!

One of the reasons our clothes might not get worn very often is poor fit, and this can apply vertically as well as horizontally on the body. I’m a little bit shorter than average, and I own several maxi skirts and dresses that are just that little bit too long. I've made the mistake of wearing them thinking they would be fine, and then realised they really wouldn’t be. I’ve tripped on the stairs at work while carrying coffee, nearly got a floaty hem caught in the escalator at a tube station and noticed that the streets of London are much too dirty for nice clothes to trail on the ground!

There are several ways you can alter the hem on your clothes, depending on whether you have a sewing machine, an overlocker or just your hands. I’ve had several hems to alter recently, so here are some examples of various techniques.

A herringbone hem, by hand

The hem on this vintage dress has been finished off with a lace trim, and secured using a blind hemming machine. Unless you work in an industrial sewing facility you are unlikely to have access to a blind hemming machine, but it’s easy enough to replicate a similar stitch by hand.

For this stitch, you sew “backwards” (i.e. towards the hand you sew with). I am left handed, so apologies to right-handed people if this is confusing, but this might be a nice opportunity for my fellow lefties to benefit! To start, secure your thread to the hem allowance, then make a tiny stitch into the fabric just above the hem allowance, with your needle pointing “forwards”. Bring your thread back towards your sewing hand, and make another small stitch in your hem allowance. The thread will form a crisscrossing pattern over the edge of your hem allowance, while the only thing visible on the right side of the garment will be the tiny stitches you have made in the fabric.

The only disadvantage to this stitch is that it can cause the appearance of a ridge or line on the garment if it is made of quite a thick fabric, and some shoes could get snagged on the stitches! To avoid this, you can do the same stitch between your hem allowance and the fabric of the garment, like I have done here with this lovely pair of wide-leg trousers that were much too long! Fold down the top centimetre of the hem allowance towards you, then herringbone in the same way.

A topstitched hem, using a sewing machine

This ripped hem was the result of my trip on the stairs, and the point where I could no longer ignore the fact that this skirt was a bit too long! The skirt had ripped just above where the original hem allowance finished, so I cut this off all the way round the skirt, then replicated the original hem.

I pressed a 1cm hem allowance all the way round the skirt, then folded this up on itself again and pressed the new hem edge, so the raw edge of the hem allowance would be hidden.

I machined the hem from the right side of the skirt (known as “topstitching”) using the measurement gauge on my sewing machine to make sure I was catching the seam allowance on the wrong side.

A babylock hem, using an overlocker

An overlocker (or serger) is a specialist sewing machine that uses three or four threads to finish off a fabric edge, or stitch two edges together. It has a built-in blade that trims away excess fabric as you sew, so it’s not suitable for every job, but is great if you want to work with stretch fabrics or give homemade garments a professional looking finish. As well as seams, overlockers are useful for edges; this fine “babylock” edge can be used on a lot of floaty fabrics.

It’s a surprisingly robust finish; this skirt didn’t tear when I caught it in an escalator, but it did give me enough of a fright to resolve to sort out the hem! When I put it on I could see that the front and back of the skirt had “dropped” - this is quite common on circle skirts where the part of the skirt hanging from the waistband on the bias stretches a bit (or a lot!)

I levelled the hem on my dressmaking stand, then cut off the excess fabric, leaving a few millimetres for the blade on my overlocker to trim off, to get the neatest possible edge. It took a few minutes to change the settings on my overlocker, and then the job was done in no time at all!

I know it’s tempting to reach for the iron-on hemming tape, but I hope this tutorial will encourage at least some of you to pick up a needle and thread instead and give your garments a professional finish.