Thursday, 23 August 2018

Hiring fabulous frocks with Wear the Walk

Despite our best intentions, we all end up with clothes we don’t wear. We make an impulse purchase, in-store or online, and forget to return it when it doesn’t fit. Our bodies change, rendering parts of our wardrobes uncomfortable or even unwearable unless our bodies change again. We feel compelled, by peer pressure or social expectation, to buy new clothes for weddings or parties, and those same pressures make us uncomfortable about repeating an outfit.  

The expectations surrounding (especially, but not exclusively) feminine clothing can leave us out of pocket, our wardrobes overrun with clothes “for best” that we never have the opportunity to wear. We take it for granted that hiring a suit is always an option for masculine clothing, but there are fewer hire options available for fashion-forward womenswear. 

I’m all in favour of outfit repeating, but if you want a one-off, showstopping outfit, head for clothing hire service Wear the Walk. Founder Zoe selected brands with an element of sustainability to their business practices; whether they are a designer manufacturing in the U.K. and paying a living wage, or using sustainable and recycled fabrics. But as well as their ethical credentials, these are also clothes that have been selected for their design flair and ability to turn heads. Wear The Walk HQ is a treasure trove of colour and texture, the clothes rails full of beautiful garments that demonstrate the creative use of pattern cutting and fabric manipulation knowledge that is pretty much absent from the high street. 

If you’re not a fan of bold colours or loud prints, there are expertly tailored jackets and dresses in more muted tones and styles, but for those of us who like to stand out from the crowd, Wear The Walk is a dream come true. 

I was looking to find an outfit to wear for Nine Worlds; and stylist Chloe showed me around the collection, revealing the wealth of imaginative clothes on offer. I was speaking on a panel about Historical Accuracy in Costuming and found the perfect dress by Korlekie. This gorgeous fringed gown has an element of 1920s anachronism to it (did you know that fringed flapper dresses were largely a Hollywood invention as the movement of the fringing looked so good on film? Evening gowns from the Roaring 20s were more likely to be beaded, but the beading was too noisy for the sound equipment used in early “talkies”!) and just looks and feels fabulous to wear. The dress is stretchy, so one size fits plenty of different bodies, and the holes in the fabric make it tantalisingly revealing without revealing too much.

Wear the Walk charge from between £30 to £100 for an individual hire, depending on the garment, and also offers a subscription service, from £60 per month for two hires. Who am I to resist the siren song of extra clothes? I also picked out a gorgeous green gown from Riona Treacy; another stretchy shape that was easy to wear and felt almost indecently comfortable for something that could be worn for a fancy occasion. 

Speaking of... after my appointment I was heading to a friend’s birthday do. London was in the grip of a heatwave and my carefully selected day-to-evening outfit was looking (and feeling) like a limp lettuce leaf. With a great sense of relief I was able to change right then and there, and I left wearing one of my Wear the Walk hires, and feeling much better about my appearance!

With returns and dry cleaning included in the hire price, I think Wear the Walk offers a useful and affordable service for anyone who wants unique, one-off outfits. At the moment a lot of their stock is restricted to sample sizes (8-12 in UK sizing) but they are working with the brands they stock to introduce a greater range of sizes. I hope everyone who loves being creative with clothes will be able to hire something splendid very soon; being able to enjoy an extravagant outfit without contributing to the exploitation of people or the planet was a wonderful feeling.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Apps for sustainable clothes shopping

Since I started this blog 18 months ago, I made a decision not to buy any new high street clothes. I’ve really enjoyed discovering and buying from ethical brands, but I’ve had to budget carefully to afford the new clothes I’ve really wanted, and I have the advantage of already owning a lot of clothes. I still buy secondhand and vintage clothes, and I try to recycle my old clothes as efficiently as possible. I enjoy researching brands and searching for my perfect outfit, but plenty of people don’t have the time or the inclination to put this much effort into buying clothes.

Fortunately there are now a number of apps that take the work out of shopping ethically, discovering great secondhand clothes and even finding out where to recycle old clothes and textiles.

High Street Shopping
I’m lucky to have a bit of disposable income for clothes shopping; I know this has to come a lot further down a list of priorities for many people. Low wages in this country leave many people reliant on fast fashion’s cost-cutting to make clothing “affordable”. The inequalities in our current system mean that the CEO of a fashion brand can earn the lifetime’s wages of a Bangladeshi garment worker in a matter of days. There is a good argument for not simply boycotting these big brands though; as the biggest overproducers and polluters, we won’t see a huge change in the negative aspects of the fashion industry unless these brands are encouraged to clean up their act. If brands see their competitors being rewarded with higher sales due to increased transparency or better sustainability initiatives, they will follow suit.

So who do we choose to give our hard-earned money to? These two apps should be able to help you out.

Not My Style
Wondering how transparent your favourite brands are when it comes to their garment workers? Rather than trawling every brand’s website for information, check Not My Style, which rates brands on the information they choose to share about the men and women who make their clothes, and whether they are trying to improve pay and working conditions. Their ratings are a simple traffic-light system of stop, think and shop, and you can check a map of your area to see how the shops near you shape up.

Good On You
Originally based in Australia, Good On You also rates brands by how transparent they are, although as well as garment workers they also consider the brand’s environmental impact and whether the brand uses materials that require the killing of animals. Brands are rated from 1 (we avoid) to 5 (great), with 3 - it’s a start - encouraging brands to keep doing better. You can also adjust your preferences on the site to put more emphasis on the issues that are closest to your heart.

Secondhand Shopping
If you’re after some new-to-you clothes and have some lightly-worn clothes that might be suitable for selling or swapping, these two sites could help you out:

Buy, sell or swap clothes with fellow fashionistas on this app. The more information you add about your clothes, the quicker they will find a potential buyer. I’ve swapped clothes that weren’t really me for a fun selection of frivolous new things, which I’ve ended up wearing much more than I expected to!

More than just a marketplace, depop sells itself as a community for style-conscious bright young things. You can follow friends, brands and influencers, find out what they are buying and selling, and set up your own shop too.

Textile Recycling
Even with the best will in the world, all of us are going to end up with clothes that are so far past their prime that the thought of giving them to a secondhand shop is downright embarrassing. Yes, you could chop them up into cleaning cloths or craft projects, but some things need to go through an industrial recycling process before they have a chance at a new lease of life. A lot of councils don’t provide textile recycling collections, so if you have no idea where to take your old clothes, you’re going to need this new app:

Impact Fashion
Providing a searchable database of charity shops and textile collection points, Impact Fashion can help you to find out where to take your old clothes, no matter what state they are in.

They are also set up to help you restyle as well as recycle; book an appointment with one of their stylists if your current wardrobe feels lacking in inspiration, and they will help you to find new outfit combinations and ways of styling your clothes that will make you fall back in love with your existing wardrobe.

I’ll have a selection of ethical marketplaces and brand directories up on my blog, which is getting a makeover, in a few weeks, so stay tuned!

Thursday, 9 August 2018

20th Century Fashion in Star Trek

Hello friends! Wow, that’s some cute Star Trek cosplay you’re rocking today. What do you mean, it’s just your regular clothing? Sometimes it’s hard to separate fashion from fiction, as I discovered when I researched futuristic costume design for a talk at Nine Worlds in 2016. I’m there this weekend, giving a different talk (Dressing for Dystopia: what should you wear for the end of the world?) but I thought I’d share this (slightly edited and updated) section of my previous talk, as 50 years of Star Trek costume design has provided an interesting parallel to the way that 20th Century fashion has evolved. 

(text now copiously interspersed with my specially made and closet cosplays of Star Trek costumes!)

The original costume designer for Star Trek was William Theiss, and he was really the pioneer of the outrageous intergalactic outfit. Star Trek’s costumes have been derided and parodied over the years, but the costumes from the Original Series tell a really interesting story about fashion in the swinging sixties, and optimism in a decade of global upheaval and change. Star Trek is justifiably hailed as revolutionary: during the Cold War, Communist witch hunts and Segregation, the cast comprised people from different races and backgrounds, working together in harmony.

Thiess’s costumes tie in with the way Star Trek happily presented a radical idea as established and normal in the future world. Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin both claim the invention of the mini skirt in the late 50s, but even by the mid 60s, Uhura’s uniform mini-dress wasn’t just cool but could also still have been considered shocking in more conservative circles of society. Mini skirts were described as “frankly audacious, and worn only by the audacious”. In Star Trek’s utopian future, Uhura wears her uniform without attracting sexist comments from her co-workers, which is sadly still a ground breaking notion in some workplaces.  

Mini skirts are now so ubiquitous they have lost their shock value, and have become a sort of visual shorthand for a woman who is more invested in her looks than her brains. This is quite obvious in some modern rom-coms: Bridget Jones is objectified and patronised by her creepy boss when she turns up to work in a short skirt, and Elle Woods in Legally Blonde has to fight to have her intellect recognised because none of her colleagues can see past her feminine clothes. I’m glad Michael Kaplan, who designed the most recent Star Trek films, fought against these lazy stereotypes and kept Zoe Saldana’s Uhura in a mini dress for some scenes, but also gave her some more practical outfits, because sadly mini dresses aren’t ideal for everything. 

Back in the sixties, fashion became a major factor in breaking down visual class barriers: the same outfits worn by trendsetters like Jean Shrimpton and the Beatles could be worn by both young aristocrats and shop workers. Similarly the Star Trek costumes are more easily identified by the colour of the sweaters, which signify department, than the braid on the cuffs, which signifies rank. The quality of the costumes from the original series became something of a joke (most famously, the velour for the sweaters was chosen because it looked good under lights but it kept shrinking), but funnily enough that ties in with aspects of 60s clothing. Mary Quant tried making a ‘Wet Look’ PVC line, and the first garments were a disaster as no one had worked out the right machining techniques. Although Mary Quant had an official diffusion line at JC Penney, the 60s also saw the birth of what we now know as ‘fast fashion’. The explosion in the teenage market and the simplicity of the garments meant that plenty of high-fashion garments were copied very quickly for the high street from inferior fabrics or with inferior production methods. 

Theiss’s costume designs for the aliens on the planets visited by the Enterprise are a kaleidoscope of styles from many different time periods and from all over the world, often involving surprising fabric choices. This description could also apply to Vogue magazine in the 60s; Brian Duffy’s photo story entitled “six characters in search of 66” consists of the following characters: The Lady of Shalott, Sally Bowles, Ton up or Rocker girl, Russian Heroine, East gone West and Space Girl. 

(As a side-note, I could write another essay about cultural appropriation in Sci-Fi costumes and fashion design, but unfortunately there isn’t the space to do it here. In case you’re wondering what I mean by cultural appropriation, have a read of this blog post  by Laila Woozeer, who explains it very clearly). 

The glamour of cutting edge fashion didn’t always transfer seamlessly into sci fi costumes though - Reuben Torres’ collection for Harrods, designed for an age of “speed, fashion and leisure” was probably an inspiration for the costumes for Star Trek the Motion Picture, but the costumes weren’t well received and have been widely ridiculed. Possibly because the form-fitting beige jumpsuits made passing actors look like they were naked, and partly because people felt nostalgic for the colourful sweaters. 

The sort of fabrics that were fashionable at the time a show was being made often have a big effect on costume design, even if the show is set in the future: the synthetic fabrics that were often by-products of industrial experimentation during the Space Race in the 60s were the obvious choice for costumes for Star Trek. In a decade where future innovation drove design, traditional fabrics looked old-fashioned and drab. 

Theiss seemed to enjoy taking the popular fashions of the mid 60s to their extremes. Mary Quant wanted “relaxed clothes, suited to the actions of normal life”, and Pierre Cardin was designing for “the modern international man who travels and wants functional, lightweight and elegant clothes.”
Theiss saw that “Clothes since the mid century have become less and less bulky, less cumbersome, less protective- both physically and morally- and are headed faster and faster, apparently, for complete nudity.” We may not have reached this point in our everyday clothes, but looking at the trend for heavily embellished but completely sheer barely-there red carpet gowns, he may have had a point. 

Pierre Cardin’s “cosmos” collection from 1967, inspired by the first space walks (and possibly also by Star Trek?) promoted what was then known as ‘unisex’ fashion: a body fitting sweater, under a tunic or pinafore dress, with dark tights or straight cut trousers. These could be worn in different combinations regardless of gender. This style of clothing definitely had an influence on the costumes for Star Trek the Next Generation, again designed by William Thiess for the first series.

His uniform design consisted of a jumpsuit or tunic, with both intended to be gender neutral. The tunic was worn fairly frequently by Deanna Troi, by Captain Picard and Commander Riker as dress uniform with trousers underneath, and by extras of any gender with bare legs and boots. This was a bold design decision at the time, but Theiss’s reasoning for his design was sound. He said “Having the actors and actresses both in skirts was to diffuse any sexist accusations that might have been associated with the old show”.  Being the person responsible for the “Theiss titillation theory”: that the appeal of a costume was directly proportional to the possibility that it might fall off at any time, he was obviously aware of the casual sexism inherent in some of the more objectifying outfits. Reading interviews with him, though, I think he also just enjoyed the challenge of trying to sneak outrageous outfits past the censors, and letting his imagination run riot. Asked to describe his aesthetic in an interview, he said: “currently I really dig floor-length chiffon ponchos, tight knickers, crotch-high boots, pant legs that become bra straps and strong diagonals across the body.”

The pop culture perception of a 1980s workplace was one of power suits, big shoulder pads and corporate greed, so it’s really interesting that Star Trek TNG, which is essentially set in a workplace, albeit one that’s in space, rejected this imagery and drew more from another trend, the popularity of clothing associated with recreational sports and fitness being worn as fashion. Deanna Troi’s costumes were more reminiscent of a dance teacher or aerobics instructor than the traditional portrayal of a ‘counsellor’ on screen. Big hair and glitter abound in any non-uniform outfits, making scenes in Ten Forward, the ship’s bar, an interesting visual mix of 80s leisure wear and cutting edge club style. 
And of course, there is the glamorous and ostentatious Lwaxana Troi, Deanna’s mother, who shows up occasionally and steals the show with her outrageous outfits. I loved the costume design for her so much I wrote about it here

Later Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise gave their crews practical-looking jumpsuits and boiler suits, moving away from kitch costumes to outfits that would suit the more minimalist sensibilities of the 90s. There are still some examples of garish casual wear (I feel pretty sure that Jake Sisko’s sweaters are a tribute to the fad for shell suits, which alarmingly seem to be making a comeback), and the show also went into more detail about where their uniforms and off-duty clothes came from. The ships replicators, mostly seen producing “Earl Grey. Hot” for Picard also make and recycle the crew’s uniforms, and, presumably, the outfits for their off-duty shenanigans on the Holodeck. 

Michael Kaplan’s designs for the Star Trek film reboots have updated the original costumes using high-tech looking microfibres, and he has deliberately designed contemporary fashion for the civilian populations of different worlds, rather than riffing on historical clothing. For the new TV series, Discovery, costume designer Gersha Phillips also updated the uniforms with sleek gender-neutral designs, and added in a nod to the popularity of slogan tees (or included a clever bit of in-show advertising for tie-in merchandise): the crew’s workout gear consists of black leggings and a t-shirt with the ship’s name abbreviated to “DISCO”.

Back in the present, it seems like the world of couture can’t make up its mind whether to take the future seriously, or just get involved in some Star Trek TOS cosplay. The theme for the 2016 Met Ball was “Manus X Machina: Fashion in an age of Technology”. The exhibition itself looked at the way the industry is combining traditional techniques with modern technology, but the red carpet featured more sci fi anachronism than innovative couture. Suzy Menkes, writing for Vogue, remarked that “the contrast between the graceful, almost sculptural exhibits and the celebrity vision of what ‘futurism’ means in clothing was dramatic, predictable, and sometimes ridiculous.”

Meanwhile, the sci fi costumes of imagined futures past are affecting our wardrobes in more subtle ways. Although traditional workplaces still enforce dress codes, relaxed working environments have given rise to a self-imposed dress code, one which involves comfortable, easy-to-wear clothing that people can wear for everything, to compensate for their lack of work/life balance. Popularly known as “athleisure”, the look is usually characterised by black stretch yoga pants and a statement sweatshirt. That sounds a lot like a Star Trek uniform to me!

I’m always up for chatting more about costumes or fashion history, and if you’re interested in needing out about Star Trek costumes or 60s fashion, here are some of the books I read to prepare for the talk:

Star Trek Costumes: five decades of fashion from the final frontier
Paula M Block and Terry J Erdmann

Fear and Fashion in the Cold War
Jane Pavitt

Swinging Sixties
Edited by Christopher Breward, David Gilbert and Jenny Lister

Nylon: the manmade fashion revolution
Susannah Handley

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Behind the seams of a bespoke wedding dress

This time last year I had just completed my most important and personal private commission: my sister’s wedding dress! Six months of planning, fabric sourcing, endless scrolling through Pinterest and working pretty much every Saturday to create the perfect dress for my favourite person. As it’s her first wedding anniversary this weekend, I’m sharing (with her permission, of course!) some of the “behind the seams” details about what goes into the creation of a bespoke garment, why it costs more, and why we should extend that “special day” mentality to our everyday wardrobes.

Choosing fabrics

Designer Cristobal Balenciaga said he would always let the fabric choices determine what was being made (“it is the fabric that decides”) and it’s important to remember that fabric choice will affect the shape and movement of a garment. As my boss is fond of saying, “these are hands, not wands!” and even the most skilled dressmaker cannot persuade fabric to disobey the laws of physics! 

Rosie knew straight away what sort of skirt she wanted: something full but soft, topped with layers of white tulle. We built the skirt from five separate layers of fabric:
  • a silk and cotton mix for the petticoat: soft and light but not static, so it wouldn’t stick to her legs. 
  • A layer of cotton bobbinet to give the skirt shape and body. This would be scratchy if it was worn next to the skin, so the petticoat layer was important. 
  • A panelled skirt made from silk, custom-dyed a silvery grey to break up the white and add depth. The panels ensure a smooth fit from the waist, while adding fullness at the hem and a bit of extra length at the back. 
  • Two layers of silk tulle, which is very soft but surprisingly durable and resistant to ripping. This was carefully gathered to add extra fullness at the back. 

All these layers were stitched to a peplum made from a stiff coutil, fitted from Rosie’s waist to her top hip. 

One of the ways that mass-production of clothing saves money is its economies of scale: fabric costs less per metre if you are buying five thousand metres rather than just five.  Fast fashion manufacturers aren’t too fussy about the quality of a lot of their fabrics: online shopping means that customers don’t get to feel the clothes until after they have purchased them, and the draw of the garments isn’t sensual luxury, it’s a must-have micro-trend or a too-good-to-be-true price. A wedding dress needs fabrics that are perfect for those up-close-and-personal moments: tactile guests (and the bride’s spouse, of course, not to mention the bride herself!) are expecting something that feels special. 

Natural fabrics have a beautiful movement to them which Rosie’s wedding photographer Emma at Epic Love Story* captured perfectly. I was delighted that the dress looked so wonderful mid-twirl, but it wasn’t a happy accident. Each element of the skirt was carefully planned to achieve this effect.

Firm foundations

Rosie had her heart set on a dress with a cut-out back and a sheer top, and she also had her heart set on one heck of an evening party, so we knew straight away that this dress was going to need bespoke underwear. too. There are some occasions where a stick-on backless bra just isn’t going to cut it.

Lingerie pattern cutting is a very specific skill and not one I have a lot of experience with, so it took three fittings and a lot of pattern adjustment to create the perfect cup shape for the backless bustier that Rosie would wear under the dress. Working on perfecting a pattern is always time well spent, but in a factory setting this pattern would then be used for thousands of garments. For a bespoke piece, the pattern is used only once, and then the whole process begins again for the next garment. 

Another important pattern piece to get right was the peplum for the different layers of the skirt to attach to. This had to fit snugly from the waist to the top hip as the bustier would be attached to it with hooks to give the backless foundation garment some stability. 

I made the bustier from silk jersey stretched over powermesh, and boned each seam. As well as adding hooks to the bottom of the bustier to attach it to the skirt peplum, I also added clear plastic bra straps over the shoulders for extra security. We checked the whole get-up at the last fitting; as well as ensuring that Rosie could walk and sit without coming unhooked, I also encouraged her to bounce around in an enthusiastic dance to make sure that there wouldn’t be any wardrobe malfunctions mid-party! 

While high street garments are fitted at the product development stage, usually on a fit model who maintains a specific set of vital statistics, these fittings probably aren’t as rigorous as they ought to be, judging by some of the clothes that make it into the shops! Anyone who has tried to sit or (ouch!) bend over in a jumpsuit that looked fine when you were just standing in front of a mirror, or has felt an entire outfit travel upwards when you lift your arms (see my post on why sleeves are terrible here) will know what I’m talking about. With bespoke clothing, you have the option to try out anything you need to be able to do while wearing your garment to check that it’s fit for purpose. 

Foundation garments might have old-fashioned connotations, but they are a key part of so many formal and red carpet looks. The perfect underwear for an outfit doesn’t have to be invisible, but it should be well-fitting and comfortable! 

Something old, something new...

We chose traditional fabrics for the skirt for Rosie’s dress, but we ended up using a modern fabric for the top: an embroidered net with abstract 3D flowers. I positioned each pattern piece carefully on the fabric to ensure I was making the most of the embroidered sections, then removed and re-stitched any flowers that were too near a seam or in an awkward position. I also attached a scattering of the flowers to the the skirt once I had sewn the top to the skirt so the dress would look like a complete ensemble rather than separate pieces. Because the top was sheer, I used couture construction methods like French seams, and a hand-finished bound neckline to ensure the dress would look perfect in every close-up. 

Time is money, so speed is of the essence when it comes to fast fashion. Pattern pieces will be cut from fabric in the most economical, not the most aesthetically pleasing way, and finishings will be basic, usually relying on overlocking or topstitching to ensure a neat, if not beautifully crafted, finish. 

I hope this post has demonstrated some of the differences between fast fashion and bespoke clothing, and illustrated why bespoke costs more! I find it interesting that while most women will get their wedding dress altered, even if they aren’t getting a completely bespoke dress, they probably wouldn’t consider doing the same for the rest of their wardrobe. Yes, you are likely to be photographed more in your wedding dress than in any other outfit, but (usually) you only wear it once.

Applying that “I deserve to look marvellous” mentality to the clothes you wear most often could have plenty of benefits beside making you feel photogenic. Well-fitting clothes will make you feel more comfortable, and if you’re satisfied with your clothes you’ll wear them for longer, rather than discarding them and continuing the never-ending search for that elusive perfect garment.

Having clothes fitted can be a nerve-wracking experience (although I think in the case of the wedding dress I was more nervous than Rosie!) but it shouldn’t be, if the focus is on the right thing. Everyone’s body is unique, but clothes sizing is generic. If we can remember that it’s the clothes that are the wrong size, not our bodies, then we can take a step towards a better relationship with our bodies and our clothes.

* All the photos-within-a-photo were taken by the amazing Emma, who runs her own wedding photography business, Epic Love Story. You can find her (and more photos of Rosie and Jon's wedding!) on her Instagram.