Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Intellectual Fashionista

A number of years ago, long before I had three children and settled into a Midwestern college, I spent the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas in New York City, interviewing at magazines. Although I consider myself to be nobody’s fool when it comes to magazine advertising and editorials, although part of my scholarship analyzes representations of women in popular culture, I still find fashion magazines alluring. It’s the line of the clothes, the color and embellishment that attracts me. I don’t need to see the clothes on a model; a hanger or form will do just fine. And indeed, I don’t even want to wear them, simply filing the textiles, cut, embroidery away in my memory bank is satisfying.

So, while completing my dissertation, I took an excursion to New York, having lined up interviews at the big three magazines, all owned by Conde Nast, but not yet under the same roof. My first interview was with an HR woman who was devoted to a high-end fashion magazine. I gave her a sample story I had written and illustrated on the history of the bustle (incorporating touchstones from the Venus Hottentot to AbFab’s take on Vivienne Westwood’s “bum cages”).

The HR woman pronounced me “too intellectual” for said magazine; indeed, no self-respecting Devil Wears Prada editor could be comfortable demanding coffee and bibelots from a highly educated assistant, lest the assistant start revising Foucault’s Death of the Author as Death of the Designer.

I think it’s time to revisit the following equation: fashion = emotion ≠ intellect.

On one hand, I can see how too much thought can get in the way of fashion. Take the designer Zac Posen, for instance, the current wunderkind of New York City. Several years ago he made a splashy debut with his Empire State Building dress, an art-deco-y cocktail frock whose collar followed the lines of that venerable building. Worn out on the town by Natalie Portman, it immediately created a buzz.

But Posen’s follow-ups, every year hence, have seemed to me to fail. For Posen’s constructions are the opposite of the Emperor’s New Clothes: they reveal every seam, every clever idea, but none of the magic that, say, a John Galliano dress conjures. Posen obviously works hard to think up his designs, and it shows. I find his clothes to reside squarely in the novelty category: many of them are amusing in concept, but the emphasis remains on that concept, with the result that the dress wears the woman.

On the other hand, a recent brouhaha in London over the publication of a book on domestic arts demonstrated how this divide functions on the home sphere. The Gentle Art of Domesticity, a gorgeously photographed and lovingly written book by Jane Brocket about her daily activities of knitting, quilting, and baking, was savaged by some so-called feminist critics in the London press.

Dubbed “pinny porn” by one critic (“pinny” being the British word for “apron”), the book was accused of glamourizing domestic arts to a guilt-inducing degree: how could women who work outside the home possibly achieve the same level of artistry? Why should they even try when their lives are already so overcrowded? In the outcry there was an assumption that the sensual pleasures extolled by the author (herself a highly educated woman who began work on a PhD) couldn’t co-exist with women’s intellectual or feminist pursuits. The critics saw the beautiful afghans, quilts, and tea cakes as threatening, not as inspiring, or, simply, as beautiful in their own right.

The kind of intellect that I’d like to see in the fashion world is the kind that turns a historical eye to the designer’s influences, evaluates the construction of the garment (and calls out the designer when something is over- or under-thought), and doesn’t engage in purely emotional appeals that create unnecessary yearning in fashion consumers who want something, but don’t know why they want it.

I like the idea of a thoughtful closet, a la Pronk, the brainchild of a Palo Alto designer who mixes beauty (Liberty of London fabrics, embroidery) with deliberate craftswomanship, or Alabama Chanin, formerly Project Alabama, who takes nineteenth-century appliqué techniques of rural southern women to a high art form.

What I don’t like is unreflective fashion, or an editor who said he’d be uncomfortable having a PhD candidate pick up his dry cleaning. Try getting it yourself; or better yet, buy natural fabrics that you can wash on your own.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hats for Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving is a time for thanks and hats. Just go to your local elementary school this week and you’ll see children decked out in Pilgrim hats, playing with their fellow Indians in homemade headdresses. I’ve always been a hat girl, growing up on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where the ocean breeze kept a chill in the air. There, my Scottish grandmother would bundle me in coarse tam o’shanters, made from scratchy undyed wool. During my university years in bilingual Ottawa, I graduated to French berets, jet noir; loden festooned with a raccoon’s tail (what was I thinking?); creamy cupcake pink.

On bitter days, and there were many, I’d pull the beret over my brow, slap on a pair of ear muffs, and ice-skate down the Rideau Canal toward my campus. I’d share the ice with various Members of Parliament (Parliament Hill was just beyond the university), their long winterized trench coats ballooning around them, their briefcases somehow not throwing them off balance. During her lunch break one senior MP would don a racing suit and make slow, steady strokes up and down the canal, stopping later at the stands selling deep-fried beaver tails, a Canadian winter delicacy.

I wore berets throughout my undergraduate and graduate education, from Ottawa to Bloomington, Indiana. They were functional, fit my large-ish head, and, I liked to think, marked me as “other” in the United States: a beret was a subtle symbol of Canadian pride. But this steady relationship was rattled when I went to New York City to visit my husband’s family one Christmas. After visiting the requisite art galleries, I always ducked into my favorite store, Bergdorf Goodman, to check out some living art—the impeccably dressed patrons who glided through the corridors—and, of course, the fantastic displays of merchandise. Getting somewhat lost among the mirrored walls on the accessories level, I took a turn and found myself gazing at a hat: a Philip Treacy design. To be exact, an asymmetrical trilby, with navy cotton exterior, pewter satin lining, silver unicorn logo on the brand, provenance England. I was smitten.

For a Philip Treacy hat n’est pas un chapeau. Rather, it is an idea. Picture Treacy’s former muse Isabella Blow wearing a large orange acrylic disc that overwhelms her face, a slender wedge of pie extracted for her mouth and nose, or a model wearing a sculpture—a representation of a gently askew top hat spelling out h-a-t in lissome, sky-scraping letters. But this Irish-born, London-bred milliner known as the mad Hatter for his confections also makes wearable fantasies; hence the—no, my—assymetrical trilby.

Reader, I bought it. What else could I do? And I carried it down Fifth Avenue in its glistening silvery BG hatbox, feeling, perhaps for the first time, like a lady rather than the feminist scholar that I am. I, who critique Sister Carrie’s seduction by the snug little jackets in a Chicago department store, fell prey to the same siren song. And like Hortense, in another Dreiser novel, I wanted the hat so badly that my lack of cash didn’t stop me; whereas Hortense lures her boyfriend into purchasing her a coat with vague promises of affection, I used my BG charge card, with half-hearted assurances to myself that I’d pay if off in no time.

Geography, though, was the wild card I hadn’t counted on. Although my eccentric new navy asymmetrical trilby didn’t stand out on the fashionable streets of New York, it practically screamed “Outsider” when I returned to the Midwest farmland where I lived and taught college. In the Midwest, where people pride themselves on four-post homes, three square meals a day, and unwavering moral values, asymmetry isn’t exactly a virtue. Rather, it makes people suspicious of you.

Usually I tend to court my outside status. I quite like to be contrary, and have ever since I was a teenager, when, yearning for the black velvet pants and pastel pink satin blouse that all my friends had, my chic grandmother returned from Montreal with forest green velvet trousers and a burgundy satin shirt. I wasn’t immediately sure about this combination, but quickly saw how one could work within a fashion concept while executing your own take on it. Couldn’t my asymmetrical trilby coexist with the John Deere farming caps and the German Baptist bonnets? After all, I’d worn a beret for many a year and the Midwest wasn’t exactly a bastion of French style.

But whereas my beret was looked on with grudging acceptance, my trilby was more a source of humor. Noone actually said anything directly, but locals would talk to my hat instead of my face, colleagues would be overly smiley when I’d stalk around campus. I felt self-conscious and soon found myself wearing my trilby only at home, happy to catch surprise glimpses of my reflection in the windows as I’d go about my evening. And eventually I put it away, nestled inside its hatbox, sitting at the bottom of my armoire, as I gradually forgot about it.

Until, that is, last November, when, in a burst of enthusiasm for cleaning out my closets via eBay, I rediscovered the box and its contents. I listed the hat on eBay, enjoyed a mild bidding war, and prepared to ship the trilby and box to its new owner, known to me only by her excellent feedback rating. But when I received the eBay-generated message containing the winner’s email and home address, a different kind of feedback quickly flashed in my mind. For the new owner of my Philip Treacy trilby was a Famous New York Personality of TV and Movies, she of the high cheekbones, sassy persona, and megawatt smile.

A celebrity bought my London-via-Bergdorf’s hat. A beautiful, edgy New York celebrity. We must be soul sisters! We could bond over our love of Philip Treacy hats! She would totally “get” me; we could chat over email like fashion insiders; we could meet, even, when I returned to New York on my twice-yearly pilgrimages! We’d go hat shopping together and she could show me how she sports my—our—no, her hat in the city and makes it her own.

Or I could mail her the hat with a note saying that I hope she wears it in the best of health. Which I did.

Like Chaucer sending his “littel book” out into the world, I sent my hat back to New York, where it is meant to be, with its citified asymmetrical attitude. Perhaps it will go dancing, to a movie premiere, to a little bistro. Perhaps one night it will even get tipsy. And I am thankful that it is with its rightful owner, someone who can literally take the hat out of her closet, who can enjoy it out in public. And I can enjoy it too, from the distance of my imagination.

It’s not chilly enough here yet for my beret. But it will be soon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Liberty Bunting

Some photos of Liberty bunting I completed today. The colors cheer me on this stark fall afternoon.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dress for Success?

Yesterday I wore this dress to my American lit class. I accessorized with opaque tights and pointy tweed flats that had a chartreuse ribbon woven in. When I arrived to class, I took note of all the students who had arrived early, got out my books, and never took off my overcoat. I am the professor. I am 42 years old.

At home earlier that morning I felt as fresh and crisp as a fall day in Manhattan--on upper, upper Fifth Avenue, near the Met. I felt like Marisa Berenson, mod and spare. But as I looked at my students, all 20 years younger than me, I felt inappropriate, a classic case of mutton dressing as lamb.

I guess this is what's meant by a midlife crisis, though mine is solely sartorial: my clothing does not match my age or, I admit, my station. Surely professors have more leeway than other professionals; indeed, we're often stereotyped in books and films as being rumpled, patched, or (ugh) sensible. I am none of those things; I've always thrived on being a little askew, original, and daring. That doesn't mean plunging necklines and teetering heels, but it does mean mismatched prints and eccentric shoes by Chie Mihara (before Saks, courtesy of Tootsie Plohound). But in order to pull off daring, the clothes must have an underlying sense of propriety; just as years of musical scales precede the jazz artist's improv, proportion, fit, professionalism and, yes, age-appropriateness are the foundations of a true fashion original.
So, what to wear, or--not? Even Stacy London's been rocking these sheath dresses on TV, though I must admit that I've been growing concerned about the baby-doll-and-long-locks look that she's been sporting lately. When even the divine Ms. L could use a fashion intervention, should the rest of us give up? Or start watching Finola Hughes? (There's no way I'm taking fashion advice from a former soap opera queen. A queen's a different story, though. Love you, Clinton!)
I still really do like the line of the J Crew dress above. Christiane Celle makes a similar one in silk, and with a flat pair of gladiator sandals, one could be Jackie Bouvier in Capri. Perhaps the problem isn't the overall cut of the dress; it's the label. Although J Crew tosses a couple of 60-something models into their catalogues, their target audience is really the 17-26-year-old set. Perhaps I simply have to find similarly priced labels for--ahem--women. But that's the difficult part. And when you're surrounded by 20-somethings all day, you subconsciously begin to assimilate. Stay tuned for The Professor Wore a Hoodie.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Strawberry Quilt; or a Suzani for Susannah

The challenge of having a creative blog is that, well, one has to be creative! And while I have hundreds of ideas swirling around and documented in a notebook, the reality of my job and children limits my physical creativity.
Take this quilt, for instance: I began it last spring and only now have it ready for binding. But even that took some short cuts. If you've read this blog before, you might recognize the middle of this quilt--I made it from the tiny bags that I posted in an early spring entry. My grand idea was to make up a hundred or so tiny bags and test their sell-a-bility at a benefit for pediatric cancer. But after making about five of them, I realized that I don't like making things in bulk--I guess I prefer designing and producing one-offs. Sooo . . . I dismantled all bags except one and turned the resulting squares into the above quilt. The fabric includes Anna Maria Horner, Amy Butler, Kaffe Fassett, Heather Bailey, and some "unknowns." The border is a batik and I decided to punctuate the quilt with appliqued tiny and large circles cut from Liberty fabric.
Although I usually take a firm stance on hand sewing and quilting everything, I've relaxed my impossible standards. If I were to hand quilt this piece, it would be completed when my now two-year-old lad is in college. And I don't want to wait that long. So I knotted the three layers together with cotton yarn and buried the ends. I hope that the result looks like French knots!
The back uses a large piece of Amy Butler fabric, the same batik border, and more Liberty circles to tie the front and back together thematically. I'm calling this a "strawberry quilt" because the batik reminds me of strawberry plants. But the circles remind me of Suzani designs, so I'm also calling this a "Suzani for Susannah," my middle lassie.
I've been mulling over the binding, and wanted to use something sensual, so I've ordered some rosy silk dupioni to try. Perhaps I should have selected a lavender. but we'll see. I guess that one can't have too much dupioni in different colors on hand?! Let me know what you think--if anyone chances to read this after my too-long hiatus.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Give Me Liberty (fabric) or Give Me (more) Liberty Fabric

I am madly in love with Liberty of London fabrics. I've been to London twice, and during each visit, went to the beautiful Liberty store every day, spending an hour or two in the different, wonderfully bohemian departments.
This quilt, a WIP, represents much of my cache of Liberty. Every day I'd buy a little bit--usually quarter metre cuts--and gaze at them til the next morning when I'd set out again. I simply couldn't buy everything during one visit--it would have been like a sugar overdose and I would have collapsed in a pile of fabric. So: I purchased in installments, which kept me returning day after day after day. And happy.
I find it tremendously difficult to cut into Liberty fabric but really wanted to create a fabric collage, so I decided on largeish squares and rectangles, so as to keep the integrity of the floral patterns intact. I began this quilt when I had only one child and found it difficult enough then to do all the hand piecing and quilting (I designed a maze pattern for the squares, a simple grid for the rectangles).
And so, and so, my quilt is about 1-2-3/4 quilted, five years and two more children later. If I complete the Bento Box quilt top (below), I think I'll tie it, because I would love to finish a project during this decade. I have more unfinished quilts too, these begun when I was a graduate student, sans children, and still needed more time for the intricate quilting I had started. I'll show them soon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sister Embroidery

A few months ago I made this embroidery of my two daughters, inspired by an 1818 oil painting by Jacob Eichholtz of the Ragan sisters, housed at the National Gallery of Art in DC and collected in a lovely book, Young America: Childhood in 19th-Century Art and Culture.
I just LOVE nineteenth-century formal and folk portraits of children and have been embroidering some for my own three wee ones. The girls have a couple in cross-stitch and now this one, with Liberty of London edging. The boy's is yet to come, but perhaps this summer I'll have some time.
I'll probably frame this one day, a pillow being too fragile for our rambunctious household.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Bento Box quilt

I've never been a matchy-matchy person. The very idea of an "outfit"--you know, something that's meant to go together, or something that's carefully thought out--makes me squirm. I think I fall into more of the English Eccentric mode, happy to wear mismatching patterns, content to be put together in a non-put-together way.

So I was very happy to dig into my stash of fabric and begin a completely unplanned quilt. I just don't like going to the fabric shop and choosing fabrics that will complement each other--too matchy-matchy for me. Rather, I like "found" fabrics, things I've had in my cupboard for awhile that engage in various conversations with other fabrics.

Here too, I'd rather not use groupings from one fabric designer. When I see quilts in shop windows, and they are supposed to have a bohemian flair but all fabrics come from the same designer, then all of a sudden it doesn't seem so radical to mix the plaid with the flowers because--they're from the same color chart.

For this Bento Box quilt top, I've used my three favs--Anna Maria, Heather, and Amy (see links in an earlier post) and am adding bits from other, nameless collections too. I love how all the fabrics work together, especially because they aren't supposed to do so . . .

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tiny Cakes

Inspired by Bella Dia's sumptous new spring pincushions, I decided to try my hand at a couple last night. Et voila! Two tiny felted cakes. The little pink cake is about 1.5 inches by 1 inch and the larger purple cake is 2.5 inches by 2.5. Were I to make some more (and I think I shall), I'd add flowers to the side of the large cake. You can also see my miss cavendish label peeking out from the folds.

I found these cakes surprisingly easy to make--they just take sharp embroidery scissors, colored floss, wool felt, some lentils for stuffing, and your imagination. The purple cake shows french knots at the center of flat flowers; the pink cake has gathered flowers with both french knots and a mini rosebud center made of rolled felt. If I can dream up different kinds of flowers, I'll be sure to plant them in future cakes. So what's for dessert?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Jewel Bags

Here are some tiny jewel bags I made this weekend, using fabric from Heather Bailey, Anna Maria Horner, and Amy Butler. The "tree" photo is supposed to give you a peek inside, to see the contrasting lining.

These tiny bags would be terrific for holding some special jewelry or, as a stylish friend pointed out, your cell phone (which actually fits inside nicely!).

I've also included a "before" photos of all the fabric (enough for 19 bags) all stitched and ironed flat. Then with more careful stitching, lots of turning inside out and back, a little hand embroidery, and beribboning, they're ready!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Patchwork Scarves

Today is a particularly frigid day-- school for the girls is delayed yet again--so naturally I thought of bringing scarves outside to style them on the picket fence! Last weekend the girls thought they might like a new scarf each, so we looked through my stash of fabric and they picked out three colors to use.

I've always sewed by hand--pieced quilts, stitched my other bags on this blog--but I recently decided that using a machine is not a creative crime. In fact, it can make the pieces more durable! And I can certainly make them more quickly.

The result is two new scarves in an evening! I lined both of them in soft nursery rhyme flannel. I think I'll add an extra flannel layer to future scarves to increase their coziness. And I like to put a little tab on the scarf to slide one end through.

The girls have been putting them to good use in this snow.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow Day

It was a snow day today--three children home from school, and two professors home too.

The girls played for hours in the snow, loving the swirling drifts that engulfed our van in the driveway (the van that hasn't been shoveled out yet).

The boy marched around the house in his baby UGGs, stopping every so often to build a teetering castle out of blocks, then smashing it with his Pooh Bear.

I busied myself with some of my favorite fabric blogs--anna maria horner, heather bailey, amy butler--and dreamed up some new designs. This photo was taken the day before the big storm, hence the bits of grass peeking out from behind the fence. The bag on the left is my Anne of Green Gables bag, using imported fabric from Japan. I love this fabric because I'm from Prince Edward Island, home of Anne, for one, and two, because it has a heavier weight than regular cotton.

The middle bag is one of my "bibelot bags," useful for storing socks or other small collectibles. And the paisley bag is sized for a grown-up (see the longer straps?), embellished with ribbon from the talented Laura. All bags are lined with a contrasting fabric.

Some Spring-y bags on such a winter's day.

Monday, February 12, 2007

miss cavendish returns

After a two-month-or-so hiatus, I miss my fabric blog and have decided to begin again. I'll be updating periodically, with photos of things I make. I'd love to have your feedback, so please feel welcome to leave comments.

Here's a photo of a little pencil roll I made the other day; it's displayed on our snowy picket fence. It unrolls to display the mirror image: there's room for 18 colored pencils in the pink pockets.

I'm thinking that a smaller roll than this could be fun for eye pencils, make-up brushes, etc. What do you think?