A few good pieces

June 30th, 2010

“If I did go out and buy a $300 coat, it would have to go with all the $10 pants I own.”

In February, Jezebel shot out a quick little note about a post on the New York Public Libraries blog.  The focus of both was a 1941 survey of the college girl’s wardrobe and the problems of high and fast consumption in fashion.  The wonderful old days were wonderful, with your standard sweater sets and three basic styles of shoes—and how about the Uniform Project and the Great American Apparel Diet and all those personal internet challenges to reduce consumption and impulse purchases, to slim and simplify our wardrobes.

In our modern day of stores that can move from concept to finished item in six weeks, fashion ‘weeks’ that feel like they run seamlessly into one another as they hop across continental bounds and piping hot trends delivered to your local rag shop every week, we are as “spoiled [sic] for choice” as Stein says.  It can sure appear anecdotally that our closets are swelling like the inflamed fatty liver of a confirmed alcoholic—especially in comparison to the 11-3.5 blouses and 13-3 street length dresses of the surveyed 1941 co-eds.

One thing that really should be noted is the highly conservative nature of wardrobe building in the 1940’s.  In Grace Margaret Morton’s 1943 book The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance she writes, “Conservation is in keeping with the times.  Restricted consumer production has resulted in a silhouette which can be cut to advantage from limited yardage . . . As never before, this is a period which demands convertible, multiple-duty apparel, interchangeable three- and four- piece ensembles.”  Comparing today’s clothing habits to a time when patterns maximised yardage because of war rations can create a false dichotomy.

1943. Farm Security Administration -
Office of War Information Photograph Collection

Of course, having a wider range of clothing options available (or more accurately, acceptable), from pants and shorts to tank tops and sundresses, might have a part in explaining why the average young woman doesn’t spend “75% of her waking hours in the sweater skirt ensemble.”  Changes in how, where and what we can wear at work are a factor also.  Count the number of people you know who have a small, separate “work wardrobe” of suits and office wear supplemented by a double handful of casual pieces for home and a couple things for evening.  We are wearing more things for more reasons more often.

And the brands, stores and manufactures know that and love us for it.  Instead of a handful of cotton shirtwaist dresses and sweater and skirt sets for summer (as suggested by Morton), or the calculated business wardrobe of the 1980s and 90s, we wear more.  There certainly seem to be more eclectic and specific options now than there once were, but they float in a sea of mass market options.

A couple of weeks ago Jezebel again looked at our closets, this time focusing on the earth-wrecking waste of fast fashion, with its affordable options that essentially strangle the environment and starve workers.  Several options are presented, ranging from a $78 turtleneck to a $338 jacket, that attempt to answer the question “What are the choices for decently-made, competitively-priced, really cute stuff?”

But, don’t think that the inability of the average person to pay nearly eighty dollars for a turtleneck goes unnoticed.  “Fundamentally, it’s less and less the case that making ethical, sensible consumer choices is a freedom that hews to class lines. A $35 t-shirt that’s better quality than the $10 Wal-Mart version is still close enough in price that it’s attainable for most shoppers.”

And herein lies a problem.  I feel like a pretty high percentage of people will not, or cannot, pay ten dollars for a t-shirt, let alone $35.  It’s all well and good to save to buy an environmentally and morally responsible clothing choice whose quality may give it a longer life span.  But if someone is already in a position to consider a forty dollar skirt at Target a piece worth saving for, they’re not going to wait another $188 dollars for “a full black knitted skirt that has a sort of Alaïa feel, with its nipped ribbed waist.”

Since I have an aversion to purely anecdotal evidence, as it can easily slip into hyperbole and theory, I ran a very informal survey.  I ended up with just nine replies, folks in the mid-20s to mid-30s range, who are either unemployed, self-employed and/or solidly in the lower-middle to middle class income range; all but one currently live on the west coast.  A third are hand knitters and expressed awareness of the worth of both quality fiber content and of paying more for handmade. However, it’s a pitifully small sample, and I’d love to run this wider, because the results from just this group are telling.

Limiting the definition of “clothing” to everyday clothes and outerwear, I also allowed for clothes that were worn at least three to four times a year (which encompasses stage clothes and some formal wear). Nearly half of the group responded to the first question—“What is the most you’ve paid for a piece of everyday clothing?”—with two answers.  One number was for an uncommon purchase like a corset for stage wear (that was worn regularly off-stage as well), a perfect winter coat, or “allegedly ‘ass-tastic’” jeans; pieces that ranged from sixteen to two times the second price given.   Combining both sets of data gives a range of $30 to $150—not counting the $500 corset which, as a kind of shapewear, gets into the high and tricky ranges of support and undergarment cost more so than everyday clothing.

Asked if this price was more than they regularly pay for a piece of everyday clothing, the answer was, for seven of the nine, a resounding ‘hell yes’.  The other two did not consider their highs of $50 to be significantly more than an average purchase.  Even so, the mean price the sample group would pay was only $21, the most common amount being $10.  An exception of up to $45 when buying yarn to make something oneself was noted.

Already we can see that Sauers’ had one over on me in that folks will totally pay $10 for clothing.  My personal issues (and heavy thrift and sales rack shopping) have blurred my perspective.  Even so, a $35 t-shirt is comfortably above this sample’s average range for a piece of everyday clothing.  But what about their top limit?  Already by this point in the survey it was clear that for jeans and pieces that fit, a person’s ‘average price’ could be edged up closer to their top limit.  So, what was the most they would pay for a piece of everyday clothing?

“I swear on the life of my non-existent children, if I could find a pair of jeans that were flattering and as comfortable as all the skinny people claim jeans are, I would pay at least $100.”  And $100 is the highest price given, by two people who both cite jeans-fitting issues as the reason for so high a price.  With $54 as the average and $30 as the most common limit, we’re still well below the price of that $78 turtleneck.

Knowing that extraordinary circumstance, luck, and the desire to have at least a “few good pieces” in one’s wardrobe can expand the limits of what you’re willing to shell out, the last question I asked was what the theoretical top limit would be for a “SUPER AWESOME AMAZING PERFECT” piece of everyday clothing.  Ranging between $50 and $300 dollars, with an average of $142, every person who gave a limit over $100 stipulated they would pay that much only for something elaborate, custom or handmade.

I wish that I had thought to inquire about thrift store shopping habits directly in this survey, though I had a voluble enough sample that I was able to gather an idea that a good percentage buy used, when they can.  In her article, Sauers  mentions that “Thrift stores are green (and cheap), but hunting through their racks can be time-consuming and offer inconsistent results.”   It could be that people who prefer to pay only around $20 for a piece of clothing are willing to spend the time searching second hand.

Most people I surveyed are ‘crafty’, which can’t be a representative percentage of the population and may affect their purchasing habits.  One way that they seem to be like most of the population is that nearly all mentioned issues finding clothing that fits both their bodies and taste.  Says one,  “I could pay $6 [for] something nearly right, with decent fabric, which I can turn into something wearable… or I can pay $25 for a pair of cheaply made pants that don’t quite fit and say “BOOTY” across the ass in pink crystals and glitter paint.”  These people, with daydreams of $110 silk cardigans, don’t necessarily want the fast fashion offerings of Forever 21s.  And even when they do shop at mall and fast fashion stores, they do it out of necessity, more than convenience.  And they’re not abandoning the between-great-wars sense of wardrobe building either:

Lately I buy most of my clothing at Torrid because I am too easily annoyed digging through a department store for the one piece of plus size clothing that isn’t falling off my average-sized shoulders or down to my knees. I tend to wear my clothes until they are literally falling apart because of this and I do make repairs if I can.

Awareness of the clothing industry’s failings isn’t new.  Clinging to a false nostalgia of a simple wardrobe, filled with a few good pieces, isn’t going to help.  Disregarding the error of steering by nostalgia, the circumstances between then and now are too different, too foreign.  Choosing more ethical and quality options isn’t going to be a saving grace either, not when the divide between its cost and the average budget are still so far apart.

Test Pattern: Ready-made clothes, 1943

June 29th, 2010

According to Evelyn Tompson of the U.S. Department of Labor, “ready-made clothes are made chiefly for women under twenty years.  Ninety percent between the ages of fifteen and nineteen can find ready-made dresses to fit them easily enough, while only fifty percent between the ages of twenty and forty-four, and thirty-three percent of those over forty-five can wear ready-made dresses without alteration.”  And a National Retail Dry goods Association report of 1938 states that in department stores over the country forty per cent of the dresses sold required alterations of $2.00 to $3.00 above the retail price; in better dresses, where customers are more particular, 87.5 per cent of the dresses were altered at prices ranging from $1.00 to $7.50.

The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance, Grace Margaret Morton, 1943.

I have been doing research and asking real people for real data because I take this blog too seriously.  And, like the monograph I’ll never finish, I want what I write to be well-hyperlinked and supported.  So I have a thing, and you’ll get it tomorrow, but I wanted it up today.  To placate my guilt I wanted to share this from one of the books I was researching in.

Some things, they never change.

Then/Now: Cotton & Linen Blazers

June 27th, 2010

Left: Sonny Crocket (Don Johnson) in Miami Vice, 1984-1985.

Right: Kenneth Cole New York Blazer, Macys.

Left: Sonny Crocket (Don Johnson) in Miami Vice, 1984-1985.

Right:  Tallia ORANGE Sport Coat, Macys.

What can I say, I am obsessed.

Seen About Town: Head to toe

June 24th, 2010

Oh, this lady was so perfect.  She really did not like being on the bus, it did not seem up to her standards.

Okay, so Tilda Swinton-style androgyny is great and hot and woo.  But I am kind of a bigger fan of the meatier/less editorial rock androgyny.  Because I can’t draw well enough, let me lay out a couple things for you: amazing legs, which is not what you normally see encased in skinny jeans (which emphasise shapeless stick-ness); that 1980′s butt-rock, mullet-evolved haircut that was worn by dudes and ladies; probably the only faux-worn denim dye job that I’ve ever liked; perfectly executed use of hot pink.

Then/Now: Floral Shirtdress

June 20th, 2010

Left: Rayon dress, Banana Republic.  Troy Word for New York Magazine, March 1, 1993.

Right: Breezewood Dress, Mink Pink.  Via Modcloth.

Something different: The Beauty Routine

June 15th, 2010

There is a lot of nail stuff.

In the shower I use first a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub.  Vidal Sassoon shampoo is especially good at getting rid of the coating of dried perspiration, salts, oils airborne pollutants and dirt that can weigh down hair and flatten it to the scalp which can make you look older. . . . If the face seems dry and flaky—which makes it look dull and older—use a clarifying lotion that removes flakes and uncovers skin (it can also make your tan look darker).  Then apply an anti-aging eye balm (Baume Des Yeux) followed by a final mosturizing “protective” lotion.

Ellis, Brett Eason.   American Psycho.  New York:  Vintage Contemporaries, 1991.

I recently tore through the archives of Beauty Schooled and loved a series of posts Virginia wrote on her beauty routine.  I mentioned lady-drag in my VS bra review, and I’ll examine it further later—relevant here, over the past couple of years I’ve taken on more aspects of the femme beauty routine while trying to maintain simplicity and a low-key process.  I have a very complicated relationship with The Beauty Routine, but I’m lucky enough to be comfortable with what is probably more on the minimum end of the spectrum, especially for someone with curly hair.  Anyway, Beauty Schooled says it best:

I’m realizing that we need to talk more about all the different kinds of beauty work we perform and all the different ways we value it. Because sometimes we’re ambivalent about sharing these details. It’s hard to admit you have lip hair, or you need to apply deodorant twice a day since these things don’t fit into the way we define pretty (hairless, sweet-smelling, etc).

So, this is pretty long and, frankly, kind of self-indulgent, so under the cut it goes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Then/Now: Sheer Pants

June 13th, 2010


Left: Marc Jacobs S2008RTW, via Style.com.  September 10, 2007.  Prada S2008RTW, via Style.com.  September 25, 2007.

Right: Alexander Wang S2010RTW, via Style.com. September 12, 2009. Valentino S2010RTW, via Style.com. October 6, 2009.

Now, for Then/Now posts I normally just like to let you make your own observation/inferences, without me being like, LOOKIT.  But this isn’t so much a case of “everything old is new again” as “hey, ‘sheer pants runway‘ is actually a great search term and maybe let’s examine how it did two or three years ago before postulating the lifespan and plausibility of this ‘trend’.”

The see-through separate–spotted at Prada, Costume National, among others–works with spring’s pajama-party look as well as the ‘80s trend, but the jury’s still out if these will work for normal women (will something that emphasizes rather than streamline the leg really flatter everyone?) or if they’ll just be a fantastic accoutrement for magazine shoots and adventurous red-carpet types.
Glam Chic.  October 4, 2007.

But when it comes to pants, we have a feeling that the only ones that should be wearing them see-through style are belly dancers and fire eaters. But Alexander Wang and Valentino both showed barely there pants this year, and a quick scan of our favorite e-commerce shops show that they’re is being stocked in stores. Should we be equal-opportunists when it comes to all things sheer?
Refinery 29. June 1, 2010.

Seen About Town: Wearing what you damn well please

June 11th, 2010

I have a notebook from the Dollar Tree that says “Fashionista” on it and is the silliest pink. This is where my commuting sketches go now, as it is perfectly appropriate.


I see this girl pretty regularly and I think she was dressed up that day. Hella rocked it though.


She made her train, by the way.

Quickie Steal: Marc Jacobs socks

June 7th, 2010

In acknowledgement of the shoe+sock trend, W magazine dressed the models in Marc Jacobs flats and Ralph Lauren and Marc Jacobs crews for one of their spreads in the June issue (and in one slide in another spread).

Details from W Magazine’s “Sweater Girl” styled by Alex White

The socks are simple ones, flat knit with a “comfort top” (tall ribbed cuff). Here are two styles that serve the same look, for significantly less dollars and hassle:

Bastia Comfort Top Crew, in Denim

EG Eco Comfort Top Crew, in Linen


Then/Now: Socks & Heels

June 6th, 2010

Left: Teenage girl wearing ankle socks and high heeled shoes.  Nina Leen, December 1944. Via Life’s archives on Google.

Right: Marc by Marc Jacobs Fall 2010 Ready to Wear.  Via Style.com.

(though it’s being treated as a new trend, socks and heels have been noted on catwalks since the Spring/Summer 2008 show, at least)