Things to think about when getting dressed in the morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about style lately.  This has been primarily in terms of clothing, but also in terms of lots of other things.  This thinking has arisen mostly because I am of an age when what worked before does not now necessarily work so well (and the fact that my secret desire has always been to be a designer of some sort).  Choosing what to wear is an everyday activity that can take a little or a lot of time; create a little or a lot of anxiety.   The effort around determining one’s personal style is played out certainly in front of the mirror in the morning, but also in the stores.  It is probably why people both love and hate to shop. Indeed, Louis Waxman, in a recent Thought Catalog offered the following quote from Ira Glass that captures this anxiety perfectly:

Then I quickly throw on some clothes — the same outfit every day, pretty much. It’s just… I hate shopping because I hate myself and I don’t know what clothes to wear. And I get into an existential crisis when I have to choose clothes because I think ‘Well who am I, that I would wear this shirt rather than this one.’ I’m not proud of that… There was a period about 10 years ago where I would have to get drunk in order to buy clothes.

So much of the style guru’s advice that is available seems to focus on body type (e.g. pear, apple, hour glass, pencil, etc) and colour complementarity. But, this seems so individual, and style is also a social thing.  I’ve certainly seen people, and dressed myself according to these principles, but its not enough. Truly sartorial people move beyond the rules, so to speak, and create an image personality through their clothing. So what else might one keep in mind about when considering style?

Style is interactive: Harvey Molotch, in his book Where stuff comes from, argues that style “goes beyond what is on the surface.”  He makes the point that style is not something that is opposed to function, but instead contains function, and this function is about getting something done, but in a particular way that coordinates diverse individuals into groups. To me this means a personal style that calls out and says something in particular to others. It’s a form of communication.  As a result, considering who one is going to meet up with and what one might want to say to them as you walk into their line of vision makes a huge difference in terms of what to wear.

Style is experiential:  Research on cities tells us that disability is built into the spaces we inhabit.  Clara Greed, for example, has for years been writing about how the provision of public toilets in cities (e.g., the same number or more for men v. women) disadvantages women (and elderly people).  Women’s commercial fashion also presumes a form of mobility or immobility, that when combined with the way that public transport is accessed, and the state of pavements creates dilemmas for women that men just don’t have to face.  Flat shoes, for example, do not go with certain styles of clothing.  People can and do wear them, but one only need watch the old 1980’s film Working Girl to understand that if one wants to send the right message (as per my point about interactivity) then conflicts with the urban environment in terms of mobility are going to arise—such as sore feet, but also the hazards of heels and tripping over the tiles put down for blind people or the perils of getting stuck in a rain grate. Of course one could take a taxi or drive, rather than use public transportation, but that is a luxury that is both classed and not as environmentally friendly.  The key is to find pieces that are practical and also expressive.

Style can be exploitative: We all have seen the news reports and know about the ethics of buying low cost clothing from places like Primark.  For those concerned with this aspect of their closet, there are some solutions.

One possibility is to buy “better” labels, but paying more does not mean that the clothes you are buying are not produced in labour exploitative or illegal conditions.  The truth of it is, the majority of the high street and even designer clothing manufacturers make their goods in Asia these days, in situations that may or may not be exploitative — the two are not always synonymous. Some suggest that one should read the label and look for European, American and Australian made garments, but there is still a considerable amount of sweatshop clothing manufacturing going on in these places. Often, paying more is just that, paying more.

Buying second hand clothes is potentially an option, though I am not sure that re-use really absolves one of the original issue as the clothes being re-used where made somewhere. What is more, like most things, there are social implications to the second-hand trade. There are bargains to be had at the local thrift shop, but in cities like NY, London, and Hong Kong the thrift pickings are hard to come by and the vintage shops are expensive.  There are also occupational norms for clothing as well and while turning up to your university teaching job in a second hand outfit may be fine, turning up to the bank may not.

There are a lot of ethical clothing stores on the internet, but one must read carefully as for some of these ethical production means environmentally friendly, and not necessarily labour friendly. My experience is also that a lot of these sites are great for leisure clothes, but not so good for office clothing. Kate Carter wrote a series for the Guardian in 2008 on finding ethical office wear, which has some good advice.

Style can be positive: One can be left feeling that there are few possiblities and a lot of limitations. One solution that makes certain that there is no exploitation, frees up the possibilities of individual expression, and allows a nod toward personal mobility is to make the clothing yourself. This takes time and skill, and there is certainly not a sartorial elegance in going out looking like one is wearing garments made by loving hands at home.

Perhaps an easier and more elegant solution is to buy fabric and the pattern and have someone who knows how make the clothing.  There are self-employed seamstresses and tailors (why is the word for women different for men?) in most countries that will do this. I am told by friends in the US that they work with seamstresses who will sew a dress for about $60 to $80. The prices vary here in HK.  It may cost a bit more and take a bit longer to have a garment made, but it will fit your body and be exactly what you want. Once one gets used to the delayed satisfaction of this type of shopping, you realise that the pleasure of the garment is greater as you have editorial authority over what is produced. No more are you stuck with clothing that doesn’t quite fit, has bits that you would rather not have, is limited by what is in the shops right now, etc. etc. The possibilities of personal fashion design are endless with just a little bit of effort.

One of my favorite fashion labels from the 1950's US market.  Lilli Ann designs fit the bodies of women "my age" and are flattering.

One of my favorite fashion labels from the 1950’s US market. Lilli Ann designs fit the bodies of women “my age” and are flattering.

This interactive form of personal style can be a bit daunting at first. A lot of the work, however, can be done in the comfort of ones own home–in one’s pyjamas even, if you like. Many of the pattern companies now have web sites and will ship patterns to wherever you live, or enable you to download the pattern and print it out. If you are into vintage clothing, there are also a number of small web based businesses that have pattern libraries. Likewise if a trip to the fabric store involves travelling for hours, there are also online stores that will do mail order.  Larger tailoring businesses will also have fabric samples and they can order the fabric for you.  Those who live in Asia are lucky as there are wonderful fabric markets with excellent and low cost fabric to be purchased and with stock that changes regularly.

One must visit the seamstress or tailor to have the items made.  This can actually involve several visits for each garment. In Hong Kong, to have a good garment made will take between 1 and 2 weeks. They can do it in a shorter time frame, but rushing too much results in, not surprisingly, a rushed garment.

Over time, you develop friendships with the person sewing for you. They suggest fabric and styles.  Your personal style becomes a work in progress that is developed in community.  For each piece, the reward is delayed but the result lasts longer, both because the item itself is more durable and has a timelessness about it, but also because it allows one to express one’s own message and personality and is adapted to the circumstances of one’s own life. Its also, to some degree, applies the principle of buying locally, which is used so much these days with regard to food consumption, to the consumption of clothing. These smarter and more involved purchases also result in fewer expeditions to the clothing store for a quick fix of retail therapy.

Taking time over ones style has rewards in terms of how one is perceived in the world.  This can often seem to create contradictions and existential conflicts.  Looking the part can be expensive and certainly can reinforce class distinctions. Its true, what you wear shouldn’t matter, but it does and not just in terms of how it makes your body look or the symbolic messages of labels.

red covers

If you use a tailor in a place like Hong Kong or Bangkok, you are not necessarily avoiding the sweatshop labour.  Bonham Strand, in Hong Kong is a social enterprise. I’ve been to the workshop and it is clean, light, safe and collegial, the workers are paid a decent wage, and they do community work with at risk youth.

Vogue and McCall patterns can be found online here, including some that are not available in the stores and some that are vintage, they also have sales periodically.  Mom’s Patterns and So Vintage has a good selection of vintage patterns for sale, but be warned some of these are a bit expensive.

If you are interested in sweatshop labour in places like the US, UK and Australia please see the following web sites:

A briefing report to the US House of Representatives on Sweatshop labor in the US is available here. There are also numerous newspaper articles concerning sweatshop labour in the UK.  Here is just one example from the Independent published in 2010.

For more on the ethics related to second hand trade has a number of interesting discussions under the fashion link.

And of course there is Scott Schuman’s blog, The Sartorialist, for those who just want a style fix.

The image is a Lilli Ann advert taken from the internet several years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t know from where.  It is not my own photo.  If you know who owns this photograph, please get in touch.

How to reference this post

Blake, M (2013) Things to think about when getting dressed in the morning.…in-the-morning/ ‎ ‎13 March 2013 (Accessed: insert date accessed here)