Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Designing for Plus Sizes

I've also been reflecting on the process of designing for what have come to be called "Plus Sizes" - essentially, big people. Now, I'm big, although that wasn't always the case - in high school I was the "skinny" kid. And I've started to design clothes that change my image and work with my size and shape. But I'm also interested in designing for big women (as well as smaller ones :) ).

I've noticed that a lot of big women who are slightly (or perhaps more strongly) ill at ease with their size and shape, choose clothes that serve to hide or distract from their body shape - lots of embellishments, for example, loose clothes (although that may also be a question of comfort), often combined color choices that are bland or dark.

One of my ideas to rethink designs for big people is to imagine a world in which the average person IS big. In this world, "small people" are the exception. What would our fashions look like in such a world? How would these fashions be different from today's "plus size fashions"? I think the answer is, they might be dramatically different than they are.

On the Burqa and the Skirt

In my attempts to rethink certain aspects of clothes we take for granted, I have arrived at a somewhat surprising understanding of the role of the skirt among our clothes. Fundamentally, how does a skirt differ from a pair of pants? Here's an answer, no doubt not the only one, but an interesting one. The skirt hides the lower structure of the body, whereas the pants work with this structure.

If one stops to think about this statement, one realizes that history, indeed, confirms it. The history of the skirt moves from a form that is more covering towards one with at least the possibility of minimally covering the structure of the lower body.

One can argue that the skirt is primarly a practical garment - simple to construct and useable in a wide range of situations. However, the skirt actually is of considerably lower utility than are pants - a skirt does not protect the body from harsh physical conditions, where the pants do provide protection. Hence I believe that the role of the skirt to hide the lower body is actually its primary purpose.

Today, of course, the skirt often hides little. A miniskirt reveals all, but, of course, that is partly why they are appreciated over other skirts. The existence of the miniskirt, and its effects, hence reinforces the argument that the skirt's function is to hide.

In Elizabethan times, the 18th century and the Victorian era, the skirt hid the lower structure even more, by providing additional structures that were very different from the actual body. Today's skirts follow the body's natural shape much more than did these garments.

Once one accepts the argument that the basic function of the skirt is to hide the body and its structure, it then becomes possible to think about suggesting other structures or body expressions - the different ways of embellishing skirts allow one to present a very different statement of who one is.

Interestingly, this argument casts an interesting light on the resistance of men to adopt skirt-like garments in our culture. It is not merely a question of avoiding being "feminized", but also a need to stay close to one's actual body shape rather than to allow this to be disguised in the variety of ways that women are used to. Again, since make-up is also a form of disguise, there is a consistency in men's resistance to disgusing the body in such ways.

Furthermore, it becomes clear that the essence of the way our culture treats the feminine is as a play between hiding and revealing. We are obsessed with both of these and their interplay, especially as expressed through women's garments. The whole argument is almost absent from our way of viewing men. Only tha phallus falls fully into a similar role.

I believe this tension between showing and hiding is also partly why our culture feels so violently about the muslim traditions of hiding the woman's body completely. Such a goal is not inconsistent with the basic principles behind our own "feminine clothing", which was designed also to hide from view the women's body. There's something a bit hypocritical about opposing msulim practices that seek to hide the body completely or almost completely, when the principles behind today's women's fashions, which accept the skirt as a distinctly "feminine" garment follow the some logic. I'm not in favor of a culture that imposes such full covering on all its female adherents, but I think part of the irritation is because it reveals something shadowy about our own fashions.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lessons from the Crotch

Yes, I've been learning to make pants, and I think the main issues are to be found in the crotch (although the front opening makes a close second!). I was working from the Aldritch book. Her blocks show the hip line well above the crotch line, but the measurements of the women I've been making pants for are characterized by a crotch depth that is only slightly deeper than the waist to hip length. Now, it is possible that part of the problem is that the latter measurement is over-estimated - locating the hip line is not actually all that easy, since it is one of the gentler curves on the body of many people. Nonetheless, faced with this apparently unusual small difference between the hipline and the crotch line (although perhaps not so unusual, if two out of two women I'm making pants for have this!), I was for some reason tempted to lower the crotch line rather than raise the hip line! Quelle gaffe!

This makes for a Very Baggy crotch area, not at all very feminine in style, nor very flattering to the female figure. Women react very strongly to this - it would have been safer to have erred towards a tighter crotch than towards a looser one! Admittedly this depends to some extent on the type of pants one is making - my first pair were the harem pants described in the previous blog, and a lower crotch area in these looks like a design choice! For the exercise pants, however, the result was disastrous! Now I have to correct by lowering the waist to compensate, but of course this screws up the shaping I did for the waist. Arghhh!

I think the problem may have been that we men often go for a looser than a tighter crotch area, and that led me astray. Even for men, however, a low crotch line, although sometimes a design choice, looks sloppy.

The front fly also causes me problems. I got to thinking, we men generally prefer an opening with fastenings there, but women don't need this in the same way men do. On the other hand, there is usually more shaping between the hips and the waist for women than for men. Having an opening at the front therefore serves to allow more elegant shaping of the pants. Openings at the side often add bulk to the pants in a location which is not appreciated by women. So a front opening is still the ideal location, even though the purpose of this is slightly different.

Finally, I have learned to avoid installing four pockets - I spend more than half the sewing time on the pockets. One at the front (either side) is plenty.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Tango Collection, Outfits #1 and #2


Here, finally, are some photos of my first two tango outfits inspired by the Vanity Fair covers dating from 1915 and 1916. This first one is the black dress from the July 1916 cover. I modified several features of the dress - instead of three bands at the side I've replaced these by one wider band at the top of the side section - this is designed to cover the bra strap. I also worked out a system of snaps and eyelet fastenings to allow the dress to be put on and taken off. I am VERY happy with the results - shown here on my young woman friend Myriam who was my model at the tango conference as well. The design is quite unusual because it is strongly asymetrical front and back, even at the lower hem area. It reminds me a little of a French maid's uniform.


You can also see how the side slits function in this second photo. The dress as a whole was made using black rayon with a jacquard type floral motif embedded within it, and accessorized with a black and white striped cotton scarf I found at a local import boutique.


A second outfit, shown below, consists of a variation on the harem pants showcased on the January 1915 Vanity Fair cover, along with a blouse I designed to go with the pants. I made these fall to midcalf, and gave them cuffs out of silk charmeuse that make them very elegant. The pants themselves were made from silk organza, and the top from silk charmeuse. Note the sleeves which are left more or less open, another feature that makes this outfit interesting for tango dancing. I bought another cotton scarf used here around the waist to finsih the overall look of the outfit.

Has Corsetry Really Disappeared?

I have been reading an absolutely fascinating account about the history of corsetry : "The Corset, A Cultural History" by Valerie Steele. Ms. Steele argues that the corset was a primary foundation garment for women's fashion (although also for men to some extent) for over 400 years until its apparent disappearance at the beginning of the 20th century, despite controversy that existed almost from its beginnings. The corset did not "disappear" because of arguments over health, since such arguments were present almost from the time of its introduction in the late 15th century, nor because of the feminist movement per se. Therefore, she suggests that corsets served a range of needs for it to have survived so long.

She further argues that the corset, or the needs it served, hasn't really disappeared. We've replaced the "answer" to these needs in other ways - through plastic surgery, diets and a focus on exercise, all aimed to "trim" the figure towards our cultural ideals of beauty, and through a range of bras including the reintroduction in the 1960s of the "push-up bra", which filled a function formally served by the corset. In some ways, plastic surgery is as draconian a response (and as controversial!) as was the tight-laced corset, not to speak of the pain and sacrifice that result from many dieting regimes. She notes that if the corset itself was less present in the 20th century, the girdle was still a main shape-influencing element until the 1950s and 1960s, and following the decline of the girdle, the corset has begun to enter into fashion again, both as an outer and an inner garment, and to some extent also for men.

If the corset is controversial today, this is in line with its long history of controversy. Fascinating!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Twitter World

I've just ventured into the world of Twitter, finally, after having heard about it for many months (my handle is "gedwoods" if you're interested). Any new environment always takes time and energy to learn, and Twitter is no exception. However, having been through several such learning cycles on Web2.0 (or is it 3.0 now?) - mySpace, Facebook, Second Life, flickr, BurdaStyle, etc., this one was not as difficult as I expected. I do find both a charm to Twitter, and a certain level of utility. Following some individuals as they recount their experiences over a day has a certain level of fascination, as does sharing some of my own. In addition, I can keep better track of fashion trends, technology trends, and certain socio-economic trends that interest me than I can via other means - who has time to read through more than a few blogs at any one time? Somehow, Twitter seems to offer a way of accessing and filtering the blogosphere... in a contextually interesting way.

I'm now thinking through next steps for my sewing projects. I have to organize a photo shoot for my tango clothes. I've some projects to finish, but also several new ones I'd like to start (sigh). I need to balance old and new, otherwise I get stuck and lose interest. Finding the right balance is not particularly easy!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tango, Tango, Tango

Well, I'm just back from the Tango Conference! I gave a presentation on the history of the relationship between tango and fashion, followed by a small fashion "show", using music from the early part of the 20th century (the tango music of Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky) as a background. I presented two outfits, a black dress based on the one shown in the July 1916 Vanity Fair cover from my previous post, and a harem outfit loosely based on the one shown in the January 1915 Vanity Fair cover (I shall show photos of the fashions in a couple of weeks, once I have organized a photo shoot). The fashion show was a huge success, despite its brevity! The clothes were stunning in presentation, and my young model was perfect. I added a scarf ("├ęcharpe" - the French word is more interesting here) to each outfit to complete the aesthetics.

It took, however, one "measurement" session and two "fitting" sessions to get the clothes adjusted to fit, and the final fit wasn't verified until the show itself, for lack of time! I prepared muslin shells of all the garments, but in retrospect, this was perhaps not necessary. Either I misunderstand how to take the right lessons from the muslin fitting session, or the clothes fit close enough anyway that they need to be adjusted directly in the final fabric on the person, I'm not sure. I've been using Aldritch's blocks to develop garments now for more than a dozen people, and although there are usually small adjustments to be made to get the fit right for each person, overall her blocks seem to work extremely well at getting the fit more or less right to begin with. I'm beginning to think that I could skip the "muslin shell preparation" and work with the fabric right away for many of the garments - this would knock about 25% off the preparation time and reduce the need for so many fitting sessions.

I am extraordinarily pleased with this production. Up until now, I've been producing one garment, on average, every three weeks, although not completely finalized in terms of adjustments. For this project, I produced four garments, completely fitted and adjusted, including drafting and layout as well as doing the muslin shell and sewing and finishing the final garment, in one month. I still did this working weekends - in the week, I am busy with my "day job". So almost a fourfold increase in production capacity. In addition, I believe these two outfits are the first garments of "high quality" I have produced - the beginnings of what could become a real offering, a portfolio collection.

For my next major fashion project, I plan to continue to develop clothes for dancing tango (and perhaps other styles of dance - I have a request to develop clothes for belly dancing), based on or inspired by historic fashions (1910s, 1920s, 1940s) and do a more sustained fashion show, in collaboration with the tango community, later this year.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tango Collection

I am working on a collection "under contract" - there's no money involved, but a commitment nonetheless. I am taking part in a Tango Conference at the end of May - this is the second year I'm doing this. Last year, I presented on tango as practiced in a range of communities, including among gay couples, people with disability and in online virtual worlds (in particular, Second Life). This year, I decided to do a paper on the relationship between fashion and tango, with a particular focus on the beginning of the 20th century when tango arrived in Europe, and the end of the 20th century, when it re-emerged as a worldwide pastime.

In addition to giving the conference, however, I have agreed to design and make a couple of outfits that will be presented at the meeting! For the event, I am drawing on documents dating to the early part of the century in support of this effort. This Vanity Fair cover, dating from January 1915, shows off some "harem pants" that were modelled on an earlier pair introduced by the ground-breaking fashions of Paul Poiret in about 1908-1909. In this version, close to what I am preparing, the pant legs stop partway down the calf - in my version, they will taper at the bottom so that they won't get in the way of dancing movements. In addition, I am making the overskirt shown - I have adopted a design based on a circular skirt.

In this second Vanity Fair cover, dating from July of 1916, a dress is shown that could be a dress worn today. I am reproducing the design of this address more or less as shown, although I shall be using a somewhat different fabric.

Finally, I am working on a blouse with sheer sleeves, loosely based on the image shown in this cover dating from October 1915, which, however, does not portray sheer sleeves. Nonetheless, sheer sleeves were a feature of clothes from this time period. This blouse is also interesting in that it could have been sold today as easily as then - unlike most other garments from that period.

The whole exercise is a challenge, albeit both stimulating and creative. I have engaged a model and developed some "muslin shells" or trial garments so as to validate fitting and overall look before developing the final garments.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Building a personal wardrobe

My thinking about the whole concept of putting together a personal wardrobe has advanced by leaps and bounds since the last time I posted in this subject. I have begun the process by thinking through my own wardrobe, and, more recently, that of a good woman friend. First of all, the whole idea of developing a personal wardrobe actually means changing one's wardrobe, since we all have a wardrobe we may have unconsciously constructed over years of time and choices. To focus consciously on our wardrobe is to recognize that we are in a prrocess of change. Part of this is about recognizing how our existing wardrobe was (unconsciously) designed - why we chose to wear the types of clothes we did, and what kind of new person we are becoming. The personal wardrobe we intend to create must act to enable and facilitate the emergence of the new person we are becoming, rather than be necessarily what we want (sometimes are desires are rooted in older ideas about the self and they may need to be challenged!).

For example, it has become clear to me that for years I have been wearing solid colors in my shirts and pants, often in quite dark shades, and that this represents both a kind of solidity and an invisibility. The kind of person I am becoming is much more forward moving, visible, engaging, and my clothes need to change to reflect that change.

Another consideration for designing a new core wardrobe is that the wardrobe needs to express a primary constellation of values related to the "new me", but that they may also serve to support several secondary constellations. Hence, for example, the primary set of values my new wardrobe is being focussed around is distinguished, assertive and engaged, but a secondary set includes a sense of edginess, and of exotism.

A third consideration which I also believe to be important, although it may sound odd, is that I think the wardrobe should include paying attention to underwear, not so much as a statement aimed at other people, as with regard to a recognition of how I view myself. Although we may share our underwear with one (or more?) significant others, ultimately, our underwear reflects our own relationship with our body and self image. Therefore, if we are moving towards developing a new personal wardrobe, underwear is an important component in such a move. In a sense, how we act in the world and how other people perceive us is based on only on our outer appearance, but also our choices regarding hidden aspects of who we are.

I'm not saying anything at all about what choices one should make - I think these will vary from one individual to another. But I do think we need to be aware of these choices.

A multilingual fabric wiki

I see it's been a little while since I posted here last. The main reason, aside from a certain business in my professional life, has been that around the time of my last posting I created a "fabric wiki" to serve the do-it-yourself sewing community. Drawing on my own bilingual competency, I've created a "multilingual" wiki with a bilingual component built in from the get go. The wiki is taking up a lot of the "slack" time I devoted to blog pursuits earlier - I've got to figure out how to balance my time across my different activities! I have learned a ton of stuff about organizing and running a wiki, though!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wardrobe versus Collection

I've thought through the issue of making a collection and have worked out what I plan to do. I have written before about the fact that I'm not at ease with the traditional notion of a collection. A collection is really a group of garments with a common theme produced by a single designer and used as source material to develop lines of ready made garments. Since I have decided that doing and selling ready-made garments is not what I want to do, a collection from this perspective makes little sense.

Instead, I enjoy making custom-fitted garments, for myself and others. And I want to make groups of garments. So I'm focussing on the idea of developing a "wardrobe" rather than a "collection". My idea of a wardrobe is a set of matched clothes of different styles and uses - outfits for home and casual use, for work, for sports and for evening events. The ability to combine these differently for different situations should be built into the design, hence the notion of "matching", but matching that doesn't necessarily make for an overly "kit-like" look. The wardrobe will therefore have an "integral" feel without being homogeneous.

I am currently developing two types of wardrobe. The first is a men's core wardrobe. The basic idea is to provide a variety of styles and looks, all smart and contemporary, for trendy men who want to dress outside the traditional "business look". I have been developing such a wardrobe for myself, and I plan to organize the idea and then make it available as a business offering.

The second wardrobe idea is a women's under-wardrobe, focusing on a set of lingerie for different contexts and situations. Both of these wardrobes would be offered via custom fitting arrangements, that is, for individuals with their particular measurements. I am also thinking through the issues involved in making custom-fitted garments in a more streamlined way, to bring the costs down somewhat.

Christmas come and gone...

Well, Christmas has come and gone. It was an eventful time this year. I ended up in Vancouver and Victoria with my brothers and their families. Although I took no sewing supplies with me, I hadn't quite finished the black shirt for my youngest brother. I ended up not doing an e-shirt for him - I wasn't happy enough with the results of the e-vest effort to feel comfortable giving one away, and already, making a custom fit shirt was a great present. However, in order to finish the shirt, I needed a sewing machine and my sister-in-law had an old one in the bottom of her closet, so we turfed it out and I got it working. It needed a new set of needles, but worked pretty well as is.

Anyway, once I had a working machine and had finished the shirt, I ended up going to the local fabric store, buying some remnant silk, and made a woman's slip - my first venture into lingerie and underwear. The result was superb and SO satisfying to make! I am hooked on making lingerie now. I'm investigating the possibility of making more, with a focus on bra-and-pantie combos to begin with.

However, following the Christmas break, I realized I have a number of projects on the go I need to finish up before opening up too many new ones - two shirts for myself to finish, the e-vest to finalize, a pair of pants for myself, and a dress for a young friend.

On the e-vest, I just need to integrate an on-off switch - I had to order more of these from Aniomagic before I could finish it up. I'll publish images of the results as soon as I get it finalized. What I find irritating about the final product is that, although it looks fabulous, there is a fair amount of bulk on the back panel that I'd like to reduce. Also, the fibre optic tubes need to be sealed away beneath something - they are a bit fragile just laying on the surface of the vest panel. I'm not sure what the answer to this is yet. So I need to construct a version two before I can be happy with the result.

Still, I'm feeling so much more confident with my sewing, now, and designing is also going strong. I've learned to use Photoshop to help with the designs, but until there is a fabric, the design cannot be completed. I'm still looking for good ways of visualizing the results, as my sketching ability is not very good.