Posted in Inside Lane

Smart, or Cheap? Ask Joan.


Yesterday, I wrote about how foundation garments structure the way clothing falls. I feel like I grew up in a fabric store. My mother made more than half of my clothes, and because she was determined that I not look like a bumpkin, she crafted every item with the kind of care and detail you normally only find with a couturier. My clothes weren’t homemade. My clothes were bespoke. And what she bought, she tailored to fit me. My mother spent hours, and days, and in a few cases weeks perfecting gowns, and dresses, and skirts, and tops, and shorts, and bubble suits, and pajamas, and costumes, and bonnets, and shawls, and anything else she could think to put on me. If I had an idea for something I wanted and we couldn’t find it, she would buy three, or four different patterns and jigsaw them together until she had an original piece for me.

 

What this means is that for every hour my mother spent on a project, we spent three hours in a fabric store*. Or, at least it felt that way. We spent a lot of time rubbing fabric between our fingers, feeling for weight, heft, and fall**. Depending on what she was going to make, we would spend time pouring over various weights of thread, piping, ric-rac, sizes of needle, buttons, frogs, styles of zippers…I know my zippers. We would carry bolts of fabric around, unwinding a couple of yards to see how it would drape, and checking to see if trim was too heavy, or too light. I learned about lining, and interfacing, and buying extra yardage of patterned fabric to properly line up motifs.

 

Without benefit of a fashion education, my self-taught mother taught me about creating high fashion out of the remnants bin at Mott’s 5 & 10. My mother can twenty-five cent fabric and make it look like it came off the Chanel runway. My mother would wipe the floor with the n00bs at Project Runway. I mean, she would devastate them. Granted, she would be calling things “whizzbangs” and “doodles” and Tim Gunn would have no idea what she was saying, and she would tell the judges where to stick it, but after she’d won, we would all go to Red Lobster, and everything would be okay.

 

I was thinking about all of that as a conversation continued on the Spanx-spanking thread I’d been reading. One of the lessons my mother was adamant to impart was that garments are meant to have a certain look, and not every garment is going to work on the structure of a body. For example, the baby-doll dress. I love a good baby-doll dress. When I was 15 and flat-chested, they looked adorable on me. When I finally hit puberty at 20, and grew in a chest, something happened. Whereas before, the baby-dolls had hung level from my shoulders, now, they were a good two inches shorter at the hemline in the front. The back stayed the same, but those new boobs ruined the line in the front. I couldn’t just buy a baby-doll off the rack anymore. I needed to look for styles that were constructed to fit grown women (hint, darts at the bustline).

 

Another example is in skirts. Again, when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 and had no hips, or butt to speak of, skirts were easy. I put them on, and went on my merry way. After the lotus bloomed, when I put on a skirt I had to make sure it was as long in the back, as in the front. My callipygian backside was raising the hem. It was, and is totally unfair. I blame the Y side of my family because the M women have neither bust, nor bottom to speak of.

 

What my mother drilled into me was that when something did not fit well, or hang right it looked Cheap. Cheap was the cardinal sin of clothing. We did not buy this fabric because it looked Cheap. We did not put this style button on this style fabric because that looked Cheap. We always finished the hem because otherwise, it looked Cheap. My mother did not let her daughter look Cheap. Or tacky. Tacky was the lower level sin. If it meant taking the garment apart and lining it, or changing a seam, or ripping out the heavy zipper because it puckered, and putting in a lighter one, if it meant changing the design to incorporate hooks-and-eyes instead of buttons, or frogs instead of hooks-and-eyes, or adding two inches to the hem, or nipping in an inch at the waist, or changing the armhole on the sleeve—or just putting on a different style of bra and panties—my mother showed me how the smallest details made the difference between a garment looking right, or looking Cheap.

 

And that goes for men’s clothes, too. When I am shopping for my son (because I did not inherit my mother’s patience for perfection as a seamstress) I am looking for structure. I dress my child inexpensively, but he does not look Cheap. He looks Smart—which is the opposite of Cheap in Joan Terms.

 

When I am putting together outfits, I think a lot about my mother, who taught me how to mix fabrics, styles, patterns, and lines so that they look Smart. My son inherited her eye, so if I want a real, honest, and good opinion, I’ll ask him. This earring, or this? This boot, or this? These tights, or these? 9 times out of 10, he’ll pick what I know my mother would. They even do the same thing when they don’t like what I’ve put together. Lower lip disappears, and they say, “Hmm.” I’m pretty fortunate to be sandwiched between generations of good taste.

 

*We went all over town once, looking for just exactly the right kind of tulle to fill out the flare of a fit-and-flare gown we were putting together. I wanted a tapestry fabrication for the body of the gown, which took days to find, and with a fabric that heavy, just your run of the mill tulle wouldn’t do. It needed to be stiff, but still soft, and it also needed to be fuchsia. It took days. When we finally found it, Mom bought it with a matching stiff mesh (another few days searching), and built a crinoline that would have made Bob Mackie cry with joy and envy. Then, she hand beaded Swarovski crystals around the neckline, cap sleeves, and where the bodice met the flare. Those crystals came from yet another store.

 

And then there was the time we went to every store in Dallas trying to find just. The. Right. Buttons. She was always exactly right, too.

 

**I spent a lot of time moaning and wailing that she was ruining my life by making me sit in a fabric store for my entire childhood. I was dramatic.

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Happy. That about covers it.

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