Social media is awash right now with discussions about what you wear – whether it’s Truly Myrtle talking about her Local Wardrobe or Fringe Association’s Slow Fashion October. So, I guess it’s timely for me too to be looking at the clothes I wear right now.
First of all, I need to confess to loving my clothes deeply – ever since I was a very little girl.In the 1960s, in our tiny little London home, I would wake up early – and to my mother’s utter exasperation – take out my entire wardrobe and try it on. In the end she was so fed up with the mess I created that she put locks on all the cupboards and drawers that contained my clothes. I don’t remember my reaction …
I was lucky enough to have a large wardrobe of beautiful clothes, many of which were made by my mother. Tartan was absolutely the thing for young children to wear when we were young, and I am amused to see that while my sister and I are wearing identical dresses, I’ve been to the trouble to add a little extra necklace decoration.I can vividly remember having a major paddy aged 10 or 11 because I was fed up with the frilly girlie dresses my mother put me in.By 1971, in my mid teens, I was beginning to experiment with clothes (perhaps as a result of the paddy, my mother had given me a small clothing allowance). Here, we are at Hythe beach in Kent, and I’m all dressed up in a baby doll up outfit I’d recently bought for myself and a homemade cloche hat.A later family holiday (1972) and this time we’re on Dartmoor and I can see that I’m experimenting with my clothes even more – those are tie-dye jeans, and a fantastic man’s corduroy jacket!I went to university that year and there, free for parental inspection, I was definitely in full experimenting mode. I’ve had a perm, and I’m wearing an old fur stole (it was trendy to wear real fur in those days) and a camel coat, both hand-me downs from my grandmother.A few years working in London followed university, and they were sort of smart, sort of still hippyish. This was the 1970s after all. It was quite by chance that my sister and I are dressed so similarly in the picture below – we hadn’t discussed our clothes before going to this London wedding (of my current husband to an earlier wife – yes, I know!)By complete contrast to London, the late 1970s found me living a more rural, truly hippyish existence in Devon – and you can see that in my clothes.There were practical things to be done with gardening, chickens – and children – and I was much more of a scruff.The odd times that I looked smart were for family events like this picture taken at my daughter’s christening. She’s wearing the family christening robe, and I’m wearing a dress I’ve made out of an old Japanese yukata.My abiding memory of my clothes during this period while my children were young was this enveloping brown coat. I’d bought it when at university and it was quite stylish then, but it lingered on and on and on – partly because we were very hard-up and partly because it was wonderful for carrying children as their muddy boots just brushed against muddy brown fabric.I trained as an early years teacher when my children were small, and that meant respectable, practical clothes like this dress I was wearing when TEFL teaching (in those days, headteachers frowned at their staff wearing trousers – seems unbelievable now.)Later, I went to work in a library, so I dressed as befits a librarian!Busier and with more money, I ceased to make clothes for myself. I think the last garment I made was this coat. It was cut from my grandmother’s old curtains – yes, I kid you not – when I was very broke (proper Scarlett O’Hara stuff here), and it was indeed gorgeous, and much-admired but completely failed to keep out the cold.Where am I going with all this, you may well ask? Well, in this mini-tour of my clothing life, I’ve looked at all the different clothes I’ve required for my various occupations in so many places. Now in retirement, in very northernmost Northumberland, you might think it would just be a case of jeans, thick woollies, wellies and a Barbour.
I do have some of those garments, and wear them on walks out and about – that’s for sure. But I would hate to be restricted to wearing them all the time.
So, over the last few years I have been looking again at my wardrobe. I went back to dressmaking last summer, and wrote about my first attempts in my Batik dress blog post . It wasn’t easy because I’m quite a different shape from the young woman I used to make clothes for. And there is that indefinable je-ne-sais-quoi that restricts older women from freely wearing whatever they see on young people.
I’ve discovered that what suits me is to wear tunics or short dresses – I’m not very tall, and longer dresses dwarf me. Shorter garments do me no favours: make me look round. Under my tunic, I almost invariably wear leggings or coloured tights – these are immensely comforting to one like me who has curious white legs. Also I feel the cold. I don’t wear jeans – at all, if I can help it. I find them so uncomfortable and restricting – and dull!
So, with that in mind, I started sewing earlier this summer, using my grandmother’s old Simplicity pattern number 9141. How the young Katherine would have laughed to see me making myself the same style of clothes that my mother and grandmother wore!My first experiment was with a gorgeous African veritable wax de luxe fabric which we bought on our spring trip to Paris. I wasn’t really thinking when I cut it out, and so have ended up with a long dart down the front which slightly spoils the fabulous pattern. Despite that flaw, it is a wonderful garment, and I have worn it a great deal – sometimes more wrapped up than others. I dithered about adding sleeves – after all there’s a certain reluctance for ladies of an older age to bare there arms, but I took heart from this Advanced Style post and went for bare arms.It was followed by an enormously brave attempt to make myself a plain-coloured linen dress using the Merchant and Mills dress shirt pattern. It’s brave because I don’t usually wear plain colours. It did take me a long time to fit this dress satisfactorily. I found the pattern too big for my frame, so had to trim quite a bit of width. I do love it – another great success. And I like the plain colour very much – my only caveat would be that I am an enormously messy person, and spills don’t show so much on pattern.My next attempt was to make a copy of a dress I’d designed for myself years ago. It was made from some gorgeously soft cotton that I bought in Habitat, and I have worn it and worn it, and shortened it, and worn and worn it again. A really good old friend. I was a bit hesitant about this – still nervous about my seamstress skills. So I bought a cheap and unremarkable fabric for the copy, and I think the dress I came up with is also unremarkable. It took endless patient pinning and re-pinning to get the seams right. There are no darts in this dress – all the shaping comes from the seams, so it was essential to get them right.But it does look very good when dressed up – and can you see the slight curve I gave the back for added interest? I was very pleased with that.By now (mid- August), I was beginning to feel a lot more confident. On the spur of the moment I decided to make another tunic dress using my grandmother’s Simplicity pattern with this gorgeous fabric I’d found in Newcastle’s John Lewis. I didn’t worry about cutting this dress out. I knew it would be OK! And it was! I’d taken on board the problems with a front seam spoiling the pattern, and just added a few tuck darts round the neck to cope with the extra fullness. So there is no centre front line to spoil the pattern. My grandmother’s pattern fits me almost perfectly – bar the bust darts. I have to lower the bust seam by about an inch which I find quite inexplicable.Buoyed up with my success, I returned to a dress I had started at the very beginning of the summer. This is Grainline Studio’s Alder shirtdress. It is cut from some fabric my husband bought me secretly on our Paris trip earlier this year – an enchanting Japanese doll fabric in several colourways. I cut it out with great enthusiasm, and then realised I would have to do buttonholes – oh, no! So it got put to the side.
Come the end of the summer, with all this dressmaking experience under my belt (so to speak), I knew I could tackle buttonholes satisfactorily. And I did indeed sew some very good buttonholes. This is another garment that I love wearing – I love the mix of fabrics (which was forced on me because there wasn’t enough of either fabric). And I love the pattern. It also has a slightly curved back hem.This garment also dresses up well for colder days. Just what I needed on my recent London trip!It feels such an achievement to have completed these different dresses. I’ve written about them speedily in this blog, but actually they took ages and ages of pinning and unpinning, trying on, measuring and repinning. It may not really be what Karen Templer had in mind with her Slow Fashion October, but it is still a sort of slowness that has been reflective and patient and careful, quite different from the younger me who would throw garments together in an afternoon – and could carry them off however ill they fitted.
I’ve revisited Karen Templer’s Slow Fashion October since I started this blogpost, and she does indeed allow for a multiple of different interpretations for this slow project. Perhaps the uniting factor running through this month is thoughtfulness. (I hesitate to use the word, Mindfulness because it is becoming tarnished with overuse) And with that thoughtfulness there is an accompanying pleasure – a delight in the simplicity and care of detail, a relish in getting garments that fit well and that are worn regularly and comfortably. Well, my summer sewing projects certainly fit that bill.
And, if you were to listen to the Truly Myrtle podcast on Your Local Wardrobe that I referred to you at the beginning of this post, you would hear that she too is, like me, searching for the right clothes for the right place in her life right now! I can identify so much with her search for colour and fun in her clothing.