The Dress and the Idea of the Dress.

Part of the joy of making my own dresses is that I'm not just wearing the dress, I'm wearing the process. I'm wearing choosing the fabric. (This past weekend my young son went with me to the fabric store, and picked out some fabric for me. Will I think of him saying "Mama! This one would make a GREAT dress!" every time I wear whatever I make from it? Damn straight I will.) I'm wearing choosing and altering the pattern, I'm wearing the mental gymnastics involved in cutting it out and putting it together, I'm wearing whatever sleep was forgone to get it done and I'm wearing whatever I was singing along to on my iPod. I'm wearing my husband's grandmother's sewing machine and how I think about her sewing while I'm sewing. All that goes into the dress. It's the terroir of the dress, if you will.

Even when I don't sew what I'm wearing, I prefer my clothes to have complicated backstories. Like, "I bought this shirt at when he was in New Orleans, before he moved to New York." Or "This coat was $13 at Nordstrom Rack!" or "My sister-in-law gave it to me and she has the best taste!" or "It was my mother's, she wore it in college." How can "I ordered it from the J. Crew catalog" compare?

In fact, sometimes I feel it's not the dress so much as it's the idea of the dress. (Okay, I feel this way all the time.) This is a kind of corollary to the "if it doesn't make you happy, don't wear it" rule–if there's no idea behind the dress, don't wear it. You don't want fast-food, assembly-line, prefab-McMansion clothing, not just because it's boring and soulless and blah, but because there are no ideas behind it. Nobody smiled making it, or envisioned you wearing it, just like nobody outside the TV commercials smiles about making you a Whopper Jr.

When you have enough psychic energy built up into the dress, how it actually LOOKS can be less important than how it feels.

This is an excerpt from a letter:

Did I tell you in my last letter that I had a new dress, a real party dress with low neck and short sleeves and quite a train? It is pale blue, trimmed with chiffon of the same color. I have worn it only once, but then I felt that Solomon in all his glory was not to be compared with me! Anyway, he never had a dress like mine! …

The writer of the letter? Who, obviously, must have been taking more joy in the idea of the dress than in any rational assessment of it in the mirror.

So, even if you don't sew, try to build some process into your own clothing. Find a local alterations place and have your dresses altered for a better fit. Take along someone you love when you go shopping, and take time for a real conversation. Buy clothing when you travel, so you can think "Oh! I bought this in Baltimore!" (or Portland, or Albuquerque …) Post a picture to your blog and ask for feedback, or just rip out the catalog picture and tape it to the bathroom mirror for a week. Imagine yourself in the dress before you buy it. Who will you be seeing? What will you be doing? What will you be laughing about? Set yourself a challenge — can you think of wearing something ten different places? With ten different people? I'm not saying you should overthink every $59 dress from H&M, but a well-planned dinner party is always nicer than a drive-thru meal. Try to have more scintillating parties, and fewer hamburger wrappers floating around the car.

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0 thoughts on “The Dress and the Idea of the Dress.

  1. On that note, I have to share some GREAT news. My long black silk skirt has been found! My youngest sister Leslie gave it to me for Christmas one year. I wore it to my grandpa’s funeral.The skirt went missing Monday evening. I had it slung over my workout bag as I walked home. I didn’t know it was gone until this morning when I searched frantically for it in my suitcase. I wanted to wear it…but it was nowhere to be found. I pictured it crumpled up, wet, with tire tracks all over it in a street gutter.Lo and behold, I called the receptionist at work today. Someone found the skirt on the floor (it must have dropped just before I got on the elevator on Monday) and draped it over a nearby black chair!As soon as the receptionist relayed this wonderful news, I reclaimed my skirt, which sure enough was still on the chair looking like funeral bunting. Hurrah, my favorite skirt has been found!

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  2. I loved this post. This is why I treasure my clothes and jewelry from the thrift stores…not only do I have my story about “finding” them; they come to me with their own mysterious histories…why I so enjoy your “Secret Life of Dresses” posts.

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  3. Wonderful essay! I have often thought that my self-sewn clothes give me pleasure three ways – choosing fabric, making the garment, then wearing it. Your essay expands that to my mother’s patience teaching me to sew, the 4-H leaders refining my skill, the archeological evidence of love and care when I go through my scraps to piece a quilt top. Thank you for a day brightener.

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  4. Wonderful essay! I have often thought that my self-sewn clothes give me pleasure three ways – choosing fabric, making the garment, then wearing it. Your essay expands that to my mother’s patience teaching me to sew, the 4-H leaders refining my skill, the archeological evidence of love and care when I go through my scraps to piece a quilt top. Thank you for a day brightener.

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  5. A new co-worker said to me yesterday, after two weeks on the job, “You always have the most interesting clothes!” And yes, she meant it as a compliment.Now that I’m in California, I feel like a goldfinch flashing through the world. Or maybe a cardinal. (Male, in both cases.)

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  6. I appreciated this post in particular. I feel the same way about my hand made things, especially the knitting. All your thoughts and energy, all the events of your life are captured in your perception of the garment as you make it. It is a completely personal, and sometimes quite vivid encapsulation of a piece of your life, a private snapshot for the heart.

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  7. Yes, absolutely.However, I must point out that this approach can have a downside. It is much harder to get rid of stuff when everything has a story.

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  8. I too share the sentiment of this post. I did want to add that I feel others (my friends, certainly) also enjoy it when I have on an outfit, dress, or item I made. They are always asking, “Did you make that?”. And if I say no, they are indeed disappointed. They want the “story” as well.

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  9. My friends feel disappointed too, when I say something isn’t made by me. I loved your post. I just love processes and back stories. Maybe that is why I went into a field that has many, architecture.Thanks for all your work. 🙂

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  10. Very well put! I do sometimes feel strange puzzeled looks when I answer the “nice skirt, bag, etc..” with an soliloquy about it’s lineage or origin. Our personal stories about clothing do transform our wearing.My sons always get to pick out buttons or fabric scraps when with me shopping and we all remember the day long after…Lovely

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  11. Jane Austen’s quote occurs to me fairly often when I’m shopping:”Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone.”And then of course, because it’s Jane, the passage continues:”No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.”

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  12. It took me years (unfortunately, after most of my traveling) to figure out that buying clothes when traveling is a good idea, and makes a good conversation piece. Actually, it makes the “hamburger wrappers” special. Two americans in London: M: I want to buy this skirt at the Gap, but it’s just the Gap, and I could get it cheaper at home.D: Yeah, but if you buy it here, every time someone says “nice skirt”, you can say “Oh, I bought it in London.” And you don’t have to tell them it was at the Gap.M bought the skirt.Though I fear that telling the strangers on the bus who complimented me on a scarf that it was “from Uzbekistan, a gift from someone who travels” was a) too much information b) a tad elitist. I felt bad about the elitism, but not the information.

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  13. A lovely post!Of course clothing should have a story. Clothing should also make you happy; if what you’re wearing doesn’t make you happy, doesn’t make you smile, even for an instant, in some way, then why are you wearing it?

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  14. Good one – struck a chord with many, I see. Since I have a degree in art history, I like to use the word “provenance” when I talk about my things. Well, not with everyone – depends on the audience. You know.

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  15. I want all of my clothes to say something. Some of them can say something about themselves or where they came from–others say something about me.Either way is good.Trying to get rid of clothes that do neither, or neither well. They’re just taking up space.

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  16. Thank you very much.. Very well said. :):) Like me, I sew my life right into the seams… So it I was not so homesick when I moved thousands of miles away from my family. I basically just took all of them with me… memories of shopping for fabric with my favorite sister… when I wear that perfect green skirt… Buttons my Mom gave me I sewed on a dress.. 🙂 Thanks again.

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  17. Lovely post. I dont sew but I do apperciate it. I do look at fabric when I go out of Florida. I do have the little stories to tell tho. I have bought clothes in quie a few of the states, Canada, London, Scotland, Paris and perfume in Iceland. Bbrug is right I do get attached to my clothes. I have a hard time getting rid of them. Finaly in last 4 years I have been ruthless & dropped off clothes at the womens shelter. I still have clothes in my closet from my 20’s Iam in my 40’s bad I know. I cant help. Iam also a bit of a packrat. Iam getting better if its a beautiful pic of clothing out of a magazine. I will cut pic out of magazine then throw magazine away. I may want to make this dress one day. If I did not save a pic of the dress,skirt,blouse, sweater whatever it was I will not remember it. I went to Jim Smiley’s one day only to discover he had moved to New York:+(

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  18. I loved your post. My family-in-law, in particular, is a very navy-and-knaki-Gap-Ann-Taylor-Banana-Republic-only sort of family, which is nice. But I’m like entropy next to them: the process of whatever I’m wearing is what matters to me, and I like just about everything in a way. I feel like their clothes are all so…quiet. Quiet like a vaguely entertaining but entirely predictable first date.I find myself sometimes trying to remember where each piece of a particular outfit came from: “Let’s see…got the shirt for free from the school rummage sale, cut off the sleeves & left ’em raw, then made the old sleeves into little self-ties that I sewed in three rows down the front because the shirt was so boring before, and I’d seen something like it on Oprah. Oh yeah: it went on that blissful free cruise with me, and looked very good with the tuxedo pants on dress-up night. Got the shoes from my sister, who got them from the thrift store when she was feeling so awful and was trying to cheer herself up. Skirt resurrected from the thrift store when I was feeling so awful and was trying to cheer myself up. Necklace was Grandma’s from the 40’s, restrung on Grandpa’s fishing line.” The in-laws don’t even ask me where I got anything anymore. They know I’ll crow on and on about it, like a mother who’s inordinately proud of her very [apparently] average child.

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  19. I love what you said Crow on and on about it, like a mother who’s inordinately proud of her very (apparently) average child.

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  20. I couldn’t agree more – almost all of my clothes have a history or a story. But you left out the other way that they acquire it – wear them when you do someting interesting or memorable. “Oh, this is the top I was wearing when…” Of course that makes it doubly heart-breaking when it wears out, gets stained or in some other ceases being wearable. At times it’s made me want to take up quilting or textile are, but my action has never moved beyond the wish. One of the best gifts ever was a scarf that a friend made for my mother out of my father’s old ties. She doesn’t wear it, but now that he’s passed on, none of us will ever get rid of it, ever.

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  21. I loved this post. And all the comments. Not only my clothes, but all of my STUFF has a story. It’s all been found in weird places, painted, re-finished, cut into smaller pieces or added onto something else. Why have clothes (furniture, etc) that you just TOLERATE?

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  22. Gosh, Erin, that was beautiful! Loved “the terroir of the dress” and the Helen Keller quote. Geez, with all your rhapsodizing (in the rully, rully old, stitchy, Greeky sense)here, even *I’m getting inspired to pay more attention to what I wear (which–ask anybody–is no small feat)!

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  23. I agreee with your concept of buying stuff when traveling. I feel very special wearing things I’ve bought at special parts of the world. I love my “Venice” t-shirts, and my Greek voile tunic and a sort of handcrafted embroidered outfits I got at Brazil. And so…

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