On Grandmothers, Drag Queens, and Mending Your Clothes

| 2/25/2013 10:33:51 AM

By giving old clothes a new life, Katie Haegele keeps up with fashion's whims while avoiding its excesses. Here, she reflects on the why and how behind her sew-it-yourself ethos.

You really don’t have to be a political radical or a homesteader with trendy chickens to make and mend your own clothing, but depending on your demographics it can certainly feel that way. People under 40 (that’s still me, woo hoo!), those who grew up in an urban environment or another area with no 4H club (also me), and those who went to a school with no resources for a home ec. program (me again) may never have received a lesson in the basic human skill of threading a needle and making or repairing useful things out of fabric. Even if you like to sew, you have to concede that we live a lot differently than the way people always have. It is now entirely possible to buy, rather than make, all the clothes you will ever wear, then chuck them out when they get worn or ripped, even if you aren’t rolling in dough. In one or two generations, sewing skills have become an extra rather than a necessity.

Examples of sewing keep springing up in the popular culture, though. It’s magic to watch the artists on Project Runway dream up clothing designs, then pin and sew their ideas into reality, one bead at a time. On RuPaul’s Drag Race, a kind of lower-rent but more imaginative Project Runway, the contestants make their own costumes. This is interesting to watch because some of them have a strong dressmaking background while others don’t. To make the things they want to wear the less experienced performers have to rely on their sense of invention (and also a hot glue gun). It’s inspiring to watch them work, a reminder that when you make something for yourself it does not have to be perfect. It can look like whatever you want.

Speaking of self-invention, I recently read a memoir called The Beauty Experiment, in which author Phoebe Baker Hyde gives up make-up and hair stuff for a year. She also scales way back on her clothes shopping and fashion choices, which creates a space for her to think about what her desire for beautiful clothing might mean, down-deep. At one point she tells a story about her grandmother, who grew up in rural Washington and, keen to escape her “farm-girl past,” married “southern breeding” and moved to a fancy suburb on the east coast. This woman, Sugar, could study an expensive piece of clothing on its rack in the department store and then go home and recreate it precisely, sometimes even adding a fake label to complete the illusion. Whatever you think about ideas like boot-strapping and label-loving, you’ve got to credit a person like that with ingenuity and creativity. She wanted to be something so she dressed like that thing, then became it. Those are my favorite kinds of stories.

After all this bloviating I don’t have a serious sewing tutorial to share with you, just this big honkin’ thrift store skirt that I bought a few weeks ago and have been wanting to take up. It’s a voluminous Talbot’s “petite collection” skirt made of heavy cotton, and I stood on a stool so you can see the whole unstylishly long thing. (I’m about 5’6” so I can only imagine how overwhelming this style would be on a bona fide petite, but I guess that was the ’90s for you. Or the ’80s. Who can tell, it’s Talbot’s.)


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