Sunday, 30 November 2014

(Less) guilty pleasure

I inherited a love of fashion from my grandma, who is a talented seamstress.  Before she married my grandpa, she worked at a couture wedding dress shop in Manhattan and throughout her life she has made gorgeous outfits for her sister, her mother-in-law, herself, and for my mom and aunt when they were young. She also made many of the best Halloween costumes my siblings and cousins and I wore as kids-- we still have miniature, museum-worthy replicas of nearly every Disney princess gown, Tinkerbell, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Batman.

But I can't make clothes (as you might remember from my disastrous costume-making efforts).  I only love them.

Judith Thurman
It's a love I've always felt kind of ashamed of. I generally resist reading fashion magazines, blogs, even books, because I fear that my interest is shallow or less intellectual. And yet I am captivated by the costume design on many of the movies or TV shows I watch (I even watch some shows almost exclusively for the costuming). I read articles about museum exhibits on Victorian funeral dress and the only museum I have been to in Toronto so far is the Bata Shoe Museum.

Over the years, I have come to semi-comfortably, if reluctantly, inhabit this tension-- loving clothes, hating myself for it.

That is, until recently, when I listened to a wonderful interview with author and New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman in an episode of the (amazing) New Yorker: Out Loud podcast about fashion as a subject worthy of intellectual inquiry.

Thurman was new to me-- I don't recall having read any of her essays in the magazine-- but I am eager to gobble up her writing now, not least out of gratitude for speaking so insightfully and eloquently about fashion that I no longer feel ashamed of my interest in it.

Thurman talks about fashion in a multi-dimensional way that is fascinating. She seems to view the subject through the lens of a cultural anthropologist, fully appreciating fashion's sensuality and art, the role of commerce (brand building, editorial priorities, etc.), the complex people, culture, and history that surround it, the potential for cattiness and judgment, and the emotional needs it can serve.

From Thurman's essay "Cut Loose"
As she points out, "There are no naked people on the street, except for the odd streaker running around…Everybody gets dressed for whatever their life involves…It is a universal choice that we make. In that sense it is a subject for a cultural journalist…of deep interest."

What a refreshing place to start a conversation about fashion. When I think of "getting dressed" as a ritual we perform across all (most?) human cultures-- a ritual that has evolved but never ceased over the course of centuries-- it seems obvious that it would be of inherent interest. We study and try to recreate and preserve clothing from past cultures or eras as a way to understand what the lives of people were like, what they looked like, what they valued, what kinds of tools and materials were available to them. Almost always these clothes are decorated in some way that distinguishes their wearers, suggesting clothing has long existed at the intersection of utility and art.

Thurman admits that there is not a lot of good writing about fashion.  And definitely much of it is commercially driven.  But Thurman has breathed fresh life into the subject for me.

She also makes it feel acceptable-- delicious even-- to love clothes for their beauty and sensuality, for how they make you feel about yourself. She talks about learning fashion like a language, through "immersion rather than study" while living in Paris, and about "talismanic" items that we love for what they remind us of or make us feel (I have several of these, including a beige corduroy jacket that I wore all over Italy and Greece while studying abroad).

And this one.
I want this book for Christmas
She playfully recalls her first fashion object of desire, a pair of white, beaded moccasins (my first object of desire, at age 7: white leather lace-up "granny" ankle boots with a one-inch heel). And she recommends everyone have a "safe room" outfit-- even applying the word "safe" to clothes is so revealing about the role clothes play in our emotional lives-- that can be thrown on at a moment's notice.  Hers: 1940s black jodhpurs, a jacket by a French designer/brand whose name I don't recognize, and low boots; mine: a quilted sweater, jeans, and western-styled chelsea boots-- all black.

Thurman has unleashed my fashion curiosity, sans shame. For the next phase of my education, I plan to read Vintage Fashion Complete, which discusses (and illustrates!) fashion's evolution throughout the 20th century, and Women in Clothes, which assembles perspectives about clothes from women around
the world.

1 comment:

  1. Sara, you will love this book:

    And I also recommend you check out The Textile Museum of Canada

    The ROM's textile's gallery is also pretty excellent. This exhibit is on until Jan 25th and it's great

    PS Definition of a great blog post, in my opinion, is one that leaves the reader saying, "Yes!! And this too!! And this and this and this!!!"