Cheap Chic: 40th Anniversary Edition

Cheap Chic, the fashion classic, has been reprinted in a special 40th anniversary edition, with a foreword by Tim Gunn.

Cheap Chic, original edition cover

I don’t remember where I first read this book; it must have been in the 1980s, and I’m pretty sure it was a public library copy, the cover reinforced with whatever the library grade of Con-Tact paper is.

By that time I was already dressing much like the authors of the book, or as much like them as a high-school student in North Carolina could dress, so I read the entire thing as an exercise in confirmation bias. Of course I had olive drab army pants (several pair, including one I’d chopped off into shorts). I had multi-button wool sailors’ pants (too warm for the climate), men’s white t-shirts and oxfords, penny loafers, and (a significant find) a pair of incredibly beat-up (and uncomfortable) pair of boy’s cowboy boots, bought at a thrift store in Hickory, NC. I’d swiped my dad’s Levi’s jean jacket AND his Eisenhower jacket. I had good leather bags and belts (bought as seconds at the Coach outlet in town). I was certainly cheap; this book told me I was chic.

Re-reading Cheap Chic is half nostalgia, half discomfort. It’s difficult to read this now without noticing what I didn’t notice back in the eighties: the constant underscoring of the idea that the base requirement for chic is a “lean body” (and the assumption that everyone reading the book could easily fit into boy’s-size clothing and would be comfortable going braless in leotards). The regular and slightly thoughtless appropriation of clothing from different cultures and classes (“ethnic” and “worker’s” clothing), including the advice that you should “Tune into Soul Train when you’re running low on ideas!” And of course, so much fur!

The best reason to re-read Cheap Chic is for the interviews with designers, including Betsey Johnson, Rudi Gernreich, and (best of all) Diana Vreeland:

It’s hard to read Cheap Chic without thinking about the assumptions behind what made things cheap or chic: things were cheap because they were either made cheaply (by people you didn’t think much about otherwise), were the surplus of the militarization of the twentieth century, or because you had the resources to invest up-front in something well-made and expensive that would last a long time (Saint Laurent boots are mentioned often). Things were chic because they made you look young, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, thin, and rich.

I’d recommend reading Cheap Chic just to experience this discomfort, and to try to bring it forward into our lives now. What assumptions are we making today that will make our grandchildren cringe?

Book Review: Modern DIY Upholstery

moderndyiupholstery

When I saw that this book was available for review I stuck my hand straight up and said, “Me, please” and it just came a few days ago.

I have NOT yet re-upholstered anything according to these instructions, but I can tell it’s only a matter of time, because reupholstery projects involve three things I really enjoy: thrifting/yard-saling, choosing fabric, and hammers.

I’ve only really ever upholstered a couple things in my life: a few chair seats (thank you, staple gun!) and a couple of futon covers (after the first of which I said NEVER AGAIN in a loud voice, but obviously I wasn’t listening to myself as I went on and did another one). *Note: do not try to sew futon covers in an un-air-conditioned room in the Chicago summer.

But this book has really set me on fire to go prowling for an ottoman or two, or maybe even a settee. The pictures are lovely, the instructions seem clear upon reading (haven’t done any yet, of course …) and there are even time-lapse videos! Here’s one with the author recovering a wicker laundry hamper. 

I’ve probably bought half a dozen vintage upholstery books in the last ten years or so (including this one):

but none of them have really gotten me to actually DO any upholstery. I think this book will be different.

The Bookpile

Do you have a bookpile? I have a bookpile. I assume everyone has a bookpile, unless they have been cursed by an evil wizard and are unable to read again until they finish some impossible task, like spinning straw into gold. (Aside: do you all know the word tsundoku, which in Japanese — supposedly — means buying books and not reading them, or letting them pile up unread?)

ANYWAY. I’ve been sent a lot of books, and haven’t had a lot of time. So I’m going to do a whirlwind tour of the bookpile! Hold on to your hats!

First up: BurdaStyle Modern Sewing – Wardrobe Essentials

burdastyle wardrobe essentials cover

There are only two dresses in this book, and there are really only dresses in my wardrobe, so the whole “wardrobe essentials” bit here isn’t very compelling for me, but one of the dresses is the Burda cap-sleeve number that I’ve been wanting to make for ages, so that’s a plus.

If you’ve every wanted to sew Burda patterns but were worried about the paucity of instructions, this book is for you. Just about every step is illustrated, and clearly, too. This looks like a great book for intermediate sewists or people who want to stretch a little bit … the patterns aren’t ‘easy’ but the illustrations mean you won’t go too far wrong.

Who knows when I’ll make that dress, but I’ll probably keep this book around!

 Stitch, Wear, Play is subtitled “20 charming patterns for boys & girls” and, well, it does what it says on the cover. If I were a hip and doting grandmother I would be making all these adorable tiny things in those really expensive Japanese cottons (but I’d only need a yard, so …). If you have suddenly acquired up to four winsome tykes and a rambling charming house and tons of free time (not sure how that goes with the tykes, but  ¯_(ツ)_/¯) this is definitely the book for you! If you don’t have (or have and don’t sew for) kids this is totally worth picking up and flipping through for some nice design ideas, especially about yokes.

 

Gertie Sews Vintage Casual is also a little light on the dresses (although there are several) but they’re really CUTE dresses. There’s also a whole section on patternmaking that I found easy to follow, with exactly the kind of changes I like to make: adding pockets, changing lengths, adding gathers or darts or pleats, and waistband changes.

I’ll be coming back to this book eventually, because there are some nice patterns for knits, too.

Another great thing about this book—models in a variety of sizes!

BiblioCraft is super-nerdy, and I love it. Not sure if I will make any of the projects, but the conceit is fantastic — basically there is TONS of craft inspiration in any library, and these projects are not just how-tos for the project, but how-tos for how to research for more projects!

 

 

 

If you like math and/or quilting, you will like Quilt Lab.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vintage Swimwear would be a fantastic book for costume designers, and is pretty fabulous eye-candy for everyone else. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to wear the top part of an 1880s “swimming costume” as a regular old day dress …) I don’t swim often enough to want to put the effort in to making my own bathing suits, but I will probably hold on to this, just in case. (I also learned that men’s trunks were fastened with side-ties as late as the 1950s, which seems … unreliable.)

 

 

Learn to Sew with Lauren is a beginner book, and I think that it is hard for someone who has been sewing a while to really judge the quality of instructions in beginners’ books, because we don’t remember what it’s like to have no context. That said, this one looked especially easy to me, but not so easy that the projects were boring or unrewarding. The capstone dress project is something you could imagine seeing on ModCloth, for instance, and the skirt has pockets.

Also, the patterns are full-size — no photocopying or tracing up needed.
Makery is worth it just for the measuring tape brooch (page 38).

 

 

I’m sure there are other books lurking in the bookpile … they’ll have to be dormant a little longer.

Book Review: Super Stitches Sewing

super stitches sewing book cover

When you’ve been sewing for as long as I have (30 years!), it can be hard to discover the gaps in your own knowledge. You have your own routes to the places you need to go, and time doesn’t always (or even usually) permit the kind of aimless wandering that leads you to new discoveries.

So when I was offered a review copy of Super Stitches Sewing (subtitled: A complete guide to machine-sewing and hand-stitching techniques), my thought was that it would be a great entry-level book to suggest to people just getting into sewing.

I wasn’t really wrong … I was just thinking too small. Super Stitches Sewing is a great book for people just getting into sewing, but it also revealed to me a huge blind spot of my own: turns out, I have been ignoring about 70% of what my sewing machine is capable of.

When I first started sewing, I used a machine that had a straight stitch and a zig-zag, and a buttonhole stitch that could charitably be described as “cantankerous”. My second machine was at about the same level of sophistication (albeit with a buttonhole stitch that could be described as “temperamental”). My third machine was a 1950s throwback (with cams that, while cool, I never really bothered to learn to use). So when I moved up to a brand-new machine that added a blind hem stitch to my repertoire, I patted myself on the back for joining the modern age. “Whoo-hoo, now we’re cooking with gas!” I believe I said.

As it turns, out there is SO much more I could be doing with the stitches on my machine (even leaving aside the alphabet-embroidery stuff that I’ve used exactly once). Machine darning! Sewing on buttons by machine! Shell stitching for scalloped piping! And pages and pages of stitches that might just be the key to me finally starting to sew with knits.

And I haven’t even mentioned the hand-sewing section yet … which even includes pad-stitching instructions for those of you interested in classic tailoring techniques.

So: in short, Super Stitches Sewing is a great book, highly recommended. Even if you’re a machine maestro, the simple instructions and clear illustrations make this worth keeping on hand as reference.

Book Review: Liberty: British Colour Pattern

Finally, Liberty: British Colour Pattern is available in the US! (Although not *immediately* available; Amazon is showing out-of-stock.)

picture via Liberty blog
picture via Liberty blog

I begged for a copy for Christmas and was duly gratified, but I held off blogging it until it was easier to get. (Of course if you’re in the UK/ROW, you can order it here.)

It’s truly a gorgeous book and includes plenty of pictures of similarly-gorgeous Liberty fabrics:

picture via the Liberty blog
picture via the Liberty blog

In my fevered Liberty dreams, they put out a book such as the “Swatch-Clopedia” that Swatch reseller Squiggly does — every fabric Liberty ever made, listed in all colorways. I don’t care if it cost $300, I would buy it.* And I would certainly buy a “Liberty Annual” … a magalog that listed all the fabrics produced in a year, in all colorways. Liberty fabrics marketing department, are you listening?

This book doesn’t really need a review. If you love Liberty fabrics, you will love this book. If you don’t love Liberty fabrics yet, this book will probably tip you over into loving Liberty fabrics. Either way, you should probably wishlist it now.

*especially if it were arranged by year, with an index by name, and indexes by designer, fiber, weave, and pattern type (small florals, large florals, novelty, geometrics …). Hey, a girl can dream!

Book Review: The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski

The Lost Art of Dress

 

So Basic Books sent me The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish months ago, and I read it immediately and thought it was awesome. And now it’s actually out in the world where you can read it, so I figured: review time!

The Lost Art of Dress is a history of (and paean to) the women who invented the field of home economics, and who taught hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of women how to dress beautifully, healthfully, economically, and practically during most of the twentieth century, only falling out of favor during the youthquake movement of the 1960s. Przybyszewski calls them the “Dress Doctors” and outlines how they used principles from art to guide women’s dress choices.

It’s a fascinating read, and whether or not you agree with the premise of the book (that women today are largely not stylish because they have abandoned these classic principles of color harmony, symmetry, and graceful line) it’s certain that you’ll enjoy the vast amount of largely forgotten and entirely charming advice the Dress Doctors gave their “patients.” For instance, women were advised that, when traveling, they should remain efficient and anonymous by choosing “no emotional colors, no revelatory designs, or fabrics, no temperamental hats or shoes.”

The most satisfying theme threaded through The Lost Art of Dress has got to be its debunking of the modern cult of youth fashion. Given that designers were only recently shamed into not letting children under sixteen walk their runways, it can be astonishing to remember that, pre-1960, all the good clothes were intended for mature audiences only. “The French say that all perfectly dressed women are over forty,” reported Women’s Home Companion in 1937. “That is because they know that a smart appearance is the result of study and experience.” Przybyszewski may hammer this point a little too hard for anyone under 30, but those of us past that don’t-trust-anyone-over age will nod and grimace by turns as we read advice on how to wear crepey textures in order to flatter crepey skin.

Przybyszewski does not shy away from strong statements, whether quotes from the Dress Doctors (who pointed out that if you wear fancy clothes for mundane errands, it’s likely those who see you will assume you have “no other place to wear fine clothes”) or her own observations that “the only creature that should be wearing bright yellow-green is a small poisonous tree frog living in the Amazon” and that “if you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet.”

If you love the styles of the first half of the last century and wonder why they were so lovely (and why so many modern clothes are not), you should read this book. If you are interested in the history of popular fashion as worn by ordinary people, you should read this book. And if you’re interested in some practical dress advice from the good Doctors, you’ll find that here, too.

Highly recommended!

A Very Dangerous and Worthwhile Book: Cool Tools

Trust me, you really want this book:
Cool Tools cover
It’s Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities, and it’s the book version of the Cool Tools blog, spearheaded by Kevin Kelly (who is all cool, all the time).

Why do you want this book in book-form? Because it contains 1500 personal reviews of cool tools. Not insert-your-favorite-online-store-here type reviews, but the kinds of reviews that only come from repeated, considered use of a tool. And the tools themselves? A cool tool is (as laid out on the very first page):

Anything useful
That increases learning
Empowers individuals
Does work that matters
Is either the best
Or the cheapest
Or is the only thing that works

The definition of “tool” is broad enough to include Goodwill Online Auctions (super-cool), Amazon’s almost-secret 1-800 customer service number, and an encyclopedia of Russian criminal prison tattoos (which I suppose could be a tool given the right chain of horrific circumstances).

I think you, Dear Reader, will want this book because it’s decidedly for makers (it’s not called “Cool Stuff,” after all). Every page will help you be a better maker (or just help you make your life better). What makes it dangerous is that it is also full of ideas … if you do not think of five new projects on every page, you are reading with your eyes closed. (The “Construction Materials” section nearly sent me into a projectgasm. Check out Strong-ties, which Kelly calls “he-man K’NEX”.) And don’t even get me started on the “Organizers” section … and I still found things I didn’t know about in categories (like Sewing) where I think I have a good grasp of the cool tools. (Did you know there is KEVLAR THREAD? Soon, my buttons will be BULLETPROOF.)

Why do you want this book, rather than just browsing through the blog? Because it’s HUGE — roughly 11 x 14. It’s the kind of book that demands that you sit on the sofa with someone else (preferably a kid) and chat about possible projects while you page through it together. (Protip: mark pages with post-its for easy recall later — there’s a good index, but post-its mean you don’t have to remember the name of whatever doohickey caught your fancy.)

So, grab this book when it comes back into stock (supposedly this week or next) and then go to town. (And send me links to your projects!)