Clothes with Character

clothes with character
I am addicted to old home economics textbooks. I love the calm, matter-of-fact voice in which the authors tell you that "Very glossy satins, and harsh tweeds are unbecoming to the mature figure and to the person whose complexion has lost the vitality of youth" or ask you to fill out a quiz to determine if you are an "all-around girl: sincere, wholesome, charming" or a "coquette: flattering, petite, scatterbrained."

Recently I checked a copy of Clothes with Character out of the library (published by DC Heath in 1946, written by Hazel Thompson Craig and Ola Day Rush — home ec textbooks are always written by women with three names, for some reason, maybe to indicate that they are married and thus not just academic home-ec experts, but practical ones as well?)

Here is an excerpt I found wonderful:

What to Look For When You Buy a Dress

Before you buy a new dress

  • Study the current fashion magazines, newspaper sketches, and make several tours of the better shops and shop windows to see what is being shown.
  • Take an inventory of your wardrobe on hand to find out your most essential purchase.
  • Decide upon color, general lines, kind of material and size. Do not accept a substitute.
  • If you choose a printed material, moisten your finger and rub it over the hem to see if the color is permanent. Many prints fade and become ugly under the arm and across the shoulder.
  • If you choose a wash dress look for a color-fast and shrinkage label.
  • See that all pieces are cut the right way of goods to avoid constant twisting.
  • Move your arms and make sure the back is full enough.
  • Sit down and make sure the skirt is full enough.
  • For additional points in buying a dress study illustration 59.

from Clothes with Character, p. 222.

What I like best about this list is the professionalism of it. "Study" the fashion illustrations! Follow this checklist! Being a well-dressed woman is work, not play, and don't you forget it!

Stripes done right.

striped sundress

I love this dress from Shrimpton Couture. The matching of the stripes is just perfect, and the way they narrow to a point at the center front is sure to emphasize a slender waist (or create one).

It's 36B and $145 … I have to say that I think that's worth it, just because every time I have to match stripes this way, I end up a bedraggled mess, hair on end, the air around me blue with cursing (and I have convenient access to large dictionaries of slang, so it's not just your run-of-the-mill swear words being bandied about, I have to tell you), seam ripper tightly clenched in my fist … I'm surprised anyone who touches a dress that I've had to match stripes on doesn't get an electric shock.

There are more pictures at the site; go click the image to visit them.

More polka-dots!

tikiboutique halter

Okay, work with me here. Imagine this dress being worn by someone who hadn't been able to talk/bribe/threaten her plastic surgeon into giving her ginormous implants. Concentrate instead on the enormous polka dots (I know, I know, they don't look so large next to those other unnaturally round objects, but try). Think about the cute border along the hem, and the pockets.

In fact, the pockets are so great that the description calls them "most sexy and unique"! Too bad the rest of the description is incoherent, saying the dress has an "empire drop waist" (a contradiction in terms) and is "perfect for ant occasion" by which I suppose they mean picnics, although that sounds more like a crossword clue than anything else. I pass over the apostrophe and capitalization problems as being unworthy of our time. (Why, oh why do these sites not hire copyeditors? I know plenty who would work for free clothes!)

It's only $58, and sized small-medium-large. (Large is a 38 bust, 34 waist.) Click on the image to visit the site. There are a couple other cute halters and goddessy gowns, but they're interspersed with dresses only useful to people auditioning for the role of "pole girl #3" in a rap video. (They also have the worst Duro version I've seen yet.)

Oh, did I mention this is from Or did the GIANT PHOTO WATERMARK give it away? (To be fair, there was one unmarked photo, but the model's implants are so freakishly disturbing in it I didn't want to post it. When did they develop antigrav silicone, and why didn't anyone tell me?)

By the way, please don't click on this, unless you have something to scrub your eyeballs with after — just the words "party halter gaucho jumpsuit" should be enough to give you nightmares for quite some time. (They did me.) See what I go through to bring you cute cheap dresses?

Okay, here are the cards.

size card

That's what they say on the front; there's also a back template that says "Confused by this card? Visit". I'll put up a little explanation about it in the next couple days.

You can download the front here, and the back here. They're both PDF files.

You can use this template with most Avery brand business cards but don't get the "clean edge" versions as those do not print front and back. (Remember, to print front and back, you have to turn the sheet over and run it through again …)

Sorry I wasn't able to make these in Hebrew, as one commenter asked. (Although anyone can download the template from the Avery site.)

I spent a little time last night looking for citations about the average size of the American woman, retail information, etc. This article was the most easily accessible online and had the clearest citations for some of the most-repeated pieces of information, such as "Since 1985, the average American woman has grown from a size 8 to a size 14!” It's not a feminist-theory publication, either — it's a marketing trends report from USC.

I also found some fairly off-putting stuff, like two Rocky Mountain News columnists (talking about a law in Argentina requiring stores to stock a full range of sizes) saying "Those empanada-chomping suburban women will get no sympathy from size-zero supermodels."

And how about "It's hard enough to produce regular sizes well, without being compelled to cut for people who often do not have the discretionary income to buy my products anyway," left in the comments here? There seems to be a logical disconnect: if so many women are over a size 14, they can't all be poor … in fact, the CIA World Factbook says only 12% of Americans are below the poverty line. And although women are disproportionately poor, not every plus-size woman is. (The ones I know are desperate to buy stylish clothes that fit!)

The last thing I want this to be, though, is a sneering war between the larger and the smaller (I got a couple of "friendly" emails assuming that must be plus-size for caring about this and telling me that if I just lost weight, I could shop in "regular" again. Well, not exactly — I wear between an 8 and a 12, depending on the store, so most stores stock sizes I could theoretically wear. It's just that I've got almost a ten-inch differential between my waist and my hips, plus I'm short-waisted, which are both hard to fit. If I lost weight, I would have the same problem, only between sizes 6 and 10 and not 8 and 12.)

I know it can be just as hard for people on the 0-2 end of the spectrum to find clothes, plus there's not as much sympathy. ("You're so skinny, you can wear anything!" Well, no — not if the chest gapes, the sleeves billow, and the waistband falls off your hips!) And god forbid you are bigger than a C-cup and a small size. You might as well write away for the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog and be done with it.

So write your size (whether it's larger or smaller than what's in the store) on the back of the card if you use them. If you would have bought a particular thing, write something like "blue sundress, $100" too. Make it as real as possible. Turn that vague size-14 statistic into real money, and show them that money walking out of the store. The stores won't know that they're not serving your needs unless you tell them.

Fiji Dress from Modaspia

ebay item 8305987417

What do I like best about this dress? I can't decide whether it's that it's made of men's shirting (wonderful fabric, very smooth and light), or whether it's the bias contrast trim, or whether it's the pockets.

I think it has to be the pockets. I swear, I think I'm going to take a day and just make a hundred pockets like these in scrap material until I can do them hung upside down and blindfolded in a hurricane, and then I will be able to put them into everything I sew from that point on. They're so sleek and cute and just plain handy …

This dress is $95 at modaspia (click on the image to go to their site). The only downside is that it's not available any larger than a size 10. I asked one of the designers about that, and she told me that they used to make bigger sizes, but wholesalers and boutiques wouldn't buy them! Grrr.

So I was thinking about making a little downloadable business card, a pdf that you could print out on those Avery tear-apart business card forms, which would read something like "You'd be looking at a credit card instead of this card if your store carried anything in my size." Then you could hand it to the sales staff or just leave it on the counter. What do you think? What should the wording be? Leave your input in the comments, please!

The Retro Butterick Wrap Dress

Remember the retro Butterick wrap dress? C'mon, I know you do. Well, Villain Extraordinaire actually made one, and here it is:

retro Butterick 4790

Isn't it adorable? I love the red and the red-orange print together. My only quibble is that she didn't solve the no-pockets problem (so that I could be lazy and just copy whatever she did). I guess that's why she's a Villain Extraordinaire … her evil plan is to make me actually think. Dammit.

I'm now even MORE hepped up about doing this dress, pockets or no pockets. I have some yellow polka dot fabric that keeps falling off the shelf RIGHT ONTO THIS PATTERN, which is on top of the cutting table. I think it's trying to tell me something.

Twister skirt redux!

ebay item 8437076565

All right, all y'all who had such nice things to say about my Twister skirt, now's your chance to buy something similar! Or to mutter excuses like "I've already spent my eBay budget this month" or "polka-dot isn't really my color" or "it's not my size, so sad!"

Note — I didn't make this one, it's vintage. I'm not the seller, although I admit to feeling a strong sense of kinship with anyone who likes multicolored polka dots!

Bidding starts at $19.99 and the auction ends Tuesday the 27th of June. Waist is 26". Click on the image to visit the auction, and if you win it, thank Lisa, who sent me the link. And then let's figure out when we'll both be in NYC so we can go roller-skating together in our polka-dot glory.

and the winner for "best use of border" is …

ebay item 8434970686

I'm beginning to suspect that some eBay sellers have cracked the secret of time travel and are just holding out on the poor physicists while they grab the good stuff — this would also explain why occasionally stuff goes missing RIGHT OUT OF MY CLOSET without my even touching it. When you have eliminated all possible explanations, as they say, you must turn to the impossible.

Anyway, Traven7 has this listed (and it's already past $150 with a couple days left in the auction, click on the image to go take a look) and isn't it one of the loveliest uses of a border you've ever seen? I am SO stealing this idea. I feel an actual, physical, visceral pleasure when I look at this dress, and my hands are itching to try this myself. I'm going to be looking at some patterns in a new way — how can I lay out the fabric so the border is on the vertical, and not the horizontal? I want to try this in contrast, rather than tone-on-tone, so that it really shouts. Also, doing this means you don't have to do a placket! Oh, glory.

So thanks are due, not only to Ruby who sent me the link, and to Traven7 for going back in time to get it and listing it, but also to whichever inspired designer turned an ordinary border design on its head, so to speak.

pretty and good

Klint dress

Henriette in Denmark sent me this lovely dress from Rigetta Klint (click on the image to visit the website. Warning, the site plays music; really nice ambient music, but music nonetheless).

It's based on the traditional dress of Zanzibar, the kanga. The dress can be wrapped and worn a number of different ways, and Klint says:

On the design side it is immediately obvious to extend the idea of the kanga and produce an item of multifunctional clothing, i.e., an article that can be used as a skirt, top or dress according to need, and it's just as obvious not to cut up the beautiful textile more than necessary.

The dresses are produced in Zanzibar, and, in addition, 100 kroner (About US$15) from the sale of each dress goes directly to the women's cooperative on Zanzibar; they are using it to build a store to sell children's clothing to the tourists who visit there.

I am always in favor of clothing manufactured by women who maintain control over their working conditions and who share in the profits of their labor–especially when the clothing is as lovely as this.

I can't figure out a price or sizing information (even though the site is actually in English!), but if you're interested you can email — if you do, leave a comment and let the rest of us know!

return of the scarves

ebay item 6286276688 McCalls 6732

All right, who went and seeded eBay with all these scarf-neck dresses? It's not going to work, you know — especially if you persist in not listing them in my size. This one is $4.75, and B39. I'm way too lazy to grade down from that size. You'll have to do better than that!

Isn't it cute, though? I think this is a perfect summer office dress. Maybe in voile, maybe in a lightweight silk. Adorable in cream and white seersucker; commanding in black handkerchief linen. I'd make the A-line skirt version (and get rid of that front seam), add pockets, and boom! I bet I could make three or four of these in short order, and wear them until they fell apart.

The seller does what I wish every pattern seller would do: she scans the back, so you can see the pattern pieces and the fabric requirements. Heaven.

She also has this listed:

simplicity 3757

A bit fancier (and still B39). I like this one too, although I'm pretty sure the one in the slim skirt is actually an android. Not that there's anything wrong with that.