as beautifully dressed as birds


DORA. Then, we are all to learn dress-making, are we?

OLD LECTURER. Yes; and always to dress yourselves beautifully—not finely, unless on occasion, but then very finely and beautifully too. Also you are to dress as many other people as you can; and to teach them how to dress if they don't know; and to consider every ill-dressed woman or child whom you see anywhere, as a personal disgrace; and to get at them, somehow, until everybody is as beautifully dressed as birds.

from John Ruskin, The Ethics of the Dust (1891)

Why doesn't Ruskin's "Old Lecturer" tell the girls to "get at" men, too? Why are ill-dressed men not a "personal disgrace" to them? Discuss.

Book Review: Sew What! Skirts


I'm being asked a lot now about how to learn to sew, and since my method, although ideal (get my mom to teach you) is somewhat impractical to recreate, I've been looking at gateway-drug, I mean introductory, sewing books.

Sew What! Skirts looked good from the get-go, and I wasn't disappointed.

It's not just that several of the skirts offer pockets (albeit simple patch ones), or that the idea is to learn fitting techniques that you can apply across multiple (patternless) skirts, or that rickrack features prominently. It's that I think that the authors (Francesca Denhartog & Carole Ann Camp) have figured out what motivates beginning sewists: it's the fabric, stupid.

Fabric is what draws folks in. It's the promise of taking that gorgeous yardage and draping it around oneself (or one's home) that leads people down the path towards the $7000 Bernina. And in every home-ec horror story I've ever heard, the indignity of having to make something useless has been compounded by the useless thing having to be done in boring, hideous, cheap fabric.

The fabrics shown in this book are, frankly, awesome. Beautiful patterns, lovely weaves; not a scratchy double-knit in the lot. The skirts are wearable, the instructions clear.

This is a very good book for beginners, in that it explains *everything*. The instructions stop just short of including "Inhale. Exhale." They also, bless them, allow for the possibility that you might screw up, and screw up badly. They advise you to leave extra seam allowances so that you can fix your mistakes, for example, and tell you to start with cotton, as it's easier.

Lately I've been feeling a bit guilty about some of my sewing cheerleading — I'm worried that I'm making it sound too easy, and that I've forgotten how hard it was for me to learn some techniques — things I could do backwards in a hailstorm now, but which occasioned many lonely hours with a seam ripper before. Part of that frustration was me being an impatient teenager, sure, but part also is just doing and doing and doing until you can feel when you have something right. This book has a little of the same cheerleading problem, but since it's at such a basic level, and advocating a do-your-own-thing, "it's not a flaw, it's an interesting design decision" attitude, I feel as if it's warranted. The only change I would have made would be to emphasize more the need for practice.

Sewing, I've come to realize, is a lot more like athletics than I'd like to admit. Despite having been, at one time or another, a cross-country runner (slowly), a college soccer player (ineptly, and inept in Div III at that), and a discus and shotput thrower (not very far, and not for very long), and despite my obsession with roller-skating, I think of myself as profoundly unathletic. So the realization that sewing, like other muscle-memory activities, is something that you just can't read a book on and be note-perfect at, was one that was slow to come to me. But, just as you don't have to train for a marathon to enjoy running for exercise (shudder), you don't have to practice couture techniques to make a perfectly lovely skirt. All you have to do is practice, period. Those practice runs are still exercise, even if they aren't marathons, and those practice garments are still wearable — and if you are patient and follow the instructions in this book, they'll be better than wearable.

So: this is a good book, especially for beginning sewers. Fabric is good. Experimentation is good. You (too) can be good. Take it to heart, and take your heart to the sewing machine.

Surgeon General's Warning

Kool fabric

This is terrible, terrible fabric. Seriously, it's just plain wrong. Usually I'm a connoisseur of the wrong (remind me to make my favorite bologna-and-baby-spinach on whole wheat sandwich for you sometime), but this is just a step too far. I cannot imagine a wholesome use for this fabric. (Or an evil one that would be worth the trouble.) Exclusively-branded cigarette girl outfit? Insincere "I know you can quit" quilt project? Reupholstering your donk?

Allison sent me this link so that she would not have to be alone in her eBay amazement. (Which reminds me: didn't there used to be a great "weird stuff on eBay" blog?) Right now there's just one bidder, and the seller estimates there's at least ten, and maybe THIRTY, yards of this fabric. So I'm sure you can work something out, but you SHOULDN'T. Please. Making something from this fabric is sure to be hazardous to your health, and has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Elegance *and* pockets!

Vogue 9399

Reader Elizabeth sent me a link to the Etsy store that has this pattern — it's called, unsurprisingly, patternshop. Some nice stuff, but what really caught my eye was this dress. I love the lines of it.

Despite the fact that I usually wear big ol' skirts and vintage-y details, I have a secret hidden Calvin-Kleinesque minimalist buried under the novelty prints, hoping someday to escape into something like this.

My inner minimalist wants this in gunmetal-gray textured silk (and she doesn't want the jacket, thanks for asking). She doesn't want the hat, either, or the corsage, but she might, possibly, maybe, after careful consideration, put some black silk piping at those shoulder seams and around the neck. Nowhere else. And of course, since this dress has pockets, she wouldn't carry a bag. She wouldn't wear an armful of bangles, either, but instead one large blackened-silver cuff, gorgeously grotesque and almost Giger-like in design. (I haven't figured out the shoes yet, but when I do, I'll let you know.)

Of course, since my inner minimalist almost never gets to come out, she'll continue to think about this dress while reading philosophy and listening to aleatory music in her cell, hidden behind the bolts of silly fabric. She doesn't mind. She likes the quiet.

Rant-tastic subject #143: "What to Wear on Airplanes"

juicy sweatpants

[Hint: it's not the above.]

For years, and I mean YEARS, of pretty much monthly travel, I've been boggled at what people decide is appropriate to wear on airplanes. Just absolutely boggled. The sweatpants and the stiletto mules (often on the same person), the jeans that are more holes than jeans (with matching holey t-shirts), the ratty flip-flops, the micro-minis. I could never figure it out, until last night, while waiting for the red-eye home to Chicago from SFO, I had a little epiphany, or perhaps a little interlude of sleep-deprivation. (So hard to tell the difference, really.)

My take is that people who wear clothes on airplanes that are better suited to washing a series of strangers' cars at $5/pop have essentially given up all hope that they will ever be the recipient of happy chance. They've decided serendipity is not for them, so they've forsaken the notion that perhaps one day they may need to make a good first impression on a stranger. (They've also decided that they don't ever need to be upgraded to business class, never mind first.)

Me, I won't get on a plane in anything less than I would wear to a business-casual meeting. Usually a skirt + cardigan, mostly a skirt + comfy jacket. At least two pockets are essential, so I don't have to keep digging in my bag for ID & boarding pass. Flat shoes that slip on and off easily are a must, so that I can play my walk-through role in the TSA's security theater with aplomb. (The next time I'm behind someone in strappy, multi-buckle gladiator sandals, though, I'm tossing THEM to the lions.) If I'm flying on Saturday, *maybe* I will wear sneakers, but they're nice one, not the ones I use for mowing the lawn.

This way, if I end up sitting next to someone interesting, I don't have to shout over what my clothes are saying. Last night I saw clothes that said "I model for Frederick's of Hollywood, Lamé Division"; clothes that said "my favorite Saturday morning cartoon and a bowl of chocolate-frosted sugar bombs are what I REALLY need right now"; and clothes that said "I can change the oil in my car — and recently have." None of those clothes said "Take me seriously, please."

I'm not against comfort — notice I said "flat shoes, comfy jacket" and I wear t-shirts, for sure, not fussy silk blouses — but there's a line between 'comfortable' and 'raggedy-ass lazy' and the airport is not the place to cross that line. An airplane is a confined space, and, like any confined space, demands MORE civility and regard for others, not less.

So, please: no more flip-flops (and if you do wear flip-flops, please try to keep track of them, so that we aren't all held up on deplaning by you searching under three rows of seats for your left one). Try for clothes that have structural integrity; turbulence can be rough, you know? And I know they sell perfume (cheap, too!) in the airport, but that doesn't mean you get to try on five different ones before you board.

Before you leave for the airport, look at yourself in the mirror, and think: Could I meet and IMPRESS someone who would change my life while wearing this? And if the answer is "No," change. And add a sweater: those planes can get cold.

the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la

Vogue 1017

This, I'm afraid, is another tiny-busted wonder (pay no attention to the endowment of the illustrated women, only to the measurement on the envelope). It's from eBay seller oncillakat, who seems to have a lot of fun stuff up right now.

This caught my eye, though, for the repeated petal motif. If I were to make this dress (which I'm not, because, well, it's not my size) I'd go way over the top with it. I'd make it in pale green satin and cover the whole thing with intricate Callot Soeurs-type silk ribbon embroidery. Tiny flowers, or some such. You know what I mean. I'd have a horizontal vine motif running through the midriff band, too. Maybe even with beads — and I don't usually wear beaded things, so you know I'm serious, here.

Another wonderful way to play up the tulip skirt would be to embroider it as if it were an actual variegated tulip. Imagine this kind of coloring on that skirt, done in satin-stitch embroidery, or, better yet, bugle beads!

Sheila Steele tulip

[tulip picture by Sheila Steele.]

Of course, since I don't do silk ribbon embroidery, or beading, or, even satin, really, this dress remains purely notional. But if YOU do all the above, please, feel free to take this idea (and buy this pattern) and run with it. Just send me a jpg, 'kay?

Decisions, (hypothetical) Decisions

It's a toss-up, really as to which of these two patterns I crave more. Do I want the little wingéd sleeves and gorgeous shirred bodice of this number:

McCalls 9379

Or do I want the dramatic deep banded vee of this one?

McCalls 9427

It is, alas, purely an academic question, as they are both B30, and despite having saved links to online that explains how to grade patterns, I don't actually do so. So I've just put out some feelers … these have to have been made in other sizes, at some point, right?

Thanks to Rachel for the link — click on the images to go to the Etsy site for fourlittlesparrows. She's got some other nice patterns listed, too … and they're VERY reasonable. I think these are eight bucks.

Also, a couple people asked me about the fabric for the dress I wore yesterday at Tools of Change. It's this, which I thought I had posted about before, but sadly can't find the entry for now.

Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well

Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well

Since I'm talking at O'Reilly's Tools of Change for Publishing conference today (I'm the last speaker), I figured I should post something book-related … so I went back to the Google Book Search well, and found this gem:

She was very simply dressed; nothing of the grande dame, en toilette de soir, about her as she received her friends. Her dark-colored gown was high nearly to the neck, with sleeves reaching to the elbow, a single row of beautiful lace falling back from the statuesque throat, and over the shapely arms. A rich cream "rose de Provence" was her only ornament. She looked dark and shadowy, yet brilliant, —with that soft brilliancy with which the flowers gleam, as they nestle in their dark-green foliage, beneath the moonlight of an Eastern night.

It's from Sorry Her Lot Who Loves Too Well by Maria Grant (1879) and I think I may have to download it and read the whole thing, just so I can understand this line:

Donna has been a Gentianella (I will not have her called a bluestocking) for years; and she could tell you astonishing things! Why, she is regularly scientific!

What's a Gentianella, that it would be contrasted with bluestocking?

The title of the book is from HMS Pinafore, btw, which I didn't know until I googled it (I'm a Penzance person, myself). And the image is from Nineteenth-Century Fashions: A Compendium. Go forth and explore.

On the Watch List

Butterick 5156

Another Erin (aka sent me this image, of a pattern she bought recently. Isn't this just too glorious?

When I find this in my size, this will form the basis for my steampunk/yesterday's-tomorrows spaceship captainatrix costume. I'll make it in two-tone gray with a red tie, and pair it with a jaunty hat and white gloves (with gauntlets). My all-female crew and I will pilot our space dirigible, the Jean Batten, calmly and effortlessly on the trans-Venusian run, with resupply stops at Moonbase Delta.

And when the Jovians finally go beyond just saber-rattling and actually make a military play for control of the asteroid belt, it'll be me and my gals who will, armed with very, very shiny ray guns, force them back into their atmosphere.

But first, of course, I have to find this in my size …

Questions for, and Answers from, Meg Cabot

ebay item 8305987417

So recently I was offered a chance to read & review Queen of Babble, by Meg Cabot. Somehow (probably due to living under a rock, or at least below grade for the past decade) I managed to miss the phenomenon that is Meg Cabot, but I'm clued in now, and will probably be wolfing down her other books in short order, as I enjoyed Queen of Babble immensely.

As part of the publicity-industrial complex, I've also been given the opportunity to ask Meg some questions (on your behalf, dear readers) — here they are, with her answers. Doesn't Meg sound like someone you'd love to go vintage shopping with?

Q. I love Lizzie's clothes in the book, especially the Lilly Pulitzer bathing suit and the Anne Fogarty linen dress. Are they based on real dresses you've had (or wished you had)?

First of all…love your site! It’s so adorable.

Okay, in answer to your question…I have a dear friend who is nuts for anything Lilly and I have to admit, she has passed the addiction on to me. I live in Key West, Florida, though, so everything is Lilly all the time here. My poor friend lives in Indiana and has to restrict her Lilly wearing to summer only, or she’d freeze to death. I do have about five Lilly bathing suits.

The Anne Fogarty dress was pure lust … I saw it online and fell in love with (it was way too small for me) but since my character worked in a vintage shop, I figured it was possible she could have snagged one like it at a discount in her own size at some point.

Q. Can you tell me a story about a dress that "got away"?

Oh! Well, yes, my mom’s prom dress. It wasn’t designer–she made it herself, my mom’s a fantastic seamstress–but I’ve seen photos, and it was this gorgeous off-the-shoulder pale blue chiffon number with a full skirt and crinoline, and pretty fake flowers between the boobs.

When I asked her what happened to it, she just shrugged like, “Why would I keep my old prom dress?” I have ALL my old prom dresses … and I didn’t even MAKE them! UGH! I still get depressed when I think about it. She gave it to Goodwill or something. Some lucky girl out there has my mom’s now vintage gorgeous handmade prom dress.

Q. What are you obsessed with, clothing-wise?

Jeans. I have yet to find a pair of jeans that actually look good on me. And I am 40. It’s so sad. I know I should just give up but I can’t. They have to be out there somewhere, right? But they all look terrible on me. Bootcut, stretch, you name it. But sometimes you just CAN’T wear a skirt [When? — Ed.], and khakis, slacks, and cords look even worse on me. Don’t even talk to me about leggings. I’m just not a “pants” person.

Oh, great looking jeans…where are you????

Q. In the book, Lizzie dislikes low-rise jeans (and I don't blame her). If you could make one fashion-y thing disappear from the earth tomorrow, what would it be?

Anything with a designer’s name on it in large letters. Really, my hatred for all things Juicy borders on the pathological. I don’t mind if, for instance, Diane von Furstenberg is written in small writing subtly somewhere in the print of a dress, or the word Prada is on a buckle.

But I will not buy anything Juicy, or a Louis Vuitton bag with LV all over it, or Gucci or Chanel sunglasses with the giant G or CC (well, okay, not that I would buy these things anyway because they’re too expensive, but let’s say I was going to splurge) or even a scarf by these designers because the brand logo is so huge on them, it’s like you’re a walking advertisement for a product!

Okay, sorry, I just ranted. But you asked! I have to go drink some water to calm down now.

Q. I am always looking for an excuse to use the word 'bathos.' Were there any words you wanted to use in the book that you couldn't work in? Do you have favorite words in general?

Okay, back. Wow, bathos is good. I don’t think I’ve ever used that in a sentence (true confession: I had to go look it up). That is quite a word!

I can’t think of any favorite words. I guess I like them all. But “princess” has always had a tendency to leap out at me — also “queen”…! I can’t think why… 😉

Q. I loved Lizzie's "reading" of Luke's clothes on the train. Do you do a similar party trick?

I’m not as good at it as Lizzie! She can do it on the spot and it probably took me multiple days to write that scene. Plus Lizzie doesn’t misjudge people based on their clothes, and I do. I made the BIG mistake of judging my husband by how he was dressed at the party where I met him. I instantly dismissed him as a boring preppy (he does dress preppy … but he’s not boring, and he is actually a rebel at heart).

Years later I met him again and realized my mistake. If you had told me that day that I’d end up married to him, I’d never have believed you (also, I probably would have killed myself … but then I was sixteen and a bit drama-prone)! But it’s probably just as well since I got to kiss all those frogs in between before finding my handsome prince (he would totally throw up if he saw I wrote that) ….

Q. Lizzie lost 30 pounds in three months before the book begins. How realistic do you think that is?

Well, with Atkins and daily aerobic exercise it’s possible, but of course in the sequel out at the end of this month, Queen of Babble in the Big City, Lizzie has gained it all back as she begins to eat normally again (actually, she gains a lot of it back in France, as soon as she starts eating bread). Hmmm. French bread.

Oh, sorry. I got distracted.

I actually lost that much weight that fast myself on Atkins once. But, like Lizzie, promptly put 20 pounds back on. But bread is so worth it.

And, like Lizzie, I find you can always wear Spanx to squeeze into those special somethings (and let out the waist a little).

Q. Was there a dress you wanted to work into the story, but couldn't?

Ha! That’s what sequels are for!

Actually, in Queen of Babble in the Big City, Lizzie gets a job as a vintage wedding gown restorer in New York City, so I was able to squeeze in tons more dresses for her (and wedding gowns). And I’m working on the third and final book in the series, which will be out next year, Queen of Babble Gets H
, in which, as the title suggest, Lizzie plans her own wedding … so there’s lots more “research” to do. If you can call it research when you get to spend all day looking up vintage dresses and wedding gowns online! It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it!

Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed on your site! It was really fun!