Q&A for Dress A Day


I get questions, oh boy do I get questions, and I should really answer more of them here. Maybe not the ones that read "i need that fabric 4 my prom dress and its saturday can u help me pleeeeeeze !!!?!", but more of the ones that are thoughtful, such as this one from Lynn:

Your blog is fun to read – am totally obsessed with vintage and quirky attire, patterns, fabrics and such as you publish each day. And so I want to make something to wear more than once for Halloween. Yet, my 40 hour per week day job is working among engineering types who are usually the most dismally, drably dressed humans on the planet. (Exception: a few bridge geeks who love local thrift stores – and keeping their money!)

Yet, since I work here one could successfully argue that my tendencies are also towards introversion and I have plenty of drab-colored basics in my closet. I don’t want to stick out very much. And since I work I have time constraints.

How would you select sewing projects (I can do about 6 or 8 projects per year) that would not stick too far out from the baggy denim and jersey uniforms that surround me? A drab jersey wiggle dress? Or perhaps a brightly patterned skirt with a drab denim jacket?

Your assistance is hugely appreciated! Probably lots more sewing wannabes are in the same predicament.

First off, thank you, Lynn, for the kind words …

Secondly, I wouldn't underestimate your co-workers. Even if they don't want to wear bright colors and interesting prints themselves, they may certainly appreciate them on others — much in the same way that I wear completely boring jewelry myself, but am always drawn to people who are wearing interesting pieces. Remember also, that if they're men, their clothing choices are artificially constrained — not everyone is as dedicated to finding fun shirts as Francis.

But to answer your question, I can't answer your question. Only you can answer your question. And this is how you do it. Spend some time online on one of the sewing pattern sites — BurdaStyle, or Sewingpatterns.com — or in the fabric store, looking through the patterns. Make a list of EVERY pattern that catches your eye, everything that you like. Don't do any editing. If you like a wedding dress and you've been married for twenty years, still put it down. If you like some elaborate Issey Miyake outfit where the difficulty level is marked as 'For Issey Miyake Only', put it down. If you like a pair of gauchos, even, put it down. (I think this is better done online, because you can bookmark the pages or even save the images you like to your desktop.)

Once you've made your looooong list, then you can go through it. If you're a beginner, put aside the complicated tailored suits — just for now. Maybe put aside that wedding dress. (DEFINITELY put aside the gauchos.) But try to look for commonalities in the patterns you chose. Do they all have raglan sleeves? Do they all have full skirts? Did all the illustrations you really show the garment in purple fabric? Try to jot down any similarities you see in the patterns you liked. (My list would look something like 'midriff band, full skirt, kimono sleeve, yellow, gingham, peter pan collar', etc.) Look for patterns on your list that have most of the features that you like, and that are at your sewing level. (Then go check Pattern Review to see if other people liked it!)

Then go look at your closet. You can't make a whole new wardrobe in 6-8 pieces a year (and you should assume a 10% failure rate, so one piece will just flat-out not work, and one will only mostly work). What can you sew that will go with clothes you already love? (If you don't love any of your clothes, you might want to read this post.) If you have lots of print skirts and plain tops, maybe a coordinating easy jacket in a solid color? If you have lots of plain trousers, why not try a tailored skirt or a print blouse? If you can't figure out what will "fit" — try a stand-alone dress.

I feel sewing is the most rewarding when you're making something you love AND will wear, so your goal is to find that sweet spot where a pattern calls to you AND it will fit into your wardrobe.

And Lynn, I know you said you don't want to 'stand out,' but take a minute to decide what you want more: anonymity, or happiness. If you really love bright green and want to make a bright green dress, just do it! I think you'll be surprised at how positive people's reactions will be. I wear the craziest stuff — you've all seen it — and the worst reaction I've gotten has been something like "I'm glad you wore that, dear … so few people would." Mostly people say things like "I wish I could wear that." (To which I always reply, "Of course you can!")

If you really don't want to stand out, pick drab colors but patterns with interesting details — pockets, nifty collars, fun seam lines — most people will only see the color, not the design elements. Or try some stealth fun with color: bright pocket linings or hem facings. (Even my plain skirts have print pocket linings. Life's too short to not have pockets full of fun.)

I know I gave lip service to separates up above, but really — try a dress. I think you'll be surprised at how fun they are to wear (especially the Duro) and the sense of accomplishment you'll get from finishing one.

So, to sum up: figure out what really really appeals to YOU, and then make it. Then you can make it work, I promise. Happiness in your clothes is the best accessory.

And good luck!

[picture is one of my Flickr favorites, by alexanderdrachmann]

0 thoughts on “Q&A for Dress A Day

  1. This is totally great advice. I work with, of all things, academics. The guys in my department are terrible dressers –one guy wears, I kid you not, track suits to work about 30% of the time. When I started to sew again, I really wanted to make cool dresses and skirts and stuff that looks great with heels. So I just did it, and I wore them to work. Initially, people thought it was wierd (okay, the two that noticed did, I do not have the world’s most observant colleagues), but they eventually got used to it. And I get to feel great all the time. Totally worth it!


  2. Hi Erin,Thanks for the well-thought response. I bet this helps many, many people who want more spicy-and-useful apparel. So, looks like I’ll be searching for my sweet spot very soon!


  3. Were I in Lynn’s shoes, I might start out by going for a 1940’s Lady Engineer look. Serious, even a little severe, but stylish! If anyone makes a comment you could say you are channeling Minnie Von Stutzenhover, well-known WPA era bridge designer. (I made her up, but you know what I mean!) By the way, Erin, your advice : listing all patterns that speak to you and then searching them for commonalities, also works for visual artists who are trying to find their focus. Only instead of leafing through dress patterns the advice is to walk through a museum.


  4. I resent the implication that engineers are the most ‘dismally, drably dressed humans on the planet’. I married one 29 years ago and his wardrobe is anything but drab because I purchase all his clothing! If he gets dressed in the dark – well, that gets interesting!! But the problem isn’t that they are engineers – it is they are humans who were not taught a sense of style by mothers who were not taught a sense of style by …and so it goes. Everyone on this planet has similar problems except for those who stretch beyond the universe going where no one has dared go before! They are typically called designers and home seamstresses. Each of us needs to develop our own sense of style. But each of us also needs to develop the confidence to wear the style we choose. Wear color, wear vintage, wear the unusual, be bold, be brave! Wear what makes you happy! The only restraint is what is “appropriate” for your business world. There are days my hubby wears the power suit and days he wears slacks & a polo shirt (of which coral is his favorite color). There is never a day at the office jeans are appropriate and likewise a tuxedo (altho some evening affairs do require it). I guess there is one other restraint I would suggest. Don’t become the office sex kitten!! The guys will love it, the gals hate it & (behind your back–you) and you will definitely stand out for the wrong reason. So keep the see-thru; down to there, up to here for after hours. A shirt dress in kelly green with navy piping. A 40’s style button to the neck jacket with slim skirt with a row of pleats for the kick pleat topped with a subdued satin bow in navy blue wool (our county librarian pulled this one from a vintage store and she looked so professional and yet incredibly WOW)! Glen plaid made into slacks, skirt and jacket mix and match with blouses or sweaters. Do what Erin said and analyze yourself, then take action.I envy you, Erin. You have Vogue Fabrics near you – all I have is a major fabric chain store and NONE (sorry for shouting) of these fabrics are available. Chicago is such a mecca! Also, please forgive me if I’ve been inappropriate- it’s my first time and I have much to learn about computer talk. Thanks.


  5. Good advice! Maybe you’ve already sewn some favorites that fit and flatter. Why reinvent the wheel? Use those same patterns and make them again in brighter colors. Tag along with the bridge geeks on their next thrift store jaunt and find a shocking pink jacket or top to go with your drab grey skirt. As mentioned, kelly green looks fabulous with navy and works as a separate. Scarves are an easy (and cheap) way to add zip to dull colors and a great way to ease into uncharted color territory. Have fun! Maybe you’ll start a trend at the office and as style guru, you’ll be the one handing out the advice.


  6. [B]And Lynn, I know you said you don’t want to ‘stand out,’ but take a minute to decide what you want more: anonymity, or happiness. If you really love bright green and want to make a bright green dress, just do it![/B]Well, a good advice, but I guess you haven’t met the world of engineering?I am studying to be one and attend DTU (university in Denmark), it is big, and filled with male.. I stick enough out just being a normally looking woman. And when I show up in small heels, a skirt, shirt and a nice jacket, wich draws attention to my waist, I can FEEL the looks even more.It’s not that they stare or anything, but I get enough attention just being a girl.It’s difficult to explain, one must be there to fully understand (sounds stupid, I know).I’ve attended SDU (another university and with fewer engineers) and I didn’t have the same problems there.Rog


  7. I’ve been an engineer for almost 30yr. and I love to sew. I’ve found that now that I’m older, I have the confidence to be a girly-girl or wear more unusual clothing. but, to start, great colorful jacket always work. A black top, black pants an unusual jacket. Also, any jacket will make jeans look more professional. I also keep a pair of jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes in my desk drawer for those days when I wear a dress or skirt and need to go into the plant. I’ve had times in my work life where only suits were apropriate to times when jeans and tshirt were the only thing I wore.lI also like to wear unusual shoe, not heels, and wild socks.


  8. Wow, thank you for mentioning to plan a 10% fail rate. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that and I often get discouraged when I make a piece that I simply don’t end up liking and wearing. I just found your blog last night and I will be coming back. Currently I own my own local sewing and alterations business – I’m glad I can come here for creative inspiration considering my line of work has recently been limited to hems and replacing zippers : D


  9. Hey I was once employed as a specialist contractor by a Bank here in the UK. The standard uniform for eveyone was (and still is) charcoal, navy, beige and black. Having none of these pure colours in my wardrobe -and being a marketing rather than a banking type – I just turned up in my usual colourful garb. On Day 1 Security beamed at me and said, `Oh hello, you must work for our advertising agency’ (I didn’t, but clearly these were the most exotic and colourful creatures they saw on a day to day basis so I didn’t mind the comparison). No-one else said anything at all, but I could feel the eyes following me wherever I went. I held out – who wants to spend their salary on clothes they don’t like or want for a temp role – and interestingly over the weeks and months I was there something interesting began to happen. Other people started to introduce a bit of colour here and there with their navy, charcoal and blacks. No-one else ever came to work in a black 50’s style dress with orange, yellow and green fruit on it (it honestly looked better than it sounds) or indeed a short orange jacket, but overall we did begin to see a lot more bright flashes of green, purple and peacock blue. Just before I left I went to a meeting and there were actually four women wearing lipstick red jackets! So, maybe your colleagues just need someone else to go there first. Erin, thanks for your fab features – the international time zone means I’m at my pc well before you and I wait very (im)patiently for the next posting. It always brightens my day. Today you excelled yourself. I haven’t done any sewing at all for years -despite stockpiling patterns and fabrics – now I know how/where to start again. I’m just nipping off now to make something in navy.


  10. “Life’s too short to not have pockets full of fun.”Now that is the gospel truth. Fabulous post – full of intelligent and encouraging advice, all of which I agree with. Marvellous! xx


  11. I would also like to point out that, in addition to potentially being a lot of fun, dresses are very practical. No worrying about finding a clean top and bottom that look OK together–it’s all-in-one. Very time-efficient at 6:00 a.m., and much more fun than falling into the all-neutral trap in an effort to make sure your mix-and-matchables are foolproof enough.


  12. I worked as an admin type for 10 years in a laboratory environment, surrounded by scientists and engineers – a delightfully nerdy group, and not the snappiest dressers in the world.My work environment was far from dressy, but I always tried to wear my most flattering colors and did my best to look nice without overdoing it in general.Some of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received came from my co-workers. They were a bit shy and awkward about expressing it at times, but they definitely did notice and appreciate someone who wasn’t wearing a tie or a lab coat.Go for it. Be a breath of fresh air. Wear colors that flatter your skin and hair and eyes. You’ll feel great, and the people around you will feel better just because they’re looking at you.


  13. I loved your pattern search idea – to bookmark designs that catch your eye – even if you never plan on making the item, just to get a sense of what you like. Thanks.


  14. I love the pocket lining idea. I make my own pants and I always use a brightly-colored zipper for the fly-front zippers and sometimes a contrasting facing for the facing style pants. And I use a contrasting lining to the pants as well. No one sees them but me, but if I have to buy lining and zippers, who says they have to match? This weekend I will finish up my navy slacks, complete with kelly green zipper!And don’t forget about dressing up store-bought clothes. I bought a really cute short jacket from Banana Republic that had the most boring buttons I’ve ever seen. 1-inch wide boring buttons at that. I took that baby home and switched them out with a set of big vintage buttons I had. Boom! Whole new jacket!


  15. By the way, there are lots of really simple pants and skirt patterns out there. Find one, tweak it to fit, and then you’re on your way. I have a DKNY pants pattern that has a zipper up the back and a faced waist. It takes just over an hour to make them.


  16. Great advice! (My failure rate is around 50%, but hey.) That comment – “I’m glad you wore that, dear – so few people would” – that comment just made me laugh out aloud!


  17. The thrift stores are also great for buying fabric. I also find many vintage patterns-most uncut. I am a big fan of the sale rack; I believe that retail is for suckers. Finding your personal style is often hard because there are often clothes we like, but aren’t compatible with our bodies. I love, love, love early 60s slim sheaths with bolero jackets but with the DD girls I’m hoisting around, the lines I so adore would be ruined. Good thing I also admire 40s and 50s styles that are more forgigiving to an ample bust yet still show off a slim waist. I also don’t rely on friends/colleagues/family to tell me if something is really working or not. I will step out of a dressing room and find a well-put-together woman in her 50s or 60s and say “Hello, Dis-interested Stranger! What do you think?” Sometimes I get a strange look, but after the shock has worn off and has turned to amusement, I get some really honest answers and they can also give you a very good description of the back view!!Quilter’s fabrics are a good way to inject a little fun into your sewing. I like to make a skirt out of a few different patterns in the same color way of a designer’s collection. If the color is subtle, you can get away with pattern. I feel that you can go with crazy color and muted pattern or muted colors and crazy pattern without looking like a circus.


  18. That would have to be the best sewng advice or even advice for buying RTW that I’ve heard for ages. I’m also interested in the failure rate – mine is about that but I never considered it as being an OK level, thought everything had to work all the time!I haven’t been loving my sewing lately, but I think following this idea will help me get my groove back!


  19. I like reading all of these ideas about creating a wardrobe, as I have recently been working on the same thing obsessively. I didn’t have much time to sew for years and recently dove back into it. I am loving it, and getting very validated making new clothes that work well for me now. That was the hard part, what do I want to wear? NOT what is everyone else wearing, but what truly works for me? The fabulous thing about making your own clothes, besides the fact that nobody else will have the same thing, is that you have to know yourself! That’s the reason I sew, I figure, to learn more about me and express the unique qualities I have.


  20. I agree you can wear just about anything if you have the attitude. What works for me is to only wear one really piece at a time that might be considered “unusual”. A wild red printed dress, black shoes and bag, understated watch and jewely. Or black skirt and black sweater shell with shocking pink swing jacket. Tan shirt dress with 4lb. african multicolored bead necklace.-Shaun


  21. *sob*I had a lovely long post which has been EATEN!*sob*When I get a chance, I’ll re-write and repost it – a day late and a dollar short …


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