Handmade Wardrobe

Why I make my own clothes

My relationship with clothing has always been slightly problematic. As a small child I hated pants- even going so far as to declare loudly one day that I would never wear them again. It would be dresses only, forever. I’ve always been a stubborn person, and I kept my word on this pants thing for quite awhile, finally bending when the siren’s cry of loudly flowered stretch pants tickled my ear. I still remember a conversation with my childhood best friend, in the backseat of my mother’s station wagon, when she suggested I should maybe get some jeans. “I’ve got jeans,” I asserted. She gave me a sidelong glance. “You mean the pink ones?” Well, yeah.

I have always disliked shopping for clothes, a fact which could be guessed by anyone observant enough to notice that I had been wearing approximately the same outfit for ten years. Part of my problem with clothing is political. The culture of purchasing cheap disposable goods that were produced in bad conditions overseas has never felt quite right to me. And really, just thinking through the basic economics of a $20 shirt would likely make most people uncomfortable, which is why we have such a tendency in this culture to simply not think about it.

I also have an aesthetic issue with clothing. At the simplest level, ready to wear clothing never fits me properly- a problem I now know can mostly be blamed on my height (or lack thereof). Most women’s clothing is made for a person who stands 5’6”, and since I have relatively long legs for my size, the full three and a half inches that stands between me and ’average’ is missing from the length of my torso.

As an artist with some control-freak tendencies, I have also never relished ceding creative power over how I present myself in the world to impersonal big box companies. Clothing is firmly embedded in gender performance, which is another reason simply getting dressed in the morning can feel difficult. Even though I am cis and straight, performing femininity has always felt rather complicated to me; clothing stores are always filled with details that trigger the gut-wrenching soul crush that make me want to burn the place down. For example, the toxic cocktail of infantilism and sexualization that results in underwear for women being referred to as ‘panties’. And while we’re on the subject, what the hell is up with the tiny bows that seem to be on everything in the lingerie department?

In the Fall of 2016 I gave a talk at an academic conference, and I presented my paper wearing a gold motorcycle jacket and a skirt printed with bean plants. The skirt was something I found in a thrift store, but the jacket was lovingly crafted by me, in my own house, with my own two hands. And I felt such an enormous sense of pride and power standing in that room, presenting my research, wearing this glorious object that had originated in my mind and then manifested into reality through my own will.

That was when I decided to begin the process of converting my entire wardrobe into a handmade one. I want to feel that same feeling every single day; to feel a complete connection to my clothing, and allow it to become a meaningful part of my life. With each piece I construct, I learn new techniques, and get to engage in the kind of creative problem solving that gives me such a thrill. Along the way, I have also learned so many other things. Small things, like it is possible to have clothing that fits (even jeans! And underpants!), but also deeper lessons about myself.

In order to assist in my clothing making adventure, my husband helped me make a custom dress form from a plaster cast of my own body. This is extremely useful in fitting garments, but it has also allowed me to see my body outside of myself for the first time. As a sculptor, seeing a replica of my form in three dimensions has made a powerful impact on how I view myself. It has helped me gain more appreciation for the things I like about my body, such as the prominent collarbones that were a gift from my grandmother, and more tolerance for the things that previously annoyed me, such as my oddly low and narrow hips. Fitting clothing for my particular curves, rather than trying to force myself into clothing made for a ‘standard’ shape, has made me feel a great deal more forgiveness for myself. This does not feel like vanity, but more like a balm for the psychic wound of a lifetime of dealing with the same body image issues that most Americans face.

And I refuse to group this line of thinking with ‘self love’- that tired, worn out expression that tends to get trotted out in moments like this, and which seems to have more to do with treating oneself to manicures and mimosas than anything else. Earlier, I used the word ‘forgiveness’, but that is also incorrect. In the same way that people should not need to be told to ‘tolerate’ other people, we should all be able to APPRECIATE our bodies for what they are, as they are, in every moment.