Category Archives: history

The Orientalist Dress

Thanks for the positive responses on the sew-along, people! The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won TWO golden globes last night, so now you HAVE to see it, am I right? I will be posting in upcoming weeks with pattern ideas, and some giveaways, but for now, just comment on the original post if you are interested!

The thing about being interested in sewing and textile, once your friends know about it, is sometimes you become, like, that person, you know what I mean? You are someone’s sewing friend. This is often fantastic, because people give you fabric (thank you, friends!) and sewing supplies, and send you cool articles about textile and stuff. Sometimes this is not as fantastic, like when people think you are their new free tailor and bring you broken zippers to mend. And sometimes it can sort of, well, be a little ambivalent when you are moving out of New York and the Met has a huge textile show and everyone suggests it as a fun friend activity and you end up seeing China through the Looking Glass THREE fricking times even though, from a curatorial standpoint, it was worth one.

But, hey, I mean, I got to know this bowler hat really well, soooooooo, win some, lose some.

Whatever my issues with this exhibit, which, while interesting, did not achieve any of the depth or breadth of knowledge OR commentary that, say, Interwoven Globe or Global Fashion Capitals did (am I a museum exhibit snob? OBVIOUSLY. What, this your first time here?) I can’t say it didn’t stick to my consciousness, especially living here in India, the land of fabric, where the idea of clothing and textile exchange has been reflected and refracted and remade and reused and absorbed and rediscovered and rejected. The sari is a political garment, don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t, and the clothing that people, women, really, wear here in India has a moral and social consequence. One could, of course, argue that this is the case everywhere, but I have yet to visit a place where it is so visible, so much a part of daily life, and yet so rarely discussed. Indian women know what to wear in which location, what keeps them safe, of course, nothing really keeps anyone safe, in the end, but perhaps what gives the illusion of safety, of appropriateness, of invisibility, which is of course the only safety any of us can try and bank on, that if we are not seen we will not be hurt. Adding the layer of physical security on top of layers of history only makes textile and clothing here all the heavier, despite the lighter weaves.

There are a thousand and one opinions about appropriation in art, but I would argue that when it comes to clothing, the history of the world can be written in a garment, and often is. Global garments stretch far back into history, and perhaps there are those who see me, in my ikat fit and flair dresses, stitching up block printed fabrics into 1950’s patterns, as an appropriator of the worst kind, but I would say it’s homage, not theft. Of course, Picasso tells us, “Bad artists copy, good artists steal”, but maybe that’s the problem, there, maybe if we acknowledge that we are borrowers, and lenders, the accusation of theft and desecration wont hang so heavy over art and art making. Polonius gave a lot of bad advice as well as good, perhaps we should throw that one away, and make things that proudly say, I borrow from here, I’m using this, but I promise I’m not the only one, you can have it back when I’m done, or better yet, there is more than enough to share. Is culture a finite resource? I hope not. I might be using up too much.

When I saw Colette Pattern’s new pattern release, Prudence, I couldn’t help but think both of China Through the Looking Glass (I mean, see a think THREE TIMES it’s going to live in you, you know what I mean?) as well as much smaller but lovingly curated show at MOCA, Shanghai Glamour. I have always loved the way a qipao, or cheongsam, looks, but have never worn one, partially through a fear that I would be a little appropriative or costumey, and partially because I hadn’t found one that worked with my, er, frame. This show, Shanghai Glamour, in fact demonstrates part of my very point, which is, that the qipao as it exists today is an amalgamation of East and West, it is history in a garment, it represents a traditional shape that has been altered through Western-influenced tailoring to create a unique garment that evolved and changed over time. Take a look at Suzy Wong:

 

Chinese silk, traditional idea, with a bullet bra and darts for days. Nothing we do is new, is it?

Back to Colette. The dress reminded me both of the qipao, hey, we call it a MANDARIN collar for a reason, remember, and also 1940’s Western styles echoing Chinese influence in Western shapes:

 

 

And I knew I had to have it. And I love it, I do, because somehow the confluence of vintage glamour and Asian influence just, sort of, I don’t know, speaks to my life, I guess?

I mean, I also just think it looks great, let’s be real.

I cut a size 12 in Colette, tapering down to a 10 at the waist. The result is slightly loose at the waist, but still a nice amount of definition, for that sweet spot of, I look nice and I can eat. Both vitally important things!

The bust is generous in this pattern because of the shape, so I didn’t have make adjustments, which is always nice.

I made a few changes, most notably moving the zipper to the back, which has resulted in a slightly tighter neck, which puts a bit of a strain on that cute little button there, I must say. This is 100% my bad, I didn’t add any extra seam allowance so…that’s on me. It’s still really lovely and comfortable, but for next time, I’m thinking of going with a shorter flared skirt, I will totally add a little breathing room. I made a thread loop for the fastener, that’s always fun!

All in all, this puppy got a lot of hand sewing, part of my vow to try and take a bit more time with stuff. I stitched down all the facings by hand, as recommended, as well as hand picking the zipper and hand stitching the hem. Otherwise, it’s all french seamed, natch. It’s kind of nice to take the time to hand sew, I guess? I don’t know, I suppose it’s a little soothing. You can see I used a non-matching zipper in this photo, it usually is hidden, ah well.

The fabric, you might note, is also vaguely Chinese influenced, look at that butterfly!, but it’s a rayon I bought at Mangaldas Market. It has a nice drape, and didn’t break the bank, which is good because this dress eats up a nice amount of fabric.

It’s all the skirt, though, and why does the skirt need so many panels, I ask you? It has, like, 6, I did so many french seams, what’s that about? I feel like a straight piece of fabric could have gotten that done, just saying.

Well, I supposed that’s all I’ve got to say about this process. I am a big fan of this dress, and I will make another soon with a shorter skirt.

So I leave you with this photo, which I like:

And this quote from Rushdie, who I love, from the only book he’s written that I really disliked, but the quote is good, so I can let it go:

“Disorientation is loss of the East. Ask any navigator: the east is what you sail by. Lose the east and you lose your bearings, your certainties, your knowledge of what is and what may be, perhaps even your life. Where was that star you followed to the manger? That’s right. The east orients.

That’s the official version. The language says so, and you should never argue with the language.

But let’s just suppose. What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on – what if it’s all a scam? What if all of it – home, kinship, the whole enchilada – is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your real life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut your ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! To lead the life nobody tells you how to live, or when, or why. In which nobody orders you to go forth or die for them, or for god, or comes to get you because you broke one of the rules, or because you’re one of those people who are, for reasons which unfortunately you can’t be given, simply not allowed. Suppose you’ve got to go through the feeling of being lost, into the chaos and beyond; you’ve got to accept the loneliness, the wild panic of losing your moorings, the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air.

You won’t do it. Most of you won’t do it. The world’s head laundry is pretty good at washing brains: Don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door don’t step into that waterfall don’t take that chance don’t step across that line don’t ruffle my sensitivities I’m warning you now don’t make me mad you’re doing it you are making me mad. You won’t have a chance you haven’t got a prayer you’re finished you’re history you’re less than nothing, you’re dead to me, dead to your whole family your nation your race, everything you ought to love more than life and listen to like your master’s voice and follow blindly and bow down before and worship and obey; you’re dead, you hear me, forget about it, you stupid bastard, I don’t even know your name.

But just imagine you did it. You stepped off the edge of the earth, or through the fatal waterfall, and there it was: the magic valley at the end of the universe, the blessed kingdom of the air. Great music everywhere. You breathe the music, in and out, it’s your element now. It feels better than “belonging” in your lungs.”

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Filed under Clothing, Colette Patterns, history, Sewing, Vintage

Fashion of Port Cities: Textile and Cultural Exchange at the Asian Civilizations Museum

While there are many who fear the other, I choose not to, and I am happy to be celebrating diversity, historic and current. I am of the opinion that cultural exchange leads to innovation and development, and if you feel otherwise, please go away. I am sure that if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time you probably knew that about me all ready, but just putting it out there into the universe. If, however, you like me are fascinated with cultural exchange and moments of intersection and the way they give birth to new things, specifically in the textile and clothing space, I think you will enjoy hearing about and seeing some of the objects from a current exhibit on Port Cities at the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore!

On my recent trip to Singapore, I had to break my normal Singapore rule. You see, there is nothing really to do in Singapore in my opinion. Now, of course, some people think there is a lot to do in Singapore, so I should really change that statement to there is nothing much for ME to do in Singapore, but semantics. Singapore is great, but I find it rather boring, and What’s-his-face and I realized that we need to ration our Singapore activities, because we visit the country frequently and given that I don’t think there is much to do, if we do it all at once, what will we do NEXT time? If we don’t limit ourselves to one museum a trip, we will be out of museums in no time! But we were with others, and we needed activities, so we had to break our rule and on this trip I saw the botanical gardens, the bird park, the National Museum and the Asian Civilizations Museum. Oy. I’m sorry, future Leah. I screw you a bit.

But at least the Asian Civilizations Museum has temporary exhibits, like this one exploring the many mixed communities of port cities in Southeast Asia. And given that this area is a textile-rich region, you just KNOW that mixture of people created a mixture of clothing styles and fabric options. Now we see people in all forms of dress in cities across the world, but historically ports would have been the only real places where costumes clashed consistently, and that is fascinating, in its fruitful ground for change and influence. Coming across this exhibit was a wonderful surprise because of the amount of textile within it, and I’m excited to share all that with you guys. The descriptions of Singapore itself through history, and cultures that arose in Batavia (now Jakarta, once the capital of the Dutch East Indies), Hong Kong, Malacca, and other ports, in clothing, was fantastic and fascinating. So even though we broke our rule, I gotta say, totally worth it…

So without further ado, to the photos!

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On the left the traditional garments of Peranakans, the mixed community of Chinese-Malay traders and fisherman. In the center, Chinese traditional dress, and on the right, South-Indian lungi.

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A kimono from the Japanese community in Singapore.

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Indian/Malay worker garb on the left, next to European/American female dress in a light gauze for the tropical heat (although God knows those undergarments would cancel THAT out…)

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On the right, Malay/Indonesian/Peranakan female dress with Portuguese lace and Chinese prints/embroidery. On the left, Gujurati cloth for an Indo-western sari.

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European male suit next to a Parsi merchant’s garb.

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Indian sari in the foreground, in the style adopted after the 1890’s with a blouse and petticoat underneath.

I love imagining a city of such vibrant and diverse clothing cultures, and therefore people cultures! I guess on some level Singapore is still like this, like London, New York, and other large and small cities of diverse groups. Spending time in Mumbai, where the clothing culture often feels homogenous in the extreme, I think I appreciate this mix on an even deeper level than I had before.

The exhibit also had some lovely examples of fabrics and their re-use in new clothing shapes. Like Indian chintz, so very popular in European clothing:

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Which then became something like this:

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I totally saw a woman looking at a similar fabric to create a kurta/trouser set in a fabric store in Bandra the other day. True story.

Of course, it wasn’t just Europeans who loved Indian chintz. Check out these Southeast jackets:

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I’m sure people were like, sick kimono, bro. Right? That sounds like a normal 19th century thing to say.

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A mix of Chinese imagery with Indonesian prints for this decorative hanging.

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The many faces of labor and commerce in 19th Century Singapore.

If I think about it, a lot of my own clothing is a mix of Indian fabric with Western shapes, so many in some tiny way I am also a part of a cultural global fabric and costume exchange. Diversity in how people look and how they dress and what they do and act is, to me, the cornerstone of progress and human development. If you never see anyone around you who looks, acts, speaks, eats, or thinks differently than you do, you probably will think that the world is singular. But to my mind it is beautiful in its variety, and I love seeing that in an exhibit like this one. Doesn’t it make you want to go out and pick of a global assortment of fabrics for inspiration and creation? Make a batik ballgown, stitch up some Thai silk cigarette trousers, or try a gingham tunic or a pinstripe kimono! Let’s be a part of a global fashion movement that celebrates diversity as the very fabric of humanity. Onwards, friends! To the sewing machines!

 

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Filed under Clothing, Costume, history, Life