A Shape in Space

A Shape in Space

On making, wearing, and not wearing clothes

Published on Substack: NOV 24, 2023

Blue tweed jacket with blue floral lining and ivory buttons, posed with a rust-orange corduory skirt

I made an orange corduroy skirt a few weeks back, and I’ve been wearing it everywhere. It’s cut so it curves in at the hem, makes a sort of bubble, an inverted bell. It’s a riff on my favorite Japanese pattern book big skirt that has gathers at the bottom, on each side seam. Gathers would have been too bulky for corduroy, so I got out my French curve, and I cut the shape I wanted into the pattern. And then I cut it into the fabric. And then I sewed it up and it worked, it made the shape I wanted.

My sewing practice is all about making myself into a shape in space. I am no longer young, and I was never tall, and middle age has made me even blockier than I was as a young woman.

The corduroy is very 1978. I had two pairs of corduroy jeans going into my junior year in high school, one a sort of rusty orange, and one a kind of plum color. My mother had put me on a strict diet that summer, the first summer I hadn’t spent at camp, the first summer I stayed home. I lost a bunch of weight, probably as much due to riding my bike five or six miles each way to teach day camp, then waiting tables or washing dishes at night in the swimming and tennis club she was running, as by that diet. But my mother, a lifelong semi-anorexic was so pleased we’d dieted together, so pleased we were getting your weight under control. Then there were fights when I went back to my father’s house for the school year, fights between them, between them and me. My mother had a bad habit of sending me into a fight with my father as her surrogate, and because for a very long time my most treasured hope was that my mother would not be mad at me, I fell for it. Every time. Nonetheless, those two pairs of jeans felt cool, felt fashionable in a way I never was fashionable. I was fifteen, with weird curly hair and braces, but I had cool jeans for once.

This corduroy is heavier than that corduroy was. This is probably eight rows to the inch, which is how corduroy is measured. It’s a nice, soft, heavy corduroy. It’s a rusty orange. And I made a skirt in the shape of an inverted bell, that cuts in at my calves, and is cinched with both elastic and a drawstring. It has big cozy pockets.

Worn with the blue tweed jacket I made last year, the jacket where the tweed is a nice medium blue with pink and bright blue flecks in it, a jacket lined in a watery floral cotton, worn with that jacket, and a big scarf, and boots, it’s a good winter look. I’m warm. I’m comfortable. I like the shape I make in space.

Book Cover for Bring No Clothes by Charlie Porter

Charlie Porter comes up on my Instagram feed, talking about Ottoline Morell’s giant jodhpurs in the Charleston collection. He’s wearing a pair of very short shorts, that don’t appear to have been hemmed, that appear to have the slightly ragged edges that come when you cut a piece of woven fabric and let the edges fray. He’s wearing a shirt, longer in the back than the front, pleated or gathered at the neckline, as though he hasn’t cut the fabric, but has simply pulled the front fabric up and back, pinned then sewed it in place to turn a two-dimensional flat piece into a three dimensional shirt. The shirt sleeves are short, and also unhemmed. There are stringy bits hanging down. 

In the comments, someone asks: What’s the matter with this poor chaps outfit?! Is it fashion?

To which Porter replies:
hello Sarita, I started making my own clothes during the research for the exhibition, in response to the artist Vanessa Bell. She did so with freedom, and in the exhibition I explore how we can encourage more people to make their own clothes, as well as reuse clothing they no longer own. Making my own clothes has also helped me deal with grief, as I lost both my parents in during the past 18 months. Grieving through making has become living through making, and I hope that more will be encouraged to try making clothes for themselves

How cold is it getting in England? I wonder in a way that’s both slightly maternal, and, to my chagrin, slightly uncomfortable with how odd his outfit is. Is he going to wear those shorts all winter? 

Echoes of my mother. You’re going to wear that?

This is not the voice I want in my head, but it lives there nonetheless. My mother, who loved nothing more than putting together “a nice outfit” for me. My mother, who I fought with about clothes my entire life.

We were late for my brother Michael’s funeral because my mother and I were fighting over a dress. I wanted to wear the dress with the pockets like big strawberries. I loved that dress. It was the first dress I was allowed to pick out for myself. My Aunt Daphne had taken me and Dede downtown to I. Magnin where we got to each pick a dress (from the curated group she’d pulled off the racks for us). I picked that one. It made me feel good.

My mother wanted me to wear one of those Liberty print dresses she loved, the ones with the puffed sleeves and the shirring across the front and I was furious. That was a dress for a baby. I was not a baby. I was big enough to be going to my brother’s funeral. I was big enough that I’d been told for months to be strong for Mommy, to be cheerful for Mommy, to help take care of Patrick, to help take care of our toddler cousin Jennifer once we’d been exiled to our Aunt Lynn’s house in Wisconsin. And now she wanted me to dress like a baby.

People thought I’d killed myself, she said for decades, telling this story, the story of my sartorial rebellion. And it was just you. Fighting me over a dress.

Porter writes, in Bring No Clothes about beginning to sew, and how he’s sewing by instinct, without patterns, without really learning technique. He’s sewing by feel. He describes liking the way these shirts he’s been making feel — how they seem to hug his body, how they’re fun to go dancing in because the linen breathes, how they make him feel like himself. The shorts too — he writes a lot about Duncan Grant in this book, about how Grant always seems to be in a state of undress, how he can’t keep his pants on.

I think of Iggy Pop, who my partner loves. Iggy, who even now, as an old man, refuses to stop performing, and refuses to wear a shirt. He’s still losing his pants most of the time, slipping down his skinny old-man hips. Iggy was always coming out of his clothes as a younger performer, back in the days when he had crazy eyes, back in the day when he was all howl, all flinging himself into the crowd. And he’s still doing it.

I’m curious to see what Charlie Porter is going to wear in the winter. 

And as someone who does sew, I kind of wish he’d learn some technique. This is me projecting of course, like the woman who commented on Instagram. Can’t you tidy up those hems? Can’t you learn how to construct a proper shirt? Why are you running around half-naked? 

When my brother Patrick died, I was sorry not to be Jewish. I wanted to rend my clothing. I wanted to sit shivva. I wanted to sit on a box, with my best jacket cut, ruined. I wanted to cover the mirrors. I wanted a week to sit in the dark wearing rags. I wanted to be allowed this. I wanted this to be expected, for people to come quietly into my darkened room, asking at the doorway how is she? While bringing boxes of baked goods. I wanted other people in that darkened room, talking softly, or maybe laughing at a story, over there, in a corner, while I sat on my box wearing rags. 

Instead, I made jokes about drag as I packed my “nicest” clothes into my biggest suitcase, hoping that on top of everything else, I wouldn’t have to deal with my mother weeping over my clothes as she did when she helped me move at the beginning of grad school. I came home from checking in at the department, sure I wouldn’t be on the roster, sure they’d made a mistake, sure I’d given up my pocket-tiny house in Telluride, sure I’d packed all my belongings and had driven two days across the desert with my mother only to arrive and have it not be real.

I came home that day and my mother had unpacked all my clothes from the garbage bags I’d stuffed them in so they’d fit into the UHaul. She had them in little piles around the room. “I thought we could try on some cute outfits,” she said. Smoking.

It ended in tears. It ended with her shouting that she was ashamed of me, that I lived like a bag lady, while I carried armload after armload of clothes out to the dumpster, trying to appease her.

There’s a black chintz skirt with big flowers on it I still regret throwing out that day.

I like that Charlie Porter is wearing his version of shivva. I like that he’s doing it in public, while talking about the clothing of this group of odd people who lived last century. I like the way he’s owning it. 

I’m sure I have some friends who are embarrassed about my clothing, in the way I wish Charlie Porter would fix his hems. I’m at that age where what we wear, as the generation-of-the-mother is always going to be mortifying to the girls. I expected that. What I didn’t expect is how a whole tranche of my friends have gotten so conservative as their kids hit adulthood. It’s a shock to me. That the disapproving looks have started now? I mean, who cares what any of us wear at this point? We’re at the age where we’re invisible anyway. I was always sort of invisible because I’m short and was never conventionally pretty. Men have been having conversations over my head for as long as I can remember, dismissing me because I’m down there somewhere and they can’t be bothered. 

At my age, really. You can move through the world like a ghost. 

I just want to do it like a ghost in a shape that I like. 

I like that Charlie Porter, a person who has been writing about art and clothes and fashion for decades, is stepping out in his odd clothes. 

I like that Charlie Porter, a person who is in fashion is encouraging people to Bring no Clothes, to break the social strictures around clothing, to dress by feel

When I turned fifty I told myself I wasn’t going to wear clothes anymore that were uncomfortable. I was no longer going to walk around feeling constricted, or bad about my body shape because of the ready-to-wear clothes that never fit me. I’m very short. I am not thin. Store clothes were always too long and too narrow and just reminded me all day long that I was not right, not normal. 

I found a world of independent pattern makers online. I found Japanese pattern books, with very simple but interesting patterns. I like very nice fabrics and if I sew it myself, I can afford clothing in nicer fabric than anything I can afford to buy in a shop. I don’t sew anything fitted, or complicated, or that has a zipper. I will do buttonholes, though I sort of fell in love with snaps last winter. I like the clean line. My sewing machine doesn’t do terrific buttonholes anyway, and they tend to fray. 

Japanese dress pattern book illustration

I have a pants pattern that fits me, that feels comfortable, and that I have made in linen and wool and corduroy and jeans. I’m currently making one blouse pattern over and over. In summer I wear them over a tee shirt, in winter over a long-sleeved wool tee. I don’t make tees or underwear, in part because I hate sewing with knits. I have one dress, the Eva Dress, from an Australian shop that I have also made over and over again. I made one in a dark flat suiting wool. It’s the dress I wear to funerals now. 

My mother’s entire generation is dying. There are a lot of funerals. 

There’s a “kimono” pattern, actually haori  is the proper Japanese term for this kind of a jacket. I’ve made these in linen for summer and wool for winter. There’s a lightweight navy wool one that is perhaps my favorite garment ever. 

I have an entire wardrobe at this point that I have made. I’ve fiddled with patterns and figured out how I want these garments to fit my body. 

I get to decide that now, not some store. 

I’m not dependent on some store changing up the cuts and fits of their pants every year so they can sell you new ones. 

I made myself the shape in space that I want to be. 

At the end, my mother refused to wear clothes. She’d put on a robe when I came to visit because she could see it upset me, the sight of my 80 pound mother, in her adult diaper and a tee shirt, settled in that one corner of her sofa, giant ashtray on the table, glass of vodka, cup of black coffee, piles of magazines and catalogs, treats for the dog.

Her hip hurt, so she usually had one matchstick leg folded up beside her, hugging the knee.

They grew up in just underpants, her two sisters, her brother Mike, the four of them mostly naked in the summers, on the farm. We did too, as little kids. Babysitters worried when we refused pajamas, insisted on sleeping in just our underpants. Famously, the owner of the town mercantile in the tiny Illinois farm town where my mother spent summers as a child, called my grandmother one morning. “Jane,” he said. “They have to wear clothes when they come into town. All four of them came into the store this morning, drove right through town in the buckboard, in just their underpants.”

She could still put it on though, her nice-lady outfit. One of the last videos I have of her, on my phone, she’s at a wedding. My mother in a bright red dress, being swirled around the dance floor in her wheelchair by a handsome laughing twenty-something boy in a dark suit, one of the gang of kids who thought she was a hoot. She’s kicking her feet up in delight. Laughing. Having a great time.

Traci and Robert, the couple who helped her out, were entirely unbothered by my mother’s lack of modesty. They were in and out of the apartment all day, and at the end, Traci let me pay her, but not enough for what she was doing. They loved my wizened, alcoholic, foul-mouthed mother. They thought she was a hoot.

At the end, she seemed to revert to a childish state. An ancient, wizened, chain smoking, vodka drinking naked child. In the emergency room that last hospitalization, they’d run out of tiny adult diapers, had her in one that was too big. She had her shirt off, her bare flat chest exposed. She was feverish, and hot. Arms akimbo, posing for Traci “I’m a sumo wrestler!” she exclaimed, cracking them all up.

I loved both of Charlie Porter’s recent books: What Artists Wear, and Bring No Clothes.  I love the way that Theory, which when I was in grad school was an overbearing set of dogmas has, in the past 25 years, opened up for writers like Porter, or Kate Briggs, or Kate Zambreno or Lauren Elkin, into a tool writers are using to, as the expression goes, “think with.” Charlie Porter is thinking with clothing, and artists, and queerness — and trying to unpick some of the things that what we wear says about who we are, or who we want to be. 

A recent Toast magazine portrait of Porter opens: “It’s no coincidence that last summer Charlie Porter started sewing his own clothes. “Vanessa Bell saw making as part of a holistic creative life rather than a hobby. Now it’s just something I do; yesterday I pickled plums and made apricot jam. It’s been a fundamental life change.” He attributes this seismic shift to his latest project, curating Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and Fashion, the inaugural exhibition at Charleston’s new space in Lewes.”

As someone who has been thinking with my garden, and thinking with cooking, and thinking with making clothes for these past twenty years or so, as someone who was dropped by an agent when I proposed writing a book about these topics, because she wasn’t interested “in that kind of thing,” I find it tremendously exciting to see these ideas that I’ve been so engaged with, coming into the discourse.

The world is shifting, and if one of the shifts is that making things in a non-capitalistic, non-professional, artistic manner is bubbling up through the zeitgeist, is becoming an ethic of care, a means of caring for ourselves and others, well, here’s to it.

Fraying hems, rebellious nakedness, odd shapes and all. 

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