A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Not Quite a Minimalist

In total relaxation mode for Me Made May this Memorial Day afternoon. I’m wearing a self-drafted knit tunic whose neckband will not lay flat because I miscalculated its length. I didn’t bother to fix it because it was only ever meant to be lounge wear, and sometimes good enough is just plain good enough.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Eleven
Not Quite a Minimalist

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and when it comes to my wardrobe accessories are clearly my weakness. This is partly situational. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life living in very small spaces with almost no room for storage. Consequently, I have less clothing than most clothes horses generally do, and very few accessories. I wear the same few pieces of jewelry again and again, mostly necklaces. I don’t have pierced ears, though I do own exactly two pairs of clip-on earrings — and a handful of rings I wear on special occasions. (I don’t usually wear bracelets at all because I don’t like the sounds they make when I type.) I don’t have many purses or belts, and only a few hats. I have terrible feet and need to wear very supportive (and sometimes pricey) shoes, so I don’t really have that many — and they’re mostly boring.

I do love scarves and have a good handful, but I often don’t think to wear them. I’m not sure that I’m really any “good” at accessorizing, but probably some of this is rebellion, too. Everyone expects a fat lady to have the best accessory collection, because that’s all she can buy in “regular” stores. Maybe I like to play against expectations.

Because of this tendency to pare back, you may think I’m a minimalist — but I’m not. I’m definitely drawn to minimalist imagery in both fashion and decor, but I’m also drawn to gleeful overabundance. Given enough time and money, I could definitely see myself becoming one of those people with an entire room full of clothes and accessories. Realistically, though, that could be overwhelming. One of the benefits of having a smaller wardrobe is that it’s easy to choose what to wear, especially if you really like everything you have. I think that’s the idea behind minimalist capsule wardrobes, but I think having a really small variety of clothes would be too boring for me. A popular number is 33 — just 33 items of clothing and accessories. I can’t imagine that. But I can’t really imagine having endless variety, either.

I described myself earlier as medium fat and medium femme. As a person drawn in some ways to both minimalism and maximalism, I’m again choosing a middle path. I think maybe — to coin a phrase — I’m a mediumist. I’m Goldilocks looking for that “just right” balance between too little and too much.

A medium sized wardrobe really is the best of both worlds. Large enough to be interesting, but small enough that favorites don’t get pushed to the back of the closet and forgotten.

Not everything is in balance yet. I probably do have too few accessories, and I think I probably have too many cardigans — despite having only 17 right now, a stunning five year low. (I usually have 23 – 25 cardigans. Maybe that’s too many. Maybe. I don’t know. I really love cardigans. It’s hard to say.)

Still, I keep striving for balance, and I get closer all the time.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: My Best Sartorial Advice

I almost forgot to take a photo today for Me Made May, but I’m wearing a mostly hidden, very old Comino Cap tee under an even older RTW cardigan.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Ten
My Best Sartorial Advice

I may not be a well-known fashion guru — heck, I don’t even aspire to that — but I still have a few pieces of advice for people looking to up their wardrobe game.

Forget about conventional wisdom.
Don’t worry about the colors supposedly appropriate for your coloring or the shapes that are supposedly correct for your body type. Wear what you like! There is no literal fashion police to arrest you. I’m a redhead who constantly wears red, for instance, and a pear who sometimes wears bright colors on my oversized ass — and I have not been sent to the fashion gulag yet. Wearing clothes that you genuinely like, regardless of how “flattering” they are, can give you a sort of buoyancy in appearance. Please yourself and the effect is often pleasing.

Make sure your wardrobe reflects your real life.
It’s easy to make (or buy) garments for a life you wish you were living — like sewing endless fancy dresses (that you have no reason to wear) or buying workout clothes (that you think will make you work out more, but never do). Worse still is to have a closet full of clothes that are either the wrong size or that simply reflect some previous phase of life. I think it’s fine to keep a few sentimental garments, but if you’ve changed jobs and have a drastically different dress code, it’s reasonable to replace your work wear. Anuschka Rees has a very useful method for analyzing your clothing needs by activity here. In fact, I highly recommend her wardrobe method (though I don’t aspire to minimalism) for any analytically-minded clothes horse.

Spend money on your priorities.
If you prefer quality over quantity, spend more on well-made basics (or on high quality fabric). If, on the other hand, you truly like a lot of “churn” in your wardrobe feel free to spend accordingly. There’s no one right way to dress, after all. You can chase fads or stick with the classics — just be true to yourself. (I do recommend setting a realistic budget and sticking to it, either way — but I’m one of those bummer thrifty people.)

Start where you are and build on what you already have.
Figure out what you like that you already have, then try to figure out why you like it — then make or buy similar pieces. One of the reasons I’ve never liked makeover shows is that they want you to throw out who you already are and start from scratch. That’s neither reasonable nor realistic, in my opinion. Maybe you truly are tired of wearing sweatshirts and jeans every day, but instead of buying or making 10 business casual dresses you’ll never wear again, why not try a work appropriate knit top and some stretch twill trousers? It’s always easier to add new things than to subtract old things that you genuinely like.

Leave the snark unsaid.
Constructive criticism is great — when asked for. A general tendency to read to filth anyone who doesn’t look the way you think they should is a horrible habit. Whether you’re denigrating yourself or others, a constant barrage of body shame and clothing mockery only serves the kyriarchy. It oppresses everyone, and we’re already playing an appearance-based game that no one can truly win. Give sincere compliments and be honest when asked, but try to leave the body and clothing based snark behind.

Feel free to ignore all of my advice.
As the receptionist in “Beetlejuice” said: “It’s all very personal.” Clothing can be a way we represent ourselves to the world, and as such can serve an entire host of purposes — all different, depending on who we are and what we value. Although we’re all in this together, we certainly don’t have to dress alike.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Sewing Is No Longer a Thrifty Proposition

Posing in the rain for Me Made May today. I’m wearing a Colette Patterns Sorbetto top with a story behind it. Colette recently redesigned their basic sewing blocks for both misses and plus sizes. (This means they changed the way their patterns are drafted — therefore changing the way they fit.) They re-released this free pattern with the new block to encourage people to test the new fit. I never got the original Sorbetto to work for me, and the fabric for this test garment actually came from a failed old Sorbetto and its scraps. I removed the pleat and had to introduce a center front seam to make the pattern pieces fit, and since I couldn’t pattern match I deliberately cut one of the fronts on the wrong side of the fabric to create a faux chevron effect. Considering that I used fabric on hand that would otherwise have gone to waste, and thread and bias tape leftover from another project, this shirt was completely free to make (apart from my time).

I also want to say (for the sewists in the crowd) that the new Colette block is much better than the old one! Because this was a test the only pattern alteration I made was to grade out to a larger size at the hips. I made a straight 16 at the bust and shoulders, and although I would make several changes in the future (narrow shoulders, raise darts, swayback) the fit is comparable to ready-to-wear now. The armscye and sleeve are beautifully drafted — the sleeves set in like a dream, and I didn’t even need to make a large bicep adjustment. I can’t vouch for the new plus size block as my measurements put me in regular sizes at the bust and shoulder, but I am very much impressed with the new misses block.

(Please forgive the ridiculous look my my face. My Mom kept making me laugh and we wanted to get out of the rain!)

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Nine
Sewing Is No Longer a Thrifty Proposition

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, and only shopped for brand new clothes a couple of times a year. Many of my clothes came from garage sales — and later thrift stores — but we also would have several things sewn each year, too. Home sewing used to be ubiquitous, and a way to have high quality garments for less than retail cost. Sewing was still cheaper than ready-to-wear in the 1980s, though the fact that we went to a neighbor instead of a professional seamstress probably helped to keep costs even lower. Her name was Christine, and she sewed mainly for pleasure. She took in sewing projects from other people just to supplement her retirement income, as far as I can remember.

She made a lot of my favorite clothes, too. I remember a specific plaid dress she made that I wore until I nearly burst out of it. It was almost two sizes too small when Mom made me give it up! I still think about that dress today, honestly. And the fact that the dress lasted that long was a testament to her skill, too. She finished seams with pinking shears and made beautiful handworked buttonholes with tiny perfect stitches enclosing each opening. She saved us money and was a treasure, and we only stopped going to her when I learned to sew myself.

Now it’s often cheaper to buy brand new ready-to-wear clothing than sewing in most cases, and resale items are even less expensive. Going to a professional if you lack the skills yourself is very costly — bespoke clothing is completely beyond an average shopper’s budget these days. Fast fashion changed the entire retail clothing game, and not for the better in any way except in price. Ready-to-wear clothing is cheaper than it ever has been before (and the quality reflects it), but many people can’t afford anything else. Knowing that an $8 t-shirt comes with an unseen price tag in both environmental impact and human suffering doesn’t seem all that important when you have difficulty paying your rent.

There are still exceptions, of course. Formal gowns and party dresses can be surprisingly simple to sew (though I would hardly recommend a wedding dress as a first project), and even when high quality fabrics are used they usually cost less than department store prices. Christine made a beautiful semi-formal dress for my 8th grade graduation — black satin with a boned bodice — for less than $50 when something similar would have been over $100 retail even then! My aunt Karen made her own wedding dress in the early 1990s, too — and it was truly designer quality, as she spent countless hours applying beading by hand — but it cost literally hundreds of dollars less than a comparable gown. Although I haven’t made anything formal lately, I think it’s safe to say that it would still be cheaper than ready-to-wear much of the time even now.

You can also mitigate costs by repurposing clothing you already have and using either thrifted garments or linens for fabric. (I often use thrifted sheets to make muslins, for instance, and have been known to buy long gathered skirts just to harvest the fabric from them.) Just like when shopping for ready-to-wear, you can look for fabric sales, too. I personally think the coupon shenanigans of Jo-Ann Fabric (the last brick and mortar fabric retailer in most places) are more of a hassle than they’re worth, but they do have legitimate large sales a couple of times a year — and most online fabric stores have sales once or twice a year, too. Some people have good luck when thrift or estate sale shopping and find amazing (sometimes vintage) fabric for a song, but I never have. Sewing patterns can also be expensive, but using them multiple times can bring down the cost per use. (Be sure to trace off a sewing pattern to preserve it — that way you don’t have to buy it again to make other sizes if you gain or lose weight, or want to sew it for someone else. I make clothes for myself and my very-differently sized Mom from the same patterns all the time.) Printable PDF patterns are usually cheaper than paper ones — though you do have to go through the trouble of taping them together. There are also lots of free patterns online now, too.

Another way to keep down costs is to resist FOMO — or the Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO can lead you to buy fabric and patterns that you don’t need and may never really use. It’s easy to squirrel away far more than you can reasonably use, and I am as guilty of this as the next dedicated sewist. I have, according to my spreadsheet, over 130 yards stored in our closet, as well as two large plastic tubs of scraps and remnants. There’s nothing thrifty about that! I used to buy fabric for only one or two projects at a time, and would finish those projects before I got anything else. That was back before I had much in the way of disposable income, of course — but I still long for that kind of simplicity, and it certainly makes sewing less costly to pay for only one project at a time.

Practice helps, too. Once you reach a certain level of competence the sheer quality of self-made garments helps to cancel out the cost. With care, well-finished home sewn garments can last longer than ready-to-wear, and therefore require fewer replacements over time. These days there are so few mid-range clothiers that it’s hard to find quality in the marketplace to begin with (especially if you’re plus sized), and it only takes a moderate amount of skill to sew something of higher quality than a fast fashion retailer.

Regardless of cost, when you make your own clothing you can make things that you could never find in a store — things that exactly suit your preferences. You get used to getting exactly what you want, and ready-to-wear starts to look less and less appealing over time. The satisfaction of sewing your own clothing can be priceless.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Failures of the Marketplace

I wore a very old (but still good) Sewing Workshop eShrug for Me Made May today.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Eight
The Failures of the Marketplace

One of the biggest challenges of being a plus sized woman who wants to buy ready-to-wear clothing is finding clothing to buy. That probably sounds insane to you — if you’ve only ever worn straight sized clothing — but I can pretty much count on two hands the total number of brick and mortar retailers from which I can buy clothing in person here in Houston. Besides the anchor department stores’ very small plus sized sections (sparsely populated with ill-fitting and extremely overpriced — not to mention ugly — garments), there is exactly one plus size retailer in the mall nearest my home. One store. One. And I’m a smaller fat person — I’m not sized out of any plus size retailer, some of which only go up to US22.

It’s true that online retailers have started to fill in the gaps in the plus size market. Modcloth was one of the first to really expand their size range (though they made some other boneheaded moves regarding their extended sizing as time went by), and lots of other more mainstream retailers have extended sizes available online (that are definitely not available in their physical stores). But what that means is that instead of taking two or three sizes to a dressing room, a plus sized person will have one of two scenarios to deal with, especially when trying an unfamiliar retailer:

  1. Order the size they think will fit best (fingers crossed that the retailer’s size chart is accurate), pay for shipping, try it on at home, and see whether or not it needs to be returned for a different size, pay for return shipping if it does, hope that the alternate size is still in stock, and wait for the replacement to come in the mail before they maybe have to start all over again.
  2. Or order two or three sizes of the same garment (who can afford to do that with every single piece of clothing they buy?), pay for shipping, decide which one fits best and hope the retailer will accept the other garment(s) in return — after you’ve paid for return shipping, of course.

Yeah, that all sucks. When you take into account how awful most ready-to-wear plus size clothing is, it’s even worse. It’s often poorly constructed and made of subpar fabric — while still being far more expensive than equivalent straight size clothing, sometimes even twice the price. There are fewer options for almost everything, and most of those options are of a lesser quality.

It’s even tougher if you already have a firm sense of your own style. I’m beyond picky when it comes to color palette and fit, and most of the time I no longer settle for “almost-but-not-quite.” I buy very little ready-to-wear clothing these days. I do thrift some things, but I’m just as likely to walk out of a resale shop empty handed as with a purchase. I buy the occasional t-shirt at Target, basic cardigan sweaters at Old Navy, and most of my workout wear from Rainbeau Curves online. I mainly buy work clothes and party dresses from eShakti, which carries every single design in sizes 0 – 36W, and can customize to your measurements for only $9.95 more. I cannot stress how much I love them. I know I sound like a commercial, and I’m sorry for that, but the first time I ordered a custom dress from them and saw how well it fit at my shoulders and my hips, I very nearly cried. It’s the best compromise between ready-to-wear and having your own seamstress that I’ve ever encountered.

That being said, of course I also sew many of my own clothes.

However, it’s not fair to expect sewing to compensate for the failures of the marketplace for plus sized women. There is a real — mostly unseen — classism inherent in sewing as a hobby. (I highly recommend Tasha Fierce’s essay “The Class Dynamics of DIY Clothing” for a more thorough examination of these issues.) Besides the time and energy involved in learning to sew, there is also a large monetary investment in a sewing machine itself and the various other tools needed. Fabric isn’t cheap, either, and many self-made garments are more expensive than their ready-to-wear equivalents — especially if it’s a basic, like a t-shirt.

Factoring in time spent can make a garment seem astronomically expensive, too. Using a new-to-me pattern, a simple, uncomplicated woven dress can take 4-7 hours to make, counting all steps: tracing off the pattern, making and adjusting a muslin (test garment), ironing and cutting out the fabric, and actual construction and finishing. That’s quite a time investment when you’re busy or exhausted. It’s just not realistic to think that everyone can be expected to make that sacrifice just because they can’t find something to wear from a clothing retailer.

For me — and I’m only speaking for me — I choose to take that time and sometimes to pay more to make my own clothes when I can, but it is a choice and I own my privilege in this area. I have the necessary equipment, skill set, and time and money to do so. It’s only a partial and personal solution to the failures of the marketplace, but it allows me to feel less helpless in the face of an inherently oppressive system.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Pursuit of Elegance

I’m wearing a simple self-drafted gathered skirt for for Me Made May today. I thought you might be tired of seeing my mug all the time, so I changed it up. You get more of the the wild floral print this way, anyway.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Seven
The Pursuit of Elegance

I don’t know if every clothing-obsessed person had an identifiable turning point in their development of personal style, but I definitely did. I had loved clothing and design from the time I was a child, but aside from gothic tendencies, I didn’t have a defined style. I knew what I liked, but I hadn’t examined any reasons behind it.

It may be embarrassing to admit, but the entire basis of my personal style developed primarily from a single book: French Style by Veronique Vienne. I’d be willing to wager that you’ve never heard of this book, which is very much out of print, and was never very popular to begin with. Published in 1993, it was available from only one source — and that was the clothing retailer Express. That’s right: the turning point for my personal style was an oversized paperback purchased at Express. Filled with photos and illustrations both historical and modern, it was less of a prescriptive manual (wear this, as a command) and more of a guide to possibilities (try this, as a suggestion). More importantly, it spoke to the almost mystical desire I had to be enigmatic and elegant.

I knew even then that I would probably never be beautiful as society demanded, but I began to believe that I could be handsome and charismatic — which could be better in the long run. It was something I could age into instead of age out of — something that I could be at 20 or 30 or 40, if I did it well enough.

I found this especially comforting because so much about me was amorphous, at least physically. I was (at the time) an inbetween size, I was short, and I had freckles — the death knell of sophistication in my mind. Even the color of my eyes and hair were difficult to determine! My eyes were grey, but could look blue, green, or grey — and my hair was auburn, but was made up of all different sorts of gingery shades, and included a natural orange streak along the left side of my hairline. (I was occasionally called “skunk head” in elementary school because of my stripe.) I wanted to have something concrete and easily defined about my appearance, so I decided that I would learn to be well-dressed.

French Style does outline some rules, of course — actually helpful tips like “Don’t wear clothes that wear you” and “Mix, don’t match, lengths (and textures).” It also introduced me to the concept of “épater les bourgeois” — to shock the middle class. I would rather look shocking than dull any day! It helped to give me a sense of what styles to avoid, too. Even as a young adult I felt compelled to shun any style that might label me as frumpy — anyone over a certain (very small) size is easy to dismiss as matronly, regardless of age. I live in terror of looking matronly to this day, and I’m old enough now to be a literal matron.

Over the years I built on the basics French Style taught me, and developed my own internal set of rules for dressing. Some of these are admittedly sort of odd. I don’t treat blue denim as a neutral, for instance — I only wear it with black, white, or grey. I never wear true navy blue, pink, or brown unless it’s in a print with black. I never buy or sew a separate that doesn’t go with at least two garments I already have. Every single garment in my closet fits me at my current size, and is comfortable. But these are my rules — they don’t have to be yours.

I don’t necessarily follow standard fashion guidelines, either. I like horizontal stripes (quelle horreur!), and I don’t give much thought to what is considered typically flattering. I dress to please myself, not the arbiters of fashion or “good taste.” I’ve managed to stay true to my early style ambitions, though. I may not be completely elegant, but I think I’ve made excellent progress in that direction.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Vintage Inspired, But Not Vintage Accurate

I wore yet another Comino Cap dress today for Me Made May. This was the first one I made, and it’s almost worn out now. (Also…hashtag: #TerribleBacklighting.)

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Six
Vintage Inspired, But Not Vintage Accurate

I enjoy history, but I’m more concerned with the daily life of people in the past than the dates of important events or which dead white guy did what. I’m far more interested in what people wore and what they ate and how things functioned day-to-day. (This shouldn’t shock any of you who know that I’m writing a historical romance novel.) Although my main area of research for literary purposes is the 19th century, my main historical fashion inspiration is the middle of the 20th century.

I love the silhouettes of the 1940s and 1950s, but mid-century accuracy — and its compulsory femininity — is definitely less appealing. In a previous essay I described myself as medium fat, but I also consider myself medium femme. Sure, I wear red lipstick every day — I even wear red lipstick to the grocery store — but liquid eyeliner and false lashes are for very special occasions only. (Or, to be honest, maybe never at all?) I use hairspray three or four times a year, but I haven’t used curlers since probably 2003. My regular daily hairstyle (side combs and a bun) is historically inspired, sure — but it takes about a minute and a half to do. And I may love the look of a crinoline filled skirt, but I’m not going to wear high heels and a girdle anywhere but on a stage.

There are a lot of talented people out there sewing and knitting vintage styles in modern ways, some of them as a rebellious reclamation — a way to reinterpret and make toothless a period of great social oppression. (At least two of my favorite vintage sewists are queer and covered in tattoos, for instance. They would have some trouble fitting in in a time travel scenario.) And as much as I admire the folks who go all out with their vintage style creations, that kind of detailed accuracy would only feel like a costume to me, not like my actual clothes.

This may also be because I also really like modern, pared back styles, too. I know it’s a bit of a contradiction — loving both modern simplicity and vintage styles — but finding the right balance between the two is a fun challenge. I think the Comino Cap dress is a perfect example of this. Its a-line skirt and little cut-on cap sleeves have a near-40s silhouette, but its knit fabric and lack of ornamentation are purely modern. (The shoes pictured above are also a good example. They look vintage-y, but they’re just modern Clarks — and very comfortable.)

Medium fat, medium femme, and seeking a happy medium between the past and the present — I guess I’m simply trying to find a sartorial middle way.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: History, Honesty, and Body Acceptance

Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a highly modified April Rhodes Staple Dress, though it’s mostly buried under an eShakti cardigan. Sorry, I was chilly today!

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Five
History, Honesty, and Body Acceptance

At my thinnest I weighed about 125 pounds and measured 35-25-37. I remember this clearly both because I sewed and because I was — to my eternal, only half-joking sorrow — never a perfect 36-24-36 Brick House. I was never quite mighty, mighty, and I was never allowed to forget it. “Just lose 20 more pounds,” they said.

No matter how small I got, that’s what they said.

I had been, as I explained previously, a chubby kid. Not enormous, of course, but big enough that I was sometimes the butt of jokes — and big enough that my aunts often lamented that I “had such a pretty face.” I started studying acting seriously when I was 15 years old, and I was accepted into a prestigious regional program for young actors. One day one of the instructors pulled me out of class to tell me that I was both too fat and ugly to make it in show business, so I should go ahead and give up now. She said this to my face. She pulled me out of class to say this to my face. I’ve never really understood her motivations, but I can tell you that it wasn’t an act of kindness.

I was 15 years old, and maybe a size 10.

I went to college on a drama scholarship, though. Talent was never my issue; it was always my appearance. I realized, of course, that I would never make it as a performer if I didn’t somehow get thin. So I started to do just that.

I had been dieting since I was 14, but this wasn’t dieting. My relationship to food got more and more disordered, but I seriously didn’t care because for the first time in my life I was getting small — really small, socially acceptably small, almost real actor small. I started getting leading roles instead of supporting roles. I was finally doing it.

What I was not doing was eating.

My main trick was to eat when people were paying attention, so it seemed like I ate fairly normally. But most days I was eating one very small meal a day, often consisting of celery and a quarter of a sandwich. Some days I didn’t eat at all. I also exercised a lot, but I had to cut back on that because it exacerbated my tendency to faint. But I was getting thin, and that was the only thing that mattered.

During a period of unusually high stress I stopped eating altogether. It had been about 5 days since I’d eaten anything and I couldn’t get out of bed. My Mom had figured out what was going on by then, and she gave me an ultimatum: either I ate something immediately or I was going to the hospital.

My fear of doctors won. I ate a cup of yogurt and spent the next three years being watched like a hawk by my family. But as I ate that sugar-free low fat yogurt — it was Key Lime Pie flavored — I knew that I had failed. I was never going to stay thin. I was never really going to be an actor.

I wish I could say that I had been wrong.

I never actually got thin enough to meet the BMI qualification for an anorexia diagnosis, but my behavior was definitely anorectic. An EDNOS diagnosis was tossed around by an early therapist — that’s Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified — but I never received treatment for it. I barely got treatment for my depression.

The pounds came back, of course, and brought some friends with them. Roles dwindled as my dress size got larger. I eventually gave up.

I never stopped dieting, though. I lost the same 50 pounds at least 4 times, but I could never keep the weight off for more than a few years. No matter what I did, it always came back. The last time I tried to lose weight I started to regain when I was eating 1500 calories a day and exercising a minimum of 90 minutes a day — and usually more like 2 1/2 hours. I was eating fewer calories than what should have been a maintenance level for my goal weight, and exercising strenuously, and I was still gaining weight. I cried a lot.

And then I gave that up, too.

I gave the universe a great big existential middle finger and said, “Fuck you, universe. I’m just gonna be FAT.” I stopped dieting, and I will never diet again.

I cannot understate how freeing that was.

It has taken years, but I genuinely don’t hate my body anymore. I am 5’2 1/2” tall (though I always round up and say I’m 5’3”), and given how my clothes fit right now, I probably weigh somewhere between 195 and 205 pounds. (I can’t say for sure, because it’s not safe for me to have a scale at home with my history.) My measurements are 45-39-51 and I no longer care that I’m not a Brick House.

I do relapse into disordered eating sometimes, particularly when I’m stressed, but I don’t hate myself now. I love my creaky, socially unacceptable fat body. I’m not a separate entity living inside a corpulent meatsack, you know. I am the corpulent meatsack, and I’m much more fond of it than the name implies.

Now, what the hell does this have to do with clothing? A lot, actually. When you stop hating yourself and thinking of your body as an enemy, you find that your relationship with clothing changes. Treating my body with respect not only meant feeding it when it was hungry, but also included covering it with clothes I genuinely liked, instead of just hiding it with whatever was handy and sort of fit.

Sewing really helps with this, but in order to be a successful sewist you have to be honest. You have to take accurate measurements or the clothes you make won’t fit. On the one hand, looking at the actual measurements of your body is more abstract than looking at a simple dress size, but it can also be a scary, confrontational process. Sewing pattern sizes often have little to do with ready-to-wear sizing and that can be daunting if your self-esteem is wrapped up in wearing a specific size.

But I think it’s more difficult to feel ashamed of yourself when you’re wearing something you’ve made with your own hands — something beautiful that you really like. And maybe if you do that often enough you’ll come to love the body inside the clothing, as well.

It has definitely helped me.

As a quick aside, I don’t do Fat 101. It’s not my job to convince you that fat people are real people worthy of respect, but I will say that it’s virtually impossible to make a fat person thin. That’s the actual science of the matter, regardless of how much you want to wring your hands about “calories in, calories out” and “won’t someone think of the fat children.” All forms of dieting (even when you call them “lifestyle changes”) have something like a 95% failure rate over time. I can recommend some reading, though:
Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby
Two Whole Cakes by Lesley Kinzel

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Beginner’s Mind

Quick selfie for Me May May yesterday. I was wearing one of the very first successful t-shirts I ever made, a Greenstyle Centerfield Raglan sewn from seemingly indestructible space dye knit. I think it’s about 4 years old, but it barely has any signs of wear at all. This was the first knit shirt I ever made with a neckband that set in correctly.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Four
Beginner’s Mind

I’ve been sewing for many years, but I’m still learning new skills. For instance, I only started sewing with knit fabrics about 5 years ago or so. For all of my fearlessness in my teen years, knits were the one thing that stumped me — and before the magic of the internet, I had no idea where to turn for advice. There weren’t sewing blogs or YouTube tutorials, and (believe it or not) my main sewing reference was a vintage book I found in a thrift shop: McCall’s Complete Book of Dressmaking, copyright 1951.

So I knew how to make fancy bound buttonholes like a high end tailor, but had no idea how to make a simple t-shirt.

Knits really are more difficult to deal with than woven fabrics in some respects. They’re easier to sew with specialized equipment, and although you can sew them on a regular sewing machine, you still need special needles and sometimes a walking foot attachment — and not all sewing machines have settings flexible enough to sew knits without stretching them out.

Still, perseverance and practice go a long way towards mastery, even when your tools aren’t perfect.

My first several knit projects were abject failures, but my only regret is that I wasted so much fabric. I’m not ashamed of those early efforts. I practiced and let myself fail and eventually I got the hang of it. Even now my knit garments are far from perfect, but they’re good enough to wear — and that’s enough for me.

I took a kind of sewing hiatus for several years in the early 2000s. I was working multiple jobs, and had almost no free time. Aside from the occasional hem or pair of pajama pants, I didn’t sew much at all. When I took up sewing again, I was a much different shape and size than I had been. I had been a standard misses size when I was a teen and younger adult, and clothes in the late 1980s and early 1990s tended to be loose and somewhat boxy, anyway. I never needed to make many changes to make my sewing projects fit. I discovered that I couldn’t just pick a size from my measurements, blend to a larger size at the hips, and expect it to fit any longer. What worked for a size 12 trapeze dress in 1993 did not work for a size 20 fitted sundress in 2007. I had to learn a whole range of pattern adjustments, and I’m still learning new ones even now. But the result is so satisfying. I may have more work upfront than I used to, but in the end I have garments that fit better than ready to wear ever does. All of that time spent, even the frustration of the learning curve — it’s all worth it in the end.

There are so many other things I have yet to try, too. I’ve never made a winter coat or jeans — and I’ve just started a Craftsy class in pattern drafting for perfectly fitting underpants. (Can you imagine?) I could go into how learning new things can help to expand neural networks in the brain, and can contribute to a protective sort of neuroplasticity, but keeping a beginner’s mind can simply be satisfying in and of itself.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Comfort of Repetition and the Repetition of Comfort

Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a silver pin dot print Comino Cap Dress accessorized with a DVD of “Fire Walk with Me” from the library. And yes, this is a dress made from the same sewing pattern as the shirt from Monday. You haven’t seen the last of this pattern yet, and may well be sick of it by the end of the month…but I won’t!

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Three
The Comfort of Repetition and the Repetition of Comfort

I have very mild OCD. It doesn’t affect my life the way my anxiety and depression do, and my therapist agrees that although it’s definitely there, it doesn’t really require treatment at this level. (Unlike the rest of my craziness, is what she means. I have always admired her tactful honesty.) I do exhibit some ritualized behavior, though, and I find some forms of repetition very soothing, especially when stressed.

There’s a specific form of repetition I find especially pleasing when it comes to sewing: I can make as many versions of the same sewing pattern as I want. I’ve always tended to sew multiples of well-loved patterns, but since fitting has become more of an issue, it’s especially soothing. After putting in the initial (and sometimes lengthy) effort to make a pattern work, the second or third version of a garment can be pure pleasure. By that point only an ill-chosen fabric or a real lapse in concentration can ruin a garment. It’s nice to just enjoy the process when you can be fairly secure in your final product. It’s relaxing.

I would say that my favorite sewing pattern right now is the Comino Cap top and dress. Even at my size the top only takes one yard of fabric — the dress only two yards — and including cutting I can make either one in less than two hours. Two hours! Sewing is in many ways the opposite of fast fashion, but when you have limited time or energy, a fast project is definitely easier.

The Comino Cap also has the benefit of being very comfortable — the phrase you usually see amongst sewists is “secret pajamas.” I love having a closet full of comfortable knit tops and dresses, all in different colors and prints, and it never bothers me that many are from the exact same sewing pattern. No one ever notices, either — unless they sew themselves, and then they usually just want to know which pattern you like so much. I am kind of a repetitive sewing bore, but no one has ever said so to my face!

Not every garment I sew is worthy of repetition, but I definitely enjoy those that are.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy: The Power of Frustration

Today for Me Made May I’m wearing a modified Made by Rae Washi Dress in an excellent fat cat print. And yes, I specifically matched my accessories to the cats’ glowing eyes! The fabric was part of a Halloween collection of prints, but I wear this dress all the time. It’s always Halloween in my heart, you see.

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Two
The Power of Frustration

I realized something in kindergarten: I didn’t dress like the other kids. There were only six of us in my class, but five out of six — boys and girls alike — wore jeans and t-shirts almost every day. I always wore a dress. Always. Rain, shine, snow — it didn’t matter. I usually wore shorts under my dresses for the sake of modesty, because I was just as likely to jump, climb, and run around like any other kid, but I don’t think I owned a single pair of pants from ages 4 to 12.

This wasn’t something my parents forced on me; it was just a preference. And seeing other kids dressed differently didn’t change my habits one bit. I genuinely didn’t care that I stood out, and if you think peer pressure eventually changed my stance…you would be very wrong.

I was already a pretty eccentric kid, but in my teen years I eventually went a little…well…goth. Size wasn’t as much of an issue yet (though I was always near the top of “straight” sizes, usually a misses 12 or 14), but living in a rural area in the late 1980s limited my clothing choices pretty severely. My family was also, frankly, rather poor — which was also a consideration. So even if Hot Topic had existed, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to shop there.

I was already thrifting some of my clothing, but except for one trip a year to the city, all of my new clothing (and that wouldn’t amount to much) came from JC Penney and Walmart. So, yeah — I could find a black t-shirt, but not a cool black t-shirt. Not the black t-shirt I really wanted.

I love to explain to people that I very nearly failed the sewing module in home ec in junior high, but only four years later I was working in theatrical costuming. This is all true. The difference is that at 13 I didn’t care about sewing, but at 15 I did. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find or afford the kind of clothes I wanted to wear that I became very motivated to learn how to sew.

I started out with simple projects, using my grandma’s sewing machine. I finally convinced my family that I was serious about sewing, so my parents and grandparents went together to buy me a sewing machine for my 16th birthday. My grandma worked in a garment factory that made postal uniforms, and could get lots of scrap fabric for free — some of it uncut yardage — so I had plenty of material to practice with. My main problem at that point was stretching my allowance to buy other fabric.

I was fearless then. No one told me how hard zippers were or buttonholes — I just jumped in and practiced until I could do them correctly. And it really paid off. I was finally able to make my dreams of sartorial darkness a reality.

One early success was a pair of black (of course) crushed velvet shorts that I wore with tights and chunky boots. I remember how hard I worked at getting the buttonholes just right on a princess seamed floral sundress that had red roses on it the exact same color as my favorite lipstick. And I remember the first fitted skirt I made (also black, of course) because it was the first skirt I ever owned that fit at both my waist and my hips. Even at that size, there was a 12 inch difference between my waist and hips — and almost no ready-to-wear garment would work for that, unless it had an elastic waist.

Sure, sometimes my skills fell short of my imagination, and sometimes I just plain failed. But just trying was satisfying, and when things really did work, it was amazing.

My frustration had opened a window of almost endless possibilities.