Monday, December 26, 2011

The Saga of the Ugly Dress or the Repurposed Dress

My grandmother would have been OK with the ripping of this 50 year old dressing gown to recycle, as she did that often.  I recall (and I’m certain I’m not making it up) as a child I watched as she turned old curtains into flounces and puff sleeves for my dolls.  She worked this way because of poverty.  My mother recounts how she recycled khaki ex-army uniforms into serviceable clothes for her children.  Now the ‘upcycled’ way has become fashionable and claimed by designers.  It occurs what I'm doing may be a bit of a ‘Nan’ thing. 

Madelle wasn’t the neatest seamstress.  She didn’t even bother taking out the tacking she’d put in to guide her machine sewing.  I find these personal, or hand tracks touching.  I’d virtually ripped apart two other ‘used’ dresses but with this one I tried to be patient and not rip the seams apart.  Once or twice, I did begin to tug and the seams are sewn so tight that the fabric came away rather than the stitching.  Be gentle and patient I encouraged myself.  Patience is not my forte.  Making a dress this way is certainly a lot more time-consuming than starting from scratch using new fabrics by the metre.  Unpicking is rather like weeding.  Both give you time to reflect.

What I’d like to say to her if I had been looking over her shoulder is ‘not so tight Grandmere…loosen the tension a little.’  Because one day when I decide to unpick it and use the fabric for something else, I’m going to have a hell of a time doing so.  I notice the fabric of the seams are much darker than the rest and there will be stitch marks left like ‘scars’ – tell tale signs that this was once something else.  It is a lot like life that leaves us with emotional or physical scars.

The thing that strikes is that this is not a sustainable way to make a dress.  It’s taken me many hours to unpick several dresses, including the dressing-gown to have the fabric required for me to cut my pattern pieces for the London Peasant Dress designed by Lila Tueller.  My own labours, the time, the electricity – surely they kid when they call it ‘sustainable’?  Moreover, repurposed clothing in general costs more because of the hand-hours of labour.  Is it enough to say that it is ‘sustainable’ because it prevents old clothing from entering landfills? 

It was only after I had cut the skirt of the peasant dress that I realized the pattern has a nap and had not been cut and sewn according to the nap by either my grandmother or the maker of the other dresses.  A detail that would not have escaped my attention.  I assumed that because two dress/skirt pieces were sewn together that the pattern for each piece ran the same way.  You have to make do with these ‘mistakes’.  It would have been quicker to have nipped down to the local fabric shop and bought some cheap fabric for my peasant dress.  I have unpicked three dresses sent to me by Dawn Edwards which didn’t fit, my mother’s dressing-gown and a skirt I bought almost two decades ago, whose elastic had slacken and which I’d kept because the fabric is so pretty.  Two of the dresses that Dawn sent were lined giving me almost twice the unpicking. 

It may be a trend with celebrities like Livia Firth to wear a repurposed gown but somehow it still comes off as being glamourous as their original and repurposed are from designer labels.  Whereas my dress strikes me as being an ugly dress.  I will have to wear it, and wear all the insults people will say.  ( I once made a pair of knee length wool pants and wore them with tights and I don’t know how many people asked whether I’d run out of fabric…)  I can imagine what will roll off the tips of tongues ‘what a harlequin dress!’ or ‘it’s a dog’s breakfast’, ‘did you run out of fabric?’  In fact yes – or I was trying to use what I had.  My partner Philip on seeing me try it on suggested ‘you won’t find that in Target’.  Indeed. 

I’ve been pondering the idea of beauty versus meaning during my labours.  Keats has told us ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’.  This is my search for a kind of truth, which I find beautiful –  that I have been able to use fabric that is half a century old.  I like to make beautiful things but I’m also in pursuit of meaning.  While I have been motivated to make the most aesthetic garment using what I have available to me, I have been restricted by what was available.  I don’t for instance have access to those designer gowns that make Livia Firth’s upcycled gowns for The Green Carpet so glamourous.  The history that my mother wore one of the fabrics when she was pregnant with me, and that my grandmother made it– touched by two beautiful women – that aspect is beautiful.  I like the aspect too – that I was able to use the dresses that Dawn sent, bought from thrift shops in the States, even though she’d sent them to me because she was averse to cutting them up.

What’s lead me to the making of an ugly dress – I wanted to use the hand me down dressing gown because I’m unable to pass it down to a daughter of my own.  Would she have cared anyway?  In any case – to wear it in some form.  It has been ‘repurposed’ and it tells a story – not so much that I’m interested in recycling old clothing but that nothing much has altered from one generation to another even when it's skipped a generation.  Like grandmother Madelle, I have made a dress from recycled fabrics.  Philip describes the making as a ‘labour of love’.  I know it has been a labour and perhaps at the centre of it – is love...I wore the dress on Christmas day eager to see whether my mother would notice her dressing gown was now repurposed.  Of course she did...'Did you know,' she said to Philip, 'that was once my dressing gown.  In fact it was the first dressing gown I'd ever had and I wore it when I was pregnant...'  


  1. Joni, you're blogging! Lovely post, too, I might add.

    Joni, nothing that you wear could ever appear 'ugly'.

    Love that through all of the hours of unpicking you were able to have 'conversations' with your grandmother. That alone was worth the time of all of the unpicking, as we seldom, if ever, have those opportunities. That, and the recognition by your mother and her remembrances of the dress. Of course, in my view, the greatest gift of the gown, the blessing that your mother was carrying while wearing it. I am blessed by that gift, too.

  2. Joni, this is a beautiful story. Your words brought me right into the moment and I thoroughly enjoyed all of your reflections. The meditative quality of hand work, even when it's a struggle, is what attracts us I think. Your time to ponder the special women in your life and to honor them shines through.
    Thank you for sharing this story so eloquently. (And I'd have to agree with Dawn, you'd look beautiful in anything, but I really like your dress!)

  3. Thanks for all your encouraging words Tatiana, Dawn, Robinfelt...It is as you both say Dawn and Robinfelt, an opportunity to engage in a stream of consciousness... have those conversations in a wonderful state of reverie...and the story evolved virtually as I was unpicking and making the dress. It became a conversation with me too...