Archive for the ‘Fashion’ Category

A wistful longing for times past

July 12, 2011

Whenever we watch old movies, my husband points out the people with a skin color similar to his own and then what role they’re serving. Serving is quite literal here, as they’re usually in some service position or another, waiting to back up the white leads with a toothy grin or a deferential bow. Now that I’m married to someone with darker skin than my own, I notice this more overtly, too, but I still very much enjoy old movies, particularly screwball comedies with their punchy dialog. One of the things I enjoy about old movies, as well, is fashion watching.

Like many modern, youngish knitters, I have a taste for what is commonly referred to as vintage fashion. Vintage referred originally to wines, but now, according to Random House, it can refer to “the high quality of a past time”. Certainly, vintage clothing is not used to refer to old work clothes or the reused fabrics worn by the working poor.

Technically, these people are wearing vintage clothing. (Photo from the National Archives.)

No, vintage clothing refers to clothing worn by the middle and upper classes. It refers to fashion rather than to necessity. And the idea of “high quality of a time past” contains in it a certain nostalgia for the way things were.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I have a really dual and necessarily compartmentalized view when it comes to vintage clothing and styles. I have no desire to live in the past whatsoever, nor even to time travel to the past for a visit. I can see many inequalities that exist in the time and place in which I live, but I still feel that I live in the best possible time so far for a person like me. At the same time, I have an aesthetic appreciation for some of the looks and styles of the past, even a past that worries me in its more exaggerated inequalities. My current favorite dress looks like it walked out of a fifties or early sixties cocktail party.  It’s full skirted and nip-waisted and it exemplifies the look of a well dressed lady from well before I was born. I wear it with my pierced eyebrow and perhaps there is a certain contrast or visual irony that I enjoy in that, but really, I just like the pretty dress.

I like certain past aesthetics very much, but I’ve noticed that appreciation of an aesthetic can come at a price. It’s easy to slip from appreciating a look into an idealization of the past. I am wary of the show Mad Men for this reason. Although by all accounts the show is meant to expose the underbelly beneath the smooth surface, many of its fans seem mostly to extoll the look of the show and the freedom from political correctness it represents to them. This is a broad generalization, and I haven’t anything to back it up at the moment other than a certain uneasiness I’ve personally experienced when I’ve seen the fliers for Mad Men themed bar nights around town or spoken to someone who went on and on about the fabulousness of the clothes. The two episodes I watched seemed almost nihilistic in the intensity of hopelessness presented, but that’s not the aspect of the show I see represented in its pop culture mythology.

Nostalgia is intense and represents a certain agreed upon amnesia. While I think few people would argue for a loss of civil rights gained by women and minorities in the past 100 years, I do frequently hear people call upon the past as safer. “We didn’t have to worry about this when I was a kid,” is a phrase commonly uttered by many people who seemingly forget that when they were kids, their parents were the ones doing the worrying. It’s a variation on “kids today” that defies any actual statistics about what kids today are doing. It also ignores the very real problems of the past. Drugs, sex, and new and scary music have existed for each generation. Look far enough back and you can find parents scandalized by this new fangled waltz with its opportunities to cop a feel in a dark recess of the dance floor.

The problem with trying to call up the past as better in some aspects is that history is not really divorced from its whole. The picture of nineteen fifties prosperity depends on an ignored unprosperous many as much as on house dresses and good manners and supposedly safe neighborhoods, and that’s ignoring even the nineteen fifties definition of prosperity, which probably would satisfy few alive today, or the fact that rude people have existed in every era, and crime occurred in good neighborhoods and people still behaved like people.

When I’m watching my old murder mysteries or screwball comedies, I enjoy the escapism, the travel to a different time and place, the pretty clothes, the funny dialog, but I try to remember that what I’m seeing is a picture meant for enjoyment. It’s a picture that reveals some of the flaws of the period, as in the case of the dark skinned characters and their service or the women and the way they revolve around the men, and it’s a picture that hides some of the flaws of the period, like when characters in the 30s manage to go an entire movie without ever encountering a single poor or unemployed person. The clothes worn by the movie stars are of course gorgeous, because they were meant to be gorgeous. Your average housewife wasn’t going out in the gowns and coats worn by Myrna Loy or Katharine Hepburn. The past is different from the present, certainly, but people have not changed as much as attitudes have. There is nothing wrong with appreciating the aesthetics of the past, but it’s helpful to remember that aesthetics are deliberately limited in scope.

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Saturday morning cartoons

March 13, 2010

It’s Saturday, but Mr. Kninja has work this morning, so I’m at home with the monkeys, trying to work up the enthusiasm to come up with something fun to do.  I’m thoroughly worn out.  This week was a busy one at Casa Kninja.  It was a long series of a lot of little things that needed doing, culminating in the yearly IEP meeting for the middle Kninja child yesterday.  I’m pooped.

Earlier this week, the Beetle Tracks pattern went live on the Knit Picks site.  This means a decrease in the price to $1.99, so if you’ve already purchased the pattern at the original $3.50 price, next time you purchase one of my patterns, let me know and I’ll give you a $1.50 refund on the purchase.  There are a lot of lovely patterns up on Knit Picks through their Independent Designer Program, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, now’s the time to do it!

I knit the new sample in Andean Treasure in Meringue.  It’s a lovely cream with a slight golden tone, and I actually think I’d like to use some for a sweater project in future.  My McQueen Knockoff is knit in Andean Treasure, and it’s one of my most worn knits.  (Incidentally, I think it would be nice to do an occasional return to an old project to see how it’s holding up and how often it’s worn.)  I wasn’t as sure about the yarn when I was knitting with it, but after wearing the sweater repeatedly for over a year, I have to say that it’s held up well, with some pilling, and that’s it’s very comfortable and warm, and the fit is still good.  This is better than I can say for a number of my sweaters where the yarn made a more favorable first impression!  The Andean Treasure has gotten softer and softer with wearing, and I love the way it looks.

We took pictures on one of our weekend walks on a recent (rare) day without rain.  I’m crazy proud of Mr. Kninja for this picture.  I don’t think he or I have ever taken such a good modeled shot between us.  I’m not a model and he’s not a photographer, and I think we muddle along pretty well for all that, but neither of us has an easy time with our photo shoots!  I feel silly posing and he’s dealing with a lot of technical stuff and trying to get a good shot that doesn’t make me look like an idiot and that also shows off the knitwear, and by gum, it’s tricky!

In the interest of full disclosure and also in keeping with previous posts on beauty and feminine ideals, I will say that all of my photos are edited in Photoshop, by me, and that I do some smoothing of my skin.  I tend to break out, even at the ripe old age of 31, and I have some minor scarring from previous breakouts, so I’m very self conscious about my skin.  I try very hard not to smooth out my freckles and other detail when I’m cleaning up my pictures, and I don’t change anything about the knitwear other than a little color correction, but my vanity is appeased only with a little clean up to my face.  I do not change the shape of my body, though.

Photos for this sort of thing are interesting.  They have a double aim.  On the one hand, you want them to accurately represent the knitwear to the customer, and to show them what they’ll get if they knit your pattern.  And on the other hand, you also want to present an idealized form, not so much of the knitwear, as of the model, because photos tell stories.  And we musn’t forget that these pictures are selling something.  I’m not a professional model and I don’t go as far as a company with a lot of money would to try to sell my patterns.  I have grey hair and wrinkles and my eyes get red around the rims, and I’m not so much of an expert or a liar that I can correct all those things in post.  But I am trying to show you a more idealized form of myself a lot of the time when I take photos of my knitting.  It’s more fun to think about walking around in nature than sitting on a couch, which is my more usual state of affairs.

While you do generally see the outfits I’d be inclined to wear anyway (that coat is one I wear almost daily when it’s at all cool out), I have found that since I’ve begun modeling my own creations, my clothing purchases have changed.  I tend to eye things with a thought of how it would look in a photo, or with knitwear on over it.  I buy more plain colored tees than I did in the past.  There’s a definite, but small, change in my wardrobe in consideration of how it would help with displaying my knitting.

One blatant exception to the daily wear is the wedding dress I donned for the Entrechat shoot.  I do not usually wander the beach barefoot in a wedding dress, however tempting it might be.  That was a fairly Rowan inspired shoot.  Rowan’s really good at getting into the heads of knitting fangirls of English literature and forcing us to picture ourselves out on a moor or at the seaside or in a lovely cafe, wearing our beautiful knitwear that makes us look so lovely that the handsome man wandering in from the side of the picture is sure to fall in love with us immediately.  I can’t compete, but I can create my own fantasies.

It’s like Saturday morning cartoons.  It’s all a lot of fun to watch Saturday morning cartoons, but the point is not just the entertainment, but what the entertainment sells.  And in the case of knitting patterns, photography is the cartoon that sells the toy.  I’m not trying to be cynical.  I have no problem with people making money from their work, myself included, and I have no real problem with the fact that good photography is what sells the pattern.  It’s not just the knitted item, but the story behind it.  The best selling patterns on Ravelry are usually accompanied by photos that don’t just show you what you’re making, but also tell you a lovely story.  So I’m trying to work on my photography and posing and storytelling skills.

(Please note: most of this post was actually written on Saturday morning before the weekend got crazy busy and I lost track of everything!  It’s most definitely not Saturday morning as I hit the “Publish” button.)

Anyway, I think I’ll describe my amateur photography/modeling process in more detail in future posts, to offer a look inside this particular sausage factory.  I’m learning a lot by not knowing what I’m doing, and hopefully others can benefit from all the things I try that don’t work and the few things that do.

Shallow artifice

May 2, 2008

A brilliant post on Needled about historian Catharine Macaulay got me thinking, and I’m going to try to run down the train tracks of that thought now. How much relation this bears to knitting may be debatable, but I hope to get to the needle arts in time.

My daughter is named for many strong women.  We liked the name Eleanor, but we also liked the fact that all the Eleanors we could think of were capable, interesting people.  It’s a name that’s not been very popular since the 1930’s, so the first association for a lot of folks is Eleanor Roosevelt.  This is something we liked about the name.

Which makes it interesting to note that a number of people, hearing my daughter’s name, have commented on that association, not in regards to (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt’s achievements or personality, but her looks.

I’m not going to go so far as to say that looks don’t matter, because I think I’d be lying if I did go that far.  Looks do matter.  They matter in all sorts of ways, from the perceptions people form of us, to the way we present ourselves.  But it does mean something that a smart and qualified and capable woman can be dismissed by both men and women on the basis of her face and figure, while men with faces like feet can be revered and even thought sexy for their smarts.

The thing is, while I think looks do matter, they matter in context only.  It makes little sense to comment on the looks of a man or woman when the topic at hand is their work.  When Nancy Pelosi took over from Dennis Hastert as Speaker of the House, I saw and heard multiple commentaries on what Pelosi wore.  On the news.  I remember none of this during Hastert’s reign, and it stood out as a stark difference.

I’m not an innocent here.  This is where we start coming back to the realm of needle arts.  I’ve been making some of my own clothing for a number of years now.  I can’t help noticing what people wear and how it makes them look.  I think about clothing more now than I ever did, and that leads in turn to thoughts about how attractive clothing can make a person, and also how unattractive.  I’ve read plenty of little aphorisms about how you shouldn’t worry about what you wear because no one will notice, but I know they are not true, because I notice what other people wear.  I suspect I’m not alone.  I suspect, darkly, that these aphorisms exist merely as comfort, to bolster the true and lovely, but somewhat uneasy position, that we should wear what we want and not worry about what others think.  It’s easier to do that if we believe that others are not thinking of us at all.

While it’s clear that certain sorts of commentary on looks and dress are wrong, there’s a danger of slipping too far the other way as well – a danger of condemning people as frivolous for daring to care about matters of dress or facade.  Early feminists often fell into this trap.  Mary Wollstonecraft repeatedly railed against the frivolities of the women whose rights she defended in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, suggesting that showing any care for one’s looks was akin to moral weakness.  (I used Google Books to search the words “beauty” and “frivolous” in A Vindication, and found numerous passages damning the fair sex for the idiocy brought on by an obsession with loveliness – Wollstonecraft seemed to believe, not without reason at the time, that beauty came at the expense of education.)

We walk a fine line in fashion and feminism.  Caring too much makes us shallow, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of artifice and dressing to please others.  But it’s also easy to fall into the trap of dressing to displease others, without considering our own taste and feelings at all.

Women are still judged unfairly on their sexuality and sex appeal.  If the article by Brian Sewell that is referred to at Needled isn’t enough for you, reading about nearly any female public figure should open some eyes.  But how we are judged shouldn’t be the arbiter for how we present ourselves.  I think the beauty of creating our own clothes, the potential beauty of that edgy obsession with fashion, is that we can choose our own path.  If you want to show off your body, if you want to cover it, if you want to dress for comfort, you can create clothes that do just that.  The point is that you make it your own.

I’m torn here.  I think we will always devote more time and energy to what is easier.  That people are interested in fashion, gossip, and celebrity is less proof of foolishness or frivolity than it is the ease of forming an opinion on such matters.  It’s certainly easier to say what you think of Kate Hudson being named one of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People than it is to suggest a solution to problems in Uganda.

But this predilection for the easy, the safe, leads to sad legacies for women such as Catharine Macaulay.  I confess that I did not remember hearing her name until the post at Needled shoved a few bubbling streams of thought up from my memory.  We remember beauty long after it has faded and died.  We forget that which we do not understand, but particularly when it comes to women.  I can name you any number of men whose work I will never really understand, but when I trip blithely through my memory to name you some impressive historical women, the list compresses sadly and severely.

Napoleon dismissed my sex with a flippant suggestion that women should stick to knitting.  Well, I, for one, will stick to knitting.  But I can do so much more.