Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Sew Vintage

Why Vintage?

I've seen a lot of discussions on the blogosphere about why modern women wear vintage, and what it might have to do with male attention (here, most memorably, but I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting). I find these conversations fascinating--they're a glimpse into the priorities and desires of straight women, which I so often forget are different from my own. It surprises me, for instance, that the question 'how am I perceived differently when I wear vintage?' comes up so frequently, while the question 'how do I behave differently when I wear vintage?' rarely occurs. Many, many commentors also mention men's responses to a woman in vintage drag: excessive politeness, more innocuous catcalls, implication that relatively modest vintage styles are 'ladylike' (as opposed to revealing, 'slutty' modern styles--a mindset that however unintentionally justifies rape).

I have a lot to say on this subject, so bear with me. First of all, my relationship to public male attention is a very complicated and uncomfortable one. I'm femme, and not visibly queer unless your gaydar is excellent; the queerest aspects of my appearance are a nose ring and unshaven legs and underarms. I'm also white, thin, young, middle-class, Euro-centrically attractive, and physically nonthreatening. I've been catcalled, called 'pretty' by men I don't know, complimented on my eyes by cashiers--often in the face of my obvious discomfort, and in the presence of my partner. These encounters have made me uncomfortably aware that I don't have a choice about how I am perceived by the world. Short of shaving my head and wearing combat boots at all times--actions that would run against my own personal desires--I can't stop being a pretty girl, and men like to look at pretty girls. In this context, male approval on my appearance comes loaded with a hundred things that I'm sure those men don't consciously intend: power imbalance between men and women, stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, the invisibility of lesbian sexuality, and (because my partner is Asian, and often read as male) the metaphorical impotence of Asian men.

(The flip side of this, of course, would be public attention from other queer women--which makes me feel attractive and safe, and affirms my identity--but unfortunately queer women are not immune to the power of femme invisibility. I've considered wearing a sign around my neck that says 'dyke,' but I'm not sure it would be well received.)

I dress in vintage styles despite, not because of, men's opinions about them. What's the point, then? Let's ask the question, then, 'how do I behave differently when I wear vintage?' For one, I find myself acting more chivalrously when I'm dressed up--holding doors, smiling at strangers, thanking my cashier kindly at the grocery store. I walk differently; heeled boots make me slow down and wiggle, tight skirts need a little hike on the stairs, tucked-in blouses improve my posture. I feel like more of a grown-up, and more of a woman, in the sense of 'fully grown' rather than 'overtly gendered.'

Are all of these things only possible in a pencil skirt? No, obviously; but I think wearing a vintage silhouette gives me a sense of connection to women of the past and through that a broader sense of my own choices. We live in a casual, often vulgar culture. I have no objections to that--if a vulgar public discourse is the price I have to pay for increased sexual and gender equality, less restrictive attitudes about race and ethnicity, and a historically unheard-of level of personal freedom, bring on the sweatpants and slang. Beyond a certain level of common courtesy, I don't care what the person standing next to me on the street corner is wearing; they can take their freedom of personal expression and do whatever they want with it. But for me, a tight pencil skirt makes me think about the generation of women for whom an office job was the height of glamour, women whose identities as 'career girls' helped them navigate a world that was rapidly becoming co-ed. Long wool skirts and loose shirtwaists remind me of urban immigrant women at the turn of the last century, both the enormity of their daily domestic work and the strategies they used to make it bearable.

Getting dressed in the morning is an interaction with our environment: even my Old Navy flip-flops connect me to colonialism, labor abuses in the Third World, technological innovations in plastics and synthetic materials, perceptions of class and age, and so forth. Given a choice, I'd prefer to connect myself to the women who lived and dressed generations before me, whose creativity and ingenuity I can celebrate with my own.

Why Sew?

Women's history is at its core a history of home and hearth: it's about baking and pickling and scouring and mending, all the devalued and invisible tasks that make civilization possible. Domestic technology created a space for modern feminism: the difference between a washing machine and a tub full of soapsuds is five or ten hours in which to think, read, and write. I'm incredibly thankful for the many household conveniences that allow me to live as freely as I do, with as much choice as I have. But baking and pickling and scouring and mending made millions of people cleaner, healthier, happier, safer, and more comfortable. Just because we're not forced to do those things any more doesn't mean we shouldn't choose to, when it suits us. Domestic work is a service to the world just as much as civil engineering or construction work or banking, and in some ways more so, because it is done without the validation of pay or public recognition. (I'm speaking here of unpaid domestic work; paid domestic labor is a whole other tangle of class, race, nationality, and economic inequality.)

I sew my own clothes because I value domestic work, and I think it's worth it to put hours of labor into a garment if it means that it will fit me well, be made of high quality materials, and make me feel happy, comfortable, and sexy. When I wear a dress I've made myself, I know it inside and out; it's mine in a way nothing I buy can ever be. Furthermore, garment sewing is a creative task, especially since I design and draft my own patterns: like engineering, but for bodies. It's not that sewing isn't work--after a long day, my back aches, my eyes hurt, my brain is tired--but it's a deliberate and satisfying kind of work, and its end result is my own pleasure and happiness. I'm not sewing because I have to. I'm not sewing because it will make someone else happy, although that is sometimes one end result. I'm not sewing to bolster my feminine identity or to make my mother proud of me or because it's what girls do.

But I'm also (and bear with me, this sentence gets confusing) not not sewing for any of those reasons. Lucky me, no one has ever told me that I should sew (or bake, or pickle, or mend), so my choice to do it is a free one. Unlike many women--including my mom, who came of age in the seventies--I have the amazing privilege of making my own decision. I have feminism to thank for that, and the many incredible women--like my mom--who fought these battles in decades previous. These are the women I honor by dressing exactly the way I want to and doing all the domestic work I damn well please and never, ever feeling like I am somehow less serious or valuable because of it. And that's why I sew vintage.


Coming soon: some actual things I have actually made; a series on sewing manuals of the twentieth century; and perhaps a pie.


  1. Hi! So, this is an old post and I have been reading yourr archive because your pencil skirt tutorial was linked somewhere (p.s. thank you for the pencil skirt tutorial! there are like ten pencil skirts in my future!!), and this is a totally awesome reflection on femme and I want to give you an internet high-five. A+! Go team!

  2. Thank you! Femme is worth talking about, I think, and these issues are very close to my heart. Glad you liked it, and good luck with those pencil skirts!

  3. I know this post is really old but I felt compelled to comment because it pretty much summarises my experience as a femme who wears and sews vintage exactly. I get frustrated because people assume so much about me based on the way I dress and the fact that I sew. They think I'm straight, old fashioned and modest. None of which are true. I think I need a sign around my neck saying 'dyke' too.

  4. Hey Camelia--I'm glad you read & responded to this. Now that I've delved deeper into the online sewing community, I think I might have more to say on this topic--I find myself being very careful to spell fiancee with the extra e, for instance, because as feminist as this space is, I can't take recognition for granted.