Where Do You Think You’re Going, Dressed Like That?

I’ve been going down a historical clothing and costuming rabbit hole lately. Not for a book; I’m merely interested in the subject, and as I find myself wanting to make things- does anyone else occasionally wake up with the urge to build something, doesn’t much matter what it is?- I’m thinking about making some clothes.

This isn’t a new rabbit hole, and it won’t be the last time I fall down it. Fortunately, it mostly consists of watching videos on the subject and making sketches, so while it’s time consuming, this particular whim doesn’t put a huge hole in the budget until I start actually making the items I want. And even that can be done on the cheap. I recently had a lightbulb moment when I discovered the wonders of thrift store bedsheets for making patterns and mock-ups. All that fabric for $3-4, a tenth of what it would cost new. And who cares if it’s the wrong color?- it’s for testing a pattern, not anything I’m going to wear.

Saving money gives me the warm fuzzies, but seems to cause a lot of consternation in some parts of the fashion/historical dress community. I’ve endured an astonishing number of rants and snarky asides about the evils of mass-manufactured clothing lately.

The logic appears to be that consumers buy mostly inexpensive, mass-manufactured clothing that is cheaply made, and treat it as disposable, thereby encouraging clothing designers and manufacturers to churn out even more cheaply made, flimsy clothes. This is unsustainable and Very Bad, and people who are aware of it should try to swap out their mass-manufactured clothing for better-quality bespoke items, and encourage other people to do the same.

They’re not completely wrong. Modern clothing is cheap, doesn’t fit most people very well, and doesn’t last as long as older garments. On the other hand, it exists, and is available to even poor people.

(Let the record show, I tried to summarize the argument in neutral terms. You may judge how well I succeeded)

If I have a choice between spending my fixed clothing budget on 2-3 complete outfits per decade and adding variety through small items like trimmings and accessories, or spending that same money on a few dozen outfits at any given time, you can bet your butt I’d choose the latter. I engage in a massive range of hobbies and activities, and having the right clothes for the job makes life so much easier. It’s possible to ride, garden, and mow the lawn in a wool skirt and linen shirt, like women of the past obviously did, but it’s significantly more cumbersome. I like being able to choose that cheap t-shirt; then I can take the money I saved and buy a good pair of canvas work pants that are well-suited for heavy labor and can be washed afterward. When my body changes size and shape, I can accommodate that shift without breaking the bank.

And let’s face it, does anyone simply throw out an item of clothing once it’s no longer suited for its original purpose? Maybe I belong to a smaller subset of the population than I realized, but I can’t imagine throwing wearable clothes in the trash, even if it’s been in use for a decade or more, as have some of my things. I’m currently wearing a sweatshirt my mother bought me, which means it’s at least twelve years old. Thrift stores will take almost anything that’s intact, and pieces of old garments make great dust rags (the eventual fate of all socks in my house). Holey jeans and stained shirts are great for jobs around the house and yard, where no one cares what you look like. I even cut up t-shirts to use as packing material for my last couple of moves, and my poor long-suffering husband has lost some of his holey undershirts to my need for pattern and mock-up fabric. That’s not even getting into taking apart and repurposing old garments, which, it must be said, takes a certain amount of sewing skill.

As with many things, it’s all about choice, and figuring out what works for you and your situation. Time, money, availability of materials, and skill level all factor into whether you can or want to wear bespoke or mass-manufactured clothes. Or a combination suited to your way of living. What a novel idea!

Okay, I’ll stop being sarcastic.

If I must.

Go forth and experiment!

28 comments

  1. Barbara Hambly in one of her fantasies (set in an early industrial revolution world) had her character think that mass production of clothing meant that one of the servants of her family could afford more than one set of clothing (the character was borrowing one of the sets of clothing).

    Clothing pre-industrial revolution was expensive and “poor” people might not be able to afford new clothing (or several sets of clothing).

    1. “That baby in a dress is [FAMOUS MALE PERSON]?!?!”

      Yes, you loon, because even RICH people couldn’t be buying new clothes for kids all the time!

      1. And because it’s easier to change a baby who’s wearing a dress instead of pants.

  2. Restaurants that use tablecloths often toss the old stained ones, and they’re nice heavy cotton or even linen. Motels often give away vast quantities of last year’s sheets and blankets. Just a matter of catching ’em when they’re renovating their linen closets.

    Been a long time since I did any custom stitchery (I know HOW to do it, but don’t have the hand skill, so it takes me forever, and in any event I no longer do anything that requires specialty clothing) and the former-tablecloth test garments wound up as inner linings for the real thing, as turned out they needed more structure. Zero waste!

    Apparently the medieval clothing thing has become its own industry; while back I tripped over a site that sells it mass-produced.

  3. It’s very snobby to complain about cheap clothing. I understand what fast fashion does but I also vividly remember my mother on the edge of tears because one of us kids needed something as we’d outgrown what we had. There wasn’t a thrift shop or a yard sale on every corner and we weren’t part of a pass-down network. Cheap clothes meant clothes. Period.

    As for making clothing… check out your Goodwill bargain bin if there’s one anywhere near you. They sell by THE POUND. Not just sheets, but tablecloths and draperies make great swaths of fabric.

    There’s also old prom dresses, ballgowns, wedding dresses, and other formal wear. The fabric is often in a big enough piece (or can be pieced) but even better is the TRIM you can carefully pick off. And great buttons!

    I’ve reconstructed old prom gowns into little girl princess costumes. There’s plenty of fabric in those giant skirts.

    1. They seem to use different names depending on the area– I found Bargain Barn and By The Pound in different regions, I think the one in Seattle was Goodwill Last Chance– but stuff like this:
      https://www.goodwillsms.org/goodwilloutlet

      Two of my favorite rugs were from that– they’re rag rugs, heavy as sin, but WARM on concrete basement floors.

  4. I’ll add duct tape: a semi-professional costumer I once knew made a bodice for a bridesmaid’s dress by putting me in a cheap t-shirt and molding it to me with duct tape

  5. I’ve been satisfying that need to create urge with knitting, recently, and as a result, I’ve been thinking about this subject some. I’m currently practicing knitting socks using a baby sock pattern, and the pattern claims that it takes 3 hours to make one sock.

    Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suspect that there’s a fair amount of overlap between the “mass-manufactured clothing is evil” and the “fight for [a minimum hourly wage of] fifteen [dollars]” crowd. Assume that the pattern is accurate in its time assessment. That means that this one little baby sock costs forty-five dollars worth of labor. And that’s disregarding the cost of materials (in the modern world, they’re trivial, but I don’t know if this same crowd also wants to go back to hand-spun yarn made only from natural fibers), much less the cost for people to distribute them where they’re needed.

    Next time you run into one of these “manufactured clothing is evil” people, ask them if they think new mothers ought to pay almost a hundred dollars for a pair of baby socks. They may or may not get the message, but at least it will make you feel better.

    1. They probably think you should be wearing your father’s socks.

      (My uncle actually did inherit my grandfather’s socks. They WERE warm, they were also worn outside of other socks because that much darning from wear and tear meant they were Not Comfortable at all.)

    2. I once tried to figure out the labor cost to make one cotton denim work shirt using a spinning wheel, hand loom and treadle sewing machine. The answer came out between $700 and $800, most of which went into spinning the 15,000 yards of thread. Spinning, weaving and sewing are NOT unskilled labor, by the way.

      SOOO… Who wants to pay $700 for ONE SHIRT?

      It’s no accident one of the first targets of industrialization was textiles. Reducing the cost of clothing by two orders of magnitude improved civilization immeasurably.

    3. Given that these people also heavily overlap with the childfree or one-and-done crowd, making childrearing more expensive is a feature, not a bug.

  6. the shirt i mostly wear in my significant other’s machine shop was purchased for me by my mother

    she passed in 1995

    admittedly, its on its last legs, but still…

  7. I keep clothes until they’re in tatters, usually, and then sometimes I have to be forcibly parted from them if they still look sort-of wearable. My father and especially my mother were children of the Great Depression and WW2; Mom sent us kids to school in the cheapest clothes available (not always fun) and with whatever food could be afforded, typically things like liverwurst and bananas, in a paper bag. I had no idea why people thought this was laughworthy or something to pity.

  8. (Let the record show, I tried to summarize the argument in neutral terms. You may judge how well I succeeded)

    I’d say you summarized the strongest arguments extremely well.

  9. A lot of my wardrobe is less-than-$20 t-shirts.

    Some of them are 25 years old.

    I have jeans I wore in high school, my son is wearing a shirt his grandfather wore when mom was my son’s age, and don’t get me started on the hand me downs where we were at least the third family to own them and put several kids through them.

    It is good to be ABLE to throw stuff away, instead of it being what you wear because otherwise you are going naked.

  10. I have to admit I’d like to find more book sources on how various kinds of historical outfits should be made, for writing purposes.
    And for pretty pictures to lust over. Not that I’d wear it, probably, but I love looking at it….

  11. My grandmothers on both sides had TWO dresses, one for Sunday, the other for everyday. If it got messed up, it was the boys handmedowns until the work dress could be washed. And only two sets of underwear, so they got washed at night.

  12. Once they are no longer wearable, many make useful rags for cleaning and mopping up spills

  13. I have grown far too fascinated by fashion-both male and female-for a heterosexual male who isn’t French.

    The language of clothing has always interested me, and not just because I like seeing women in beautiful things, looking like women. You can argue that before the invention of the internal combustion engine, the wars to control fabric, alcohol, and spices were the greatest of all conflicts outside of those to control territory for your population.

  14. Yes to all of that, though in my case it was using food color to make watercolor cutouts for collage..

    And old clothes are great for cosplay repurposing, cleaning supplies, dog rags, and stuffing.

    I’m with the historical people on plastic clothing (no) even though it’s cheap, and knowing how to repair and refit your clothes, rather than but new. Though I *hate* clothes shopping, so that might be the laziness talking.

  15. Let me see… I’m 62 next month, and I still have two shirts that I wore in high school, so something like 45 years? No, I don’t wear them in public, as even without the holes, the fabric has worn very thin – but that’s an advantage on an Arizona summer day doing yard work.

    At least a half dozen warm shirts that I wore in college back in New Hampshire, so nearly as old – all of them have had buttons replaced over the years, but still perfectly serviceable. Admittedly, that is mostly because they aren’t worn all that much in the same Arizona climate.

    Jeans, though, sigh… Over the years, I’ve gone from a 28″ to a 36″ waist – no way to let those out. I’m not my grandmother or one of my sisters, either, that would cut up that good heavy fabric to repurpose, so they’ve been donated or discarded.

    1. Oooh, ooh! Today, I’m actually wearing an outfit where all my external clothes are NEW!

      …. maternity clothes. For like the second time EVER, I actually look pregnant when I’m pregnant, and the work-arounds to wear my normal clothes aren’t working.
      Bought the shirt as an early Christmas gift (Thou shall not try me, mom 25:7) and an inexpensive skirt with pockets after Christmas. Each were on sale, under ten bucks.
      The dedicated maternity blouses my sister insisted were cute (until I put them on) started at roughly twice that price. Combined.

      1. Good to hear that there will be new kit in the den!

        I encouraged $SPOUSE$ to buy new for our first one. Despite what many think, there is a difference between one pregnant woman and another, even in the same family.

        Those lasted her through the next ones, up until about the last trimester for the son, when she had to buy some new items. But he came out at 10 pounds, 8 ounces, so that wasn’t surprising after the fact.

          1. Vaginal delivery, too!

            We had a couple of years of PT for physical delay, but that turned out fine, too. USMCR Sergeant, three inches taller than I am. (Which is why I couldn’t even hand down my jeans to him – he had the same waist size – 32″ at the time – but no way on the legs.)

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