Dressing like a feminist

Since I posted last, I finished my jacket (snapshot at the end of this post) as well as a Pierrot-style clown costume for Halloween, but neither has seen any wear! The weather has turned quite cold and rainy, and I came down with a gnarly head cold that prevented me from any Halloween reveling. I hope to have pictures of one or both soon, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share some reflections on a topic near and dear to my heart.

When I was a sophomore in college in the early aughts, my uncle and parents visited me. We went to the mall, because that’s what we did back then for fun. As we walked through the perfumed air, my uncle said something I never forgot: “You know that women’s fashion is all about vulnerability, right?”

The more I thought about it, the more examples I came up with. Tight waists that restrict breathing and make eating difficult. Long hair and jewelry to grab. Exposed skin. Constricting skirts and pants that limit range of motion. No pockets, which necessitates carrying a bag. Shoes that prevent the wearer from running, walking or sometimes even standing in for more than 20 minutes. Sizes and shapes that make people feel like genetic aberrations. And, perhaps most debilitating, the expectation that women should be gorgeous, fashionable or at least “current” at all times so you have a hard time thinking about other things.

I’ve worn all of the garments and accessories I’ve listed above. Skinny jeans that were so tight I’m pretty sure they gave me heartburn? Yep. Painfully tall, cheaply-made, blister-inducing heels? Yep. As I get more comfortable in my skin, my tolerance for these particular sorts of pain has declined dramatically. Physical comfort is on par with aesthetics for me now. I’m done with skirts I need to keep adjusting or shirts that cut into my armpits. I tend to wear shoes that I can walk at least a mile in. At the same time, I’ve never been more certain about what I want to wear and look like.

I think making your own clothing can be an act of resistance to the shortcomings of mainstream fashion – I’m empowered to make the clothes I need and want, and I can make them to fit me. I know techniques to make my clothes last longer than the store-bought items I could afford, so I’m not always scrambling for replacements. My imagination, skill level and free time are the constraints I work within. I feel lucky.

I still think a good deal about fashion and clothing, and sometimes I question the amount of time I spend on sewing and sewing-related activities. Aside from work, it’s without a doubt what I spend the most time doing. “Sewing” has come to encompass a whole range of activities for me, however: learning, writing, working with my hands after a day of digital work, challenging myself, relaxing, meeting people and being creative, with the hope of a useful object at the end of the process. I like new clothes quite a bit, but would they be interesting enough on their own to sustain my sewing practice?

On the flip side, my interest in clothing and sewing looks dramatically different from others’. I have friends who enjoy the performative aspects of fashion.  Playing with gender and identity through clothing can be extremely powerful and, I think, a feminist act as much as dressing to suit your body and comfort. That exploration may include the 6″ heels, a three-piece suit, a shaved head or cleavage for days. Why a person wears something can easily be as important as what they’re wearing.

Given how much time and thought most of us invest in our home-sewn garments, do these sorts of considerations enter into what you sew? Has making your own clothing changed how you dress yourself?

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78 thoughts on “Dressing like a feminist

  1. Fascinating post and a subject! I have always represented myself through the way I dress and have definitely found how I choose to do that has changed as I have gotten older. Comfort is certainly more of a factor now, but was not always an essential part of my decision making, neither has pleasing other people! I often feel guilty for dedicating so much time to thinking about clothes, sewing and ultimately my appearance, as the less I shop the more I see these things as superficial, but I guess we’re only human after all! I feel I am often a walking contradiction with my sewing. I dream of sustainability, but yet I keep making more things!

    1. I love the idea of dressing to please yourself, and I’d be interested in hearing more about how you choose to represent yourself with your clothing! I’ve been prone to those guilty feelings too, and I’ve been trying to break them down a bit recently and figure out what’s at the source. I’ll let you know if I have any epiphanies 🙂

      1. Ha ha thanks! I guess the representing bit is just having the courage to look a certain way even if it’s not the norm! Depending on where you live people can have quite closed minds when it comes to clothes, but I choose to ignore that and dress however I’m feeling. If I want to walk to the super market in leopard print boots when everyone else is wearing black shoes then so what? My mood dictates my dress sense!

  2. Wow. You (and your uncle) just blew my mind. I have never heard women’s fashion described that way, but its makes absolute sense. Very creepy, maddening…. and enlightening. Thank you for this post.

    1. To give credit where credit is due, I believe he learned that perspective from a very insightful ex-girlfriend. It’s incredibly frustrating to learn about, but I think awareness is an excellent first step.

  3. Your reflection was really thought-provoking. I too sometimes question the time I spend sewing—haha!—but ultimately it’s an enjoyable activity for me, and I think taking time to relax and express myself is really important. And of course, several valuable skills have come out of it, like using the Internet to teach myself random stuff and persevering through tricky problems. And my spatial reasoning has improved unbelievably!

    Ultimately—and maybe this is just a function of me being a teenager still—but the clothes I make are usually all about looks instead of convenience. For me, the advantage of sewn clothes over purchased ready-to-wear is that when I sew something, my physical appearance becomes a reflection of my personality. I can represent myself so much more vibrantly if I am not confined by what is comfortable or casual. For me, sewing is more individualist than feminist; it lets me define myself without relying on the whims of a department store. I sew because I love taking pride in what I’m wearing!

    But of course, this is coming from someone whose demand for practical everyday clothing is pretty low—I wear a uniform to school every day! 😉

    1. I spent some time looking through your blog recently, and I’ve got to say, your creations are pretty spectacular! I didn’t sew in high school even though I’d always wanted to make my own clothes, and I think I would have benefitted from it. I would have loved to have customized my own dresses for dances instead of wearing an awkward Jessica McClintock. Unlike you, I always wanted plainer things than I could find in stores (although we’re similar in our desires to define ourselves outside of commercially available clothing!) One thing I never question about sewing is how much it’s benefitted me in many other areas of my life – project planning, patience, and (like you) perseverance.

      I’ll be interested to see if and how your sewing practice changes when the uniform is a thing of the past!

      1. Thanks! I’m really glad I started sewing young because I know a lot of adults who would love to sew but just don’t have the time to learn. My mom made me my first home-sewn dress in 8th grade, and from there I got hooked on clothes and I needed to learn how to sew to feed my addiction 😉 I’m intending to spend this summer building my college wardrobe, but we’ll see how well I stick to that resolution. Thanks for such an inspiring post!

  4. Once again Morgan your thoughtful insights on fashion, life, and sewing come at the right time. I’ve starting to be more aware of why I gravitate toward a particular garment through the Wardrobe Architect. The clothes I was “pinning” in March are so different than what I am interested in now, and I think a large part of that is due to realizing that I can be comfortable and powerful if I am smart about my clothing choices.
    I have a hard time justifying a sewing project that I can’t wear lots.
    I enjoy looking “good” even when I know that the concept of “looking good” is burdened with centuries of social conditioning and oppression. I take small victories in finding ways to – as rillafree said – dress for myself and chose which fashions I wish to embrace and which ones don’t work for me. (Defined waist, sure! Skinny pants, ack can’t move!)

    1. I love that you used the word powerful 🙂 It is difficult to consider what it means to “look good” given how much baggage is attached to that concept, and as much as I’d like to be free of all that conditioning, I’m not. I like your approach of finding small victories and getting on with life. Funnily enough, your small victories are the opposite of mine – I feel suffocated in most garments with a defined waist and pretty mobile in skinny pants.

  5. What a wonderful piece! I love your analysis of your style journey. Mine was quite different. My mother and grandmother were die-hard feminists and my interest in fashion when I was growing up was considered too superficial. Part of how I constructed my identity was as someone who loved clothes, even though it’s was a bit taboo. Feminism can seem quite puritanical when buying fashion mags and painting your nails are frowned upon. And yet I was never into super feminine, frilly clothes, though I did wear much more body conscious stuff when I was younger.
    To answer your question about how sewing has changed my relationship to clothes, well, I do find it empowering to be able to sew and wear exactly what I want. I make clothes that are comfortable and express who I am more than any RTW garment ever could, There’s also much more unity in my closet than there used to be, which is something that I find very satisfying.

    1. Thank you, Sara. I don’t think anyone in my family before my generation has been a self-identified feminist, so it’s interesting to hear how it was interpreted in your family. It’s difficult when individual habits like nail polish are used as a symbol for much bigger problems like gender equality – I think it can be a distraction from the real problems, actually.

  6. I really appreciate this post.

    Your uncle was so right. It’s about vulnerability and frailty–making us seem smaller, and take up less space. But I don’t think of engaging with it is anti-feminist. I mean, you look at the original first-wave feminists, and they are dressed in the restrictive and sexist garments of their own times. Most of us are not able to stand outside of our own historical period, and I don’t think we should blame ourselves for that.

    I don’t feel like sewing is anti-feminist either, mostly because clothing is a necessity. Particular pieces and styles may seem frivolous but at the end of the day, we all have to wear something. It may as well be something we made. And yes, there is something so refreshing about going home after a day of mental labour to something you make with your hands.

    As far as these considerations influencing what I sew, absolutely. I focus on making things that allow me to live the life I want to. Most of the time, that’s practical stuff for work and down-time, but not always.

    I’ve got a copy of Women In Clothes at home that I’m dying to dig into for all of these kinds of questions. Have you seen that one?

    1. I think you put into words something that was in the back of my mind when I was writing this – the idea of context, belonging to our own historical period. When I was a teen, I thought my mom’s refusal to wear tight clothes was melodramatic and silly. Now I’m grateful she wasn’t too swayed by fashion or convention to consider her physical comfort, something I now emulate. These incremental changes make a difference.

      I don’t think sewing is anti-feminist, either; I do think it’s been gendered as a feminine pursuit and henceforth, it hasn’t been as highly valued as similar, traditionally male spheres like carpentry.

      You’re always introducing me to things I haven’t heard of! I looked up Women In Clothes and it sounds interesting. Book report? 🙂

      1. Thanks. 🙂 and yeah, absolutely, when I work my way through it I’ll definitely be posting a review.

        And on the gendering thing–yes. No one is thought of as frivolous when they make an end table. Or at least, not that I’ve heard of.

  7. Brava! Well said. It has long been my opinion that the lasting legacy of feminism in fashion was not to free women from bras and heels as much as it was to allow women to make the choice to dress independently of social demands. Your observation that “why” a person wears something may be as important as “what” they’re wearing really resonates with me.

  8. Really interesting post! I agree with you wholeheartedly. As I get older and as my sewing skills get better, my patience for RTW clothing and uncomfortable shoes has decreased to nearly zero.

    I used to wander from store to store looking for something specific and never finding it, ultimately settling for whatever trend was sweeping the stores at that moment. Now I just make exactly what I want, and that’s that.

    Fit is a huge issue for me. Now that I can make clothing that actually fits my body, I’ve realized just how awful trying to fit into RTW clothing is when it *really* doesn’t fit you at all. Why squeeze the entire population into one standard cut, when everyone is so incredibly different? And those differences are wonderful!

    Comfort and functionality have become paramount in my sewing as well. If it’s not comfortable to wear, I’m simply not going to wear it, regardless of how good it might look on me. I’ve been wearing orthopedic shoes for a few years now and don’t see myself ever going back, especially because I walk a few miles each day to get to work and back! The blisters are just not worth it.

    So glad you shared your thoughts on this very interesting and thought-provoking topic. Sewing for the win! 🙂

    1. Retail shopping was the same for me – a futile search for something very specific and plain, especially before I discovered the joy of thrift-shopping. Sewing is a slow but very rewarding and personalized way way to build a wardrobe, one that I feel fortunate to be able to do! And isn’t it great to be able to walk in your shoes??

  9. Yes, yes, yes. Also i dont think its a coincidence that most designers that make female clothes you can actually run, and move and stay comfortable in all day are females like Miucca Prada or Donna Karan. It’s something I’ve observed time and time again that while beautiful 5″ heels with platforms like the ones started by McQueen as gorgeous as they were they belong only in the imagination of someone that is not a female. It has kind of irked me to see all these male designers creating the most impossible albeit beautiful clothes to wear. It made me want to send them down the runway wearing their stuff and see how they felt about it!!! It would be a fun show!!!!

    1. I had an art history professor who had the same theory about male and female designers. It’d be interesting to gather some data on wearers’ comfort ratings of different designers!

  10. Thank you for the input! I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about all of this and what consequences this has.
    For most of my life I have gravitated towards clothing that doesn’t restrict me/my movements in any way. I ride my bike to university and most days comfort and practicability are the most important aspect.
    But somehow I feel that sticking to those needs has become harder since I started sewing clothes because: 1) all the (mostly super feminine) ‘frosting’ that looks like SO much fun that other seem to sew all the time! I really envy this and it’s kinda hard not to get carried away and sew a pretty floral cocktail dress that I could never wear to uni/in the hospital/in the lab. 2) a lot of the clothes I would need are not that interesting from a technical standpoint. I am working on a coat right now which is challenging enough but what I really need are a new pair of jeans (still fun, I’d say) and then a thousand mostly boring jersey shirts that I would actually need/wear.
    So for me it’s kind of the other way around. I appreciate all the emancipatory aspects of sewing/crafting that make you discover your body/shape and being more aware, not being bound to fashion but being able to be inspired by it. On top of the fact that by sewing my own clothes I am not indirectly part of the exploitation of textile workers and so on. Still, I think it’s hard not to get carried away by all the possible projects as I improve my skills, but stick to the ‘boring’s tuff I would previously just have bought.

    1. It’s interesting that you equated more feminine styles as being less necessary – I feel the same way but I’m not completely sure why. When I started sewing, well over half of my projects were dresses and it’s down to one or two a year now that I’ve gotten more realistic about my lifestyle. I wonder if you could have a lot of fun experimenting with different pants styles and fabrics?

  11. I loved to read this article as over the years men have felt free to comment on how I dress. The remark I have never forgotten is that ‘you dress like a lesbian’. It was not supposed to be a compliment. I think it is because I dress how I like, which is clothes that are comfortable and allow a good range of movement, so that often involves jeans (with plenty of stretch!) and flat shoes. Also I am not always shopping, due to having a life. Unfortunately as the mother of teenage girls I can attest there is still plenty of pressure at school to dress in the ‘latest’ thing and as women growing up we are encouraged to view ourselves through a male lens (do I look ‘frumpy’? Is this too ‘sexy’?). I am lucky that as my daughters get older they are standing against the tide and wearing what they want. I see sewing as separate although linked to this debate – sewing does give freedom from fashion in one sense as you can make whatever you fancy regardless of what’s ‘current’, although so does shopping in charity shops….I think it’s a bit like the difference between a ready meal and one you’ve made from scratch. Ultimately it’s more satisfying than handing over some cash. I don’t think because an activity has been largely gendered in the past it invalidates it, either. I enjoy the fact I can plumb a sink and sew a dress!

    1. The comment you received about dressing like a lesbian reminds me of an exchange I had with a friend of a friend. He quickly looked me up and down after meeting me, and asked in rapid succession, without irony, “you’re wearing a men’s watch – are you a lesbian?” and “that black nail polish – are you a goth?” These very minor details about my appearance must have made him uneasy and apparently eager to confront me with questions about my identity, which I just couldn’t dignify with a straightforward response. It’s encouraging to hear that your daughters are forging their own paths. Have you ever come across rookiemag.com? It’s an online teen magazine that’s pretty thoughtful, and I like how they approach fashion and beauty; it’s a smaller portion of their content and emphasizes experimentation and identity aspects. Good on you for your plumbing skills and general self-sufficiency!

  12. This was interesting to read and I feel like adding my two cents.

    My aunt is a very accomplished woman with an important job. She never had any fashion sense and does not really care about her looks. Her husband is an artist and has always complained about this, and how much he would like to have married someone like my mother, who was always perfectly put together and had lots of style. So sure, men rule women’s fashion, either by designing it or by making us feel bad about how we dress.

    My mom was pretty and enjoyed clothes but she was the first woman to go to university in her hometown and got very critized by many just because she wanted and education and to be economically independent. She was very elegant yet unique, and comfort was a must. Nobody I know dressed liked her.

    Their mother, my grandmother, was a fascinating woman. She was too tall and worked in the fields like a man since she was 2 years old, and I believe she felt bad about her strong arms and her height. Once a year, a professional seamstress would visit the family to take measurements and sew, right there at their home, the garments they needed for the following year. My grandma learned to sew watching this seamstress and started making clothes, beatiful clothes, from his father’s worn out shirts and other scraps. When farmwork became too much for her father, they moved to the city and my grandma looked for a job in a factory. Because of her neat appearance and her lovely dresses she was offered a desk job, which meant less manual labor and more pay. No matter how poor she was -she endured the Spanish civil war, the post-war era and the repression and rationing that came afterwards – she always managed to look clean, dignified and smart.

    As for me, it was my mom who encouraged me when I took up sewing. She bought me my sewing machine and told me I would find freedom in my handmade clothes. Life changed a lot for me just after that and I had to stop sewing until recently. I have only made a handful of garments, but I am starting to feel she was absolutely right.

    1. What a fascinating idea – I’ve never heard of seamstresses making house visits! Thank you for sharing your family’s sartorial history; it’s always interesting hearing what people’s attitudes towards their clothes are and how they were perceived. I can relate a little to your grandmother’s self-consciousness about her strength; I started swimming in high school and immediately gained quite a bit of muscle. Things that fit through the torso were horribly constricting in the upper back and shoulders, and there was no way I passed for dainty and feminine. I wish I’d been able to appreciate that strength I had then!

  13. Great post, and great comments too! Since I sew almost all my own clothes these days, I don’t come in to contact with the fashion industries idea of what I should be wearing that frequently, but I recently had a weird experience. I got it in to my head to make some selvedge jeans, I came across some selvedge denim a while back and inspired by VeryPurplePerson, I decided it was time to sew it up. Now I didn’t know what the usual fit was like in selvedge jeans, so I decided to go snoop shopping. Well, even though I went to a store that had probably 10-15 high end jean brands for women, and a huge range of high-end jeans for men, all of the women’s jeans had stretch in them, even the selvedge jeans. I was flabbergasted. The manufacturers had decided that women’s jeans just absolutely had to be close fitting so there was simply no option to have the boxier fit that would be required with non-stretch denim. And even with the stretch, they didn’t carry any waist sizes above 31 (or didn’t have them in stock). I think that there are similar examples of that throughout the fashion industry, women’s styles being lighter and tighter – jeans, shirts, jackets. I’m just glad I (mostly) don’t have to deal with it anymore!

    1. Interesting you mention it – my friend just found a pair of second-hand Rag & Bone jeans (women’s) without any stretch and made from thick denim. We were both astounded because of how rare that’s become! Like you, I feel grateful to have the time and skill to create my own clothing.

  14. Such interesting insights, this is a great discussion! Now that I think about it more closely, perhaps sewing my own clothes has enabled me to dress differently. I’ve always been a very particular shopper, even when I haven’t been sewing as much. But these days, there is very little clothes shopping going on in my life, and I think that is a bit of a relief. There is certainly more freedom in just going ahead and making what you want, rather than trying to hunt it down, or never finding it. Or finding it, only to have the skirt be too short for comfort – I am partial to the “practicality” of clothing being long enough to sit down in without excess exposure!

  15. I started sewing for vanity reasons; the same reasons your uncle stated. But because the fashionable clothes never fit me, or needed alterations, I wanted to make my own so I could be uber fashionable (or uber vulnerable)? But as I’ve become more involved, I’ve gone in the other direction, and I am now trying to find functional, classic and unique outfits that are totally me. With this, I’ve become more attuned to the fit and search for ways to make not only that (fit) better, but comfort. I do believe that you don’t have to sacrifice function for fit; I believe you can look great and still be comfy. Look at Jennifer Anniston and her epitomous jeans and tee! She looks pretty effing comfy to me!

    1. I had no clue how important fit would become to me when I started sewing! It makes all the difference in how present I can be to my life (rather than my clothes). I’ve been enjoying reading about your wardrobe building blocks, especially the pants you’ve been working on.

  16. Love your thoughts on this one, and yes. Sewing has completely changed how I dress myself and how I’ve come to define myself by different things to my pre-sewing days. I started out for the sheer love of creating, taking a 2d object and making it wearable. That love was one half of the reason, the other being I wanted beautiful things that fit me and that I didn’t have to pay extravagant amounts of money for.
    What really blew me away at how far my mental state has changed when it comes to dressing myself, was how I felt after going shopping for clothing in the post-Christmas sales earlier this year. I was mid-wedding dress sewing and needed new summer clothes as I hadn’t quite sewn enough from previous years to get me through, but all my RTW stuff was dead. In just a few shorts hours I felt like I was broken again, nothing fit, everything looked horrid. But I now had tangible evidence of just how far I’ve come since starting to sew – and that in itself was worth it, because now I know to be grateful for it.

    1. What a beautiful story – I like how an irritating and upsetting experience still left you with a feeling of gratitude for sewing. I feel grateful, too – what a privilege it is to have the time and resources to cultivate a positive relationship between my body and clothing.

  17. This is why I love the sewing community. A thoughtful post like this followed by thoughtful comments by everyone. I first heard about the theory of women’s clothing being about vulnerability in a first year English class. The essay we read talked about corsets and high heels making women easy prey because they couldn’t run away easily, which apparently appealed to men’s desire for dominance. That idea stayed with me, and I often think about it when I look at what’s fashionable, especially high heels which I’ve always despised. Like you said, though, for some people, it’s about personal expression, not comfort or mobility. That’s why it’s so important to have the freedom to choose without judgment.

    Personally, I can’t stand wearing high heels, jeans, or bras, and when I’m forced to for whatever reason, all I can think about is how uncomfortable I am and how I resent having to conform. But I do like to wear clothing that is fitted at the waist (but not too tight). Maybe that’s because of society, but I don’t find it physically uncomfortable and I like the feminine shape. I am starting to explore looser fitting tops, though, mostly due to seeing other bloggers’ makes, and it’s kind of liberating. I can wear either style depending on my mood and both are just fine. Comfort and personal expression are both absolutely essential in what I make, although I’m still experimenting with different styles to figure out what I like. Like Carolyn, I used to wander the mall looking for something specific that didn’t exist and then settling for something trendy because that’s all there was. Sewing gives me the freedom to create clothing that’s comfortable and my style, whatever that may be as it evolves.

    1. BRAS. Whatever will we do about them? Those things are torture devices (and I would happily burn them! lol). There are only so many times that I want to wear a sports bra, and I actually do like how I look with a regular (underwire & padded) bra on. But not how uncomfortable that underwire is. Decisions, decisions…

      1. I don’t know if you’ll see this, but I heartily encourage you to make your own. By way of introduction, I have recently made the soft bra from Merekwaerdigh, and it was a really fantastic pattern. She has an underwire bra view in the same pattern.

    2. Here, here! I’ve pretty much transitioned completely to bralettes without closures and I love the feel and even the silhouette they create (obviously, I’m not busty). Thank you for sharing your approach to dressing, Chantal!

  18. Such a great post and comments. Thanks Morgan! I can’t say I have profound thoughts on why I dress the way I do. I wear what is comfortable, but also what I feel stylish in. And my style definitely has evolved since sewing for myself. I don’t really think I could say I had a style that I could define as my own prior to sewing. So that pleases me greatly. My job requires fairly utilitarian clothing, and as an industry I find it to be a very unstylish one so to be able to have a little subtle style on a day-to-day basis makes me happy! And in terms of whom I dress for – mostly for myself and a little for my husband as long as I am comfortable physically and mentally. That’s it!

  19. I loved this post. When I was a teenager I used to constantly berate my mum for being ‘so unstylish’ and choosing clothes that were comfortable rather than fashionable/feminine. Now aged 35, after years of wearing uncomfortable shoes and clothes, I am becoming more and more like her. I haven’t got into wearing fleeces yet, but I want clothes I can stretch in, and shoes I can move quickly in. As a bisexual woman who has spent a lot of time on the lesbian scene (where there is much greater acceptance of less ‘feminine’ styles) I have regularly ‘dressed like a lesbian’ and not that this matters, but men often quite quite like women who aren’t dressed in something ridiculously uncomfortable. My husband gets very annoyed when I wear impractical shoes or clothes because I am less fun, more self conscious, and less able to be spontaneous. I love fancy, sparkly clothes as much as the next woman, but I am proud to also dress like a lesbian/feminist when I want to. And anyway, why are the two mutually exclusive? I’m all for sequinned birkenstocks and comfy tunics in hot pink spandex!

    1. I think you touched on something really important – the kind of energy we can bring to the table when we’re comfortable and mobile. And bless the people in our lives who like us that way! When I was younger and more willing to suffer, I had remember many occasions when I just couldn’t pay attention to the people around me because of a tight waistband or blistered feet.

      I fully support the hot pink tunic/sequinned birks outfit!

  20. Enjoyed the post and the following discussion- this is definitely something on my mind when making and buying clothing (and blogging!). Finding a balance between cute and comfortable clothing can be difficult. I’ve had to redefine my concept of dressing “cute” and “looking good” as I’ve evolved in my feminism. For me (and some of my friends with whom I’ve discussed this topic) dressing in a way that is at once feminine and comfortable is part of how we reclaim that word. When I was younger, dressing in a more masculine way was appealing because it felt powerful. But it didn’t feel true to who I was and my femininity. So I evolved. My roommate in college and I used to talk about this a lot. I think we both felt relieved when we started wearing skirts again. Sewing freed us to make those skirts, to make them fit and conform to our own standards of style. And besides being freeing, sewing is such a wonderful creative outlet.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences! That really made me chuckle, hearing that you and your roomie felt a lot better when you decided to wear skirts again! (Skirts are an interesting garment – they tend to show more skin than pants, but, depending on the design, they can really increase mobility and they’re cooler when the weather’s hot. They’re a highly gendered garment in our culture, but they don’t really need to be.)

  21. Thanks for such a thought provoking post, I’ll be mulling this over for a while I think. For me, just the act of shopping was a restricting activity. Restricting in terms of style, but most of all restricting in terms of what I could and couldn’t afford. Society expects women to have a wardrobe filled with clothing for every conceivable occasion, to a much higher degree than for men. Before I made all my own clothes, the financial cost of the clothes that I preferred to buy (interesting, well designed and made, ethically produced, preferably made locally) meant that I had one of two choices: either break the bank buying the clothes that I felt good in/about, or not buy clothes at all and feel badly about my personal style. Since I love expressing myself through what I wear this was not an option! Now that I make all my own clothes I feel so freed from retail and marketing ploys. I rarely shop anymore and when I do, the ‘must buy this dress/shirt/sweater in order to look good’ voice has gone completely. I’m not sure if this is purely a result of sewing or from getting older and wiser, but I suspect it’s a combination of the two. I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin now that I dictate the terms on which I dress and express my style. Of course, I spend plenty of time and money purchasing fabric but that’s a conversation for another day!

    1. By the way this is not to say that I am upset about the cost of locally/ethically produced clothing, only that I could never afford as much of it as I would like! Enter sewing, and the liberation of my wardrobe. I still try to support local designers if I need something that I don’t think I can make myself.

    2. I know how you feel – I’ve always been frugal, even as a teen, and I just couldn’t justify spending the kind of money to dress in the way I wanted. I always felt like I was cobbling outfits together out of the mismatched pieces I could afford. (Discovering thrift shopping allowed me to buy better quality and feel better about buying clothing.)

      I know there are sewing trends, but I feel the same way as you do – less obsessive about acquiring particular items. I wonder anticipating the work involved when you make your own clothes soothes those feelings?

  22. Love this topic so much! I’ve been thinking about it a ton. I don’t have anything cohesive to add to the discussion, but I wanted to jump in and thank you for putting it out there. Really enjoy your blog!

  23. I was so hoping this post would be accompanied by you dressed as 70s era Gloria Steinem for Halloween… ah well. A girl can dream.

    It’s funny, but I think you’ve articulated a lot of things that I have been feeling/doing for the past few years but never thought much about. I used to be all about the vampiness, and while it’s still fun to bust out a crazy cleavagey cocktail dress, it’s not “who” I am anymore. I don’t really do high high heels anymore, even though I used to live in them. At most these days it’s 2-2.5 inches – if I can’t walk a couple of blocks in them, it’s not happening. And all of my sexier wardrobe just doesn’t really get worn anymore… maybe it’s getting older. My thirties are about self-expression and self-love, so I think that is translating into chic and comfortable, as opposed to looking for acceptance and attention in my 20’s which resulted in attention getting, uncomfortable clothing.

    And I can’t help but winder if I would have got to this self-loving, accepting place if I hadn’t started sewing? Somehow, I doubt it.

    1. If only I had your costuming flair, the idea might have occurred to me!

      I think these ideas started solidifying for me during some sort of style inventory exercise – maybe Wardrobe Architect? – and I realized how much my attitude towards clothing, fashion, and my body had changed in the past few years. Like you, I can’t pinpoint what the exact catalyst is, but I know sewing has played a huge role in helping me feel unapologetically like myself. It’s nice to be out of our 20’s, isn’t it?

  24. Thanks to you, Morgan, for this interesting post, and thanks to all the commenters for the great discussion! I feel like there’s so much fluidity in the way I can dress now, and I love that! When I bought my clothes, I felt like my options were so limited, especially since I had a tight budget and hated shopping. I feel way more confident now and as a result, I think I’m more approachable and quicker to try to make others around me feel comfortable (that’s hard to do if you’re preoccupied by your own self-consciousness or discomfort). I feel like I can tell my own story with my clothing, and to me, that’s a huge part of what it means to be feminist- telling my own story my own way, and extending that freedom to others.

    1. I’ve loved reading the comments, too; there are some interesting recurring themes like unpleasant RTW shopping experiences and interesting unique stories. It’s cool that your confidence allows you to make others feel more comfortable. I think true confidence is contagious.

  25. I think this all has a lot to do with class — like hobble skirts and wasp waist corsets back in the day, today’s restrictive fashions aren’t the sort of thing you wear to work at the factory. Part of their appeal is that it shows you *can’t* work (or run, etc) in them. Look at the mobility allowed by (middle class to upper-crust) dress pre-war (hobble skirts, back-lacing corsets, etc), then during the war (sensible suits, trousers, cuts that conserved yardage but allowed movement), and then after the war (two words: Betty Draper). They all directly point to women’s place in society (at home looking pretty, in the factories or on the land or in the hospital working, at home looking pretty and definitely not working). During the war, too, they lost a lot of servants (not to mention Paris was occupied!), so changing multiple times a day, wearing back-lacing gowns and corsets, etc, all got a lot less practical.

    From my view, it’s similar to how for lots of cultures, lily-white skin means you don’t work outside (until, for Americans at least, the Kennedys came along and made the tan a sign of vacations, leisure time, and affluence). Women’s bodies are literally symbols of wealth, purity, and the status of the family, full of reflected meaning.

    1. Excellent, excellent point; class is a huge factor in fashion. Reading your comment made me consider some of the trends I’ve liked in recent years, like heritage brands and boxy silhouettes. Do they have their own class component? I’m not sure what it is, but I’m guessing yes.

  26. Yes, yes! Great post, Morgan. I went to a party on Saturday evening where I must have been the only woman (apart from my boyfriend’s 88-yr old grandmother!) in flat shoes, so all this has been very much on my mind. I’ve long felt that a lot of women’s fashion is meant to make us helpless – shoes you can’t run in, long nails that stop you doing things for yourself, tight skirts that restrict movement, etc.

    As a musician, there’s a particular side to it of female performers being expected to play in impossible outfits. Like it’s not enough to be Janine Jansen, say, and be able to perform the most difficult violin concertos as well as anybody; you also have to do it in huge heels and a strapless ballgown, and spend precious green room time perfecting your hair and make-up when you could be warming up.

    I also worry about spending so much time thinking about and working on clothes. I want to be someone who doesn’t think too much about clothes, but right now my hope is that by putting thought in at the planning/sewing/buying stage perhaps I can create a wardrobe that allows me to think less about clothes at the day-to-day wearing stage…

    1. If I never wear strapless anything again, it would be too soon! Are there any female classical musicians that are wearing suits? I think it would be very cool.

      Obviously, I’m still sewing frequently but I will say that I put some research and money into buying 1-2 pairs of high-quality, repairable shoes that match my lifestyle and wardrobe over the past two years, and I haven’t felt the urge to buy new ones this entire year (aside from replacing a pair of 7-year-old running shoes). And the better I do with taking my time picking sewing projects that suit my lifestyle and sewing them well, the easier it is to get dressed. I think you’re on to something and good luck building your wardrobe!

  27. Excellent, lovely post! I couldn’t agree with you more. A while ago I wrote a post on how my body image has completely changed since I started sewing. Not going to the mall (or the highstreet as we call it in the UK) is so liberating, since you simply say no to being pummelled by fashion marketing and messed up body image agendas. The sewing community (at least the one I feel part of) is definitely kinder to itself. So thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thank you, Ingrid! One of my favorite aspects of the sewing blog community is seeing images of real bodies in home-sewn clothing. I know sewing bloggers who are closer to idealized beauty standards may be more comfortable posting images of themselves, but I think it’s handily a greater variety than what’s represented in fashion marketing.

  28. I’m loving this post and comments. I get crap at work for looking “too nice/dressy/expensive”, but also for wearing a lot of darker clothes. Since I dislike pants, and prefer dresses or skirts, thats what I wear! What’s strange is that as a college professor, you’d think looking “nice” would be a good thing! As for darker clothes, I think I just gravitate to darker tones, which isn’t a sin 🙂 I wear knee high boots 90% of the time because they keep my legs warm, and I think they are comfy.
    Overall, I figure what I wear is for me! What other people say reflects more on them than it does on me or my dressing habits.
    Oh, and yes, sewing has affected how I see my body. Now that I’m part of a community that thinks fit is super-important, it’s very apparent to me that my fit issues are very common. In fact, almost everyone has fit issues!! Yeah!

    1. Everybody’s got an opinion, don’t they! I’m glad you have a thick skin.

      It’s funny… I would love to only sew patterns straight out of the envelope and have them fit perfectly, but I don’t loathe my fit issues now that I sew. They’re a part of me!

  29. This is such a great post. Learning to sew has been a constant process of changed my ideas about what I want to wear, and this year for me has really been all about comfort and dare I even say feminism… I’ve lost all tolerance for clothes that make me self-conscious or restrict me in any way, whether that’s restricting my breathing, eating, sitting on the floor, walking, and whether it’s physical restrictions or just the constant need to check how I’m sitting or standing to make sure I’m not flashing some part of my bra or knickers (low armholes? gapey chest when I lean over? short skirt? trousers too tight to sit on the floor? builder’s bum? I’m SO DONE with all these things).

    BUT, I also love clothes and love the difference it makes to me when I feel that I’m wearing the right outfit, and that I look good that day. So I don’t just want practical clothes. I still want stylish clothes. I just want to cut the bullshit. Next year my main plans are to find (or sew) comfortable bras or croptops that stay put and that don’t look like underwear so I don’t need to worry about bits of them showing; also properly comfortable trousers that sit somewhere between waist and hips so they’re high enough to bend over or sit down in, but low enough not to constrict my waist… is that too much to ask?! It seems to be pretty much impossible on the high street…

    1. Yes to cutting out the bullshit! That’s exactly how I feel. I do want to look a certain way, even though I’m not sure I could describe it in words. In a cynical mood, I could wonder if clothes (the ones that aren’t specifically marketed as comfortable) are made uncomfortable on purpose to keep us yearning for new ones.

  30. It’s amazing that a garment can say so much. Clothing, and sewing, for me is a statement, but I don’t have as strong of a handle on my abilities as I’d like. And, I feel limited in what I’m able to convey with fashion.

    1. I think for me, the statement I’m making is to myself: that I’m not going to make my body feel discomfort or hinder myself in my daily activities. I’m not sure I have a good grasp on what my clothing communicates externally, although I think that being the ease of being comfortable can allow your personality and words come into more focus.

  31. Great post, Morgan! I’ve always had a strong sense of personal style, but whereas before I’d comb new RTW offerings for something that fit into my style (or worked with my body shape or honed in on the 1-2 “in” colors that I actually liked/could wear), sewing has given me a ton of freedom to make/alter clothing so that I’m wearing what I want to wear, trends be damned. Before I’d think: ugh, there’s nothing that works for me this season. Now I think: is that what they’re promoting this season? Before I’d try to make RTW work for me. Now that I sew and knit, it’s given me so much more power to define and enable my personal style.

    But as to the feminist part of your post — when I was younger, I dressed with a couple things in mind: does this flatter my body, is it a color I like, does it fit my style? I’ve usually only worn clothes that are comfortable, but as I get older my tolerance for discomfort has gone down dramatically (empowered, I suppose, by the ability to make my own). And now I care less about whether or not something looks flattering on me. My default is: if I like it, I’m just gonna wear it like it works. As a friend once said to me: Only YOU would pair mustard and lavendar … but on you, it works. And I thought: LOL, honey, you’d be surprised how far attitude can take you!

    So I think that making clothing has freed up my personal style. That style has also changed as I’ve gotten older. I think it reflects my evolving values. In my mid 20’s, I was often trying to pass muster in somebody else’s world, and my career mattered a lot more to me – so I made a lot of quirky-spirited business casual-‘appropriate’ clothing like pencil skirts with Vespas so that I could fit in but still be distinctive. These days, I find myself caring less about work, and so I no longer want to make pencil skirts or fitted sweaters. I think I like looser, more casual clothing because I’m more focused on my life outside of work (and because, frankly, I’m tired of doing the kind of work that keeps me in an office, having Serious Conversations about health systems). I want to wear clothing that’s more casual and playful because I’m tired of buttoning myself up. I suppose that’s anti-feminist in some ways – not Leaning In – but in other ways, it’s an expression of feminist ideals – making the choices that make the most sense to you, and being empowered to do so.

    Ha, I guess I’ve got a lot to say on this topic! Thanks for stimulating a great conversation!

    1. Thanks, Jessica! Your thought on style and attitude reminded me of one of my best friends, who I met in high school. While everyone else was wearing Abercrombie & Fitch and frosted eyeshadow, she was wearing thrifted dresses over pants in wildly contrasting colors with cat-eye makeup. People would tell her, half-admiringly and half-resentfully, that they themselves could never pull it off her outfit, she would tell them the same thing you said: you’d be surprised.

  32. I’ve been thinking about this lately too. To me, the point of feminism is that we women should be able to choose for ourselves, and have choices in the first place. It doesn’t mean that we have to wear suits, any more than it means we have to wear frilly aprons and heels. Right? “Dressing like a feminist” should mean wearing whatever makes us happy and comfortable in our own skins. I just love that we’ve come far enough that sewing can make a comeback. To me sewing is all about empowerment, so it makes perfect sense. I loved the earlier comment about end tables, and I would love if sewing was treated in a similar way to woodworking, as a skill which takes time to learn but gives beautiful AND practical results.

    My personal biggest sewing & feminism accomplishment has been making pants/trousers which flatter my body and are comfortable—something literally impossible for me to buy unless I paid someone else to custom tailor them! I see my style evolving as I get older too, and I’m so glad I’ve put in the time to have sewing skills so I can change with it. I’d rather have a much smaller wardrobe and get by with what I can make myself. I hate shopping, and don’t feel good about or in mass-produced clothes any more.

    I want to make things that last long enough so that I’m not worried about replacing them all the time, giving me the freedom to make what I want, and to think about what I want! To me, that’s feminism and anti-consumerism in the best possible way.

    Great post and great discussion, people!

    1. I love what you said about sewing things that last as a source of freedom! That’s a lesson I’ve been slowly learning – if I spend some time being mindful during the creation process, I can end up with something I love wearing for longer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tasha!

  33. I love this post. I just recently started sewing and I have fallen in love with it, but the reason I started sewing was because I hate mainstream fashion. I hate shopping! It’s always disappointing and overwhelming for me. I love the idea of being able to create a high quality wardrobe that is perfectly suited for me in every way, fit, color, and style, without being influenced by what is trending or what Im told I should wear. I definitely think a lot about fashion and sewing now but I think it’s in a good way, because it is with a goal to create rather than consume. And what is amazing, since sewing a garment for yourself takes so much time, energy and recourses, now I’m starting to really define my style and stay true to that, rather than be too easily influenced by what is popular at the moment.

    1. I think there’s something to be said about how much longer it takes to sew something than to buy it (or earn the money to buy it)! It does make following a trend a lot more work, and calls into question how much effort you’re willing to put into it.

      1. I totally agree! Sewing makes following trends seem futile. I’ve been following this discussion and it’s so interesting to read everybody’s comments. Lots of really interesting stuff. Morgan, you should start a movement!

      2. Thanks, Sara! This post ended up being a jumble of my own thoughts on gender, consumerism, feminism and sewing, so I found it interesting that different aspects resonated with different people.

  34. Yes. One of the very reasons I am starting to sew for myself – and the fam – is to literally cast-off societal clothing conventions. I do not need the world to tell me how to feel about myself via what I wear and I certainly do not need to allow mass-made clothing affect me in order to please advertisers, corporations, or other people. I gave up heels and the like a LONG time ago and it was so freeing.

    I apologize; I know this post is from last year, but I just *had* to comment.

  35. I have been describing myself as a feminist for more than 40 years and a sewer! I couldn’t agree more that making your own clothes is a powerfully expressive feminist act. You dress truly as you please to express who you are but it also means you aren’t wearing clothes made by indentured children (and adults for that matter!) I love that you have put these two values together in a post! Thank you 🙂

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