from my soap box, i almost can’t see the book review (gertie sews vintage casual)


i’ve recently come to feel that a lot of my life lately is about my feminism. i feel like it’s suddenly me in that long-ago episode of law & order where jack is mocking claire kincaid for her “latent feminism” and she reminds him that it isn’t latent.

so, for example, i recently came back from an insane weekend with my best friend and his partner (now fiancé), celebrating their engagement, and had several conversations where someone asked me, “how did they decide who was going to ask?” and my answer, simply, was that b just went for it and c was ecstatic. they had no expectations to grapple with based solely on a chromosome in their dna; it was all about what worked for them.

or, a co-worker of mine (male) recently celebrated the birth of his first child and took a week of paternity leave as a result (cue my quebecois co-worker excoriating america for that measly week; i had enough lectures about canadian socialism to be convinced long ago, if vicki and heather lou still want me). but the brass around here in my corporate office kept saying, “their wives had children.”   as though these first-time fathers were ridiculous for taking time off to support their wives and snatch a few days home with their newly-born offspring.

even my beloved father fell prey to these assumptions. “did he have a baby or did his wife?” was a frequent point of conversation, at which point i reminded father that ejr’s wife had a c-section and couldn’t even get out of bed yet, so how exactly was she supposed to be home caring for her child all by herself? and furthermore, dad, this isn’t 1982 anymore.

“well,” he said, “in 1982 i would have been fired for taking an entire week” (a week! hah!) “when you were born.” yes, father, and in 2014 i am still making 77 cents for every dollar you are paying ejr.

thank goodness it isn’t 1982 anymore, is all i can say.

i say all of this as a long-winded introduction to a book review because these issues of gender and requirements and, dare i say it, feminism and what we ask of men versus women are very upfront in my world right now, and all of this was exacerbated by a recent piece i spotted in vogue patterns magazine. it was an innocent enough piece, a review of a new book by professor linda przbyszewski called the lost art of dress. its arguments are likely familiar to many of you, dear readers, because she espouses most of the reasons that we make our own clothing (as linda przbyszewski does, too):

  • an expectation of beauty and detail
  • an appreciation for the details inherent in each piece
  • an ability to create garments that fit and flatter in the exact color/style/fabric of our choice

yes! hear hear.

here is where she lost me, as she bemoans the decline of home economics in our schools (a worthy thing to bemoan, by the by, because we would all, men and women alike, be better off if we knew how to cook, sew, use a drill, balance a checkbook and change our own oil but i digress):

“the absence of home economics in the classroom has left generations of women unschooled and unskilled in the ways of dress,” przbyszewski says. in the 40s and 50s, home economics “was taken just as seriously as english and science.”

there are so many assumptions wrapped in that statement that i had whiplash just trying to process it. ultimately, my reaction was something like this:

1 – i cannot deny that juicy couture sweatsuits have a lot to answer for. but.

2 – how can a book about the “lost art of dress”, a book basically about the horror that was the rise of the a-line shift dress, in the interview with vpm, so casually elide the fact that the changing mores of our dress code happen in a direct correlation to women being able to choose from a wider array of goals when setting their dress habits?

3 – and why are women responsible for rectifying this supposed lost art? i mean, have you ever seen a frat boy with a popped collar and nantucket red trousers and not understood it to be a travesty of fashion?

“when the 60s rolled around, all of the grown-ups wanted to look like teenage girls. there’s this extraordinarily sophisticated, wordly look in the 50s and just one decade later everyone is wearing what would have been known in another era as toddler clothing.”

the entire interview had an undercurrent here of ‘knowing one’s place’ (as a woman) that makes me hugely uncomfortable. this kind of presentation, the idealization of this image, is hugely disturbing to me because it discredits the real work that is being a homemaker, or a stay-at-home-mom, and suggests that it be above all things well-dressed – not because that woman chooses to be, but because it is expected.  (and maybe, just maybe – at least if you read divergent and understood it the same way i did – maybe there is comfort in knowing one’s place?)

all of this has nothing to do with the new book hitting our shelves, gertie sews vintage casual, except that it completely does. in a section reminiscent of one of her more infamous blog posts, gretchen includes a small sidebar on the evolution of women’s casual dress. “the evolution of women’s clothing in the 20th century is closely linked to the rise of feminism,” she writes in the intro to her new book. “it generally wasn’t acceptable for women to wear trousers to work, school or church until the 1970s.”

and yet we continue to be fascinated with the details and the styles of vintage, classic casual dress, and i think it is because we want to be comfortable and fashionable whenever possible. the simple fact is that the state of rtw, especially to those of us who sew, is fairly heinous, and it’s easy these days to look at the beautiful casual clothes of the 40s and 50s and think only, ‘le sigh.’

enter gretchen.

her book is a rundown of every vintage vogue weekender pattern you ever wanted but didn’t want to spend the money on (because those bad boys can be expensive). they are every excellent capsule wardrobe for a “full-blown mini break holiday weekend” in one book. imho this book has a stronger, more developed point of view than the NBfBSand a more authentic aesthetic. the first book often felt like a re-hash of garments and patterns that hirsch had already tested and adapted from the vogue patterns that were the original highlight of her website. this book has a clear, specific point of inspiration and sets about expressing that point in every pattern and hack laid out in the book.

as in the original book, gretchen spends some real estate discussing basic patternmaking, and then uses that knowledge in a wide array of style variations suggested by her basic patterns (i.e., trouser to short to pedal pusher to jumpsuit to romper). i like that she included trousers, by the way, and will be interested to compare her trouser draft to my own moulage and potentially make it work.

gretchen also continued the art direction and style of the first book, two of the things i liked most about her initial offering. in this one, she includes a list of inspirational movies (for costume details), and an expanded section of fashion drawings that she calls a “gallery of styles”. the photography is better, the presentation of garments is stronger, although not what i would hope for or look for in a finished book. here in the SBC we often ask a lot of our fellow bloggers WRT their photographs and these are not the step up into style or fashion photography that i would love to see in a book with such a specific aesthetic. that said, they are a giant step up from my own (ahem) jumps in front of an isight camera, so your mileage will definitely vary.

on a closing note, i almost don’t want to say that gretchen’s new book is more authentic (even though it feels that way to me as a reader), and here is why. there’s a lot of navel-gazing going on in the sbc interwebs right now – some of it i agree with, some i think is overblown, all of it makes me a bit angsty, and let us not forget that some people are just mean. without editorializing, here’s an interesting reading list for you.

Want nothing but the best for your friends, because when your friends are happy and successful, it’s probably going to be easier for you to be happy.

– If you’re having a rough go of it, and a friend is having the best year ever, and you need to think some dark thoughts about that, do it alone, with your therapist, or in your diary, so that when you actually see your friend, you can avoid the myth discussed in item 1.

If you and your friend(s) are in the same field and can collaborate or help each other, do this without shame. It’s not your fault your friends are awesome. Men invented nepotism and practically live by it. It’s OK for women to do it, too.

Don’t tear other women down, because even if they’re not your friends, they are women and this is just as important. This is not to say you cannot criticise other women, but understand the difference between criticising constructively and tearing down cruelly.

Everybody gossips, so if you are going to gossip about your friends, at least make it fun and interesting. Never say, “I never lie” or, “I never gossip”, because you are lying.

and finally, a note that i jotted to myself at a recent presentation by author, essayist, and professor roxane gay. an audience member asked why, when we look at books by women, we are often looking for “likeability.” it is a question almost never asked of male authors of serious literature, so why do we demand it of women? and roxane’s answer was another question: ‘do we mistake likeability for perfection? do we look for likeability as an entree into certain milieus? when we demand likeability, aren’t we just policing our behavior because likeability is what we, as women, are supposed to present?




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34 Responses to from my soap box, i almost can’t see the book review (gertie sews vintage casual)

  1. Kat H says:

    Congratulations – this is the most interesting blog post I’ve read in ages, and I really really enjoyed it! Thank you! 🙂

    Oooh that whole likeability thing for women, that really annoys me. It’s something we get judged on constantly, in all areas, that guys don’t. Where’s the fairness in that? Especially since to succeed (especially in the business world) we need to be strong and assertive, which is often considered the opposite of ‘likeable’. Damned either way, really. I was reading an article recently (I forget where, sadly) that was talking about the differences in performance reviews for men and women – one of the key findings being that women regularly receive negative feedback, not about their performance, but about their personality. Too assertive. Not assertive enough. Too bossy. Not likeable enough. Blah blah grr blah. Whereas guys get feedback on their performance, rather than their personality. *mutter mutter*

    Anyway, I will stop that now or I may rant about various inequalities for a long time (including that guys don’t get paid parental leave – how the heck is that fair?!?!?!?). But yes, thank you for an interesting blog post. 😀

    • puu says:

      wow, that is very generous praise! thank you! i think the “likability” is an issue in more than just the corporate workspace, although you are bang-on in your discussion of them here. it’s not just our corporate overloads judging us – sometimes, i wonder if we ourselves are not using it as a standard to police other women. what do you think?

      • Kat H says:

        Apparantely both men and women are equally guilty of judging women based on how ‘likeable’ they are – which is rather sad, really. 😦 I guess that’s just what society has ingrained into us from a young age, and it can be difficult to break out of…. But I figure if we have these types of discussions, and start identifying some of the issues, we can (hopefully!) start recognising when we’re guilty of doing the same and actively work to stop ourselves. 🙂

        And of course, the flip side to the ‘likeability’ issue is how much it matters to us that people like us. Heck, we see it all the time in sewing blogs as well – any time anyone says anything negative about a pattern or a make, you can almost feel their nervousness about what people will think and whether they’ll be ‘told off’ for it! I think we’re just as guilty of using it as a standard to judge ourselves as we are of using it to judge others.

      • puu says:

        you’re so right. how often do we self-censor in the community because we want to maintain the high standard of “friendliness” and “likeability”? and how often have we seen the few negative experiences shouted down? so well said, and thanks for the comment.

  2. Katharina says:

    Really?! People really say: “Did he have the baby or his wife?”? Hard to believe and even harder to stomach. Boy am I glad I live in Sweden (and was born and raised in Canada)! Hurray for (a pretty darn good portion of) equality. I’m not saying it hasn’t been an uphill struggle, but we’ve certainly come a long way, baby!

    • puu says:

      sad but true. i was very pleased to take my father aside and deliver a stern lecture on his attitude. it’s my job as his over-articulate eldest child 🙂

  3. Jenni says:

    Fabulous read, thank you x always inspiring to know I am not alone in my feminism x

    • puu says:

      i wonder sometimes if we shouldn’t talk more about feminism in the sewing community, because we are such a diverse group of women and men. the range of women (and men) who sew and share and blog has really helped me expand my definitions of feminism and learn (indirectly) about a wider range of life choices. the conversations i’ve had with the women and men i’ve met IRL from the SBC have been a truly educational and eye-opening gift.

  4. smittenness says:

    I really enjoyed this post and thanks for the reading links. The ‘toddler clothing’ quoted from the article really grates. It’s a narrow view. I’ve not read the VPM article so my reaction might be different if I had. However, it seems another way to further divide women/people? Not all women in that era got around in toddler outfits, surely? And so what if they did? They had the choice at least, if I had it my way, we wouldn’t think twice about, say, Grayson Perry’s sartorial choices. It’s got me annoyed and distracted already.

    I’d go for reliability and openness over likeability in any kind of business relationship. Likeability, cult of personality, aspirational aspirations etc. I don’t know if I ‘like’, in any real emotional sense, the woman who cuts my hair but she does a good job and I trust her. With my hair.

  5. sallie says:

    That line of “wouldn’t it be lovely to return to a time when women really put thought and consideration into how they dressed?” drives me bonkers as well! There’s nothing wrong with sporting vintage fashions (they are certainly lovely, no one can deny it) if that’s what makes you feel good, but understand that fashion is wrapped up in the social politics of the time, and some of those things aren’t so aspirational (at least not for me – making sure I’m dressed by the time my husband gets home so he doesn’t see me in the clothes I wore to clean the oven?? No.) I find that ‘heritage’ edge to the sewing community a bit unnerving, and often question where I stand on it.
    But anyway! Great post! And thanks for the list of navel-gazing posts, I hadn’t read some of them!

    • puu says:

      i have recently become completely convinced that we too often look at the vintage fashions without an appreciation of the politics that created them. i really just want people to wear what they want, and some people feel it is important to maintain that aspirational aspect of vintage clothing. fine by me – we just all need to respect the choices. right?

  6. prttynpnk says:

    Great thinking post. It always annoys me that my workplace seems to tolerate stupid if the packaging is likeable. Aargh.

  7. nettie says:

    You are awesome. So is this post. I hope you didn’t edit one word of it.

  8. poppykettle says:

    So. Much. To. Absorb.
    Wow, Devra! You’ve just made my Sunday night. The common theme of your links about authenticity fascinates me. Especially because the middle ground is SO subjective. If I could sum up each of your links in one succinct sentence – I’d say that Change is definitely the only constant, but that (a sweeping generalisation) we all kinda suck at dealing with it.

    That NYT article – when blogging becomes a slog – really resonated with me. There’s been a few bloggers I read when I first joined this part of the world who are no longer around anymore, and sometimes I find myself wondering about them. But I realise that people come and go, lives and the focus points within someone’s life can change. But sometimes it’s hard to accept, especially when a person/blogger has been a joy and an inspiration to follow. I’ve found this year that I’m far better at balancing the need to create with my everyday life and working commitments, and I don’t feel guilty about not posting for several weeks on end. I really struggled with the feeling of needing to post when I first started out. Call it performance anxiety! I’m definitely a fan of ‘slow blogging’, both for myself and in reading others’ posts.

    Oona pretty much took the thought’s outta my head and posted them. The number of times I’ve felt capable simply by association with talent!

    Gosh and I haven’t even got to the feminist aspects of your post. My definition of feminism is that everyone should be able to decide what is best for them, without the judgement of others expectations defining the norm. I did choke on the whole ‘one week of paternity leave’ thing. I’ve just had two dudes in my business take 4 weeks each (In Aus there is 2 weeks of paternity leave – the other two weeks were taken annual leave). Both at the same time too – which did make life difficult for those of us to carry on – but I wouldn’t begrudge them, or anyone, that opportunity. The patriarchy boxes men just as much as it boxes women into gender rules. One of my best friends – a dude – his wife gave birth to their first child two months ago. He actually bemoaned to me about the gender-cide aspects of childrens clothing – the conversation ended with me agreeing to sew baby boy a pair of pink overalls, as a kind of underground Fight Back internal joke against the insidious pink and blue brigade. I loved Roxanne Gay’s article purely because it shows just how multi-faceted people can (and should!) be.

    We’ve still got a long way to go. Sewing and blogging about it has made me grow so much, so i’ll continue until it stops making me happy.

    • puu says:

      thanks for sharing, melanie! i agree with you. i just had many great conversations this past weekend with a friend who traded in her graphic design career (for a company that we have all heard of) to be the primary caretaker for her son. i was devastated to hear that several of her friends thought this wasn’t the feminist choice. what is feminism unless we all have the power to make the choices that are right for us? i would never have thought to question my friend’s commitment to her family that way. i was happy for her that she and her husband could economically support that choice and it’s what she wanted to do.

      and there is nothing like a weekend in a cabin full of gay men to spur many awesome conversations about the way that the patriarchy boxes in all of us, let me tell you! these dudes were so eloquent and articulate on a subject that is so often left to us ladies to discuss that my mind was blown.

  9. Peter says:

    I went to a talk Linda Przbyszewski gave at the FIT bookstore when the book first came out, and borrowed a copy from the library. I understand where she’s coming from and many of us how wonder how people (not just women, men to) came to dress so slovenly. I like to think that it’s all about have the OPTION to wear what we like, when we like it. It’s just clothes, after all! Once a culture adopts a casual approach to dress, it’s hard to go back to great formality: it’s easier, less time-consuming, and generally much more comfortable. Fine post!

    • puu says:

      excellent point, peter – i did wonder if her argument was distorted by the need to compress it into a VPM review. my reaction was definitely not to the idea that we can all of us step up our fashion choices – that is, after all, why so many of us choose to sew – but it does grate when we look at vintage fashion with no respect for the political context that formed those fashions. i think we’re all better off with a wider range of options to choose from.

  10. Kerry says:

    Very interesting post and I totally agree that feminism seems to be entangled with nearly everything, increasingly. It seems incredible in a society that is obsessed by sex, the practicalities around child rearing are seen as women’s issues, as if women reproduce spontaneously without intervention. In the UK partners get 2 weeks paternity leave and often take a bit more holiday – as you point out, this might be necessary to help the new mother recover but also is great for the partner to bond with the baby too. The partner can also share maternity leave. I hope this approach spreads as it’s long overdue. Just recently when Google and Facebook announced they would pay to freeze the eggs of women employees – way to miss the point guys! Making the workplace more accessible to workers of both genders with families is a much better idea.
    Anyway, thank you for mentioning my blog post too, I’m going to check out the others you have mentioned

    • puu says:

      thanks for joining in, kerry! i think for me it stems from working in an office where most of the non-support staff are male, except for me (a quasi mid-level exec) and our design executive. and many of the gentlemen i work with are older and have a religious background that informs their thoughts in a very specific way. gives me a LOT of time to think about the options available to the ladies – and, as you say, to all of us.

  11. anothersewingscientist says:

    *cracks knuckles* *takes a deep breath*

    ONE FUCKING WEEK? To help his wife recover from MAJOR abdominal surgery and to barely begin to recognize his new baby? Family values my ass. Heather and I will always welcome refugees escaping from the “Good Old Days” brigade up here. We will welcome you with subsidized daycare and contraception, cheap French wine, and mountains of poutine.


    First of all: thank you for getting that creative writing degree, because you’ve articulated what I’m sure many of us are thinking. I don’t bemoan the fact that women no longer put home economics on the same level as english and science; I bemoan the fact that our educational system doesn’t teach people life skills. If an 18-year-old leaves home without knowing how to cook for themselves, make basic clothing and home repairs, and be fiscally responsible, they aren’t ready for the world, gender be damned.

    I was in high school in the ’80s, and the school board had just decided to make home ec. and shop classes required for everyone. I learned how to use power tools and draft, and got an A+, much to the chagrin of the shop teacher who remarked on my report card that he had never given such a high grade TO A GIRL (I’ve saved that one to show the kids). I also improved my cooking and sewing skills, and learned a lot about food safety and fibre identification (things about which Mr. A.S.S. has zero clue. But that’s a whole other blog post….)

    It also gets my back up when I hear people sigh about how people no longer have self-respect because they don’t dress like they did in the 1950s. This nostalgia for the fashion of the era is often thinly veiled nostalgia for “a simpler time” (meaning a time when people had fewer choices and privilege was firmly engrained).

    • puu says:

      i knew this would get you going, vicki! i think you sum it up excellently when you say that all of us could use more basic education about life skills – not just women!

    • sewyorkcity says:

      You’re hilarious, Vicki. I loathe when people wax nostalgiac for that era in American culture … in which repressed people hid their true selves and if you were an “other” in any way, well, forget about it. No thanks. I’d rather look at slovenly women in sweatpants on the subway and know I have choices than ever live in a society that looks good but devalues everyone but old white dudes. Thanks for the link list. Interesting read on blogger burnout by the NY Times.

  12. Lisette says:

    Hey! I LIKE popped collars and nantucket reds. I even wear them occasionally. And at least nantucket reds are often still made in the US.
    But I agree about feminism being omnipresent all of a sudden. Every day is a new argument.

    • puu says:

      you know, my biggest college crush was on a frat boy from vermont who lived in his popped collars and nantucket reds (even to our senior formal). i’m just saying that there is an age beyond with it becomes less cute. but not on you, lisette! you pop that collar and get down with it! 😉

  13. Heather Lou says:

    Oh Dev, you rule. You articulated so many of my feelings!! I just read Bad Feminist AND Gertie’s book, so, you know, same wavelength.

    I think you’d love the essay I just posted in my Whats doing links about relationships with women… and I’ve made a concerted effort to stop obsessing about what other people think and just do me. Much healthier.

    ps. You can come live with me and my subsidized health care ANYTIME you want!

  14. gingermakes says:

    Great post!!! I have a kneejerk reaction to “Why don’t we dress like we used to?” because it erases all the clothing worn by everyone below the upper-middle class. I don’t think what they’re asking is, “Why don’t we have one good suit and one good dress and then just wear the same outfit to work at the factory every day?” Those simple, “toddler” dresses that Przbyszewski hates were more affordable than the more elaborate dresses of earlier decades, and there’s a lot of privilege and tone deafness wrapped up in the obsession with fine dress. I take pride in my appearance (to a certain extent), but not because I’m expected to or it’s my “position” to do so. I suspect that many of the women sporting sweatsuits don’t have the time, money, or interest to dress like they’re going to the opera on a Tuesday morning.

    • puu says:

      ginger, i didn’t even consider this aspect but i think you are completely right. in addition to the gender aspect that class aspect should be staring at us every time that argument is used. but can i still draw the line at a juicy sweatsuit? surely a great pair of jeans and a blazer can be had at less than that price, right?

    • puu says:

      not to mention that a lot of ‘classic’ new look and other dresses are predicated on the idea of an upper class woman having someone to help her dress and undress.

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