If you read my first post on building a slow wardrobe, you’ll know that I first got interested in sewing when I discovered historical costumers on YouTube. I am a giant history nerd, and I’m particularly interested in things like domestic history and material culture — in other words, clothing and textiles and the making of those things fits very neatly into one of my favourite interests.
While I’m not tremendously interested in creating historical costumes, I do find historybounding, or integrating historical clothing into modern attire, appealing.
I’m also increasingly interested in looking to the wisdom and sensibilities of the past for ways to live more sustainably and with less waste. For most of western history (and probably most other history, but western clothing from the mediaeval era to the First World War is my main area of interest), fabric was very expensive. Most people did not own much clothing, and what they did own they took care of, mended, and made over into new fashions rather than replacing it entirely.
Methods for washing clothing were harsher than today, and even today washing our clothes is one of the things that damages them the fastest. For nearly a millennium the answer to this was to wear a linen shift (or chemise) or shirt next to the skin. These were simple garments, with minimal embellishment, designed to stand up to frequent harsh washing and to protect the outer layers from body oils and sweat.
Even in living memory, it was commonplace for people to have a limited wardrobe and repair rather than replace. When my grandparents married in 1942, they saved their clothing coupons for months in order to buy enough fabric for my granny’s wedding dress (my papa wore his RAF uniform and therefore didn’t require a new outfit). Everyone in Britain, right up to the king and queen, got the same rations, and so everyone had to learn to make do with them. There’s a fascinating segment on Wartime Farm where Ruth Goodman makes a dress from some flour sacks; this was a common way to get more fabric and flour companies knew this, packaging their flour in attractive prints with instructions for easily removing the label. The practice seems to have been even more common in the US, particularly during the Great Depression, and it’s a testament to the ingenuity and determination of the women who made these clothes.
To be clear, I am not pretending that the past was some kind of idyllic time where people never used more than they needed out of some sense of moral obligation. I am well aware that people made do and mended because they had no other choice, not out of a sense of environmental responsibility, and those that had the means indulged in plenty of conspicuous consumption. I am grateful to live in a time when I don’t have to worry every August that there might be a bad crop, when I can be my chaotically queer self without being forced into a wife-and-mother box, and I don’t view the past through rose-coloured glasses.
However, I do believe there are still lessons we can learn from the way people in the past approached their clothing with an eye to using fewer resources and making their garments last.
What is historybounding?
In its simplest definition, historybounding is integrating some aspects of historical clothing into modern attire. I like Mariah Pattie’s definition of historybounding as taking the best sensibilities of the past and using them in modern clothing, though historybounding can also be drawing on silhouettes and styles of the past while making them more suitable for your own everyday life (for instance shortening skirts or making a bodice that can be worn without boning or a corset).
For example, Bertha Banner wrote in 1898 that “Pockets cannot be omitted from the making and cutting of skirts.” More than that, the pockets she gives instructions for are beautifully practical in size, with the dimensions for one pattern given as “twelve to fourteen inches long and eight to ten broad”. A FOURTEEN INCH deep pocket? On women’s clothing? Fetch my smelling salts!
Pockets this capacious wouldn’t work on a tightly-fitted miniskirt, but they could quite easily be integrated into a fuller knee-length skirt that bears no other relation to the skirts of the late Victorian era. I cannot express how excited I am to make skirts with pockets the size of a handbag.
Another way where historybounding can take the most practical parts of the past and integrate it into modern clothing is with the use of easily washed base layers. These don’t have to be hand-sewn linen chemises, but even just wearing a cotton t-shirt under a woollen cardigan will greatly extend the life of the cardigan by protecting it from body oils and sweat (and, by extension, the need to wash it), which is something that I think in the modern world we often don’t think of because we simply default to buying something new when an old piece of clothing becomes torn or worn.
Personally, I have to learn to mend neatly soon as I recently discovered a hole in my favourite pair of linen trousers. I should be able to either darn it or patch it, and therefore extend the life of a pair of trousers that I’d otherwise have tossed out.
The term historybounding also applies to drawing stylistic inspiration from the past. I don’t think this is as relevant to building a slow wardrobe, but it can help form part of developing your personal style, which I think is important in curating a slow wardrobe. And besides, if your clothes were fashionable 200 years ago, they’re just always going to look classic and never suddenly become dated 😉
Planning my wardrobe
With the goals I set out in my last post, along with my historybounding principles, I’ve been carefully planning what I want to make in 2021. This plan is, of course, subject to change, and likely will change, but I’m focussing on creating a well-rounded wardrobe of timeless clothes that will last for years. And, yes, with pockets.
So what am I planning on making this year?
Currently in progress I have the Stockbridge cardigan from Ysolda. I have been knitting this jumper since September, so it’s going to be important to wear it with a linen or cotton base layer so I don’t need to replace it anytime soon. The other knitting projects I have planned are the Feamainn shawl from Stolen Stitches, and some knee-high or over-the-knee socks. I haven’t bought tall socks in a long time as my calves are nearly twice the circumference of my ankles and storebought ones tend to just be a tube; though they’re stretchy enough to fit over my leg, I’ve never liked how they look stretched out and feel tight. So I’m planning on making some tall stockings to keep my legs warm with skirts.
Speaking of skirts, the first one I have planned is this walking skirt from Folkwear. I’m planning on making this in a plain black cotton so it’s both easily laundered and will go with just about anything. I was disappointed after I bought the pattern when I realised it had NO POCKETS, but it’s okay, because the company has instructions on making welt pockets that they say can be used with this pattern, so I intend to add one or two of those.
I have some more skirts planned (including one in an absolutely DIVINE wine-coloured wool coating that I have so far refrained from buying from my local fabric shop), but they might not happen this year, simply because I also need some tops.
For these I’m focussing on some versatile blouses that I can either wear with the jeans I already have or with the above skirt. The two I have my eye on in particular are this pirate shirt from Bernadette Banner and Folkwear’s Gibson Girl blouse.
After this point, I should have a decent capsule wardrobe that better reflects my style, and my hope is that I can incorporate these pieces into my existing wardrobe, gradually replacing less loved pieces (and disposing of those sustainably, of course, by either selling or giving away) until I have a small wardrobe of well-loved and well-cared for items.
My current sewing project, however, is indeed that linen shift undergarment. My plan is to be able to wear it as a base layer under dresses and skirts in cooler weather, and on its own around the house in the summer (I’m using a very lightweight linen so it will definitely be for around the house only in the summer). I’m hand stitching it for fun, and continually repeating to myself that it is underwear, and it does not need to be perfect.
I can’t wait to share more about these projects as I complete them!