One of the things I’ve noticed about myself during lockdown is how much I dislike most of my wardrobe. This isn’t exactly a shocking revelation – I knew I had issues with it long before lockdown started – but after spending five months rotating a handful of loungewear and athleisure outfits and never once touching the other 95% of my closet, the truth is unavoidable.
At first, it was a relief to never have to wear uncomfortable clothes. I work in software, so although my work dress code is more in the realm of jeans and a t-shirt than dress and pantyhose, jeans with a wired bra is still much less comfortable than these soft linen trousers (okay, technically pyjamas, but I adore them) and an unwired bralet.
But as the months have gone on I’ve started to realise that there’s another reason I’m sticking to loungewear and leggings and never wearing anything dressier and it’s that, with the exception of a few pullover jumpers that I can’t wear in the summer, I don’t actually have anything in my wardrobe that I like the look of more. Why bother putting on jeans and a wired bra to go with my ill-fitting top when my linen trousers look better than the top anyway?
Last time I went to Scotland, in those long-ago pre-pandemic times, my husband and I were bumped up to business class. I was wearing a pair of leggings, a t-shirt, and an oversized flannel shirt. Perfectly normal, comfortable clothes for a flight, but I felt so under-dressed for business class, compared to the women in leggings with jersey dresses or skirts and cardigans. And I just have this very clear memory of thinking that I wished I had comfy, yet classy, clothes in my wardrobe, but every time I buy a dress or skirt it’s uncomfortable and doesn’t look right, so it ends up in the back of my closet along with anything that isn’t so casual as to be acceptably poorly-fitted, and I continue wearing jeans and t-shirts.
What really highlighted this for me was when I started watching historical costumers on YouTube, and saw the amount of care and effort that went into fitting even a simple skirt. It opened up so many possibilities for me, the prospect of being able to make my own clothes that are fitted to my body.
Of course, I’m a little bit worried about looking like I’m wearing something ‘homemade’. And I’m sure in a few years’ time I’ll look back at the things I’m making now, while I’m working from home and it doesn’t matter so much, and notice all the flaws in their construction. But how absurd is that, that it’s considered tacky to wear something poorly-made but well-fitting just because it’s poorly-made in a way that looks like you made it yourself, but it’s perfectly acceptable to wear some crappy fast fashion that’s poorly-made and doesn’t fit, just because it’s poorly-made in a way that says you got it for $10 instead of spending hours making it?
I’m sure this attitude stems from a time when all women knew how to sew, and the ability to buy clothes at all was an indication of a degree of disposable income. But in a world where clothing is expected to be disposable, where people will buy an item for a single event and then discard it because it’s cheaply-made and cheaply-priced, making your own clothing is a conscious way of stepping out of this cycle and curating a wardrobe of clothing that actually fits.
It’s not just fast fashion I’ve had trouble with in terms of fitting, either. It’s just that somehow it feels more okay to go out in badly-fitting t-shirts from the Gap than badly-fitting made-to-measure tops or expensive linen dresses that I’ve ordered from ethical boutiques online. The expensive stuff is clearly made to a much higher standard than the cheaper stuff, but it tends not to actually fit any better and so I can’t pretend to cultivate an air of indifference.
I’ve come to realise that part of the issue is I just don’t have a fashionable figure. I’ve chosen the word ‘fashionable’ specifically because it really is about what’s fashionable, and with many small ethical retailers I wear the L or XL (and most of these only go up to L or XL), and in a few I’m too large in the bust for even their biggest size.
For reference, I wear about a UK12-14, but in non-stretchy fabrics sometimes need a 16 for my bust. This means that I do have thin privilege here, and if I’m struggling to find ethical clothing that fits me then it must be much harder for women who are plus size. As a sidenote, I’m using the term ‘ethical clothing’ as shorthand here, for brands that pay fair wages and source their materials sustainably, but can it really be called ethical when more than half of women – the average woman in the UK wears a size 16 (warning for potentially triggering content at that link) – are excluded from wearing your clothes?
When the L or XL fits my measurements, however, the garment typically does not fit me, because the pattern is clearly drafted for their XS or S and then scaled up to my measurements. And clothing just doesn’t hang on my 167cm body with soft curves and a large bust the same way it does on the willowy 175cm tall model. Often it’s too loose around the waist, or the bust line is too high, particularly if there’s any detailing at or below the bust (think having the band of an empire waisted dress bisecting my bust rather than settling beneath it).
And this is the issue with even the made-to-measure clothes I’ve ordered. Yes, technically, they do fit. But the design doesn’t translate properly, so for instance on one top that’s meant to cross over between the breasts, the fabric stretches oddly across my breasts instead.
This brings me to my slow wardrobe experiment. I want to curate a wardrobe of clothing I love that fits and flatters me, in my favourite colours and natural fibres, where every piece is thoughtfully selected and carefully constructed, and the best way to do this is to simply make these things myself.
This means that if a style just doesn’t work on my body, I figure that out in the mockup stage, not after I’ve paid for shipping and tried the finished product on, when it’s so much easier to convince myself that perhaps it doesn’t look so bad after all, because it’s less hassle to keep it than to pay return shipping.
It means that if I see something I like, but it’s in the wrong colour or the sizing isn’t quite right, I can choose the colour I do want and modify the pattern. For instance, I’ve spent ages looking for a nice, basic grey cardigan. Grey is one of my favourite colours, inasmuch as it is a colour, for clothing, but I’ve struggled to find one in a simple cut, the kind that can go with a skirt or jeans. Then I found this pattern, ordered some grey yarn, and can’t wait to get started.
It also means that I’m very much going for quality over quantity. It’s the work of a moment to spend $400 on a few dresses from a small linen retailer on Etsy. It took me days to make the simple apron featured in the pictures of this post, and will take me weeks, if not months, to make the above cardigan (so it’s a good thing I’m getting started on it when it’s still over 30 degrees out!).
It’s going to take time, but slowly I’ll create one, then two, then a week’s worth of outfits that are perfect for my personal style and work with my body shape rather than against it.