Something about having a sister... or being one... dictates that one must adorn the other. So my favorite person to sew for is my sister. Maybe it's because when we were growing up, she was my doll to be decked out as I wanted in all our games. Maybe it's because I love to show her to the world as I see her: beautiful and unique. But nothing I sew her is a success unless she wears it, and she is firm in her tastes. When I make things for her, I get to know her better: her preferences, her insecurities, her boldness. I want to learn what she wants to say, then give her the styling "language" to say it herself.
The idea of clothes as communication is probably universal. "Man looks on the outward appearance," and that being so, man is aware that he can manipulate his appearance to alter how people judge him. Not everybody cares to do so, of course. People who don't understand how clothes talk can be very hesitant to step outside their own or their culture's normal "vocab".
I read an article by Anita Brookner recently, a thoughtful synthesis of her reviews of several books about dressing ("Dressing and Undressing", The London Review of Books, Vol. 4 No. 7 · 15 April 1982, pages 9-10.) One quote stood out to me: "Certainly that obsessive interest in detail, in necklines, in textures, seems to belong more in the world of the calculated statement, which is the prerogative of fashion, as opposed to the random display of information which is the language of dress." Isn't that an interesting distinction between fashion and dress? Think of what's in your closet: some stuff you bought when it was in style, that never suited you, perhaps; or a lumpy sweater your grandmother made you that you can't bear to wear outside but can't throw away, so you wear it to lounge around the house in the winter; several pairs of jeans (of which you wear one because it fits just right); a variety of clothes you like and clothes you don't, combined by chance and laundry days into outfits that you think are okay and which likely reveal more about you than you intend... that's what Brookner probably means by "the language of dress". I know, because that's what most closets look like; that's the reality of dressing. Now think about what "calculated statement" you might want to make. That's a more involved question. Wouldn't it depend on self-knowledge and honesty that few of us possess? Wouldn't it mean broadening our clothing vocabulary then narrowing our choice of words? Wouldn't it impose situational limits? Practically speaking, it would mean chucking a lot of our perfectly serviceable clothes. Which seems vain--and what would dear old Grandma say if she knew? And dangerous... what if we get it wrong? Fashion is hard! Surely it's more moral, more safe, to frugally wear out our old faithfuls, even if they mumble instead of sing out our messages to the world!
On the other hand, if clothing communicates, it must communicate to the wearer as well as the viewer. When I get dressed, I'm talking to myself. In college I found that if I dressed up on exam days I did better, or perhaps simply felt that I was doing better, on my tests. My mom always said you weren't fully dressed or ready for your day until your shoes were on. If our clothes speak change and attitude into us, it's not frivolous to consider what we wear. Lots of people are made sad by putting on a tired outfit.
So back to my compulsion to dress my sister. It's a weighty proposition, isn't it? Dressing her is speaking for her, and I want to get the words right. One day I took it into my head to make her something for her head. I had noticed she rarely wore hats outside, even when it was cold. Beautiful scarves on her neck, yes. Hats, no. "I'm just not a hat person," she told me, but with an awkward half-shrug like maybe she's wrong. But she likes hats on others, so I figure she just hasn't found the right hat for her. I take it as a challenge, knowing full well that since it's an area of unease for her, anything I make will be graded on a pass-fail rubric. I don't just want to make her a nice hat; I want to make her a wardrobe staple, something that she feels confident in donning. It can't just be a hat, it must be a her-hat!
It's interesting what qualities people attribute to headgear. “Whatever is worn on the head is a sign of the mind beneath it” writes Alison Lurie in The Language of Clothes (1981). At the end of the book He Knew He was Right, we are told that Emily Trevalyan has exchanged her "smart hats" for bonnets, and we are given thereby to know that she is no longer vivacious and independent-minded. (Earlier in the book a man rebuffs a young woman because of her absurd false hair, which both offends his aesthetic sense and hints at a troubling lack of discernment!) My sister's mind is precise, organized, and tasteful. A her-hat must therefore be unfussy, with clean lines and crispness. No floppiness, no plumey feathers, nothing that must be adjusted all the time. Ruffles are right out!
My first inspiration was a hat worn by Kiera Knightley in the 2012 film Anna Karenina. (This hat.) In case that link fails, I'll describe it: in form it's a tallish bell-boy style cap, with no chin-strap, and with an asymmetrical detail like a turned up brim that slants diagonally up across the front; in color black (maybe velvet or felt), with silver embroidery heavily encrusting the brim detail. She wears it nearly straight on her head, but the diagonal silver detail gives the illusion of cool jauntiness. (If you've never watched the movie, watch it for the millinery!)
My second inspiration was the fabric in my sister's stash: some mill end curtain remnants in shades of ice blue and silver. (I must apologize up front that the pictures in this post won't do justice to the fabric. The pictures all have a yellowish cast because of the lighting in the room where I worked. The ice-blue looks gray, greenish, or even lavender in the pics! The silver morphs into gold under the filament bulbs. Take my word for it that the plain fabric is blue and the embroidered stuff is silver!) The colors are cold and textures luxe. I don't know the fabric content, but they might be silk. They rustle deliciously. I did notice that wetting the fabric before ironing it softened its hand, but created a few wrinkles which changed the sheen. I guess there was sizing on the fabric in its original state. I decided I liked the smooth look better, so I did not wash the fabric.
MAKING THE PATTERN
(No illustrations for this, but it's easy.)
1. Measure my sister's head while her hair is up. She wears her hair up a lot, and I don't want to make a hat that musses her updo! 22.5 inches.
2. Cut a piece of paper in a rectangle 22.5 inches long, then wrap it around her head and trim it until I like the height. This makes the rectangular pattern piece that'll be the sides of the hat.
3. Roll the rectangle into a tube and trace the bottom. Measure. It's too small. Gradually re-draw the perimeter until the oval is 22.5 inches around. There must be an easier way to do this, but I don't know it. It probably involves math, in which area I'm sadly deficient.
4. Using the rectangle from before, trim it down to make the "brim". I do this by folding it in half and cutting a curving line. When I re-open it, I have a long piece flat on the bottom, skinny on both ends and swelling in the middle. Like the silhouette of a slug. I think, though, that this piece will be too exactly the same diameter as the hat. Two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time! Since the brim will wrap around the outside of the hat, it needs to be slightly larger. I also want it to flair ever so slightly out as it goes upward. So I slash it along its middle line (in the middle of the slug) and open it at an angle, filling the triangular gap with paper. The result is a sickle-like shape. The concave curve of the bottom is about 22.5 inches, to fit in the hat. The convex outer curve is longer, but not extremely.
None of my pattern pieces have seam allowance; I just add it as I cut.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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