A year or two ago, I opened my closet full of fabulous historical evening gowns and felt… tired.
Inside were all those impossible confections I’ve made for countless Costume College Galas. Days, weeks, months of blood, sweat and tears are represented in that stuffed wardrobe, along with many happy memories of friends and fears overcome. Every single time, I’d figured it out and finished the dress in time.
And I had to ask… why am I doing this, anyway?
You may be concentrating on the imagined sight of those folds of taffeta and satin in front of me, but I was looking down at my jeans. What the hell is this all for, anyway? Why is all this expertise shut in a closet for 99% of its life, and why am I wearing synthetic rubbish, mass produced in sweatshops I’d rather not think about?
From time to time it’s worth remembering why we got into this, anyway. It’s so easy to get caught up in the rush to have something new to wear for this event, or that event, that we forget why we learned to sew in the first place.
For me, it’s all Ginger Rogers’ fault.
As a teenager I was too young to register disgust at Third World manufacturing practices or vanity sizing, but I *was* sighing heavy sighs at the design of high street clothing. Why couldn’t I buy the stylish togs that movie stars were wearing in the 1930s? Why must I select from a rack of ten identical garments? Why don’t I get to be unique?
I learnt to sew a little at 14, and a lot more at 17, and it was immediately all about evening dresses for University balls, and then wedding dresses for my bespoke business. Somewhere in there, personal, everyday style got lost… which is why I have so much love and admiration for makers like Constance MacKenzie and Zack Pinsent, who live in another era every day. I wanted that unique form of self-expression too.
And that’s why this rather plainer red wool skirt was such a big deal for me this year.
It may not be spectacular silk, but wool was a joy to work with (more making-of details here). It may not be flashy, but it’s something I can wear on the Tube and make heads turn. It’s devastatingly elegant. It makes me feel like magic. It’s from a real 1895 pattern draft – time travelling clothing!!
This is not a costume, it’s my own clothes, and it’s been a joy ever since I first put it on, from those lovely pleats swishing at the back to the little crow’s feet I used to reinforce the corners of the great big POCKETSESSSS.
It’s so ME.
My ideas on style have developed since my teenage years. The Thirties don’t speak to me like they used to, but late Victorian and Edwardian certainly does, with its rich colour palette, its obsessive inventiveness and its glorious overthinking on everything from pattern drafting to architectural ornament.
And that’s why it was such a joy to take these photos with the delightfully eccentric and also-beautifully-dressed Bernadette Banner in my favourite Victorian surroundings – the Grand Staircase at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London. (Thank you, Bernadette!)
This is one of a series that have been playfully dubbed our “engagement photos”. Note the matching American Duchess Londoners. You’ll have to ask Bernadette about her fabulous cape, but my shirt is a Victorian one, bought in mint condition in an antique shop in Carcassonne, France; the waistcoat is about the same age as me, purchased at Levison’s Vintage Clothing, off Brick Lane in London; the pearls were Grandma Irené’s; and I wish I could remember the trader at TORM who sold me the earrings.
I’d like to expand on this style – the eccentric Edwardian lady entrepreneur. In these photos I was not imagining myself as a guest at the hotel… more as the hotelier herself. And wherever my life and career are about to take me, I’d like to think this looks like a pretty awesome personal brand.
So I urge you… don’t just think about a costume for the next convention or event. The most striking, ambitious, groundbreaking, game changing costume you make might be the costume you make for when you’re dressing as your true self.
What would THAT costume look like for you?