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The biggest problem with clothing industries

From mass manufacturers to fashion designers to custom tailors, the biggest problem is: they are all fundamentally selfish.

Fashion designers. 

Fashion designers are motivated to bring their own visions to life; to live out their own ideas and see them manifested on runway. It is a largely self-serving act, with laughably little end value to the average human being.

You think that mass manufacturers at these shows translate these designs and water them down and bring them to us on a silver platter, purely for our benefit? No, they don’t. Because…

Mass manufacturers. 

Retailers – across the entire spectrum of cost – are motivated by one thing: to make money. They coerce us into consumption, churn through garments by “season,” and cut corners to keep us running from one to the next. Because the only way they make money off of their slim margins is to duplicate them as many times as possible, and the only way to duplicate the transactions is to keep us running.

So yeah, sure, they go to the fashion shows. And dutifully copy what they see. But with the sole intent of giving us something new to chase.

Custom tailors.

Women, overall, don’t get to enjoy the privilege of custom tailoring. It takes some serious legwork to find tailors even willing to do it, and then it’s with a palpable reluctance from the tailor.

When asked why, the number one reason – in fact, the only reason – they’ve ever given me?

“It’s too hard.”

Oh. Okay.

Not that women don’t want it, or aren’t willing to pay. Tailors just don’t want to.

e-commerce.

You want to know why pure e-commerce companies don’t make money? Because pure e-commerce is selfish – it’s a company solving their own problems, not the customer’s.

Number one reason 100% e-commerce retailers are only online? “To reduce costs.” Not to serve the consumer. Not because the consumer actually prefers to shop online (most definitely don’t), and certainly not because we don’t like visiting stores.

Companies that are 100% e-commerce do it purely to serve themselves – because eliminating brick and mortar reduces costs. (And are these savings passed on to consumers? Sometimes, but usually not.)

But then e-commerce companies are actually shocked to learn that, despite all the presumed cost savings, their model doesn’t actually make money. Andy Dunn, CEO of Bonobos, wrote an article titled “e-commerce is a bear,” in which he points out that e-commerce is really freaking hard. That Amazon owns the e-commerce space. And even Amazon isn’t making money. Even Amazon is opening brick and mortar.

Because – whoa. what, now? – people like to see and touch what they’re buying.

And, moreover, people know when they’re actually being served and when companies are only serving themselves.

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The best quotes from Elizabeth Hawes’ “Why is a Dress?”

Below are the best quotes from Why is a Dress? by Elizabeth Hawes, roughly in the order in which they are found in the book.

Shared because the book is now out-of-print and rather difficult to find (at the time of this writing, Amazon listed a single copy for $90. I found my copy at a private university library 10 miles outside of downtown Chicago, reference use only.)

And it is, at the same time, a fundamental work from a designer some call America’s most brilliant. And so, stands to be shared.

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DO YOU CARE TO BEGIN?

On getting thorough design training: “There’s no use trying to cheat.”

“For clothes designing… a sense of the line of the human body is what you need most, and a good course in anatomy will open your eyes if anything ever will.”

“It took me about three years to learn to run [a custom-made dressmaking place] without losing money. It took me just about the same amount of time to realize that mass production was far more important in America – clothes for everybody.”

“I believe that the greatest satisfaction in life comes from doing the greatest good for the greatest number. In order to lead a satisfactory life, I think one must feel part of the whole.”

“I do not care for all the hooptydo… All I care about is seeing the majority of women happily dressed.”

“I feel that our most important problem is to perfect the mass production of clothes. We must have better clothes for everyone.”

“The useful life of a good designer is only as lasting as his ability to understand the public’s psychology.”

“Since the clothes of any period are an expression of the life of the period, and since the time in which we live is not a very calm or beautiful one, there are many successful clothes designers who are not artists. They do not make beautiful clothes but there are successful even so, because a large part of the public doesn’t care whether it has beautiful clothes.”

Part One: HEAD

“Clothes are an expression of the social life of the time. Women want to wear what they do because of what goes on in their heads. Their size and shape have practically nothing to do with designing for them. You can understand the social life of your time and what on in the heads of women only by using your own head.”

Women turn to other women for clothing compliments. “If the men really care how their women look, they had better hurry and speak up.”

“These women are sheep.”

“They will never trust their own taste because they first have to be sure that what they wear has been okayed by someone they are imitating.”

“Some of the girls haven’t decided whether they are going to the office to work or to attract men… They are looking for some kind of clothes that will serve both purposes equally well.”

“I doubt if women would wear masculine clothes at any time if they could get a perfectly functional feminine garment.”

“Modesty thrives on fear and shame.”

“Women want to wear what they do because of what goes on in their heads. Their size and shape have practically nothing to do with the problem of dressing them.”

“You will see this point at once if you reflect on the number of women of entirely different size, shape, and age who are happy in identical clothes. It is because these women all correspond to one another psychologically.”

“In order to know what kind of clothes women are going to want, you must know the women. You must know their likes and dislikes, their phobias, their strengths and their weaknesses. You must, in a sense, be able to be the women for whom you are designing, for only by being those women can you be sure to design for them what they are going to want to wear.”

“If you are to be a successful designer, you not only have every right but it is your duty to demand that the person for whom you work puts into your hands the information you need… the information must not be guesswork but must be accurate. With the knowledge you can acquire for yourself the fundamental motives women have for wearing clothes, of the variations in psychological types, you can use specific scientific information on the year-by-year or season-by-season state of the women to find out what they want to wear.”

“You should demand opportunity for going about yourself in stores, and to places where your customers go for work or play, of talking and mingling with them, so that you can personally verify the dedications which science can make for you and the acceptability of the clothes you believe answer the demand.”

“Most American wholesale manufacturers and buyers steadfastly refuse to resort to the devices worked out by psychologists, sociologists, and economists for inquiring into the social set-up, mental and economic, and deducing from that the type of clothes women will want to wear. They would rather make a gamble out of their businesses than go through the intellectual process.”

“You will know why women are wearing clothes at all, at the moment you are designing. You will know because you have recognized all the possible reasons and boiled them down to the pertinent ones through your own observation and by talking to women themselves.”

“You will recognize, as you talk to women, the many variations of individual psychological types, You will decide which are the prevailing combinations existing in groups large enough to merit being dealt with.”

“You will be very much aware of what is going on in the world. You will be more aware than the women to whom you talk.”

“You will know that unless the clothes you are about to design reflect accurately the state of women in the world in which they live, the women won’y buy many of those clothes.”

“Things change slowly in normal times.”

“It often seems to me, in fact, that the majority of women are wearing clothes that are not satisfactory. Pressed by their desire for what they want, and unable to find it, they continue to buy new clothes, hoping to find something better.”

“There is no need for speculation as regards the taste of women. If you are awake, aware of the world, of national and local situations, of the events which are serving to influence your customers’ minds, you can be read with the clothes they are going to want. You have only to see them and to read their minds… You do it by talking to and working with your customers.”

“When I started designing in New York, I made a special point of going to the homes of my customers in town and out, and to the places where they went to eat, drink, dance. I traveled more or less where they traveled. I did not do this to see the clothes they had on… I went to see how they acted while they wore clothes, how they danced, what they ate, how their houses were decorated. I went, more than for any other reason, to find out what they talked about and what they read.”

“What they talk about and read tells you more than anything else what they are going to want to wear next. They may have had their houses for years. Their manner of dancing may be left over from school days. The paintings on their walls may no longer please them… it’s what they talk about that gives you the clearest clues.”

“When you find that so many of the dress buyers and dress manufacturers have as their ideal the life which is led at Miami Beach and on the 52nd Street of night spots in New York, you have put your finger on a great reason for the dissatisfaction of a majority of American women with their clothes. They are wearing clothes which are created with someone else in mind.”

“If you expect to create clothes successfully, you will study specifically the women who will buy the clothes and not some other group of women.”

“Your genius, your ability to design, is the ability to translate life into clothes. First you must understand about life.”

“You will learn as you make the clothes – for real women – and not for hangers, not for store dummies.”

“You can find inspiration for designing only from two groups: the sublimated women of the moneyed class, or the sublimated and rebellious sections of working (or lower) class women.”

“There are few sublimated middle class women because they and their clothes can never be one if their only ideal of clothes is to wear someone else’s choice.”

Part Two: HAND

“Clothes designing is the expression of the social life of the time in terms of finished garments. The process of designing, or creating, a garment is not completed until the garment is all ready to be worn by a woman. Designing is the production of the finished thing. You can design, or create, or produce a finished garment only if you know how to do so with your own hands.”

“If you just sit at a drawing board and make sketches of clothes, you seldom if ever develop a new way of cutting material. You just make lines on the paper. You repeat all sorts of things you have seen before in different combinations. You draw trimming onto the dress to cover up blank spots which, if you were draping with the material, would turn into cuts or drapes.”

“Can you imagine a talented sculptor designing a torso by making a drawing of it and then giving it out to a stone mason to carve because he was unable to handle a chisel himself? Would there be the faintest likelihood of the result being anything really beautiful? To my mind a dress designer who pretends he can work by just handing over a sketch to someone else to work out, without knowing at all himself how it can be worked out, is no designer at all. He may be a sort of ‘idea man,’ but the craftsman who does his work for him comes nearer being the designer than he.”

“The crucial thing you must know about and never forget is the grain of your material – the way the threads in it are woven and how it behaves when cut in different directions.”

“We have striven to change our clothes – and we have failed so far to make any fundamental changes at all. We have made houses and automobiles and airplanes in mass production and with new materials. Yet we still go about int he same clothes. Changes in fabrics have so far all tried to imitate something that already exists.”

“You cannot design successfully without a thorough understanding of the production of your designs.”

Part Three: HEART

“When an artist expresses the social life of his time in terms of finished garments, the result is beautiful clothes. Clothes are coverings for the human body. To be beautiful, they must fuse with the body of the wearer. Body and clothes must work together. Your heart must beat with the same rhythm as the hearts of women for whom you design, if your designs are to move with the rhythm of their bodies.”

“Because clothes are such an intimate part of a person – or should be if they are to be satisfactory – we must have clothes which suit our lives.”

“It is exceedingly painful for women who appreciate beauty in clothes to wear many of the clothes put on the market today, because they are clothes whose design bears absolutely no relation to the anatomy under them. Thus, the majority of women, I think, fail to be beautifully dressed. When they fail, it is not always because they haven’t the taste to choose what is right. They fail because so many of the clothes on the market today are designed without the faintest notion of what makes a dress beautiful.”

“I have always believed that the general public has a much higher appreciation of beautiful clothes than it is credited with by most beauty-lovers, or by the clothing trade. Certainly the great majority of people who own clothing manufacturing establishments and those who are in charge of buying and selling clothes are very little concerned with whether or not a dress is beautiful. They are concerned with buying and selling coverings for the human body, and if the average taste of the American woman weren’t pretty good, the clothes offered her would be even worse than they are.”

“Possibly I overestimate the public desire for beautiful clothes.”

“I believe that many women instinctively or consciously want beautiful clothes. It is because of this system of ‘designing’ and selling ugly clothes that one so seldom meets a woman who buys clothes under $75 who is satisfied with what she is wearing. However, the system goes on. the women are pressed by their own desires to try to find satisfactory and beautiful clothes. Therefore they keep on buying new ones in hopes that the clothes will be better. They have been getting cheaper these last few years, but not better, I think. By buying what is bad, women perpetuate the system.”

“You don’t have to wheedle the public into buying what it wants. You don’t have to write ridiculous glamour stories about it to cover up the fact tat your only object in life is to make a woman buy a dress whether she wants it or not.”

“Clothes are largely sold in America from hangers. Women look at them on hangers and choose what they try on afterwards from hangers. Therefore… you are required to design clothes that will look well on a hanger. This is such a false premise that to a layman it sounds insane.”

“For me it is an axiom that clothes are to be worn by women and that to be beautiful those clothes must fuse with the body. As a designer of beautiful clothes your first preoccupation is, therefore, with women’s bodies. You do not want to distort the body but to enhance its beauty.”

“If you try to cut up your dress where nature has not cut the body, you very likely fall into some proportion in your design which is ultimately displeasing.”

“Breaking the dress where nature makes a break in the body is best.”

“Your woman may be able to make the motion necessarily, but if she can’t make it freely, if her clothes catch her or slip out of place at any given point, then the effect is ugly.”

“You cannot make over the women of America by changing their clothes. You can only given them what their psychology demands. Their shapes and sizes have nothing to do with the effect they make in their clothes.”

“If you can’t first make beautiful clothes, your distortions will just be ugly and not startling and your jokes won’t be funny.”

“Never be afraid to make any kind of dress of any kind of a material which you have good reason, because of your personal knowledge of the psychology of your customers, to think will suit them.”

“I believe that the color of a woman’s dress must be becoming to her mind.”

“The lack of choices of colors is one of the worst features today in ready-made clothes.”

On trimming, which Hawes loathed: “Lately it has been a chain of gilded tin tacked onto the neck of a belted sack.”

“Dress designing is not a pure art. It is neither art nor craft nor mass production. It is not psychology or sociology or economics. It is all of these things.”

“A machine is the most beautiful thing on earth.”

“I believe the movies are largely instrumental in forming the taste of women who are snobs about their clothes, who want to copy blindly what other women wear, who are sheep. Such women bore me and I do not wish to design for them. Give me rebellious women who want more and more practicality and comfort in their clothes. Give me sublimated types who don’t care what anyone else is wearing. Give me anything you like except snobs and sheep.”

I LEAVE YOU HERE

“That all American women may have beautiful clothes, all American clothes designers will have to be able to express the social life of their time by producing finished garments which move with the rhythm of the bodies of their wearers. All it takes to do this is a head that understands life, hands which can cut material into the shape of life, and a heart that feels the beautiful and can bring it to all women in their clothes.”

Some of her many references:

Sartor Resartus, Carlyle

The Clothing Workers, Jack Hardy

The Psychology of Clothes, J C Flugel

Madeleine Vionnet


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The best damn stance on clothing I’ve ever seen.

Clothing – particularly women’s clothing – irritates the hell out of me.

Men hear me say this and they’re like “but look at the options!” Some of the more… “conventional” men, who delight in it all, are also like: “but women look so beautiful!” (“As you all should!”) Or they think to themselves but do not say: “This is a ‘you’ problem. Other women are clearly doing just fine.”

Women field my complaints with rebuttals of “oh my gosh, you just don’t know where to shop! Come with me sometime!”

And I’m like “honeycakes, no offense, because you look amazing, but I really do not have time for that.” Like, maybe that’s the problem. But “figuring out where to shop so I’m not so infuriated with clothes” isn’t really something I think I should have to do. I am my clothing’s Master. Not the other way around.

The sheer inefficiency of shopping and the amount of time we’re expected to shop — the fact that we see it as a past-time; the fact that we dress ourselves “at hanger,” lifting something from the rack and exclaiming, “ooh, cuute.” And then try to convince ourselves it looks just as good on — is only part of the problem.

But then there’s also the issue of dressing: what style top to wear with what style of bottom; what skirt goes with what shoes; having a pair of pants tailored to every heel height.

Then the issues with quality. Fabric options: polyester and poly-blends? And construction: For a while, I thought it was my fault, buying “cheap” clothes. But then my Hugo Boss trousers from Nordstrom and my custom-tailored dresses all came apart at the seams and discolored at the shoulders after one day in the sun. (Was I not meant to wear this clothing outdoors? I guess I should have clarified.) We can’t even get a decent dress shirt, let alone easily get one custom-tailored. (If we do find a tailor willing to do it, chances are it’s only after a degree of prima donna back and forth. Because #deargodnotbreasts.)

And I look around and I’m like: What is this? What year is it? How are we all still okay with this?? And when will it ever end?

I have been asking myself these things lately, and today I found a kindred spirit in a one Elizabeth Hawes.

Elizabeth Hawes

Elizabeth Hawes was a writer, sketcher, copyist, stylist, journalist, author, union organizer, champion of gender equality, and political activist.

But above all, Elizabeth Hawes was a fashion designer who believed that “Fashion is a parasite.”

It is easy, of course, to find fashion designers. Even philosophical ones (and aren’t they all? Really?) But Hawes was an outspoken critic of the fashion industry, and champion of ready to wear and people’s right to have the clothes they desired, rather than the clothes dictated to be fashionable.

She drew a merciless distinction between “style” and “fashion,” saying:

“Style gives the feeling of a certain period in history. Fashion is a parasite on style. He is the horrid little man who tells you last winter’s coat may be in perfect condition but you can’t wear it because it has a belt.”

“Style is what you can have, the right clothes for your life in your epoch, uncompromisingly, at once.” Fashion “changes not in response to events or to public taste or need, but because industry payrolls must be met, magazines published, a myth perpetuated.”

“I’ve become convinced that ninety-five percent of the business of fashion is a useless waste of time and energy as far as the public is concerned. It serves only to ball up the ready-made customers and make their lives miserable. The only useful purpose that changes in fashion can possibly have is to give a little additional gaiety to life. But by the time you’ve taken off fashion’s bright cellophane wrapper, you usually find not only that fashion is no fun at all, but that even the utility of your purchase has been sacrificed.” – Hawes, Fashion is Spinach

“The public, in a dumb way… stick to [what they find] until something really better crosses their path.” And if they never find something satisfactory, they just keep searching. And this is what the fashion industry wants, because “if a fundamentally satisfactory way had been developed for making clothes in mass production, Fashion would be far less successful in changing women’s clothing every six months.” So they deliberately make things mediocre in order to, as Ellison effectively wrote to exactly the same effect in Invisible Man, keep us all running.

Hawes lamented, “some people seem to like it. There are a good many people who don’t, but just accept it as inevitable, throwing away perfectly good old clothes and buying new ones every year.” (Or, worse, being forced to throw the clothes away because the construction is so bad that they have to.)

And if we’re not cheated by constantly-evolving whims, we’re being cheated on fit.

“The great majority of women in the United States, never having had their clothes made to fit them, have not the faintest idea what it is to be really comfortable in clothes… Any dress which is made to a size catches you somewhere, in the ribs because the waistline is too high, across the back because the back is too narrow, under the arm where the armhole is too small.”

But we don’t know it. “The vast majority of American women are uncomfortable in their clothes whether they know it or not. A good many of them know they can’t get wholesale clothes to come anywhere near fitting.”

The problem, of course, is that mass-production lends itself to pumping out countless identical garments that fit nobody, because, as Hawes brilliantly, cuttingly observed:

“There are no size 14 women in the world, nor are there any size 16.”

“No two women in the world have the same proportions, width of shoulder, length of arm, height of waist.” And yet we agonize over these garments – things that were never really intended to suit us because their makers never cared enough to do so – and we blame ourselves for the fact that they don’t fit, or urge ourselves to overlook or un-see it. Things don’t fit and we think it’s us, walking dejected from store after store with the piling belief “my hips are too big,” “my boobs are too small,” “I’m too short,” etc.

But in the words of the shoe salesman from Me and You and Everyone We know:

“You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”

We all deserve better. Clothing should be subservient to us, and not the other way around.

Clothing must not rob the wearer of our basic human rights.

Hawes also defended authentic, honest human form and was adamant that that human form should always, always trump fashion.

After taking design courses at Parsons, she wrote:

“I learned a very important thing, namely that no art school, however satisfactory to others, was ever going to teach me how to design clothes… We took life drawing but no one ever mentioned anatomy to me as a student of dress design. Apparently it did not occur to them that I was going to dress living human beings who had bones and muscles.”

She believed a successful dress must fuse with the wearer, that line, in relationship to anatomy, was the basis for a beautiful dress. That “the lines of the body are naturally beautiful and its movement naturally graceful, so any clothing that impedes movement is, by definition, ugly.” – The Lost Art of Dress.

“No dress can be really beautiful which in any way hampers action.

Clothing must honor the individual’s personality as well.

Hawes despaired that most men and women were clothing conformists. Clothes should be the expression of personality, of fantasy, of individuality. (If a woman occasionally wanted trousers to wear, or a man ruffles, she argued provocatively, why shouldn’t they have them?)

T Magazine columnist Alice Gregory wrote a piece about Elizabeth Hawes in which she calls her “The Most Brilliant American Fashion Designer.”

“Throughout her career, Hawes offered an honest, often funny appraisal of the fashion world as it was and as she thought it should be. She was a proponent of using style to get what you want (and, essentially, to become who you want to be), and a wicked critic.”

Gregory curated Hawes’s wittiest one-liners from her nine books. Here are some of her favorite:

1. “It is impossible to be completely abstract about clothes because they have no life unless they are worn. They must fit onto a body or they do not exist.” – Why Is a Dress?

2. “I would not be doing justice to the future of clothes if I did not point out that practically all psychologists who have bothered to consider the subject agree that eventually we will all become nudists.” – Fashion Is Spinach

3. “I took a brandy at lunch to dull myself for the ordeal of afternoons on Seventh Avenue.” – Fashion Is Spinach

4. “Running any business is just figuring out what the traffic will bear. American women bear a lot.” – Fashion Is Spinach

5. “No store can afford to get above the general level of its public’s tastes.” – Fashion Is Spinach

Hawes felt optimistic, albeit critical, that:

“The clothes designers of the future, the American Designers if you like, will find some way of solving these problems of neatness and cleanliness and a fundamental human desire to look attractive. These designers will also find some way of designing clothes that must fit, so that they have no specific demarcation line to emphasize the varying widths of shoulders, so that they must, by virtue of the basic design, hug into any size waist.”

Nearly 100 years later, though, we still haven’t. We still subject ourselves to the same agonies.

On the upside, however, we can download and read her Fashion is Spinach here.


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Differentiating yourself from the standard

I am having a sheath dress custom-made.

Initially, this may seem like an extravagant expense… until you consider the following (as I did, over the course of nearly six months):

1. Off the rack, a typical sheath dress will run $100-160 (with a few outliers)
2. The typical sheath dress comes in number sizes – 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.
3. These sizes are based on the waist size, with bust, hips and hem more or less following a “ratio”
4. Not all women have the same bust:waist or hips:waist or even hem length:waist proportion
5. So it leaves us with two options: deal with it or pay a tailor $50-100 to have it (insufficiently) altered

So, assuming you actually want the sheath dress to fit, you’re looking at $150-$250+ for it.

The problem is that mass retailers (including our favorites, like one that rhymes with “K Drew” or another that sounds like “Flan Sailor”) fit their dresses to what seems to be the “average” height of like 5’4″, with all sizes having close to the same proportions.

Reality Check: most women aren’t built like that. So dresses that are aren’t going to fit us.

And while many women can have the skirt hemmed shorter or go up a size and have the waist taken in to accommodate different sizes, my problem was: I’m at good three inches taller than whatever imaginary  figure that a dress – which is otherwise “my size” – was sewn for. So the seam that’s supposed to sit on my waist actually sits on my ribcage. Then the wider part of the dress meant to fit the hips is now where my waist actually is, so there’s a particularly unflattering baggy mess where a woman would like to see a cute curve. The hem’s hovering in “no man’s land” on my leg, somewhere between mid-thigh and my kneecap, and rides most of the way up it when I sit down. And guess where that otherwise modest slit is sitting?

I saw the same issues no matter where I shopped. I even marched into “Boredstrom,” like all the proper professional ladies do, and shared my problems with the first associate I found. She put me in a dress priced at $350. Three hundred and fifty dollars. Gorgeous dress. But guess where the waist hit?

And here’s the extra infuriating thing: I don’t necessarily have a weird body. It’s not like my torso is awkwardly long. At 5’9″, I’m long all over. And now in my mid-twenties, I’m bored of throwing my money away on retailers who won’t throw me a bone back.

So I spent several months looking for someone who was willing to make me some dresses. And after three meetings, she took my measurements (over a dozen of them, so this puppy fits like a glove), let me pick the fabric and designed me a sheath. And priced at $200.

To give up dresses from retailers who had little interest in me and instead have one that makes me feel like a million bucks, I think the $50 difference in price is a no-brainer.