One of the fascinating aspects of sewing my own clothing has been the impact on my sense of style. In my world, Before Sewing and Knitting, clothing choices were limited to whatever was in stores that season, and I cannot tell you the number of times I would emerge from a shopping foray emptyhanded, shaking my head that this season's "it" look just wasn't something I could get on board with. Maybe it was the wrong shape for my body, or the "hot" colors washed me out, or hemlines were an unflattering length, or it was a look I wasn't comfortable with (babydoll tees come to mind). It was certainly possible to construct a personalized style from the offerings found off the rack, but it existed within a narrowly confined range that was dictated by the whims of fashion designers, magazines, buyers, and the commercial fashion industry.
Sewing and knitting have blasted open the possibilities. It's not even like it extended one or two ends of a spectrum, but it's almost like being able to operate in 3D after a lifetime of 2D. Whole dimensions, added in a heartbeat! (Heh.) Beyond having the power to step off a consumption treadmill controlled by the fashion industry, being able to make my own clothes has demanded a level of active participation in cultivating a personal aesthetic. All that time and effort invested in handmade garments means having some skin in the game - the stakes are raised for choosing a pattern, a color, a print, a hemline, a look that really speaks to me and works for me. Nothing is more disappointing than investing hours in a project that doesn't fit or isn't flattering, and it only takes one or two of such duds to get us to take a step back and really figure out: what do I like? what is flattering? Instead of passively going with whatever is "in" that season, crafting has demanded that I actively define my style.
To a lesser extent, the same can be said of thrifting. When you step into a thrift store, you're on a treasure hunt. That, again, means actively seeking out that which you like; instead of knowing that anything on the racks should "work" for fitting into what's currently fashionable, thrifting by its very nature means overlooking the vast majority of what's on the racks, and honing in on the one or two jewels that speak to you. Whether you thrift for high quality basics, quirky pieces or period pieces, cheap substitutes for the current hot item, or with an eye towards refashioning, again you're forcing yourself to take a more active role in creating a personal style.
I don't think it's any coincidence that when people learn to make or alter clothing, they don't just recreate what's already in stores. Part of that is because it seems counterproductive to invest hours in goods that you could just buy off the shelf, especially when the appeal of handmade is customization and the freedom to make whatever you want. But I'd also argue that what's offered in stores doesn't fulfill all of our needs, or else why would we be creating handmade substitutes? From my personal experience and watching the evolution of my blogging friend's wardrobes, it seems that the longer we make, the more distinctive our style becomes, and the more it deviates from the current "look" because we're going through an iterative process that constantly refines our own sense of what it means to look good and feel good in what we wear. As we develop the skills to bring our ideas to fruition, we're also fine tuning those ideas. And that ensuing freedom also allows us to pull from a wide range of inspiration.
Thrifting and handmade both lend themselves to creating eclectic ensembles, and maybe that's part of what drives the distinctive styles that result when people start down this path. But what I also love is the wide diversity of styles that emerge from this eclecticism, like how two women drawn to 1950's silhouettes can still have very different styles, depending which period of the 50's they like, or the color palettes that suit them, their choice in accessories, if they favor a bold or dimunitive look, whether or not they prefer literal interpretations or a "modern" updating of a classic pattern.
I admit to many moments of self doubt when I craft. I wonder if this is really the "best" use of my time. I wonder about being a one-woman sweat shop when I could just stroll into Target and find cheap clothing that fits. When I produce a string of duds, I wonder if I've learned anything at all in the last 4 years (you know what this means ... upcoming dud post!!!) I wonder if it is really vain and shallow of me to be so into clothing when there are still so many people living on less than $1 a day, the economy is submerged under water, and the polar bears are losing their homes. I wonder if this form of empowerment is really a form of empowerment, or if it is just a feel-good substitute that keeps me from thinking about the larger issues facing our world and our generation.
But I also think this is about a sense of self. Sure, this may not be the most important aspect of self to cultivate. But it's a start. And it makes me happy. More confident. You know, maybe this site will get shut down in 3 years because I've moved on to other things, and maybe in 10 years I'll be dressing radically differently than I do now. But I'm pretty sure that wherever I'll be in 3 years' or 10 years' time, it will be a direct product of who I am today. And if crafting and developing a strong sense of personal style is part of who I am today, then I am going to embrace that with full force. It's the only way to get to the Jessica of 2013 or 2020.
(Handmade sweater, handmade blouse, refashioned wool skirt.)