Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Victorian Academic, Part 1

"It mightn't be of any use, but I would feel in it as if it were a part of me--that it grew on me and wasn't just bought and put on. I want one dress like that in my life-time.”

—L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon

I’m Cee, a fiction writer and a definite Victorianist (well, it’s broader than that, but the Victorians were my first and truest loves). My critical focus is on eighteenth and nineteenth century woman writers (I love Gaskell, all the Brontes, Austen, Burney, etc.), and I also have a soft spot for researching the period. My first love of clothes came from reading Victorian children’s fiction and watching those adaptations. For my first post here, I’d like to discuss some of the things I love to pull from Victorian sartorial sensibilities. What can we take from that particularly constraining time?

Since this post got away from me, I’m splitting it into two sections. In Part Two of this post, I want to examine some of the problematics of historical fashion, and see if I can reconcile my love of crinolines and chemises with knowledge of the imperialist, racist, classist, and sexist past. But in this section, I want to (in true fiction-research form) examine the underlying principles of Victoriana, and see what’s there besides the pretty.

But the first question, is what can we realistically take from Victorian fashion? As much as I love period costuming, and as much as my sartorial fantasies might involve a full bustle, I am probably not going to be wearing a corset outside my bedroom. And as much as I would love to reproduce all elements of period dress, it’s neither comfortable nor really appropriate for the classroom.

Victorian clothing wasn’t the somber affair that many remember it to be: people loved and celebrated jewel tones, patterns, and even arrangements that look bizarre to our eyes. There was a flamboyance to Victorian clothing (women’s in particular, but read Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet for loving descriptions of Victorian men’s clothing that tempt me to give up my femme ways) that makes a lot of historical clothing a joy to see. I love so many aspects of Victorian fashion: not only the silhouettes, but also the smaller attributes: buttons, stripes, watches, lace, and skirts. Mostly it’s the dedication to craftsmanship that always snags me.

Looking back to Victorian clothing has encouraged me to embrace different textures as well as colors. Things like lace, velvet, silk— textiles that are often seen as exclusively special use— can be incorporated into daily wear. Looking for natural fibers: cotton, wool, etc. and respecting the source of those materials have become increasingly important to me as a consumer. I am especially frustrated by brands that have begun to offer their clothes in cheaper, artificial materials that wear out more quickly and irritate the skin. Although there are drawbacks to traditional textiles as well, questions of both ethics and production, I still value something that I can wash at home, or that will remain part of my closet for longer than six months at a time.

Victorian, to me, means pieces and combinations that look unique and evoke the period: I mix prints, treasure stripes, lace, and florals, add a necklace that suggests a particular neckline. I love wearing gloves (and am a total sucker for gloves or anything that feature buttons). I wear skirts and dresses much more often than pants, and try to evoke particular silhouettes: the oxford blouse and the tweed vest, the lace-front blousy top and a long cardigan. I like to look to both historical pictures (like this completely amazing Victorian cyclist) and period films for inspiration. It can be a fun exercise to try to reproduce the color scheme of a favorite ensemble, or to recreate the lines of a dress in a more contemporary way.

One of my biggest problems with fashion today is how monotonous a lot of mainstream clothing stores have become. When I walk from one end of the mall to the other, I’m frustrated by how many times I could buy the same ruffle-lined cardigan in slightly different colors. Compare to this to a list of possibilities offered by just one lace merchant: “Point de Bruxelles, point d’Alasce, Point de Venice, Milano, Genoa, and Greece: Medici lace, real Valencienne and imitation Ecru; real and imitation black Spanish and Chantilly laces; fichus, ties, wrappers, falls, mantillas, handkerchiefs; hand-made embroidered underlinen. . .” (Judith Flanders, The Victorian Home). One of the most unique aspects of Victorian dressing was being able to put your own stamp on your choices: trimming your own hats, or hemming a skirt to the length you preferred. Industrial manufacturing and invigoration of the middle class opened up availability of materials, but before ready-to-wear clothes took off, homemaking clothes reached new possibilities.

Obviously ready-to-wear fashion freed us from having to make our own clothes, but also opened the door to sweatshop labor, consumerism, and simply having fewer choices. But re-fashioning, upcycling, and handmaking clothes allow us to to mitigate some of the waste in the fashion cycle and to keep valuable/signature pieces in our closets longer. One of the biggest frustrations I experience with clothes are fluctuations in my weight, and letting down hems/adjusting zippers (or, okay, turning clothes over to my mother/personal tailor) allows me to hang onto some pieces that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to. And even upper-class Victorian ladies tried to modify old clothes or to make their own, in interests of saving money. Flanders (in the same excellent book) discusses a woman who, although wealthy enough to afford forty dresses a year, might still do the bulk of her own dressmaking.

Another thing that I’ve liked about the Victorian model of dress is that, as academics, we’re often called upon to play dramatically different parts: I dress up for teaching, but tend to look more formal than I would for class, and comfort is a process of attrition. How do we move from spending five hours reading for exams to teaching a class? One thing that Victorians give us is a reminder that clothes are intended for specific purposes: what you put on in the morning may not be what you eat dinner in. And while they were obsessed with making sure they changed for meals, sometimes it’s much easier to dress for a morning class and then wear yoga pants for the rest of the day (or vice versa, depending on your schedule). And even though this seems like it might be an occupation for people of leisure alone, it’s interesting to remember that even a maid-of-all-work would change clothes at least twice in the day, from a printed morning dress to a more formal afternoon dress.

For those of you who love historical fashion, how do you incorporate it into your everyday life? What eras do you love? How do you incorporate elements of period clothing without making it into a costume? What sartorial principles do you pull from your favorite time period?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Florals & Flaws

I have an obscene amount of ballet flats, because I can't wear heels with my ankle and foot disability, and ballet flats tend to be easiest and cheapest, but I've been wanting to push myself more with shoes, hence the following purchase from Ideeli:

They're the Big Buddha Hike shoes.

Not being able to wear heels feels like my style is disabled as well as my body. Cute heels are de rigueur for the fashionable femme; there was an entire television show built around women's supposed love for shoes above all else. I love shoes, but shoes do not love me. Eschewing shoes in favor of the needs of my body seems to only draw attention to my flaws. I can't tell you how many times someone has commented on an outfit post at my other blog telling me the outfit would be cute, if only I wore better shoes. Honoring the needs of my body means acknowledging I have a body, which much of fashion wants to ignore. Garments that constrict, constrain, cause pain, can be beautiful but I worry about the promotion of disembodiment. As a fat woman, and a person with a disability, my constant pain keeps me embodied and my fat keeps me visible, as does my limp, or my cane. Often when I browse style blogs or fashion magazines for outfit inspiration, I feel frustrated, because I am unable to wear the shoes pictured, so I must seek out an alternative. It seems like such a frivolous thing, but not being able to wear heels when I probably would if I weren't disabled, having that choice made for me by my body, feels like another way I'm marked as flawed or different.

I'm glad oxfords and loafers with skirts are coming back into style, because sometimes I do just want to feel pretty.

I admit that these sort of appeal to my Victorian sensibilities. The 19th century is my primary field of interest for my comprehensive exams, and these look like something that might be anachronistic, but not altogether unfamiliar to those Boston Marriage ladies. Also, I'm a sucker for florals. I identified as butch for ten years, and I've only started identifying as femme in the past two years, but I am a person of extremes. I either study for my exams for eight hours a day, or lie in bed on painkillers (for my chronic diseases, not recreationally) watching Mad Men. When I was butch, I tried to be hypermasculine, and when I discovered and acknowledged my femme tendencies, I went all-out femme, and when I dress up, it's where I feel most at home now. These shoes are so damn feminine, and they are so different from anything I have, I just couldn't resist.

I'm not sure yet what I'll wear them with, but I had to buy them when I caught them on sale.

Any styling tips? How do you use your sartorial choices to express your gender? How do you find fashion limiting, and/or how does your body limit your fashion?

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Slovenly Academic

A recent Smart Set column by Robert Watts dedicated itself to the denigration of Humanities graduate students and professors for dressing "ugly."

...wasn’t this the real reason students didn’t respect the humanities — not because of the material seemed irrelevant but because the people teaching it looked like hopelessly irrelevant, misfit slobs?

I have a lot of issues with this blog post. While I, personally, often choose to dress up when I'm going to campus (otherwise why would I have this fashion blog?), I think the expectation of beauty is a dangerous one to place upon educators or anyone. Watts sarcastically suggests that the sheer ugliness of his graduate instructors caused his GPA to drop. This is problematic for many reasons, the first being who determines what is fashionable and beautiful? Usually when such determinations are made, it is conventionally attractive, slim, heterosexual, able-bodied, cissexual white people who are deemed handsome/beautiful. What about the rest of us, the queer folks, the trans folks, the disabled and fat folks, those of us who don't fit into dominant beauty standards, who are considered ugly by many?

The absent-minded professor with food in his beard and a button falling off his cardigan is a stereotype for a reason; when you live a life of the mind, tunnel vision occurs frequently, and it takes effort to notice and care about your external appearance when you are trying to write a lesson plan that conforms to the departmental standards, get another article published to get a better chance at tenure, and deal with the daily demands of living. As a person with a disability and two comorbid chronic diseases that involve chronic pain, dressing "nicely" is not always possible for me. One of my challenges this upcoming year is to find pieces in my wardrobe that look professional while still being comfortable enough that I am not further debilitated by the pain of a garment.

Fashion is often seen as frivolous in academia, and Watts point that female academics are often better-dressed than their male counterparts is interesting and worth discussing. In my second graduate university, we were told during our TA orientation that men could get away with wearing anything they wanted and still have their students' respect, but women had to dress up, or the students at our southern state university wouldn't see them as authority figures. Gendered expectations on appearance are a topic I'd like to address in further posts, because there is so much to be said, but for now, I'll just point out how sexist this is.

There are also serious class issues at play in this article (and, of course, in academia in general). Criticizing grad students for their so-called "careless, frumpy, and just plain hard to look at" style of dress smacks of classism. Graduate students in the Humanities are usually only paid small stipends (I've gotten $10,000 and $12,000 a year at various universities). We can't afford fancy clothes. I remember my first semester of teaching (though this was high school). I was fresh out of college, and couldn't afford a new teaching wardrobe. My pants were too short, and I was self-conscious about it. Imagine my humiliation when my students not only noticed, but pointed it out as well.

Watts ends his piece with this report on his year of wearing expensive suits to teach:
Perhaps the best aspect of wearing suits is the pickup I get on those days when my mood isn’t so great. It is hard to don a nicely tailored suit with a stylish tie and nice shoes and show up someplace without experiencing a bit of a lift.

More than anything, I have felt a kind of relief in my new uniform. The paradox is that wearing a suit allows me to not think about how I look. I can’t help but feel that my students can better appreciate me — and what I teach — when the.y see a guy who looks like he could be a member of the Medallion Fund at the front of the classroom.
I do think he has a point about how what we wear influences how we feel about ourselves. One of the major reasons I choose to dress up for teaching is because it feels like putting on a uniform in the best sense; this is my "teacher outfit" and when I put it on, I become Teacher, as opposed to Student, or other identities. (Not that I think we must abandon other identities at the classroom door, but it helps me more further embody the role) But there again is that classism: students want to be taught by rich Hedge Fund members? That pretty much leaves out anyone who's not a white straight cis-male, then, doesn't it?

What did you think of Watts's article? Do you agree? Disagree?


I've been interested in fashion blogging for awhile, but as the fabulous Academichic is closing its doors, I grew inspired to start my own fashion blog, after a brief foray elsewhere last year. I want to write about what I'm wearing as I teach my students, study for my PhD comprehensive exams, take the exams, what I wear to a conference, and on the job market. I want to write about the theories behind my wardrobe choices, how my gender identity and sexuality play into those choices, and how my external environment (whether that's the political or meteorological climate) influences sartorial decisions. I'm hoping to recruit my friends (though they don't know it yet), and I'm hoping to make the morning drudgery of choosing an outfit fun again.

The title of the blog, My Tippet Only Tulle, comes from an Emily Dickinson poem. A tippet is a long cape or scarf, and was usually made of fur. The title reflects both my literary leanings as well as my impulse to go against the grain, to be daring in my fashion choices, and don something others might deem inappropriate.

Also, the font of the header is based on Jane Austen's handwriting.

Thanks for stopping by!