Friday, February 22, 2008

Fashion and Quilting: Two Roads

In my obsession with quilting, I have been thinking about the differences between quilting and fashion. There is no doubt that both activities require a high degree of craftsmanship. Although quilting and clothes making were once part of the same activity in the home--making objects from fabric of utility for the family and trying to make them beautiful--they seem to have taken radically different roads in the 20th century.

Dictating fashion style from the office.

If we are to believe the Fashion Diva in The Devil Wears Prada, fashion--even the clothes that ordinary people wear--is dictated from the top down. In one scene, her new underling is caught snickering at the process of choosing a belt for a dress. Asked to explain herself, the girl says: "Y'know, it's just that both these belts look exactly the same to me. Y'know, I'm still learning about this stuff." To which the diva gives this fascinating and informative reply:
"This 'stuff'? Oh, I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean.

You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff."

Quilting seems to go the other way.

Mrs. Bill Staggs, migrant worker in Pietown, New Mexico, displays her handmade quilt in 1940.

Quilting's artistic achievement often comes from what seems to be the most humble of origins and filters upward. The extremes in this are the creative impulses seem in Amish and Gee's Bend quilts, both of which come from some of the most isolated communities in the country. These creative impulses generated new trends in quilt making among women in the broader community.

A Gee's Bend quilt. It is believed that by virtue of its extreme isolation on an Alabama peninsula, the African-American community of Gee's Bend was able to keep African cultural motifs alive--both in music and in quilt making. These quilts were created for utilitarian purposes from old clothes and discarded materials. Of course, this is part of a great tradition of African American quilt making, which includes the use of the quilts as maps in the underground railway.

An Amish quilt. The great antique Amish quilts were vibrant in design and color. Their vibrancy in part was owed to hand-dying of the material with plant dyes. The colors are the color of Amish clothes.

However, quilt historian Gerald Roy noted briefly on the Love of Quilting TV show that as a collector, he seeks the quilts that show artistic deviations from patterns. He said that in the 19th century, there were quilting and block traditions but not patterns and kits, so that each quilt was genuinely the artistic expression of the quilter or group of quilters.

An appliqued and stuffed quilt from 1820--before any standardization in quilt making. The stuffed quilt has its origin in the British Isles.

Quilting as an activity suffered a hiatus during World War I, went through a revival in the 1930s when women's fashion also became feminine again, and then suffered another hiatus during World War II, Roy reported. After the war, quilting became to revive again, but women no longer had time to hand-quilt as they used to and didn't have time to experiment. There was a far greater reliance on kits and patterns produced by professionals. This has resulted in a standardization of quilting, according to Roy. However, in the blogs that I read I see a lot of experimentation in quilting and fun with it.

A quilt with a religious theme from Ritacor. See the pictures of her marvelous quilts from Portugal, where she lives. Her blog is in Portuguese but with fascinating and informative pictures.

Be that as it may, the fashion industry went through this standardization process with first the manufactured pattern and then the industry's industrialization and production for mass consumption. Perhaps Project Runway will revive the home designer-seamstress. I find it a pretty daunting proposition myself but then I am a very fledgling seamstress.

Another difference between quilting and fashion is that quilting is a tradition, and I think many women who quilt seek to maintain and build on that tradition.

The great Baltimore Album quilt tradition. This is the perfect social quilt, with each person contributing a block of the album. Plus they are always breathtakingly gorgeous.

Jane Stickle's quilt of 225 different quilt blocks from 1863. There is an international project of women re-creating the blocks of this quilt. The quilt is a whole course in block making on to itself.

Quilt making is an activity that is based upon the traditions of the past, even if the quilt involves modern-day trends and innovations. And the quilt is often produced for the future--a hand-sewn quilt can become an heirloom. The past, the present in the quilt making, and the future.

Fashion's time space is the present--the season. Although there is a haute couture tradition of workmanship and craft, design in today's fashion world seems to favor the new and iconoclastic.

And whereas fashion, in keeping with the times, seems to hurl girls and women out of the home to exert power in the world, quilting is an artistic expression that is a quest for comfort and beauty in the home.

There is a revival today in sewing, and I hope it lasts--a penchant for the homemade. It is hard to imagine women going back to sewing all their own clothes, but perhaps skills will reach such levels that more women are able to add those artistic and practical deviations that will breathe new life into the seamstress craft. Already it is clear that the re-emergence of aprons on the market and the new "retro" fabric dresses of the 2008 spring season reflect the yearning of women, found everywhere on women's blogs, for fashion that is centered on a practicality and beauty linked with a domesticity many thought was a thing of the past. Then there is the Project Runway winner Jay McCarroll, who consciously brought patchwork motifs (see above) into his designs, reflecting the sewing craft of his mother in rural Pennsylvania.


Bed Linen said...

Fascinating. This is a very well researched post.

ritacor said...

Very good post indeed!
And thank you very much for refering to my work :)