As a child, I spent numerous hours around industrial sewing machinery and was often with my father at what we called “the shop” in Lynn, Massachusetts. It was an old brick building across the street from the courthouse; a cavernous space with wood floors and machines stacked to the rafters. It was hard to touch anything without getting dirty and when I was very small, I did not like to soil my clothing. In between playing with the paper shredder in the office and climbing on the forklift, I used to watch the mechanics work on the machines, and I would help pack parts at the shipping station. I remember going occasionally to the footwear factories with my father; watching the machines stitch canvas and leather together in rooms full of sewing professionals who made constructing each upper look so effortless. We would visit local tailors and some very well-known Boston dress shops and I was always blown away by what these men and women could do with fabric. They could make any garment bend to their will, enhance it with crystals or embroidery, reshape it with seams, reimagine it by taking it apart or make it new by repairing a lining or making a patch. I would watch them work and I would take mental notes; the factories and the work were not very glamorous, but the result was. These sewers, tailors, and seamstresses could make anything fit perfectly or look beautiful and that to me was magic.
While many of the factories have disappeared and moved overseas, I appreciate the craftsmen and women who can still manufacture these items with speed and precision. To this day l love visits to the tailor and my seamstress, and I enjoy talking to them about their work and the pieces that come through their door. We could spend hours discussing trends, fabrics, garment construction and even pieces I had seen at market and in my travels. I always leave thanking them immensely, sending them referrals, and hoping that there will be another generation of individuals that will want to learn the skills of their trade.
Years of working in luxury fashion have taught me many things about the skill that goes into constructing a collection, but the haute couture on the runway and what winds up in stores for consumers are very different animals. Many of the heritage stories that created iconic brands are often overshadowed and are lost in glitzy marketing campaigns with celebrity spokespeople that are pushing mass-produced pieces to consumers. Mass production requires standardization of sizing and a production line that removes the individuality from the initial creations. It is part of doing business and designers and their teams need to survive. In Teri Agin’s book (which you should all read), The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever, she deep dives into what the fashion industry has become. Like Teri, I am always flabbergasted when clients think that clothing off the rack should just “fit.”
Here is a nutshell history of fashion for those of you who need a refresher: Fashion was born in European Courts by the aristocracy, and haute couture became defined by the French designers who outfitted Louis XIV. Prior to his reign, the fashion capital was Madrid, not Paris, and most fashion was predominantly black, tight, and rigid which was in line with the Catholic sensibilities of the Habsburg monarchy. King Louis XIV set out to change that through his New Deal policy and his strict code of court dress and etiquette gave birth to what became a very profitable, extravagant, and influential industry of fashion. The trade surrounding the fashion industry became incredibly important to the economy and to individuals who wanted to secure positions of power for themselves in elite circles. Fast forward to the birth of fashion culture in America, many wealthy merchants would import fashion from Europe (also home décor, textiles, jewelry, etc.) and have styles made to emulate those of the European aristocracy. As the nation progressed with the industrial revolution, families like the Gimbel’s (Saks Fifth Avenue) and Bloomingdale’s were able to build their empires by importing the latest trends for America’s elite and would hold private showings of garments to be made to order for their clientele. While many Americans could not afford the extravagances of these shopping experiences, if your family had some means, you would have a tailor or seamstress measure your body and make your clothes from patterns of these styles. Many of the fashion rules we know and still debate over today were created by the country’s elite and mimicked the European aristocratic traditions to show who was “in” and who was “out” in high society. (Does the rule about white not being worn after Labor Day ring a bell? That is where this comes from). The tradition of fashion was innately made to measure even in America; each piece was made for an individual to specifically fit their body, taste, and budget. As fashion became a marketing machine and much of this tradition fell by the wayside, it is really an unreasonable expectation from consumers that clothing made for everyone will fit every body.
In a time when we all want to stand out as individuals, we must acknowledge that while our clothing might not be that special or original, we still can curate our wardrobe and fit these pieces to our frames in a way that reflects who we are. I implore everyone to find, support, and create a relationship with a tailor or seamstress. Reinvent pieces in your closet to make them new and make your wardrobe sustainable, make your purchases fit you as though they were made for you, and hem your pants so you can have them for years. The true heroes of the fashion industry are those who build it with their bare hands.