Friday, March 26, 2010

Selvage Ethnography: Fashion in the Fray

One thing fashion bloggers never seem to talk about is function. There's the Teacher Costume blogs, of course, and all sorts of Rescued Clothes and Work Outfits, but what about clothes that have to look good AND put up with a lot of wear? And what do you do when the wear is just a little too much? This post is my first attempt to step in that direction--toward Pretty Clothes That Survive.

Once upon a time I was buying clothes for fieldwork in Belize. My Belize wardrobe consisted of cheap shirts and my two trusty pairs of Banana Republic bermudas (two pairs, in khaki and black, long-since dubbed my Jungle Pants) that have made it around the world and back more times than is probably fair to them. The key in finding clothes for the kind of work I was doing was to find some balance between Oh Lawd, It's So Hot I'm Melting and For the Love of God, Have Some Shame! If you're trying to convince people to let you interview their children, it's not like you can just wander around the beach in your Daisy Dukes.

My fashion inspiration in all of this was a line from Julia Alvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents:

"Yolanda sees herself as they will, shabby in a black cotton skirt and jersey top, sandals on her feet, her wild black hair held back with a hair band. Like a missionary, her cousins will say, like one of those Peace Corps girls who have let themselves go so as to do dubious good in the world."

In other words, I decided to keep dressing up. While it's obviously important to be aware of the complex aesthetics (and, often, economic inequalities) of a postcolonial space, I decided that dressing too far down--something many of my American friends in Belize seemed awfully prone to--would be disrespectful to the people I'd be working with. So, in the spirit of professionalism, I was determined not to be one of these girls. Since I was seeking the help of consultants ranging from upper-level educational administration to Rastafari craftspeople, the challenge was to find clothes that were breathable, modest, and passable as businesslike without being extravagant. Ready-to-wear was surprisingly accomodating that summer, but my most prized piece was a lovely last hurrah from Isaac Mizrahi for Target (RIP), a pink 100% cotton shirtdress with sturdy pockets. Pockets, it should be noted, are DEEPLY important in all things--and a rare commodity in women's clothing.

Here's a shot of me looking rather ghostly in it:

Unfortunately, the combination of rainy season and a hand-dyed bag I bought for carrying my notebooks got the better of the dress. The strap of the bag was deep blue, and it seemed that the back of my dress would also be deep blue forever. However, I loved the dress so much that I couldn't make myself get rid of it, even two years later in a fairly unwearable state.

I found the dress again when undertaking the Great Bedroom Excavation of 2010--which, by the way, I have demurred from blogging because it's going to have to happen in stages. Lots of stages. This is what it looked like:

And here is why I stopped wearing it:

I decided that it was time to put it back into the rotation, so I went to the grocery store and picked up a package of RIT Color Remover and two packages of RIT Navy Blue powder dye. (Navy Blue just seemed the obvious choice, given the color of the stain, and I figured that the Color Remover would help the final color look more even.)

I don't usually dye things. I am clumsy enough that I tend to avoid chemicals, and Laine and I do not have a functional washing machine. But this was personal. So as not to ruin any of our good cooking pots, I heated about three quarts of water in a stainless steel tureen on the stove, then put on some gloves and poured the water into our cast-off recycling bin with the packet of Color Remover. Then I threw the dress into the bin and stirred it with a big stick for about ten minutes.

Most of the color actually faded within the first few minutes.
Chemistry is awesome!

Then the dress looked like this:

I was actually pretty in love with the desaturated peach color, but Mizrahi's penchant for bright orange things still quite literally showed through. I thought it would look pretty silly to have giant orange blobs on my thighs, so I kept going with the Navy Blue dye. After I rinsed out the dress, I basically repeated the process shown above, but this time instead of Color Remover I added both packets of dye, a cup of table salt, and about a tablespoon of Forever New.

The end result was surprisingly good:

I rinsed it out as best I could (outside, of course), then let it dry on this branch overnight. The next day, I ran it through Shaun's washing machine (thanks!) and dryer. The final color is a nice purpleish blue. To test its colorfastness and to demonstrate my commitment to Pretty Clothes That Survive I incorporated it into my Chilly Weather Rainy Day Adventure Costume:

Two miles and lots of mud later...

Dress: Isaac Mizrahi for Target, dyed with RIT
Tights: Cynthia Rowland, via Gilt
Pashmina: Gift
Blazer: Old Navy, stolen from Shaun
Socks: Old Navy, stolen from Shaun
Shoes: Dr. Martens, stolen from Shaun

Over all, I would call this project a success. Two points of advice, however:

A) Don't use two packets of dye unless you want to be rinsing your garment for a VERY long time.

B) Follow the directions and use rubber gloves. I thought I could get away with using vinyl ones, but now my hands are sort of violet-colored. At least I'm matching.

And now, a nonsensical but vaguely relevant musical interlude!

1 comment:

  1. Huh huh "selvage." I love a good pun.
    Also, +++ for Depeche Mode content.