Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Magical Shirts: A Wardrobe Journey

What starts out as one sewing project becomes a wardrobe makeover and a doorway to intuitive opportunity. I started sewing and couldn't stop. It is the Red Shoes of my sewing career. Happy Chinese New Year!

During Christmas season I was out shopping for pajama bottoms for Catherine. Finding none that would do, I went to the fabric store and browsed the section devoted to flannels. I lingered taking my fill of the various novelty prints and swirling colors. Since my shamanism workshop, my eyes were open to color, animal representation and symbolism. I found none that looked like the swirling rust colors my spirit animal had produced when I asked him to dress me. Most of the flannels were too garish and representational to be suitable for anything but children's pajamas.

Finally, in the quilting section of decorator prints, I picked a paisley pattern on a cream background for Catherine's pajama bottoms. Still, I kept coming back to the "snuggle" flannels with their novelty prints, drawn to one print in particular—of multi-colored pop art daisies overlaid with blue peace symbols on a background of mint green. The last time I recall wearing a floral print was to a formal dance in high school in 1975. But somehow these op art daisies reflected my feelings of having been on a mind altering experience within nature. As for the peace symbols, how could I resist that direct symbolism. But I did not buy the fabric despite it being on sale at only $2.49 a yard.

Buying materials on sale, is how my clients fill their houses full of craft materials they never use. And I still had three yards of purple flannel I had bought on sale two months ago that I had not sewed into the shirt I had still to pick a pattern for. (I was out buying purple ribbon to put in my hair for Spirit Day to show solidarity with LGBT youth following the spate of gay teen suicides.) Plus I already had four boxes of fabric I had collected over the years stored at home.

Serendipitous Sewing Space

I no longer had a sewing room, now that Catherine's brother Steven had come to live with us in our guest room. (Nor did I regret the loss for Steven was happy to look after the dogs when we went out of town and our dog sitter had just retired. He was also an amiable housemate who didn't mind doing dishes if we cooked and he added a companionable element to our lives without being too intrusive.)

I found a small table in the garage I used for sorting, cleared it off, put it in my home office and set my sewing machine on it. I soon discovered that the arrangement had the serendipitous benefit of allowing me to multi-task as I remembered things. I could now check e-mail, answer the phone, post pictures and listen to teleclasses while twirling myself around on my desk chair between computer and sewing machine. And because my sewing project was sitting in front of me all the time, I spent less time browsing online.

I cut the paisley fabric on what was left of the floor space and had the pants sewn up in two days. But I couldn't stop thinking about the daisy peace pattern fabric. It kept me awake thinking about it. The daisies kept dancing in my head with the peace symbols. I returned to the fabric store, pulled the bolt from the shelf and had it measured up. Alas, there wasn't enough left for pants or a shirt, so popular were those daisies. I chose a blue shirting plaid to make another pair of pajama bottoms for Catherine, but I knew I couldn't go home without the daisies. I didn't want to spend another night thinking about it. I could make it into a shirt I reasoned if I chose a solid flannel for the sleeves. I definitely needed shirts. My favorite winter shirt, now 15 years old, was so worn, it was threadbare at the cuffs and another had torn at the shoulder.

I already had the purple flannel and the only other color I liked was shocking pink. I held the pink up to the daisies. It pulled up the colors quite nicely.

I would make up the shirt using my Folkwear pattern for a Russian shirt with the classic asymmetrical closure I so loved ever since the movie Dr. Zhivago. That way I could see if I liked the pattern enough to use it for my purple shirt. And I'd have something new to wear at our New Year's Day party. My friends were used to me wearing wild outfits.

Western Chromophobia

I sewed up the shirt with contrasting sleeves and contrasting placket and collar, buttoned up with translucent green buttons from Catherine's grandmother's button box. On New Year's Day I wore the shirt with a ski hat that sported numerous bright colored spikes. The hat was a big hit; the shirt festive.

"That pattern just says peace pajamas to me," said my buddy Stacy. Our friend Dave thought it looked fine. Last time I had seen Dave, he had made a point of telling me that he had just read an article about how Westerners were afraid of color. He recommended a book called Chromophobia. I was amused by the term and remembered a day some twenty years ago when I walked through downtown Palo Alto wearing an emerald green catsuit with my hot pink turtleneck. At a cross walk I heard a man's voice speaking out in disgust.

"What a combination," he said loudly, "I can't believe it, pink and green!" I realized he was commenting on my outfit. Nor did he seem to expect me to be able to understand English. He simply walked past me shaking his head. I was amused by his reaction, but I never wore the outfit again.

In Thailand I had been taught the colors of the days of the week in kindergarten. Monday yellow, Tuesday pink, Wednesday green, Thursday orange, Friday navy blue, Saturday purple, Sunday red. My birthday color was pink, though technically I had been born on a Monday (in England). Since it was already Tuesday in Thailand, my grandmother deemed pink to be my color and filled my childhood with pink dresses. While my mother had a knock-off Channel suit made for me in shocking pink.

"It's called Siamese pink," she told. When I related this story to my writer's group, a Southern lady in her 80s told me that, in her day, the color had been known as Nigger Pink.

Being able to affix the label chromophobia to Western attitudes towards color emboldened me to create my wild shirt. I did not, however, intend to actually wear it on the street. But then one of my regular clients called and I found myself telling her I had spent the holidays sewing and offered to wear one of my creations to her house to show her. She wanted me to take down her Christmas tree, fix a lamp and put a few things away, so I wore my Handymanda white painter's pants with my New Year's Day shirt. I grabbed my Australian cowboy hat as I went out the door since it looked like rain.

My client had been out of a job for sometime. I was hoping to cheer her up with the silliness of my shirt. I showed it off to her apologizing for its pajama-ness. She assured me it didn't look like pajamas; she liked the brightness of it. I was surprised since she mostly dressed in black, but she had had an interior designer arrange her collection of red Asian boxes and artifacts on glass shelves (that I had installed) and I admired her taste.

Given her approval, I felt it was safe to go out on the street wearing the shirt and threw a black fleece vest over it to fend off the cold. I drove to the bank and felt so silly I was smiling to myself which made me feel good in a subversive sort of way and I thought I would look for parking on the street instead of going around to the parking lot. I passed rows of cars, but there right in front of the bank was an open space. Such was my good fortune in the wearing of this magical shirt.

As soon as I got out of the car with my cowboy hat and this bright pink shirt with the floral print and the men's work pants with hammer loops, I felt everyone smiling at the ridiculousness of this outfit. Perhaps it was just because I was smiling myself or because I looked like I had rushed out in my pajamas. At any rate there is nothing threatening about a floral pattern. And a cowboy hat is such an American symbol that the combination transported me, from my usual cube farm uniform of khaki pants and buttoned down shirts, into a fantastical character, a public commodity much like street art.

Magical Shirt Mind

The following week I was scheduled to work with a client who had been so stressed out about digging herself out of a serious hoarding habit, that I suspected she would try to cancel at the last minute. I wrote her a playful note. "Ready or not, here I come," I said. She wrote back equally playful and said she still had until noon to cancel within my 24hour cancellation policy. Fortified by the thought of cheering up this anxious client with my silly shirt, I told her that I would be so disappointed if she cancelled because I was looking forward to coming to her adventure playground house to play. She was a pre-school teacher and had things scattered all over her house that she had saved to amuse children.

"You can come over and play," she wrote back, "but I will probably cry."

She had indeed felt unready and had been minutes away from canceling, she told me when we met, but my note made her feel that I knew her so well that she was encouraged to continue to trust the process, especially when I framed the session as a play date. I told her it was my New Year's resolution to lighten up and indeed I had stepped into a much more playful and intuitive part of my brain.

I continued my sewing, making my purple spirit shirt and designing another with purple sleeves (to use up the left over material) paired with a pretty turquoise and blue fabric from the quilters flannel section. Only clowns wear shirts with contrasting colors I was thinking, but this shirt was actually beautiful. I would have to change directions to remain clown-ful. I had a piece of material in one of my boxes that I had bought at a swap table because it cried out to be made into a summer BBQ party outfit. It was a sarong in traffic-sign yellow covered with red lobsters laid out in a grid. Now that my work was play, I would make it into a work shirt.

From my perspective as a seamstress, tailored button down shirts represented to me the over-complexity of modern life. I wanted to make a shirt so simple anybody could make one. My do-it-yourself ethic would prevail in defiance of a consumer society and save us in hard times. (Though, in truth, it was TV that had prompted a revival of home sewing following the popular show, Project Runway, a contest show for would-be fashion designers.)

My simplified shirt would have no need of a pattern. All the parts were rectangles measured to fit. This was how shirts had been made during the Renaissance. Once I figured out the dimensions of the hole for the collar (by tracing it from another shirt), it only took an afternoon to sew. I made the shirt long so I could take advantage of the original hem of the sarong. When I put it on I discovered I had made a dress with wide choir robe sleeves. Just in time for Chinese New Year.

The joke was on me as dresses are rarely a part of my wardrobe, but I could still wear it as a shirt under red overalls. I put rubber bands over the wide sleeves so they wouldn't catch on doorknobs. That made the cuffs flare out in a very clown like manner. I wore the outfit to my play-school client's house. She loved it.

"Where did you get a rock lobster shirt," she asked and wanted to accessories the bib pocket of my overalls with a lobster cracker.

Following our productive session, I headed to the San Francisco public library. Nobody on BART gave me a second look. Perhaps they thought I worked at a sea food franchise (despite the cowboy hat). In the station elevator, a young black man wearing nicely pressed baggy pants and a cap broke into friendly conversation telling my why he took the elevator instead of the stairs. In the library I ran to get in the door of the elevator just as it was closing. The two women already on board both started talking to me about elevator doors. No one stared at my outfit; they all just wanted to reach out and share common space. This rarely happens to me.

I checked out more books on costume design and a copy of Chromophobia.

In it, I read that besides being vulgar and working class, color was associated with the feminine, the foreign, the primitive, the infantile, the queer, the pathological and the Orient. I was intrigued. Not only did this description cover something of the Otherness I embodied, but the power given color was intuitive, emotional and anti-intellectual. If used too liberally in art, critics warned, it was liable to bring about a fall from the higher values of the mind. Like Eve, color was so powerful it had to be repressed along with the divine feminine.

There was no denying the power of color. The colorful fabrics were addictive. I had returned to the fabric store weekly and already had enough material to replace all my threadbare shirts, as well as a growing bag of scraps. (I could make hats!) Would my closet be in danger of unsustainable growth headed for collapse? I could not tell yet whether my new obsession, despite having been a doorway to my intuitive self, would prove to be a distraction from serious spiritual work or money making endeavors. Sometimes you just get what you need.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Earthworm. Get yours at