It was less than a year ago that I embarked on a challenge to make a dress per month. It started with finally finishing a dress I had long struggled with: a Colette Myrtle in a bright abstracted leopard rayon knit.
Working with rayon knit, especially if you’re new to it, is much like sewing drunk. It will escape your serger. It will laugh at your attempts to sew curved seams at a consistent allowance. It’s a pretty, drapey beast designed to lure you to novice sewing madness. And I was up against that beast, attempting to coax it into an encased waistband.
But I fecking finished it. I was more frustrated with its half-finished state and Myrtle’s occasional turn-me-inside-out-and-stitch-me-in-blind-belief ways. I figured out that a piece of cardboard would provide the temporary stability to get the elastic encased despite the rayon knit’s wiles.
The second I finished that knit dress, I cut another one in a so-gaudy-it’s-good yellow toile. I finished that Myrtle, hoisted it over my head and down my hips… And realized the elastic waist on a twill fabric was the cruelest thing I could do to my figure. I made it vanish. Then I promptly made another Myrtle in an orange twill festooned with ducks.
Myrtle and I have since made up, and frequently spend productive weekends together. Along the way, I’ve put a few other patterns under my belt, and began to develop my own.
I had one of my own patterns on when I got stopped by a woman who wants to develop a clothing line. Am I ready for this? No. But I know what I need to do to get there. And I also know I’m ready to start experimenting with this silk that has haunted me since the first time I laid eyes on it:
Today I wore this dress:
The fabric was one that made me squeal upon finding it at the textile shop where I’ve become a regular. With an upcoming library conference, I was determined to finish it in time to wear among my professional colleagues. I chose a red piping to give it just a little color and to pay homage to the Olivettis in the design.
I was able to pack this and eight other dresses I made in my case for Denver. Far more than I needed, but enough to account for whim and occasion.
Today was the last full day of conference sessions. I’ve received compliments on each of the dresses I’ve worn, with some realizing my delighted replies of thanks meant that I had sewn them.
This evening, I walked alone to a street lined with upscale bistros and boutiques. Wanting to wait out a line at one restaurant, I wandered into a shoe store known for eclectic design. I was curious about a couple of styles I had seen online and was surprised to find them less charming and more cartoony in person. What I was greeted with, however, surprised me more.
“I love your typewriters! Were you lucky enough to find that dress, or did you have to make it?”
It only occurred to me only recently that I should blog the sewing project I gave myself this past fall: make a dress per month. A simple challenge to build a skill and see where I could take it. I’ve overshot that goal, made a few other non-dress things as well, and have found that it has shifted my feelings about consuming and about presentation and a host of other issues that the one-day blog will give me space to discuss. Lucky to find? Lucky to make.
A colleague sent me this interview question from a library listserv:
Interestingly enough, I had a great question provided by a local HR Manager on this. She said she didn’t want to use it as first, but she said it was, in concert with the rest of the interview, an eye-opening look at the candidates.
Scenario: You’re new on the staff and we’re having a staff potluck. What do you bring and why?
She said that answers varied quite a bit.
– “A great new recipe I wanted to try,”
– “My favorite dish so that I don’t mind eating the left-overs,”
– “Whatever my supervisor suggests,”
– “I’d ask around and find out what everyone else is bringing and if there are any allergies I need to know about.”
Some were clearly more interested in what they would want to make/eat/experiment with versus what it would add to the potluck/staff. It’s an unexpected question and shouldn’t be taken out of context, but working with a new staff and the patrons is always an adventure and staffers have to be able to roll with the changes. It might add to the picture that the candidates’ resumes and responses to the traditional interview questions paint. (I’ve done some editing for grammar.)
It’s also a horrible question.
The more I read about Silicon Valley’s struggle to diversify its workforce, the more I’m reading narratives from People of Color who have been hired or interned there and their overwhelming feeling that they just don’t fit the culture.
I’m not in Silicon Valley, I’m not even in private business, but I do hire staff members and diversity is important to me. I want my library to reflect its community. Why this is a challenge is primarily caused by who goes into public librarianship – we are overwhelmingly white and female; I’m far from the only librarian who is “diverse via marriage” and not through my own demographics.
And I’ve been told by HR that we hire for fit. We ask situational questions: what would you do when… how did you handle this problem…. Hiring for fit is supposed to make it easier to transmit our institutional practices and values. It’s also a pretty damn easy way to wind up with a homogenous staff.
This potluck question, designed to be out-of-the-box and quirky, is dangerous.
You cannot separate food from culture. Very personal culture. How do you score this on an interview? How do you not penalize the person who brings the “wrong” dish to a hypothetical potluck? And how do you make the argument that making and bringing food for sharing is not still a highly gendered activity? How does this question not become how well do you fit in?
At the end of my first public library job interview, I was asked what kind of chocolate goodies I like to bake and bring to work. It signaled “you got the job.” But it also signaled who they expected me to be. I haven’t forgotten that question after nearly fifteen years in public libraries, and I’ll never ask it.
Snapping together quite quickly in my mind today: Quick reviews of the many perfume samples I’ve accumulated over the past few years, with a sensory impression of what they’d pair with in clothing and in music. It’s on Instagram as ScentThisBand, and will post to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr as well. Hoping to post near-daily. Eventually, I’d like to take the project in both directions: what scent goes with this band’s work?
Woke up to a dusting of snow that would make a New Englander giggle at the amount of trepidation it causes us here. But we don’t plow, we don’t salt. We sprinkle fairy dust on major roads and leave the neighborhood streets to their own icy ends.
Got to the library after a drive in which half the cars on the highway drove at a an unnerving 25, and the other half at an even worse 60 mph. Called scheduled staff to check on their plans to come in. We would have about half the crew we normally have on Sundays. Shelved holds and enjoyed a chat with a staff member I rarely get to have more than a brief exchange with. Put out hot water and self-service tea for patrons, right near the fireplace.
The snow stopped, but freezing rain followed. We closed two hours early. Put signs on doors and desks. Gave impromptu announcements on the overhead speakers. Walked around the library, making sure those engrossed in screens and headphones knew. Checked that the few teens who came in had ways to get home. Encouraged that one final checkout.
Took a stranded staff member home. Admired the mutual patience of most highway drivers. Crossed the bridge to my neighborhood and prayed, yes prayed, that the driver who would need to stop behind me at the light realized in time that the slipping would come when the brakes were applied. Stayed patiently behind a pickup truck that could not get traction to move uphill once the light turned green. Moved through the remaining icy neighborhood streets with the knowledge that braking and turning would have random success. Got home. Checked on the other staff to make sure they got home too.
Note: This is a personal essay I wrote for a friend’s compilation about women’s experiences in 1989. It happens, oh so conveniently, to be the year I graduated high school.
Sixty-two miles per hour over the New London bridge, when you told me. You’re in a tuxedo that’s actually yours, your seventeen-year-old yours. I’m in a black dress full of flapper’s fringe, my face flushed from sunburn and elation. An expensive red lipstick rests in the tiny spangled purse sitting by my side. The kind you need to ask someone to retrieve from behind a glass counter, and if you’re lucky, the saleswoman implies that you’re co-conspirators in the promulgation of glamour. I’m at the wheel despite telling my parents that we would share a limo with other couples. My feet tap the pedals in black satin flats. I haven’t mastered walking in heels, let alone dancing in them. Your bowtie is loose. Maybe it’s off. My eyes are on the road. It’s probably my Style Council tape in the deck.
You struggle with the words. I listen.
It’s torture. You’re by far the most eloquent boy I’ve ever met, but what is rippling through your mind and heart turns into a complete tangle by the time it reaches your tongue. Something about who you are? What our fate is as a couple? The fact that we live in different towns? We’re headed to colleges time zones apart? I can’t make out the line of thought, only that it’s just as confusing for you to string the words together as it is to decipher. Your manner is somewhere between anguished and anxious, and this isn’t where I want this night to end up.
“We just went to the prom. We’re not getting married.” Your brows unknit when you hear me say this, and you exhale. I’m relieved that you’re relieved, even while I’m not certain exactly what you’re relieved from.
The rest of the drive to Tina’s afterparty is a smooth drive, as if I’m accustomed to afterparties and we weren’t invited in a breathless suggestion at the end of the evening. There’s a hot tub. We didn’t bring a change of clothes; we’re not dressed for it. We’re leaning on the deck’s railing. “Close your pores!” you admonish those lounging in the tub. You’re very insistent on this. If there’s alcohol on offer, we’re oblivious to it. Exhaustion from a day at the beach and a night of dancing and talking ushers us back to my car and away to my house. My parents have unfolded the sleepsofa in the living room. “Warning,” intones one of my dad’s infamous signs. “Occupance of this bed by more than one person is ill-advised, illegal, and makes fathers ill.” It’s sometime past midnight. In the morning I will drive you to the train station and you’ll head back to Providence.
We met a month earlier at the pavillion of an amusement park that no longer exists. Convened by a since-disgraced governor, at an assembly of high school seniors from across Rhode Island. It’s a small enough state that we fit in a lineup of folding chairs. We’re seated by academic subject. I’m in the English group. We’re a cross-section of overachievers, the kids who take competitive tests for fun. You’re a couple of seats away from my summer camp friend, Sharon, in the French section. You happily enter our conversation about college decisions. It turns out we were interested in each other’s schools, but chose very different institutions. Sharon was headed to one of the seven sisters.
Certificates in hand, we’re still standing and enjoying the zip of each other’s words. It’s the kind of excited chatter that wells up when you meet one of your kind: nearly breathless, finding that you’re in the same context, no exposition needed so words keep speeding past your tongue. Your dad saunters up. “Tones, it’s time to go,” he informs you. You nod.
“You can tell me I’m being vulgar, you can tell me to go to hell, but can I have your phone number?” I’m slightly stunned by the amount of power you’re handing me. Rhode Island is heavily Catholic, my hometown even more so. I’m not, but I’ve seen the faces of my classmates twisted in turmoil over some priest’s comments during CCD class too often. I don’t take damnation lightly. You step away as soon as I give you the number. I didn’t get yours.
Sharon calls me the next day. “That friend of yours….”. No, I didn’t know him. You had slipped so easily into our conversation that we both assumed you were already known to other of us.
My phone line is mine, private, paid for with my weekend and summer job at a boutique on the beach. A few days after Rocky Point Pavillion the answering machine tape begins to collect your calls. You leave lilting messages, and never leave a number. I’m exhilarated and irked and tantalized. It’s nearly two weeks before I’m actually home when the phone rings.
The pace of our words hasn’t slowed. Music, books, references than bounce between pop and arcane. None of our sequiturs feel off-course. Finally I blurt, what are you doing two weeks from Saturday? You pause to check a calendar hanging in your dad’s kitchen. “Nothing.” Want to go to my prom? Sure. What kind of flowers do you like?
The Amtrak station is nestled in a slightly grimy part of downtown, as most train stops are. I find you on the platform, your arms and your grin wide. We hang your garmet bag on the backseat hook and click the seatbelts in my powder blue Pontiac and I take you to the beach. We watch the vintage carousel horses fly in their circle, search for horseshoe crabs at the yacht club’s pier, devour strawberry-rhubarb pie. We walk past the private cabanas, between the mansions, let the afternoon sun scorch our skin. Our voices haven’t rested. We go to my house to prepare for the prom.
I had a prom date before I asked you. He never asked me about flowers. His voice was flat when I told him I wasn’t taking him.
We enter my house. You charm my parents. You startle my ever-vigilant daschund. We go to separate rooms to dress and preen.
The dress had been so evidently the right one when Mom and I found it. Black fringe cascading down the body, spaghetti straps, a single band of fringe falling off the shoulders, a neckline that would become more provocative a few years later. Fringe that obscured how short the body of the dress actually was. Fringe that swung with delight as I shook in the dressing room. It didn’t resemble any of the poly-satin poof-sleeved gowns hanging on the racks. There was no need to try on anything else.
My hair was already in a bob. An asymmetrical bob, with bangs, dyed the shade of dried red roses. A move towards ladylike sleekness after years of emulating the do’s of Britpop heroes. I gathered the other things a night of dressing up mandated: satin flats. Black hose. Glistening earrings. A small spangled purse, yellow, just to add a small amount of color. A single tube of Shiseido’s very perfect, unapologetically red P6 lipstick. I hadn’t planned on an afternoon in the sun to redden my usually pale complexion, and I don’t own an arsenal of makeup to hide the burn.
You emerge in your tuxedo, white bowtie, hair gloriously swooping over your forehead. We pause for the requisite parental cooing and snapping of photos before climbing back into my car.
We’re headed to New London, a few towns away, to the banquet room of an undistinguished hotel. For all the beach tourism in my town, there is no hotel with a function space. Not even a standard one like this. Round tables, balloons, swags of pastel fabric. Wooden marquis dancefloor. I’ve ordered two vegetarian dinners in hopes that I don’t get handed salad and then another salad as I had as the sole herbivore at last year’s Junior prom. I’m relieved when we get handed food that’s been cooked.
The dance floor stays busy with couples hopping on and off. The DJ probably came with the venue. We’re hearing pretty much whatever Top 40 radio and MTV have been playing. Power ballads and English synthpop with its quirkiness transformed to high-sheen production. I learn that my classmates have an additional chant for Billy Idol’s Mony Mony. Hey, hey what? Get laid, get fucked.
There are a lot of moving bodies but I’m not really paying attention to anyone else on the floor. It’s a blur of shiny materials, rouched bodices, rented tuxes, and curled hair with frozen upright bangs. I’m being spun, turned and dipped. It’s the first time I feel danced with instead of swayed next to. My shoulders are tapped by girls who ask to borrow you. I smile and decline.
We’ve danced for a while and take a seat. Or we do, until we hear the opening synth notes of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. We lock eyes and run back to the dance floor. At some point we stand for the official photo. My face is still red, we’re beaming and preening. You smile as if posing before a photographer is customary for you.
I’m not focused on who else is there. I have a week or two left of high school, and I will see everybody else there for each one of those days. I’ve already seen them daily for years. In a few months I will be leaving for a college out of state that nobody I know will attend. It’s a small college but bigger than this school. The few months of summer will be spent at my job at a gallery on the beach, surrounded by artwork and the seasonal residents soon arriving from New York to air out their vacation homes. Tonight, there’s rumors, sure, of hotel rooms booked and parties to come. I don’t feel left out of these gatherings. In the ladies’ room, Tina invites us to her house. I field a few questions about who you are and how I know you. I’m talking almost exclusively to you. You’re new to me, this is the second time we’ve been together, I’m so ready for everything new.
A commotion at a table near us. Another student’s date, too old for high school, far too drunk for the night. He’s biding time until his girl agrees to leave. He staggers up, points at you and yells. That man’s a faggot!
The tables around us hush. We get looks of awkward apology but no words from those near us. We were planning to leave in a few minutes anyway. You’re uneasy, your face curls like you’ve just bitten into something and found it foul and writhing in your stomach. You don’t wish to talk. Your words shut down. I can’t explain what just happened. I’m mortified for this small town I live in. For its enforcement of only one type of brute masculinity, for its suspicions of anyone outside, for its belief that the world ceases past its borders. I want out. I have felt out of place most of my life in this town where I have no cousins, no generations back, no shared Catholic catechism classes. For the first time, I feel unsafe, not able to provide you with safety. I want to get you out of here. We leave slowly, as if to say the timeline was chosen by us and we weren’t shoved out by those words.
I had expected perhaps a minor skirmish of ugliness. I hadn’t told you about it; I swallowed it. Murmurs of my abandoned prom date, a short-term ex-boyfriend, the rebound after a painful mistake, suddenly deciding he felt scorned and wanting to make my night miserable. It made no sense to give it credence; he wouldn’t be present and he barely had the energy to direct a plot into my path. It was worth maybe a nervous glance around the room. I didn’t forsee that anything would be aimed at you. And in fact, this wasn’t related. It was a drunk boy who didn’t know me. Only that we did not belong there.
Are we deflated when we reach my car? Let’s say the wind is out of our sails, but perhaps we danced ourselves tired. There’s a stillness in the vehicle, our conversation pausing for the first time. A few twists of the road and we’re back on Route One. Headed to Tina’s, back to that town, at sixty-two miles per hour.
These are the things I attempt to do on a regular basis:
Ink sketches, weekly
Yoga, twice weekly
Dance class, weekly
Drum lesson, weekly
Dress sewing, monthly
The sewing is happening because I love fabric. The inks are a matter of finding materials I swoon over, and trying to train my hands to do what my eye reports. I work from photographs I take on walks.
Yoga assists the dance, which is a rigorous form. Drumming is in the beginning stages and I am working towards song composition.
None of it feels like art yet. It all feels like discipline and practice. Or maybe the idea that art is some elevated form that arises out of a disciplined base just might be delusion?