Friday, February 24, 2012

Downton, Things'll Be Great When You're Downton

Chapter 55
This week marks the end of the second season of Downton Abbey here in America, and it's safe to say that the nation is in the throes of Downton Fever. Well, a small cadre of the nation, anyway, has fallen in love with this little ITV/PBS costume melodrama; and there are no shortages of online commentators and bloggists dissecting its popularity for our edification. 

Some say it speaks to a longing for a simpler time when all people knew what to do, what was expected of them, and where they stood in relation to others, for good or for ill. Some say it is an Anglophilic longing for all things British, and a national American regret that we have fallen away from a strong monarchy. Some say it is a political reaction to the buffoonery of the upper classes, who rely upon those whom they consider their inferiors, and without whom they would be powerless. Some say it is a reaction against today's hectic, twenty-four-slash-seven, overly technocratized life of twitters and emails and, yes, blogs. And some say it's all about the simple human stories of love, treachery, mistakes, and redemption.

They're all wrong, of course. It's all about LA5678,
that blue 1911 Renault Type CB 12/16hp Laundaulet,
the sexy lady that's the real star of the show.
No, I'm just joking. Sort of.
It's all about the clothes. The dresses and frocks of the Ladies of the House have been the subject of much scrutinization on the Interwebs. But because the name of this blog is Dress Like A Grownup!, we're focusing today on the menswear -- but not in the way you might first suspect.

One thing Downton has going for it is a fair amount of visual historical accuracy. From the footmens' livery and chauffeurs' uniforms, to the butlers' and valets' suits, to the casual wear and dress suits of Them Upstairs, Downton is a veritable encyclop√¶dia of historical clothing styles across all classes, times of day, and social settings. 

What can we, as twenty-first century males, take away from this little period piece, set (so far!) in 1911-1921? Can we use anything we've seen in this series to apply to our lives today? Is there any knowledge to be gleaned from this far-off world of stiff-bosomed shirts, detachable collars, and pheasant hunting parties?

Of course there is. Otherwise I wouldn't be blogging about it, would I? Here are some lessons that come to mind, germinated by the series:
What Downton Can Teach Us

Even the poorest manual laborer can dress well. The upper classes, of course, are always dressed in the finest cut and materials, and the working-classes have their business suits. But the lower classes, the servants and laborers, are also dressed well, even when not waiting upon their masters. The workers in town, the servants on their off-time, or working after-hours, or even relaxing at the fair -- are all dressed as well as they can afford. It may be threadbare and secondhand, perhaps a bit tatty, but they know the importance of looking the best one can.

Fashions are not stagnant. It is fallacy to look to broadcasts like Downton as the criterion of what would pass for proper dress today. Even within the limited scope of the program, the styles of the clothes men wear progress noticeably with the passing years. In short, to dress in proper 1915 attire would not be proper today: it would be costume. However, to dress in the same spirit as they did, but with the substitution of modern habiliment and sensibility, is an undertaking that begins to achieve timeless style.

A tweed for every purpose, and a purpose for every tweed.
Dress for the occasion. Today, the average man wears the same thing, day in and day out, regardless of what he is doing. In the Edwardian era, there was a socially acceptable, proper outfit for absolutely everything. Changing clothes four times a day is excessive now -- but that's no reason to go to the opposite extreme, and wear the same thing to work/at home/out to eat/shopping/playing/on vacation! Change up your wardrobe daily, depending on what you will be doing. 

Dress appropriately. Downton teaches us there are linen outfits for summer picnics, tweed outfits for walks in the fall, and sturdy wools for shooting. There are outfits for the fields, outfits for the towns, and outfits for the cities. There are outfits for mornings, evenings, and late nights. The right clothes not only look right, they feel right. The wrong clothes at the wrong time feel uncomfortable -- for a reason. The same holds true today: overdress, underdress, or misdress, the result is distress. Properly attired and "in tune" to the setting,  you will feel at ease and at one with your surroundings, as will the people who accompany you.

Pop quiz: find the servant in this gathering.
Know the rules. Wearing the right thing in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, is how the servers are separated from the guests. The footmen at Downton Abbey wear tailed evening dress suits, thirty years out of style, with too-long horizontally striped sleeved waistcoats, in the middle of the day. That may look acceptable to modern eyes, but their attire was completely incorrect -- as it was supposed to be. Carson the butler favored a black cutaway morning jacket and striped trousers in the daytime; and Bates the valet, a black stroller: both are business suits, befitting their executive status. The lesson here: if you're not actively doing business, don't wear a business suit. If you don't want to be mistaken for the help, be sure you know how to dress. If you are treading new and uncertain sartorial ground, do your homework first, and make sure you don't make a grievous error in execution. (A contemporary example: far too many people today show up for a wedding dressed for a funeral.)

Dress for women. Men haven't changed since 1915. They didn't want to dress up any more than men today do. Left to ourselves, we'd surely eat dinner in our underwear. But women were the arbiters of good taste, and men dressed to please them -- don't suffer any delusions otherwise. Today, thanks to women's rights and equality and such, men don't care as much about impressing the fair and delicate sex. The inevitable result is the tailspin in which men's clothing has found itself. Start dressing to impress, like the good old bad old days, and the women that notice such things will notice you. And that's a good thing.

Dinner in a tuxedo?
One may just as well eat
in one's pyjamas...
Change for dinner. The days of changing into dress suits every night are long gone...but that is no reason to abandon the practice of changing into something nice for dinner altogether. It's a sign of respect for the time and effort that goes into preparing a meal, first of all. It also gives a bit of a physical break from the day, and affords you a few minutes to wind down, refresh, and change gears from the workaday world. There used to be a definite break between the type of clothes worn during the day, and those worn after dark. It wouldn't be a bad thing if people started remembering those times, and made a break themselves. 

There are many other lessons to be learned from Downton, but I will leave you to find them for yourself. The above tips are more than enough to point you along the right path. The sartorial guidelines in the series are universal. They transcend the ages, and are applicable to all men, regardless of whether your social position tends towards Upstairs or Downstairs.

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Cold Shoulders

(Part 12 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 54
This week, we're looking at sleeves, as our jacket project hurtles headlong toward completion. In the process, we're going to see an excellent example of minimizing fit flaws by chasing down the errors, minimizing them at each turn, until they either disappear, or reach a point that you can live with them.

We've started with a three-piece suit that was, just for the point of illustration, fit wrong in just about every way imaginable. The jacket, for instance, was a size 46, with huge shoulders and a shape like a barrel. Over the weeks, we've trimmed it to a size 39, nipped in the waist, narrowed the shoulders, and gotten it to fit a very particular stance -- all without mucking about with the hard parts: the fronts, collar, and lapels. All the seams we've dealt with are plain and simple, and the stitches easy to do. In short, all the tools an Average Guy needs to tailor his own duds without the need of pricey professionals.

We're going to continue with the assumption that you've retained the knowledge gleaned through the previous parts of the series. If it seems like I'm going too fast or not giving enough detail, it's because we've covered that stuff in previous weeks. Ready? Off we go...

Re-arrange the jacket on the form. Make sure the back seam is straight, and then smooth down the fronts. Now from here, we can take one of two paths. Up till now, we've taken out the extra length in the front balance by moving the fabric down and to the rear, and eliminating it at the side seams. Depending on your amount of shoulder asymmetry, the pocket heights and lapel notches may differ by a half inch or so; I'm not bothered by it, and most people wouldn't even notice it. It's a lot less work to live with the asymmetry, so to continue in this vein, you can skip most of the shoulder-work later on in the post, and go straight to the task of setting the sleeves.

However, for the sake of example, just for you, I'll play the martyr and show you how to do the extra work to make the fronts even again. (You're welcome.) Lift the low shoulder, smoothing it over toward the back and down the fronts, to make sure everything is absolutely symmetric and just-so between both sides. (In the pic, I'm smoothing back with my left hand as I'm holding the opposite lapel in place with my right.)

Remember, though, that by making the fronts perfectly even again, we're undoing some of the work we've done in previous steps. Instead of down and to the rear, we're taking the excess length up and over the shoulder. This will throw the extra fabric over the blades on one side: it will have to be removed by reworking the shoulder seam. It will also pull up the front on that side in relation to the back: and that means your side seam may have to be re-sewn slightly higher. Since you have already sewn that seam once, re-doing it shouldn't pose too great a problem, though.

Now on to the sleeves.

Take the center fronts, pinch them together like this (not overlapping as usual) and pin them together to keep the jacket in place.

Now take out your sleeves, (if you haven't misplaced them by now!) and your marking-thread.

Run a few lines of long, running stitches to hold the padding and wadding in place inside the sleeve -- you don't want it falling out at an inopportune time!

Baste the lining around the armscye as well. This will keep it from bunching up in the bottom of the sleeve, keep it from twisting, and help the sleeve fall naturally.

The basting stitches, running around the sleevehead.

The sleeve ready to set.

Now it's time to set the sleeve pitch. Put the sleeve in place and pin it at the top. Look at the way you hold your arms naturally, and rotate the sleeve to match your own stance. If you naturally hold your arms too far backward or forward compared to your sleeves, they will wrinkle and pull oddly when you wear the jacket.

Use chalk to mark where the shoulder seam meets the sleevehead.

Remove the sleeve again, and mark stitch along the seam around the armscye.

Replace the sleeve. Line up the chalk marks and the mark stitching. Baste the sleevehead in place, starting from the turn under at the front side, over the crown...

...and down the back to the same point. Then go back to the point where you started, and baste down, under, and around to the back side.

This leaves the back shoulder unbasted. Tie the stitch off (the green circle.) You may notice one of three things at this point. 
(1) The remaining sleeve can sew into the back perfectly. If you didn't choose to re-position the fronts as I did, this is the most likely outcome, and you can continue to baste up the armscye with no trouble.
(2) There may be a little extra back seam length left over, usually if you have extra-prominent shoulder blades or a round back. You can ease in the extra length, by gathering it in with a running stitch, sponging the fabric, and shrinking it in with an iron. Working with a tailor's ham rolled to shape and a bit of patience can shrink the seam into place, and give you some extra blade-room at the same time. (What's a ham? Read on...we'll use it later.)
(3) Or [exaggerated here,] there may be a heaping lot left at the back. The extra fabric isn't surprising in this case -- this is my lower shoulder, and when I determined to arrange the fronts symmetrically and smoothed the extra fabric back, that extra fabric had to go somewhere: and that somewhere is here. I warned you:  it was going to be more work this way!

Let's make that fabric go away. Baste up the back armscye as far as you can, pulling the fabric smooth across the back as you go.

You will have a little loop of fabric left over at the base of the sleevehead.

Now remove the basting stitches up to the top of the shoulder seam.

Then unzip the stitches along the shoulder seam itself, from just beside the collar out to the sleeve. You can probably see what we're going to do: that extra fabric is going to disappear in the shoulder seam.

Hold the base of the armscye with your left hand, and with your right, hold on and stretch the fabric over the shoulder seam, as shown. Use your iron to steam the fabric a bit if needed. The arrows show the direction of the stretch. You don't want it tight -- you're just encouraging the fabric to sit naturally and smoothly over the blades.

Re-baste the armscye the rest of the way around.

Fold back the new shoulder seam and thread mark it.

Baste the shoulder seam in place with smallish stitches and snug it firmly. Now the extra length has been displaced to just a little pinch right behind the collar melton.

So let's get rid of that last bit. Unzip the base of the collar melton where the extra fabric is...

And smooth the back up inside the collar, while you smooth the collar down over the back. Baste the collar in place.

Finish stitch the collar (using the same zigzag stitches as the rest of the collar) and the shoulder seam with a running backstitch. Notice that the shoulder seam has a curve to it: try to duplicate it as best as you can. It is quite helpful to do this off of the form, on what tailors call a ham: a tightly-rolled towel on your ironing board that gives shape to the shoulder while you work. Steam and press the seam quite flat to match the other shoulder. Now is the time to pay attention to the side seam under that arm, and made sure it is laying flat and true...and if it isn't, re-do it. As mentioned earlier, it will probably need a slight re-positioning. The other sleeve should set in much easier, without all the shoulder-work, so do that now. Next time, the final stitching of the armscyes.

As you can see, much of what we do with this sort of alteration is all about compromises. A professional tailor would take off the collar and the back panel, re-sew the back in place and re-set the collar, and re-cut the sleeves and armscye to match perfectly. That is a whole lot of work. We are accomplishing much the same thing, much easier, for free, with very acceptable results. Most importantly, we are creating a jacket that, although not perfect in all points, is worlds better than it was.

Click here to go to Part Thirteen of The Island of Misfit Clothes.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Things Start Coming Together.

(Part 11 of the series "The Island of Misfit Clothes")
Chapter 53
Today, we reach a tipping-point on our reconfiguring tour through our outsized three-piece suit! All those weeks of measuring, marking, ripping, cutting, and marking again are finally coming to a middle. It can get disheartening to take on a big project like this, when things go to pieces and stay seems like you've bitten off too much, or the eventual payoff can't possibly be worth all this work. Well, this week you'll see some light at the end of the tunnel: for our side seams are coming together for good, and our jacket is on the short side of completion.

When we left our jacket, it was sitting on the tailor's form, with the side seams basted in place. Let's take a look at the hem of the jacket before we start. You'll notice that the back is shorter than the sides; that's a side effect of shifting the balance away from the fronts. Notice that the right side is longer than the left, as well: a side-effect of correcting for my slightly low right shoulder. We'll fix that as we go. It's easier to do the final stitching with the jacket in your hands, so off the form it goes.

Lay it out on an ironing board, and warm up your iron as you did last time.  We want to equalize the hem length all the way around, and start the finished seams at the very end of the hem; so unfold the turn-under at the back. The green arrows show the disparity of length between the two sides.

Unfold the turn-unders at the sides as well, as far as you can.

Take your razor knife and release any pick-stitches that may be holding the turn-under in place. (No need to go all the way to the front.)

There we go. Much better. There's plenty of fabric now to use for the new turn-unders. (This jacket has black linen sewn into the edges, to help hold the turn-unders up...yours may or may not have them, they're not standard equipment.) Unfold both sides, and steam out the creases, using the technique we practiced last time.

Here's the back edge, all laid out and ironed flat. The red line shows where our finished hem will eventually be.

Now, lay out the jacket like this, with the basted seam front-and-center, with the hem edge closest to you. Get out needle and thread in a color that matches the fabric -- pull out a length about a fifth longer than the seam length itself -- and prepare to do some sewin'. If you can manage working in your lap, cross-legged in true tailor's style, bravo for you! It's also quite acceptable to do this work sitting in a comfy chair, or (if you must) working at a table. Relax your shoulders and don't tense up. Don't work up close to your eyes too much after you get a feel of what you're doing, either. Tailoring isn't fun with knotted shoulders, cramped fingers, and a splitting headache. 

There's a pleasant zen component to needling done well. With practice, you will be able to sew as much by feel as by sight. Take it easy, don't try to force your way through it, and if you need to take a break, do. Remember there are people who have done this ten hours a day for sixty years; so if your hand feels like it's going to fall off after ten minutes, step back and think through what you're doing wrong with your technique. Relax your arms, keep your back straight, and breathe.

We'll use a running backstitch for the seams. It's easy to do, fairly quick, and is done from the frontside of the fabric so you can see your progress. The first thing, though, is to anchor the end of the seam with a small tack stitch: just three tiny horizontal stitches that just catch each side of the seam, like this, and pull it snug.

There; that's tight. Now; onto the stitch. 

Here's how it's done. [top graphic:] Run the needle up the middle of the seam, taking a small bite out of one side, then a small bite out of the other. Load the stitches up the needle, so the fabric pulls in a zigzag on either side. Use the finger and thumb of your left hand to pinch the seam together, and your right hand to work the needle in. With a little practice you can do this totally by feel. Take stitches as small as you can; aim for 6 or 8 stitches piled on the needle. [center graphic:] When the needle's full, push it through, and bring the needle back in just behind the last stitch. [bottom graphic:] Pull the stitches snug, then load the needle again. The single backstitch will hold the eight running stitches in place. There's no need to crank the stitches tight; just enough to hold the fabric firmly together. A good stitch will be a little elastic, and besides, if something rips in the future, you want it to be the seam that gives way and not the fabric.

Here's how it looks in action. Notice the position of my left hand. I'm pushing the end of the needle through with my right thumb, you can see the tip of the needle coming through further up, with the zigzag of the fabric on the needle...

...Here's the needle going in for the backstitch...

...and the first run of stitches after the backstitch-and-snug motion.

(Take out the pink thread ahead of you as you go; it'll save you some trouble later.)

Now we're about a third of the way up. Notice the three pink threads ahead of the stitch: remember there are marking stitches for both sides and the basting stitch to remove!

At the top of the seam already! It does go quickly once you get the rhythm. Notice the way I gather the fabric in my left hand as I work my way up the seam. 

The seam completed. You will see some puckers and gathers along the way. "Oh no!" you may think -- don't worry, they'll press out.

Arrange the seam straight down your ironing board, like this, and smooth it taut as best you can. Then steam it flat. Don't iron the whole side -- just the seam. There's existing shaping over the hips and shoulders that you don't want to derange with the iron.

The seam as it should look after pressing.


Now, all that remains is to do the exact same thing, for the other side.

Now we're seeing some real progress! Put your jacket on; dance around the house in it, admire yourself in it in the mirror. Go ahead, you've deserved it. Can you believe this was a size 46? It feels like it was made just for you.

Because it is, now.

When you're finished admiring your handiwork, replace your jacket on the tailor's form...we're not quite done this week! Now that the body's complete (and doesn't it feel good to say that) let's turn our attention to the shoulders. 

Your jacket may or may not have the top part of the seam turned under like this one, so that the sleevehead sits even with the shoulder and doesn't stand proud. Some jackets have pronounced "roping" in the sleeveheads to give the opposite effect; it's just a matter of fashion. Notice where the ends of the turn-in are located if you have them... you'll need that later.

We have the new position of the shoulder already marked; now we just trim the excess off, leaving about ½". Only trim the shell fabric; not the canvas or cotton.

Here's the armscye after trimming.

Now make small snips where the ends of the turn-in were...

...fold the turn-in right at the marked line...

...and steam it in place with an iron, right on the form.

Now we can cut back the canvas layers to match the new shoulder point. Snip with scissors, along this line.

Then snip the cotton batting layers, along this line.

This causes another problem to deal with. The cotton you've just cut was gradually feathered and tapered out to the edge, and what you have now is a wall of cotton wadding, as you can see here. If there is a protective layer of interfacing on top of the cotton, fold it back...

...and snip the cotton at a shallow angle to shave it back to a tapered shape. Work as far under as your stitchmarked armscye line, and feather the padding down to nearly nothing at the edge.

Here's your finished shoulder line, trimmed and padded and ready to be re-introduced to your sleeves. 

And that's where we'll pick up next time: setting the sleeve pitch and re-attaching the sleeves. Stay tuned!