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Clothes Make the Me

So who's making my personal statement fashion?

Dorothy Woodend 10 May

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

In a recent issue of New York Times Magazine, actor Ralph Fiennes talks about how the key to finding character is costume. You can usually tell who the bad guys are in any movie by the clothes they wear. A well-cut black suit, architectural glasses and a swinging accent means you must be an evil mastermind from England. What else could you be, really? With this in mind, what are your clothes saying about you? Are they talking behind your back, slagging you off when you don't even realize it?

Perhaps. That's why, ever since last month, when Vanessa Richmond and I set out to dress ourselves entirely in locally designed and locally manufactured clothing, I've been wondering. If fashion is a means both to discover, and arguably, to create a personality, a visual clue to the person inside, can you wear your politics on your sleeve?

Although it is not to easy to wear your politics on your feet, (I have yet to find great shoes in this town), it is exceedingly easy to wear your politics on your chest. The message t-shirt is alive and well. T-shirts at twigg&hottie (3671Main Street) feature some interesting graphics; a small baby in a pram flies the pirate flag, or a 1950s family sits at the dinner table, as father intones "Some countries are ruled by dictators and everyone must submit to their will. But in America, we're free to practice family values. That's much better, isn't it?" His family answers back, "Yes sir. Yes sir. Yes sir." Or try X-Y Crossbreed (available at Lark 8th Avenue). There, they make their own T-shirts as opposed to buying them from American Apparel and simply putting a logo on them.

Screened messages

The number of silk screeners in Vancouver is a little staggering, anything and everything that can have some graphic element stuck on it, often does. One of the most successful of the silk-screen crowd is Smoking Lily (3634 Main Street). Glenda Roach runs the Vancouver store; she's an easy presence, quick to laugh at the foibles of the Lululemon guru Chip Wilson (and what else can you do really, but laugh). The clothes are similarly no nonsense, straightforward t-shirts, pants, skirts and dresses. There are also products for men and the home, all emblazoned with graphic elements, illustrations of giant squids, images sourced from old medical texts or books of natural history.

Locally made fabric is still hard to come by, so Smoking Lily uses a lot of vintage fabrics. But as Glenda says "Even the most knowledgeable wholesaler may not have a clue where a particular bolt of fabric comes from." The benefit with vintage fabric is twofold; it gives it a second life as a useful article and it also recycles stuff that was just sitting around. Smoking Lily focuses on short runs to give customers more variety. Founded in Victoria, Smoking Lily has become part of the thriving Main Street scene, which continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

"The beauty of the neighbourhood is that it is a neighbourhood," says Glenda.

Within the last three and a half years, a total of ten stores have opened in the blocks around the Lily. Front and Co. and Eugene Choo are old favorites, but they've been joined by a host of others (The Life of Riley, Mod to Modern, Narcissist), feisty individualists all, who offer locally made, artisan stuff. It's a cozy but fast-changing couple of blocks, and already more changes are on the way: for one, the building that currently houses Mod to Modern has been sold and the rents going up. These stores are still often one-woman shows, staffed by one individual, but higher rents can destroy the razor thin margin by which they operate. More expensive rent often means bigger companies will move in, and that could mean the end of the Main Street's funky little scene.

But let's hold out hope that the growing appetite for locally made stuff can stave off the invasion of the giant corporations a while longer.

Color phobia

If you're not an embellishment girl, there are other choices for you. Joanna Kulpa makes clothes that are deceptively simple, in shades of grey, taupe, black and white. "I'm afraid of colour," says the lovely Ms. Kulpa. Aren't we all? These are clothes that wouldn't look out of place on a woman of a certain age. Austere and lovely, clearly Ms. Kulpa has her eye on the Holt Renfrew crowd. After eight years in the business, she has learned the hard way about issues of quality control, although as she says at some point "You have to let go and trust other people to do the work." Her design aesthetic of "less is more, uncluttered, simple and clean" as she describes her work is one that is close to my heart. Her designs are available in stores around Vancouver including Liquid (2050 West 4th Avenue), and Lark 8th Ave (152 East 8th Avenue) and Fine Finds (1014 Mainland).

Shirts, skirts and jackets are relatively easy to find, but other items are more difficult, namely unmentionables as my grandmother used to call them. You can buy locally made underwear at Dream (311 West Cordova) as well as twigg&hottie. Other things such as socks are less easily found. If you're truly dedicated, you could probably knit your own or find some at a church craft sale that were made by a grandma down the street.

One of the most intractably hard to find things is also one of the most necessary -- pants. If you saw the documentary China Blue, which screened last year at the VIFF, you might never want to don a pair of jeans again. Pants are the acid test for many a designer; if they don't fit, you must acquit. At Dream on Cordova, which sells 98 percent local designers (Alice in Wonderland, etc.) I did find a pair of jeans that I really liked called the O Henry pants, dark, slim and as the nice lady at the store says "You don't have much of a booty, so try a size 8." I don't have a booty!? I'm thrilled and they fit fine, but unfortunately, they're made in Edmonton. You might be able to bend the rules just a tiny bit.

Tough, sexy nun clothes

Another thing I've never been able to find in Vancouver, despite the fact that it rains on average 366 days of the year, is a waterproof jacket that actually looks good and doesn't say MEC. I told this to the sales woman in Lark and another woman overheard and immediately chimed in "Me too!" Another more critical issue is that if you're not 22 and female, will you feel comfortable looking for clothes in hip little boutiques? That's a bit more of an amorphous issue. But it's hard to imagine older men or women feeling that there is much out there for them. Still, one needs uniforms of age. I am not a reed thin twenty-something. I hate frills. I hate gewgaws. I want clothes that are tough and that can withstand a day on the playground. I don't want little boobie tops, or lowrider pants or frilly little skirts. Give me simple, austere, monochromatic clothes; like a sexy nun. A tough sexy nun. I want practical, hardcore clothes that still look good. Is that possible? Having combed the local stores, as well as thrift stores, I can empirically answer yes, but they are not easy to find.

Fashion can be a personal or a political statement, or even more importantly, an economic one. The vagaries of style are for the hip little bands who live for such things; whereas a lot of people care not a fig leaf about the stuff of style. It is still something of a mystery to me how you can put on a pair of pants and know immediately to the millimetre whether they are right or wrong. The keenness of the truly fashionable is more than simply design or taste, surely; it's the meme at work in the instant.

But the larger question should we pay (the operative word) heed at all to the niggling voice that says that hemline is too short ,or that waist is too low? It's frivolous, light entertainment for those who can afford the cost, but not the stuff of serious matters. As the lovely Vanessa Richmond has amply demonstrated, fashion often has a very high price tag environmentally and perhaps societally, as well. Some of our current consumer crisis can be laid at the well-shod feet of the feminine kind, since women drive the fashion engine. Women, who like stuff so much, how are you going to mend your spending ways? I don't exclude myself from this indictment, I am as guilty as any, maybe guiltier, but something has happened to me lately. I recently opened Vogue, which I've been reading since I was a small girl and part of me said I don't want this anymore. I don't want endless edicts about what things I should seek out, but at the same time, I still think clothes are interesting, simply not as interesting as they once were, when having the correct pair of jeans meant the difference between social ascendance or social disaster.

Sustainability sells sells sells

When total environmental collapse makes the cover of Vanity Fair, you know a sea change is underway. But now that sustainability has become fashionable, has it also become simply another means to sell, sell and sell some more? Will environmental collapse become another victim of the great co-opting Borg monstrosity of marketing and advertising that can subsume anything in its path and spit out a glossily photographed spread in Vogue? A case in point -- a glossily photographed spread in Vogue devoted to the notion that if global warming erases the idea of traditional seasons, what will one wear? I think it was at this point that I threw said magazine across the room. There is a level of obscenity to the idea of selling a sort of fashionable doom. Nuclear Wintour is what they call Vogue's current iron lady editrix and it may prove apt in a very different way. What can ordinary folk to do in the face of a changing world. In our own small way, Glad Rags has proposed a number of options. But this is tricky. Fraught as they are, clothes are the one thing that women, myself included, find difficult to give up.

On a recent expedition to Lark on 8th Avenue -- which is really quite a lovely store -- I fell into conversation with the young woman who was working there. As well as being knowledgeable, she was also passionate and articulate about Vancouver fashion. "I try to send everyone who comes in here away with something. Don't ruin the economy, buy locally," she says. A slender young man who is busy buying a shirt, joins in the discussion, which ranges from how men shop, to how women shop, to the evils of Zellers. "Women are fickle," says the young lady, who is considering switching entirely to men's clothing, "because they understand what's entailed in making a $600 jacket." Talk turns to how men and women approach shopping. Men, most men at least, treat it like an unpleasant job, like going to the dentist; something to simply get over with. They also don't seem to mind spending more money, if it means they'll have to shop less and each item will last longer. The shirt buying man agrees "I only have a week's worth of clothes, so I don't feel bad about buying something that's a bit more expensive, because I have so few."

Stop, shop and roll

Later, I tell my sister that I have decided to become a man, or at least shop like one. She gives me a typically deadpan look and says "That's the most boring thing I've ever heard." I have to admit, she's probably right. Wearing the same thing week after week would be pretty drear. I have yet to get over the problem of needing novelty. But if all pre-eminent environmental scientists are to be believed, get over it we must. It's a conundrum that anyone has yet to solve. And one that future generations may find it even more impossible to let go of, given that they've been marketed to cradle to grave.

If you take all the time and energy and money that women pour into shopping and put it elsewhere, what would happen? Would the world shift overnight? What could all that time and money do to make things different? Although this is a pie in the sky notion, it is perhaps one worth considering and not entirely out the range of possibility, as shopping itself, on the current enormous global scale, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Children's sections in stores didn't exist until the 1930s when marketers realized that shopping mothers meant shopping children and vice versa.

Currently what you are has come to mean what you consume, from infancy on. Anyone with small children has probably experienced this first hand. Kids these days tend to build a sense of self through the proper use of the right brands: the right Lego, the right breakfast cereal and so on. As a parent, you're often faced with saying no till it runs out of meaning or till you cave into the enormous onslaught of marketing. Whenever I walk into a toy store lately, I feel a creeping sense of despair.

If marketing has marched into every corner of our most intimate sense of self, and slapped a logo on it, is there any escape, other than fleeing to the woods? Actually, that might not be a bad idea. The founding principle of the Guilt-Free Hedonist, was, if you must buy stuff, (and it's generally agreed that you have to buy a few things -- people must be fed, housed and clothed) buy one good thing and buy it locally: a coat, a good pair of pants, or buy lots of weird stuff from thrift stores for the novelty factor. But mostly, go do something else, anything else, really, other than shopping, I think we have done that enough to last several lifetimes over.

Dorothy Woodend is a Vancouver-based writer, who writes a film column for The Tyee every Friday.

Got a favourite local shop or designer in your town you could mention below?  [Tyee]

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