Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Tailor's Wife

Ember, you ask about clothing.  With Pam, Julie, Leah and Bri, I think you speak for many women today who find clothes something of a problem.  It certainly used to be a problem for me.

I am a tailor's wife.  I never thought of it before, but perhaps my husband became a tailor because he enjoyed helping me with clothes!  Our marriage has been from the first a mutual helping and shaping of each other into one shared life.

When I first met Michael I was wearing a burlap bag.  That is how I remember the dress I wore for my interview when he engaged me as his secretary.  He was already himself then, but in a real way I was not me yet.  I suppose what I mean is that I was only the negative of me, where everything I wore and thought and said expressed not so much myself as my resistance to a world I could not understand or accept.

A burlap bag is honest anyway.  My husband was not a tailor then but worked with builders, as his father had done.  Michael remodeled aesthetically distressed houses and made them beautiful.  Even now he speaks of "building" a suit of clothes.  There is something in that phrase.  From the inside out and from toe to top, he has always insisted on material honesty in his work.  I often think of him and his clients as building private worlds together, where honesty and maturity are possible even today.  

Many years before we built Innermost House we began to build ourselves with clothes.  In a real way you might say that we wore our house before we ever thought of building it.  It is as if we began seeking a way to dress for life in Innermost House thirty years ago.

When you think of it, a traditional tailor is a sort of conscientious objector to modern life.  He believes in nature, and insists on real materials.  He believes in longevity, and builds his clothes to survive years of wear and fashionable change.  He believes in individuality, and refuses to squeeze people into statistical patterns.  He believes in the soul, and builds always with an eye on eternity. 

Michael and I have always had a very small wardrobe.  I find myself saying "wardrobe" and not "wardrobes," not only because of the single closet space we occupy, but also because our clothes are so alike that it is really only size and shape that distinguishes his from mine.  We dress each morning without conscious deliberation in natural complement to each other.

Neither Michael nor I like to shop, and we go years between setting foot in a clothing store.  We have always kept our clothing very simple.  We wear wool most of the year and linen in hot weather.  Our underclothes are cotton or silk. With the exception of a modest pattern here or there
indistinguishable at a distanceall our clothes are solid color.  My husband's clothes are all either black or white or gray.  Mine are all either black or white or brown.  Almost everything goes with everything else, and we go with each other.

We both wear worsted trousers and I wear worsted skirts.  We both wear tailored jackets.  We both wear cotton and linen shirts.  We both wear woolen sweaters.  We both wear cotton socks.  We both wear leather shoes or boots in brown or black.  And depending on the weather, we both wear wool or straw hats. 

Indoors at night we both wear a plain, full length garment of wool in the winter and linen in the summer.  We both wear long dressing gowns of silk or wool or cotton.  We both wear slippers of leather or felted wool. 

I will say that I wear earrings and pins and Michael does not!  My few pieces of jewelry are of gold or pearl or both.  Michael chose most of them for me on his trips to New York.  My wedding band and engagement diamond were my grandmother's and are almost a hundred years old now.  Michael and I were so close to her.  When we were to be married she wanted us to have them.  The band had become so much a part of her it had to be cut to remove it from her finger.  

All our clothes are of lasting quality, and they are mostly cared for at home. We brush our tailored clothes regularly to keep them clean and free of moths, our shoes are reinforced at the heal and kept polished, and our delicate underthings I wash in the sink.

The convention of wearing something once and then washing it seems very extravagant to me.  At Innermost House every drop of water we used had to be pumped from a well hundreds of feet up a steep hill to a holding tank.  It made me forever mindful of the use of water, no matter how it may appear to arrive effortlessly at our homes.  So even through this hot and humid eastern summer I still wore a little silk undershirt everyday.  Underclothes are much easier to wash than overthings.

Good clothes last a long time.  Michael alternates between two suits of winter clothes that are now ten years old.  The skirt I am wearing todaythe same one I am wearing in this photo from the websitewas made by one of my husband's tailors twenty years ago.  I have had my favorite old winter coat for almost thirty years.  And it was thirty years old when I got it!  Michael has a sturdy leather suitcase for his work that has been through it all, and I have a couple of handbags that are now decades old, though I mostly carry a big woven oak splint basket.  

Of course there is nothing wrong with new clothes.  I like to have something new now and then
so long as I don't have to shop for it!  But my husband has a saying, "Trust not the heart in that man for whom old clothes are not venerable."  Yes, we have loved our old clothes.

And there is something more.  Our clothes naturally serve the purposes of warmth and modesty, but they have also served us daily in our intimate relationship with Place.  Al spoke awhile ago of how much it bothered him to see a house built out of place.  Yes.  Just because modern economies make building or dressing out of place possible doesn't make it beautiful.  Place to me is a seamless fabric of life, and it has always been important to my husband and me not to rend it.

Clothes are our way of showing personal respect for Place. We are not just bystanders at a succession of places paraded before our eyes, but the offspring of her body.  Traditional materials and forms have a natural relationship to place.  As she is made, so we dress.  

So in the country we wear country clothesflannels and tweeds and knits.  In town we wear town clothesmore structured and mostly darker-colored worsteds and wovens.  At home we wear more delicate indoor clothes. Outdoors we wear sturdier clothes.  It does not at all require a large wardrobe to dress for Place, but it does require a thoughtful one.  Nature it seems never puts a thing together hastily or fashionably, but she invests all with a kind of patient and beautiful necessity.  It is a pleasure to dress for her company.

I suppose we think less about clothes now than almost anyone I know, which is a strange thing to say of a tailor and his wife.  But it was the first problem we solved, and that solution has served us always.  Clothes were our first Innermost House.


  1. Thank you Diana! This post could not have come at a more perfect time for me. Your insights to the simplicity and quality of dress gave me pause to finally let out a HUGE sigh of relief. Let me explain. My boyfriend and I had to go out today to shop for a belt. He doesn't like shopping anymore than I do, so we usually go together to make it quick and painless. Fred is a nurse who has some job interviews coming up, and the need for a new belt that wasn't frayed was obvious. No luck at thrift stores. I decided I needed a few pairs of socks. After 2 HOURS of looking through local stores for a reasonably priced belt, we finally found one. Not to sound dramatic, but I swore I would die! Between the lights, the noises, the colors..I came home and went straight for my migraine meds and a dark quiet room! For the most part mother nature dictates what we wear here. The wind is always whipping, so I keep my hair back, and clean. Clothes are simple as well, as I rarely go out. The problem I have is when we have to attend obligatory social things such as funerals, kids graduations etc. While I can hold my breath throughout the social aspect of it, I cannot seem to get past the horrible feeling of not even looking the part! I panic. I wind up wearing heals that pinch and foreign materials that itch or bind!..and the old "what will people think" feeling rears it's ugly head. If pajamas were acceptable to these events, I could probably get by LOL! I wonder if I will ever succeed in getting past this. I know after reading this so many of you can identify, and I welcome ANY and ALL advice on this one:) Thanks so much for sharing this subject today..just when I needed it most!

    1. Sue (my apologies, if I have remembered your name incorrectly :),
      I wholeheartedly agree and sympathize with your anxiety about shopping and dressing for the regular events in our lives. I generally put off shopping until I have an event coming up and then I panic and buy the first thing that seems appropriate.. and that fits! It usually is not universal enough (nor classic enough) for other events and often isn't even comfortable and rarely is it made of quality materials ensuring I will be back at the mall when the next 'event' pops up.

      I am starting to think that hiring a personal shopper may be worth the expense! In fact I am going to create a savings envelope for that purpose and in the mean time start researching for someone.

      Diana, has been able to maintain a wardrobe for 30 years with minimal additions, so it would seem to be worth it to pay more upfront and get a carefully selected wardrobe with classic, well fitted choices and enjoy NOT shopping or having to think much about 'what to wear' in the future.

      Thank you, Diana, for this post. It was wonderful and right to the point. I may even print it out and use it as a guide for my own wardrobe.

    2. I'm just impressed that Diana has stayed the same size for twenty years!

    3. I was actually thinking that when I wrote the above message. I guess when you have a talented tailor for a husband, the assumption is that he will also make alterations as needed, having said that, Diana looks very fit and likely her clothes haven't needed much alterations throughout the years! A diet of modest portions of vegetable stew or salads daily along with hours of walking certainly is working for her!

    4. suzy, I think it is worth the piece of mind to have a "Sunday go to meeting" outfit for such occaisons. It can certainly be plain so as to not be remembered at those rare times when needed. Just one, tho! :)

    5. oops! I think something has a "piece" of my mind :( At least I got my I before my E. Now my "PEACE" of mind is shot!!!

  2. Thank you again for the beautiful post Diana. My father came from a family of tailors and it saddens me that this trade is dying out. It is my long held dream to be able to make my own clothes of beautiful fabrics. I love the natural and responsive philosophy you both have to your dress. I believe that how at ease we are in our clothing is a reflection of how we are in the world.

    1. "I believe that how at ease we are in our clothing is a reflection of how we are in the world."
      -- You are so right, Elizabeth. I am proof of that belief - I am either wearing something to blend in with other people or else just wearing what is 'comfortable' (often too comfortable, with little regard to how I look.) I am definitely not at ease in the world. I am not sure how to change this. It seems to me this 'ease' must come from the inside out, so my planned wardrobe improvement may not be the complete answer.

      Elizabeth, it sounds like you have a the advantage of being able to sew for yourself. What a wonderful talent to have!

    2. Haha! I have all these wonderful ideas that I will make myself clothes, that really suit and last and are me. I have collections of material and patterns, but when I come down to it, I have less confidence in something I've made or even less designed myself, than something I can try on, wear out for a bit and then make up my mind, especially now my shape has changed. My answer at the moment is charity shops, but as Suzanne pointed out, you can't always find what you need when you want it. A still-alive member of the family who does dress-making would be good to have, to help with hem-length etc.

    3. I would LOVE to learn how to make my own patterns. I have some purchased tops that I really like the style of (with a few minor changes I would make to them), but I'm waiting until I stain them accidentally before I take them apart to use as templates. My biggest issue is always how to contour/adjust sleeve holes so that the sleeves don't look too poofy or too tight. I, too, collect patterns that I like even though I have no immediate intention of using them. When I travelled to India I made myself some punjabis to take with me (Pants with the longer matching top, three-quarter length sleeves and scarf) by adapting regular U.S. patterns I had purchased and felt quite stylish because my look was 'American punjabi' with American fabric designs.

    4. Pam, in the past I have made patterns of my clothing by by folding the items according to their various parts and laying them carefully onto paper or sometimes even the fabric a wanted to make the new garment from. I didn't take them apart. I just traced around the shapes of each piece and allowed for a generous seam allowance in case I had to make adjustments. You might want to give this a try.

    5. Thanks for the hint, Julie!

    6. Yes, Katrina, our changing shapes haha! I have only gained a little weight over the years but I am a different shape now. Where once I was "stacked" like a BOY, I now look over my shoulder and see that I'm pulling a caboose behind myself. There is no way I could wear the same clothing I had 20 years ago.

  3. Diana does Michael use sewing machines or actually sew by hand? I have been wondering about this for a while. In my younger years I sewed a lot and then I worked in a drapery shop where I did all of the handwork. I don't even like to look at a sewing machine anymore. It seems to almost be cheating, lol. I really would rather do things by hand.

  4. Well! I have SO enjoyed reading that lovely long post by Diana, explaining everything so vividly - and then enjoyed reading all the comments here (usually I am the first one on the scene because of the way the world turns, but I've bee rather occupied today).

    That has given me so much to think about and such wonderful pictures in my mind.

    Thank you, Diana! Just delightful. x

  5. I love these natural materials because they feel so good, so right on your body. I used to make my own clothes, then later I couldn't find the time for it and that's how it began with shopping and buying the wrong issues. For years I felt a stranger in my own clothes. Listening to other opinions confused me so, I couldn't make any decision about what I wanted to wear. Now I am getting more and more to myself, which means I will make my own clothes of good fabric again. Last year I bought a treadle sewing machine and when I have repaired the leather strap I can use it. It would be a pleasure, the sound of the machine is so enchanting. The idea of having it my own way and building my innermost house is enlightening me.

    1. I am in the market for a treadle machine also to play with in my unelectrified house. I learned to sew on one.

    2. I bought the treadle machine from an old lady (almost 100 years). The machine was in perfect condition with all the accessories with it, even the original little booklet with instructions. Only the leather strap was broken, which I am going to replace now. Her daughter told me that she insisted on knowing who the buyer was because she wanted to be sure that the new owner would take care of the machine the same way as she did. I was looking for a machine with a story, I love stories behind old things, which actually are not just "things" for me. And so I got my treasure, an old machine with a story, from a lady who sewed all her life on this machine and kept it in good order until her fingers could no longer handle it. I gave her my promise which wasn't hard to do.

    3. I used to have a treadle sewing machine that belonged to my grandfather who was a tailor. When I used it I literally could feel his presence standing behind me as I sewed away. I felt like the torchbearer of his skills. Unfortunately, when my husband and I moved to Alaska I sold the machine because we were paying for the moving costs ourselves and it was a lot of miles between Buffalo and Anchorage! I still miss that old machine and wish that I had kept it. I loved working on the treadle machine because I could control the speed of the stitching.

    4. That is such a nice thought that we can be torchbearers of old skills.

  6. thank you for sharing that diana. it's lovely.
    i love talent that creates beauty in function. that's why tailors and carpenters and potters are very special people.
    it was wonderful hearing about that part of your life.

  7. I've loved reading this Diana. Nothing in our world is simple unless we make it so. Your mode of dress is simple, and therefore elegant,because it has been well thought out.

    I may now wait until I am in my tiny home to determine what TIME I think my PLACE belongs to. I think that what to wear will probably arise naturally out of the character of the house and my mode of living in it.

    And Sherry...PIECE be with you, sister.


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