When I was about twelve years old, I began designing clothes. Before that, I drew aliens in beauty pageants, and before that, I drew women in hats. Before that, I drew potato people on hills. I also remember doing a portrait of my dad and desperately trying to remember if his mustache was above or below his nose.
Dolls & Dress-Up
I am not quite sure why I started designing clothes. We had a picture book about the history of dress. They had everything from early Mesopotamia to the Roaring Twenties. I would spend hours flipping through the drawings. I was fascinated by how sheer the Egyptian dresses were and in awe of the bare-breasted Minoan women.
My mom had taught me a basic stitch and I began making Barbie clothes, first for my dolls, then for my sisters’ when I got older. One year, for her birthday, I made a Barbie wardrobe for my younger sister, Jane, out of an old cereal box along with about ten dresses. I used rags and some of my mom’s old clothes.
I was also just enthralled with playing dress-up. There were almost no games I played as a child that involved wearing my normal clothes. Part of preparing for a game was changing into the appropriate garments: gypsy, princess, fairy, 1940s Jew trying to escape the Nazis, Heidi. These often included second-hand prom dresses. For my tenth birthday, I had all my guests dress up. I went to Salvation Army with my mom and picked out a beautiful, blue dress made out of some kind of horrible synthetic fabric that I believed to be the height of decadence and sophistication. We ate Chicken Florentine and had a fainting contest, falling dramatically onto piles of pillows and blankets in our finery.
Whatever the reason for designing, I began. I was getting a little old to play dress-up, so my costumes came to life in drawings. My proportions were terrible: heads too big, bodies too thin. And drawing hands might as well have been my undoing.
It did not take long to decide I wanted to be a fashion designer. In my social circle, this was unique. The adults I knew didn’t design, and none of the girls I knew were interested either. It seemed to me, at the time, to be quite a unique aspiration. I now know that it is highly common for girls to go through such a phase. This miscomprehension resulted in my being territorial when it came to others with a shared interest. I remember despising a girl in my 8th grade math class when she told me she wanted to be a designer too. She had either never actually designed, or I hated her designs when I saw them; I don’t remember which.
I continued to design through high school, even attempting a few sewing projects with little guidance. It is one thing to know how to follow a pattern and quite another to try to teach someone how to bring her imagination to life. My informal instruction lacked inspiration, to say the least, and I found the speed of sewing machines stressful compared to the calming, therapeutic process of sewing by hand.
A Theology of Fashion
Despite my frustrations about apparel construction itself, I began to develop a framework of beliefs about clothing. I found plenty of opposition to my interests at my church, where women were supposed to be simultaneously beautiful at all times and never put effort into their appearance (loving Jesus makes you beautiful, not makeup). There were plenty of Bible verses that supported this aversion, not the least of which can be found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “28′So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these,” (Matthew 5:28-29).
This I took as a personal challenge, despite the admonishment against worry (and seemingly of taking an interest in clothing); I dreamed of designing something as beautiful as the lilies of the field. I even used lily of the valley for inspiration in some early designs. I figured if God created people in His image, why shouldn’t I create, too? What’s more, why shouldn’t His creation be my inspiration, even my aspiration? Where some people saw limitations, I saw liberation. My best explanation for the confusion on this subject is that some people see no difference between worry and attention, because they have learned only to pay attention to that which worries them.
I kept designing and began collecting bridal magazines. Once, while flipping through one and explaining my love of clothing to a woman from church, I pointed out a model and commented on how beautiful she was. The woman from church looked at me as though with pity. She smiled and said, “You know, you’re beautiful, too,” with just a little too much encouragement in her voice. I was annoyed that she assumed I thought I wasn’t pretty just because I thought a model in a magazine was. As it happened, I didn’t really care if I was pretty just then. I cared about the clothes being made all the more beautiful by the person who wore them. She was captivating in the flowing, white dress and blue sash. Her blonde hair and large, brown eyes displayed a kindness and a joy I rarely saw in the other photos. She looked like she could actually be a bride.
Other women from church told me what to design: more modest clothing; more functional clothing; more clothes for teens. For some reason, these church ladies all seemed to be under the impression that it was impossible to find clothes that would adequately cover their bodies and still be flattering (but not too flattering). I have never understood this. I have read so many Christian articles about how horrible fashion trends are and how impossible it is to find clothes that are appropriate for teenage girls or women. This has never been my experience, not once. I have always been able to find suitable clothing for my desired level of body coverage (I may dress boldly, but I don’t often show a lot of skin).
I would later learn that in the broader culture, many of the same objections to my interest in fashion and dress would arise, but couched in non-religious language. Women who invested in their appearance were shallow or bitchy (rather than vain). They were easy or slutty (rather than lacking in purity). But the message was the same: if you’re a woman, your body is bad, so your fascination with what covers (or fails to cover) your body is also bad.
I instinctively took issue with problematizing women’s bodies, but continued to focus on becoming a better designer.
There are some people who should not go unnoticed here, people who encouraged my love of clothing, people who saw passion as an asset and creativity as a gift. They live in a big universe, and they invited me into it. Those people have my undying gratitude and love.
University, Fashion, and Philosophy
When I took my first fashion courses in college, I was very disappointed. I had hoped for something spectacular, but found myself disliking my classmates and even some of my professors—I have rarely disliked any of my teachers; I have been less kind to my classmates. There was no spark, no setting of lofty goals, only fractions and vocabulary terms. When anyone did attempt to grapple with the abstract fundamentals of dress, they used vague vocabulary often borrowed from sociology and psychology, assigning articles written on the subject at least 80 years prior. Still, I willed myself forward, despite being unsure whether my professors even wanted me in the program or thought I had any talent whatsoever.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I took a course in logic, intending to obtain a minor in philosophy. I had enjoyed my first philosophy class so much that I decided I would enjoy another 25 credits of it.
My logic professor was a charismatic, sharply dressed enigma. He was known throughout campus for his Prada suits and bold style. He had flair, dressing better than any of my fashion professors.
He told us all on the first day of class that he loved us. I believed him.
On the third day of class, he asked me to stay after. In the hallway, away from the other students waiting to ask him questions about the homework, he told me that he had rarely had a student with my intelligence. He told me that some simple comment I had made during class picked up on a nuance that he did not think even the textbook’s author had intended. I am sure I blushed. Then, after I told him he was third professor that year to try to get me to change my major, he asked me to consider double majoring in philosophy. I don’t know that I believed his compliments, but I did start thinking about it. I couldn’t help it.
As I became more engaged in my philosophy courses, my dissatisfaction in my fashion courses became increasingly apparent. My list of complaints got longer and longer. That spark that I couldn’t find in fashion classes; it was in my philosophy classes. In fashion, my mind felt numbed, stifled. In philosophy, my mind was alive, growing. In fashion, I felt creatively, intellectually, and relationally bored. No one talked about how to design well. They reinforced the cultural stereotypes of vapidity and self-involvement. I felt that I could not relate to the other students. At the time, I thought they lacked intelligence, which may have been true for many of them, but what the program lacked—and thereby its students—was gravitas.
Added to all of this, my stylish logic professor would talk to me about design. He was intrigued by my use of color and liked to talk about predicting trends. It wasn’t fashion itself that was the problem; it seemed to be the people.
By the end of that quarter I had declared myself a double major, intent on finding a way to combine my two passions and excited to have a major that wouldn’t make guys treat me like a bimbo. There was a marked difference in people’s reaction to me when I said I was majoring in philosophy and fashion, instead of just fashion.
By the end of the next year, I had dropped fashion as a major and decided to minor in it. I could no longer pretend to be enjoying myself. I still had a couple required courses, but I was done; not done with fashion, never done with fashion. I was done with the program, the people who lived in small worlds, a professor who publicly shamed me when I came to class without makeup one day, insisting that we talk in the hall while all my classmates gawked. This was not the universe I had imagined. Lacking the influence and authority to affect any change, I needed to get out.
So I left it for costuming—taking all the tools I gleaned from fashion classes with me (which turned out to be a great deal more than I had realized). By the time I graduated, two theaters had offered me contracts for their summer musicals. I ended up designing for four shows in five months. Costuming was glorious but hard work for little pay. After four years at a private university, I could not afford that life, not with student loan repayments looming ahead. So, I set out on my own, not knowing what would come next, but applying to every reception or administrative assistant position I could find, a far cry from design or philosophy.
Elements of Design
A friend of mine recently told me that I bring fashion design into everything that I touch. She had been enjoying my cooking at a dinner party I was throwing. This is, in a sense, true. Rather, I am always designing. If it is not a dress, it is a meal. If it is not a suede tailcoat, it is a book. If it is not a summer ensemble, it is a birthday party. I love to design. Design is, in its best form, a way to do more than tell a story. It is through design that you can become the story. How grand, I have often thought, would it be to create a universe. That would be wonderful. With design, I know I am not creating matter or quarks or nebulae or star clusters. I have only this corner of a vast universe. With design, I can add a layer to reality in which my imagination becomes tangible. No, we cannot design morality or matter, but we can curate them.
This is my project, my lifelong aim. I cannot merely create a budget and a line sheet or spend hours adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying fractions. I will do them because they are part of the process, but they are not the goal. To design, I must always do so with the intention of presenting more than commerce. I am engaging in an idea. Either that idea contributes beauty to the world, or it does not.
This search for beauty, not merely to find it but to create it, is a lofty one. It is lofty because not enough people attempt it, and even fewer attempt it more than once.
In an age of knockoffs, failing retail, diminishing haute couture, and the near extinction of home-sewing (no, DIY pictures on Pinterest do not count), it is imperative to me to continue to strive for this lofty goal, to present the world always with something beautiful.
For a long time, we have been led to believe that for some reason beauty is shallow, especially when it comes to fashion. However, I am of the opinion that bodies are not bad and that, if anything, there are people who are shallow, and cannot properly value exterior beauty due to their own lack of interior beauty. Perhaps we have allowed their voices far too much reign on the matter.
Today, I am a designer. I do not work for a clothing company. None of my designs make their way down runways or are mass-produced. In fact, most of them will never experience the incredible transformation from the page to the garment, or even reach beyond my imagination (that might be impossible in any case). However, I am a designer because right now there is a dress draped on my dress form that needs to be finished. It needs to have a chance to offer its beauty to this corner of the universe.