Folk garment investigations

Recently at the studio, we have had two private students learning pattern making with me (Jack). They are both recent high school graduates who have been accepted into RMIT bachelor of fashion (Design) who are keen to learn a few more skills before they commence next year. 

My own pattern making practice is very unprescribed. I consider all of the methods in pattern making to be somewhat made up, subject to fashion, and always requiring a test depending upon the variables at hand. So, I am trying to impart an understanding of the body, its shape, and how an X / Y axis or the warp and weft of cloth can be mapped out across the body using really simple measurements. Pattern making is usually always taught through its present day use, but I like to think about pattern making and garment cutting as it occurred across time and how it differed in various cultures across the globe. 

Through an investigation of historical linen shirts and other medieval tailoring, we commenced a quasi retrospective pattern/garment making project that used scarcity and the body to formulate simple ways of dividing cloth for the body. We referenced Janet Arnold's "patterns of fashion 4" and a few other books concerning historical dress, but I also used a few antique dinner shirts that are part of my personal archive to illustrate what this imagined process of rectangular shirt making would develop into.  

We focused primarily on the use of rectangular unaffected shapes, that followed loose proportions of the body, with intention of using more smaller right angled shapes to create shaping. we re-imagined how shirt making might have occurred before pattern making. We thought about how we could divide the fabric up, so as to avoid creating any wastage, but also attempting to respect the complicated, non-rectangular form that is the human body. 

Through the use of a lot of gussets and using excess fabric, which is then gathered in at key points, we created shirts that emulated the medieval shirts and smocks, purely to understand the vague framework upon which pattern making has been developed over centuries.  

My own research has always interacted with garment making practices from the middle east, japan, china, without any kind of appropriation, but with an understanding of the shared appreciation for applying woven (mostly) cloth to the body in the most economical way. I think of the kimono making system as a garment making practice that respects the unchanged textile and allows a shape that is different from the human physique to sit upon it, quite like the pre-tailored clothing of dark-ages Europe. Pre-modern and modern tailoring practices across centuries have seemed to recreate an idealised physique that work with the body as an emulation upon it, in someways like sportswear. 

When we discussed a few of the variables in medieval tailoring practices,  whose context in relation to our present day, post-scarcity framework, would be quite different. I really emphasised the economical consequences of cutting into fabric, the process of creating a garment that fit a particular physique would have been extremely costly both in terms of labour and in the production of scrap sections of cloth. Fabric in its own right was extremely expensive to produce. The shirts and smocks at the time would have been made primarily to go underneath these more tailored clothes, only to be experienced in private by the wearer. 

I am currently reading Vivienne Richmond's "Clothing the poor in 19th century England", which touches on the process of the industrialisation of clothing in the 19th century. Richmond references contemporary writers who made note of the shift away from "pastoral folk garments", akin to the medieval shirts that we are emulating, to a factory made, more tailored suits of clothing, which connects more closely to style of the 20th century shirts in my archival collection. 

I have thoughts as to whether or not we could call this a "down > up" trend, considering these garment making practices come from the creativity of the working people or "folk" garment makers. I'm unaware as to whether or not shirt making would have started with the elites in a sort of pre-medieval, post roman dark-ages. 

Tailored shirts of the late 90s and early 2000s really gives me a deeper understanding into what post-modernity really means and how we really have departed from ancient garment making practices whose roots were informed by scarcity. People often talk about the t-shirt as an item of post WW2 military excess, worn by American solders. It was, in fact, originally an undergarment, but we often forget that so too was the shirt, an under garment for the tailored clothing of the medieval and renaissance military elite. 

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