Dresses, Whole Dresses, and Nothing But Dresses

I made the decision: I’m moving to a dress-only wardrobe. Separates: farewell.

This isn’t due to some profound philosophical or metaphysical principle, it just makes simple sense. Over half of my wardrobe is dresses anyway, and I find myself increasingly irritated the other half of the time by the fuss of finding skirt, top, and more than likely under- and over-layers which will all work with each other.

A-line skirtsI could, of course, have just formed them into regimented ‘outfits’: this top always with this skirt, etc etc, but frankly, that defeats the whole purpose of separates, viz: that you can mix and match. I always found there was rather more mixing than matching going on, and it was a sore trial to my overdeveloped sense of aesthetics. I had the eye for it, but I didn’t have the wardrobe for it.

For some time now I have been dreaming of a simplicity of wardrobe akin to that of the Caped Gooseberry: every day he wears a collared shirt, trousers, and as many warm layers as are required to reach the point marked x. Amount of thinking required: virtually nil. (At least until he married a woman who insisted that colour be taken into account. Maroon, for example, should not be worn with pale green. I do not think I am being unreasonable in this matter. After all, I have to look at him more often than he does.)

TeofilThe problem is that dressing as a woman is not the same thing as dressing as a man. (I do not wish to dress as a man. I don’t have the figure for it, for a start.) Men can buy a pair of trousers which will quietly go along with every shirt they own, and do so for years at a time. Women’s garments seem intended to be attention-grabbers every one, each piece struggling to upstage the others. If you want something more neutral, it is pretty well guaranteed to be black, unless you luck out and find something grey. And even then, it is intended to be worn for a year or two at most, after which it will die the death of planned obsolescence, so you have to go and buy some more. I can’t be having with this.

Admittedly, part of the problem is that I am very choosy about my clothes. I want them to be of a colour that suits me, in a style that I like, and of a fabric that breathes. I don’t wear see-through clothing (defeats the point of getting dressed), or polyester (plastic has its uses, but clothing should not be one of them), or short skirts, or frills, and I definitely don’t subscribe to the view that if you wear a long skirt you’ve got to ‘balance’ it by showing more skin up top, as though women owe the world a certain proportion of their surface area.

Miranda Kerr at InStyle Women Of Style Awards (2)Imagine what the world would look like if men who wore ankle-length trousers had to wear shirts which only buttoned half-way up. (Sorry. Would you like some bleach for your mind’s eye?) And if they chose to rebel and wear a shirt which buttoned all the way up, people would assume they suffered from low self-esteem…

Back to the dresses, however. Having all these criteria does make it rather hard to find clothes, particularly on a budget. I can’t remember the last time I bought anything in a shop, other than an underlayer. It simply doesn’t seem worth looking any more, since everything I find is either of poor quality, a colour or style I don’t like, or too expensive. Or all of the above. I have long been a fan of second-hand shopping, but it’s getting harder to find what I’m looking for there, too. I try to shop like a tiger, but all too often these days I shop like a tiger in a tofu warehouse.

As much as I like the idea of wearing, say, an elegant Thirties-style suit, such things are not to be had for the asking. They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To. And people would be more likely to notice that I was wearing basically the same clothes every day, than they would if a man did it. (This man, for example.)

Shocking Pink SchiaparelliElsa Schiaparelli said a woman should never be afraid to be seen in her suit too often, but then, that was eighty years ago. Anyway, do I really want to take clothing advice from a woman famous for the shoe hat and the lobster dress, whose signature colour was shocking pink, a colour I would walk over hot coals to avoid wearing?

So, the dresses. As Hoda Kotb said, “I usually go for a dress. No matching involved. I am bad at matching! I like easy and when you’re done, it looks like a second skin. I wear dresses every day for that reason. It’s easy!” Easy is simple. Dresses still allow for plenty of variety, of course. A light, flowy summer dress; a dress of tailored wool for winter… And of course you can add warm layers, which only have to go with the dress, rather than two or more other pieces.

Mistake me not: this is not to say that I’m going through my wardrobe and chucking out everything that isn’t a dress. In the first place, I tend to wear my clothes until they die of extreme old age, and in the second place, I don’t have sufficient dresses to manage year round. Yet. As always, it’s a work in progress. But at least now I have an idea of what I’m aiming for.

Museo del Traje - MTFD062753 - Figurín de un vestido de Madeleine Vionnet

Have you been hankering for greater simplicity in your wardrobe? What steps are you taking? I’d love to hear!

In Praise of Another Old Technology

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… I love the hand-crank sewing machine, fountain pens and candle-lamp; I love the simple perfection of the stick that is the rimu nostepinne. And, it turns out, I love the typewriter.

writer-1421099_640Proper manual typewriters, that is. None of this pansy give-me-electricity-or-give-me-death stuff. The whole point of the typewriter nowadays is the freedom it gives you: freedom from electricity, software upgrades (or crashes), printers, digital mass surveillance, illegible handwriting, planned obsolescence and blue-light-emitting screens – to name just a few.

And, of course, there’s the sound of typing. Tom Hanks says laptop typing sounds “mousy… cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. [Nothing wrong with knitting socks, Mr Hanks.] Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK.”

I’ve been reading the book The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt, a book packed full of history and helpful advice, along with a horde of fascinating snippets. For instance: the first documented user of a typewriter was a blind Italian countess (back in 1801); you should never use WD40 on a typewriter; and keychopping – the practice of cutting the keys off old typewriters to use for making jewellery – is like “declawing a cat and throwing away the cat.”

L. Frank Baum, 1899
L. Frank Baum, the man behind Oz

There’s also a discussion of different makes and models of typewriters, with mentions of the people who use/d them. Agatha Christie and George Orwell used Remingtons, as did George Bernard Shaw and Margaret Mitchell. e.e. cummings used a Smith-Corona portable (with, one is tempted to speculate, a broken shift). Nick Cave uses an Olivetti; as does Cormac McCarthy, who cannily sold his old one for over a quarter of a million dollars and then replaced it for under $20. Ho Chi Minh used a typewriter known as a Hermes Baby, which doesn’t exactly fit with the revolutionary image.

I myself have a powder-blue Brother De Luxe ultraportable typewriter, which weighs a smidgen over five kilos in its case. It is relatively young, having rolled off the production line in Nagoya in February 1969, and is still in very good working condition. A few days ago I took the outer cladding off to give it a good clean, but that was all it needed, besides perhaps a new ribbon in the near future. I didn’t pick it apart further, because a) I wasn’t entirely confident of my ability to put it back together properly, and b) whoever put those screws in wasn’t messing around (and I have a twisted screwdriver to prove it).

typewriter clean
My desk, mid-operation. Note the convenient disassembly diagram – which may be for another typewriter – and the extracted fluff to the right.

Nonetheless, there is something very capable-feeling about being able to take a machine at least partially apart and then successfully put it back together again (with some assistance from a spare pair of hands and the muscles attached to them). All the more so, as I am not naturally mechanically minded. All I found inside was some gunge and fluff – unlike others who, according to Polt, have found everything from a mummified mouse (minus head) to five hundred dollars to a wasps nest. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

The point of a typewriter, of course, is to use it. It is no longer the most efficient way to produce text, but efficiency is seldom a guarantee of quality. Those of you who are au fait with the modern phenomenon known as NaNoWriMo may be interested to know that there is a group who knock out their 50,000 words on typewriters. One, Mike Clemens, says he’s heard the bell at the end of each line likened to a personal word-count cheerleader – and of course it always helps to be able to see your progress stacking up next to you. (On which note, bring back paperweights!)

Honvéd utca 13-15. a volt Külkereskedelmi Minisztérium I. emeleti helyiségében. Fortepan 7676My own plan is to write – or at least draft – a novel or play on this typewriter. Not immediately, since I am at present in the midst of rewriting/edits which are best done on computer, but hopefully in the not too distant future. Because I have at last found another phrase to rival the beauty of piston-filling fountain pen: annotated typescript.


My grandmother believed in buying quality: the best you could afford. The idea of buying an item simply for the status of the label would have been completely foreign to her. What she would have said about buying an item simply for the status of the faked label, I don’t know, but it would have been short, sharp and unflattering.

Not a woman to be trifled with (6171317215)

Buying good quality is, to my mind, very sensible, and probably the reason why a lot of what the Caped Gooseberry and I own comes from our ancestors. Not just big things like furniture, but the sorts of things which these days are subject to obsolescence and its more evil twin, planned obsolescence.

We still use my grandmother’s VCR for watching videos. We still use my grandfather’s heater. They’ve been gone for ten and twenty-one years, respectively, but they bought quality, and it shows.

I still wear their dressing-gowns, too. Admittedly, the cord on my grandpa’s wool dressing-gown needed replacing this year, but that’s not bad after more than two decades of wear.

Ladies clothing section, Bell and McCauley's Store, Drouin, Victoria (6173559063)

It’s the same on the Caped Gooseberry’s side. He regularly wears some of his grandfather’s clothes (his grandfather’s been gone more than thirty years now); and I use his granny’s teapot (made in the early ’20s) on a regular basis, pouring tea into my gran’s teacups.

We are still using my gran’s everyday crockery set – despite years of wear it was in much better condition than the set I bought new (and cheap). The same goes for her oven dishes, and my grandfather’s china jugs.

One of my favourite winter hats (très chic) originally belonged to the Caped Gooseberry’s granny. I also have one of her summer hats, which she wore to meet Prince Charles back when he still had hair. Dark hair.

I wrote the entire first draft of my WIP (158k words) with a fountain pen dredged up from somewhere in my husband’s ancestry. I still use it every day. It just keeps working.

The Woodside's cottage, Aylmer, Quebec, May 24, 1909 / Le chalet des Woodside à Aylmer (Québec), le 24 mai 1909

We still use my gran’s lawnmower (with my grandpa’s WWII petrol tin). It wasn’t working so wonderfully well lately, so I took it for a shamefully overdue maintenance visit to the mower man. The blades were not only blunt but actually broken. (I shudder to think what my gran would have said.)

Mercifully, maintenance and spare parts are still available for mowers. The same cannot be said of everything. Time was, you could pop down to the local stationers to have your fountain pen nib sharpened. These days, most of them don’t even sell real fountain pens, just fountain-looking pens with disposable insides (which do not count).

I do worry about what we are going to do when these practical heirlooms eventually wear out or break down. It’s very hard to get things repaired or mended these days – you’re just expected to buy a new one. Where will we find another such heater? Where such a perfectly dripless teapot?

A Customer Can Use the Ration Books of the Whole Family. But the First Thing She Will Want to Know When She Buys Pork Chops, Pound of Butter or a Half Pound of Cheese Is - "How Many Points Will It Take?" 1941 - 1945 (4545457453)

Time was, if you were prepared to pay, good quality was available. These days it is perfectly possible to pay a high price for something which is still of inferior quality, and which will not last. Gran would not be pleased.

I’ve reached the stage in my life where I’d rather pay more for something I know will last – though as things stand in the world today, it’s not looking good for the grand-kids.