I just picked up the latest vintage alteration from my tailor. This YSL silk satin fuchsia blouse was a lucky find that had never been worn but was several sizes too big. It needed to be taken in and the shoulders had to be recut. Inspired by vintage Vogue Patterns of Yves Saint Laurent creations, I asked my tailor to create a thinner necktie from the wide necktie fabric. The after photo, I think, shows the difference good tailoring can make in updating a vintage garment and keeping it wearable for many more years.
A month ago I went downtown to A Current Affair, an impressive Los Angeles vintage fair, and came home with a vibrant purple Yves Saint Laurent blouse. It’s always risky going to vintage fairs where many dealers, both local and from around the country, congregate to offer up their collections. Because there is so much temptation and very little time to think, a vintage fair can be a day of mixed emotions: from the joyful high you feel coming away with that one of a kind item, to the sorrowful regret you experience over holding back and returning home empty-handed. In my case, the happiness I felt buying an Yves Saint Laurent garment, was slightly blunted by the fact that I would need to remove the necktie in order to make the blouse modern and wearable. And so, the day after the fair, I planned a visit to my tailor.
Though I’ve stood in my tailor’s studio many times over the years, contemplating what changes to make to a garment, this YSL blouse was different. Because of the removal of the necktie, a new neckline with a trim had to be constructed. Despite the fact that the necktie could still be worn as a type of scarf with the blouse and the original buttons and pleating remained intact, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at altering the 80s design. But through the process of disassembly, I came to see the blouse as something regenerated, a garment that enfolds the original while having a separate life from it. More than likely, in its original form, my blouse would have remained an inspiration garment for fashion designers, stored away in a studio – frozen in time without a chance at a second life in a new setting.
I don’t think I’m kidding myself when I say that Saint Laurent himself would have approved of the transformation process – his Rive Gauche line was fundamentally about experimentation and creativity. In a 1972 interview he explained his philosophy this way: “With ready-to-wear you can play around with the many parts of clothes and change them. In couture you can’t play with clothes.” After all, cutting and sewing is at heart about play and repurposing. Or put another way, it’s about the spirit of the idea taking flight.
Back from my tailor, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent blouse. I think the before and after photos really demonstrate that proper fit matters.
When I was a child I spent the summers in Italy and the winters in New England. While this may not sound like much of a significant formative experience, it set the course for how I feel about tailoring. It was the 1970s, and I had a doll named Emily who was better dressed than I was. Her clothes were custom made while mine were off-the-shelf. She had two tailors: my mother, who cut the fabric and operated the sewing machine, and my grandmother who finished the details by hand.
Summering in Italy and wintering in New England meant that Emily needed the right clothes. Her winter wardrobe focused on print dresses, pants, and long sleeve shirts, while her summer wardrobe included sundresses and the perfect red bathing suit for the beach. I grew up surrounded by the hum of my mother’s old Singer sewing machine, flanked on all sides by various baskets, heaped high with spools of thread and buttons and scraps of fabric. Despite my grandmother’s repeated attempts to teach me how to sew buttons and to stitch by hand, I never developed any real skill beyond threading a needle. My passion seemed to lie in the process of tailoring rather than in the actual mechanics of sewing. I loved choosing the fabrics for Emily’s clothes and watching the cloth take shape into a finished form.
If my mother and grandmother are to blame for my appreciation of tailoring, they are also to blame for my general state of rapture when it comes to vintage. As a teenager, I learned the pleasure of hunting through old clothes – a pleasure that was partly derived out of necessity – as my mother’s deep-seated thrift prohibited spending on designer items. Unlike today, when wearing vintage is considered both coolly sophisticated and environmentally conscience, donning secondhand clothing in the 1980s branded the wearer with a distinct air of the alternative. Those were the days of Laura Ashley and the Gap and Jessica McClintock. While it’s true, at least in the 80s, that vintage clothing became more socially acceptable through the influence of movies like Pretty in Pink and images of pop culture stars like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, it still wasn’t something that many teenagers and college students openly embraced.
Not too long ago, I read a quote by Diana Vreeland that really struck me. “I always say I hope to God I die in a town with a good tailor…” No one has taught me more about the transformative power of adapting clothing to the wearer’s specifications than my beloved tailor, Tatyana. Hailing from Kazakhstan, where her sartorial training included engineering, Tatyana has a fundamental knowledge of construction and a grave regard for fit. Although proper fit is generally acknowledged as the hallmark of notable style, most people would never buy anything secondhand that required alteration; for them it is too great a chore. But I am convinced there may be some readers who, like me, derive satisfaction from the process. The allure of vintage lies in its ability to speak to both memory and metamorphosis: you are able to quite literally take a garment that is too big and perhaps too evocative of another era (think mountainous Working Girl shoulders) and reshape it into something that harmonizes with the present. Rather than a destructive act, the tailoring process celebrates the past, and reincarnates it, washed free of any melancholic nostalgia.
I don’t think I am fooling myself when I say tailoring is my greatest luxury; the sea change it affords is deeply gratifying. As a daughter who has had a lifelong fraught relationship with her mother, the collaborative process of alteration is a means of staying connected to the happiest and most cherished times with my mother. Reconstruction of the vintage clothes I buy strikes me as an attempt at understanding, an attempt to control the outcome. It’s as if all the youthful hurt might be redeemed through this simple act of transformation.
Over the span of our twelve-year relationship Tatyana has altered countless vintage blouses and dresses. Each time the result is the same: I recapture both that childhood wonder at watching a garment transform under capable hands and the echo of the lost intimacy with my mother and grandmother. Maybe all along I have been chasing after the traces of this lost relationship, the cuttings and threads of maternal care, of maternal love. And the vintage fabric that is proof it all existed.