Book | The Thoughtful Dresser By Linda Grant

Published in 2009, The Thoughtful Dresser anticipates the avalanche of disposable fast fashion and the decline in quality of the contents of our wardrobe. Linda Grant considers 'What fashion is, it's significance, and why clothes matter' as she strips back the reasons we actually wear clothes, why they matter so very much, from the practical need to cover up to protect ourselves from climate, cultural shame and personal embarrassment to the desire to adorn ourselves for the sheer pleasure of seeing ourselves transformed by fabric, the cut of a garment and it's embellishment, to dressing to send out signals about our place in the world.

As Grant explores the concepts of shopping, age appropriate clothes, shoes, handbags and the ideal body, she weaves in the compelling story of Catherine Hill, an Auschwitz survivor, who had an internationally respected career in fashion, pioneering the introduction of European fashion designers into North America. This is an enjoyable device, almost delivering two books in one, providing the reader with an individual journey of the meaning of clothes in Catherine Hill's life, parallel to a meander amongst the other themes.

The Thoughtful Dresser is an antidote to the fickle world of fast fashion as Linda Grant acknowledges our love of fashion; 'People like variety in their clothes. They want the latest fashion. This is to do with the twin desires for pleasure and for change.' She also sincerely believes, as do I, that clothes tell the story of our lives and that if you gathered together all the clothes you'd ever worn you'd have your autobiography. She talks about clothes as being a loyal comrade 'they comfort and protect us; they allow us to be who we want to be... I'm here for you, it says. Don't worry, we'll get through this day together.'.

Rarely does fast fashion hold more than a temporary position in our lives – by design, it is not made to last or has anything about it from which could develop a fond attachment. Ultimately, The Thoughtful Dresser is a reminder of how we use to think about the clothes in our wardrobe and how we valued their role, be it as clothes we could depend on to serve us whatever the occasion or a special number that would absolutely make us feel the best about ourselves. And the good thing is, we can choose to have that profound relationship with clothes once again.

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Preferably, order The Thoughtful Dresser through your local independent bookshop, but it's also available on amazon.

All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor (Shirt)

Story of Our Kinsale Shirt

 
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
smell the sea, and feel the sky
let your soul & spirit fly, into the mystic...
— Van Morrison

Our Kinsale shirt is inspired by the tradition of the sailor suit, but how did the universally recognised sailors apparel, particularly the sailor collar, come about in the first place?

In the beginning, there was no official uniform for seamen, they would have worn their own clothes and being away at sea for so so long, they tended to let their hair grow.  Sailors used grease or tar to hold their long hair in place so that it didn't get in the way as they worked. There wasn't much opportunity for bathing or laundering on a ship, so to protect their clothing from the tar, they wore a piece of cloth over their shoulders which became known as a 'tar flap'.

Eventually, the naval forces formalised the dress code and although sailors were no longer allowed long hair,  the tradition of the tar flap was incorporated into the uniform with the sailor collar that we know today.  Due to the perilousness of the sea, sailors were (and perhaps still are) a superstitious lot and it may have seemed prudent to retain the collar, in spite of it's original function having become obsolete.   Even nowadays, it can be considered good luck to touch the collar of a sailor.

The archetypal dress of a sailor with the flap collar, neckerchief and bell bottom trousers has a singular look, conjuring lively sailors disembarking their ships after months journeying away at sea before returning to shore. There's a romance and mystery to the look of the classic sailor uniform, unlike anything a land-locked civilian might ordinarily wear, evoking the exotic and adventure, an irresistible combination.  

 
source: Twisted Limbs and Crooked Branches

source: Twisted Limbs and Crooked Branches

source: Authentic French Fashions of the Twenties

source: Authentic French Fashions of the Twenties

There's something inescapably appealing about uniforms in general and the sailor suit has long been referenced in the styling details of clothing for us non sea fairing folk, initially being popularised in the 1800s in women's fashion as well as young boys dress, hence the popularity of the sailor suit for page boys at weddings.

source: Chanel, Couture and Industry

source: Chanel, Couture and Industry

Around 1913, the French designer, Gabrielle Chanel rebelled against the accentuated feminine shape that had long prevailed in women clothing, with it's restrictive corsetry.  The fashion was for women to wear dresses which were boned to create a tiny waist, and an exaggerated bust and hips and inevitably this constrained movement as well as requiring someone to assist with all those fastenings and laces.  

Chanel  designed clothes with a relaxed cut, taking elements from mens clothing, including mens workwear which had a more utilitarian feel and was eminently more practical.  She also utilised fabrics never before thought of as suitable for women clothing; knitted jersey in wool or silk was mostly used for sports and beach wear and in it's natural colour state, for mens undergarments.  During the war, traditional fabrics were in short supply as they were used for uniforms, so it was easy step to persuade people of the necessity of turning to jersey clothing, which helped revolutionised the comfort and practicality of womenswear.

Gabrielle Chanel (above) in 1913 wearing her own clothing designs, of a heavy jersey sweater with sailor style collar and linen skirt.  At the time, it would have been  unusual for a woman's garment to be pulled over the  head and years later, American Vogue commented "To many rich women, the charm of Chanel lay in the remarkable fact that they could dress themselves without anyone's help." 

In more recent times, to mark her engagement at Buckingham Palace, Princess Diana wore a navy ensemble complete with a white sailor collar blouse and red ribbon bow.  It is thought this was a nod to the traditional dress once worn by younger members of the royal family since the times of Queen Victoria and Czar Nicholas.

What we think of as a sailor suit is now mostly worn by junior servicemen and only on ceremonial occasions and has been replaced by a modern boiler suit style uniform for everyday wear.  The traditional uniform with sailor collar designed to protect clothing from tar and the bell bottom trousers, practical for rolling up when scrubbing the ship's decks, has been updated to meet the requirements of modern day life in the Navy. However it lives on, providing inspiration in clothing design, to be reinterpreted and re-configured again and again.

source: Diana, Her Life in Fashion

source: Diana, Her Life in Fashion


Detail of the Kinsale shirt in pure cotton with carved mother-of-pearl buttons

Detail of the Kinsale shirt in pure cotton with carved mother-of-pearl buttons

Our Kinsale Shirt borrows the sailor collar from the traditional naval uniform as well as referencing the twenties, when women's clothing became more androgynous, adapting the fit to suit a contemporary femininity.  This version with three quarter length sleeves is in a beautiful, fine cotton jacquard of elephant grey with brick red and ochre patterned stripes.

Linen As An Ethical Fabric

How much do we know about the fabric our clothes are made of and it's environmental impact? Looking at the labels in our clothes will tell us whether they are made of natural fibres like cotton or wool or from synthetic fabrics derived from petrochemicals, such as nylon and polyester. There are various aspects to consider when understanding how ethical a fabric is, including the use of pesticides and fertilizers, water consumption and the pollution caused by treatments such as dying and printing the fabric. Fabrics made from petrochemicals are highly polluting and the production of these fabrics is a named cause of global warming; nitrous oxide is release during the manufacture of nylon and is a known powerful greenhouse gas. In addition they are non-biodegradable which means they don't break down easily and remain in landfill for centuries after they've been dumped.

Irish Linen

Linen is one of the worlds oldest fabrics, dating back to 8000BC and the antithesis of nylon, polyester and other synthetics. It is believed that the flax plant, from which linen is made, was grown in Ireland as far back as 1000BC and there is certainly evidence that Irish linen clothing existed 2000 years ago. Linen clothing must have been widely worn by the population of Ireland in the 16th Century as Henry VIII wrote to the town of Galway telling them to cease using excess amounts in their shirts and smocks and the limit was set at 7 yards per garment. However, the decree was mostly ignored and up to 30 yards of linen was often incorporated and was very likely a necessary means to keeping warm in the damp Irish climate (although 30 yards seems like a huge amount for one smock).

Irish Linen

Up to the early 1800's, Ireland was self -sufficient in growing flax for linen, but good cultivation practices were neglected and the quality suffered. Supplies of superior flax became available from Europe after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars and flax began to be imported from Belgium and Germany from this time. During the 20th Century, the arrival of man made fabrics caused linen to be regarded as old fashioned and demand for linen clothing fell. It was only at the latter part of the century that interest was revived in natural fibre fabrics and Irish Linen's unique quality appreciated. Nowadays, the term Irish Linen refers to fabric that has been woven or knitted in Ireland and contemporary Irish Linen is acknowledge worldwide as being of the highest quality

Irish Linen

Irish linen isn't certified organic, but it's ethical credentials are good. The flax used is brought in from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which means the workers and the environment are protected by EU laws regarding working conditions, pay and ecological impact. And the carbon footprint is low compared to importing the raw material from countries on the other side of the world. The cultivation of flax uses much less water and fewer pesticides than cotton. After harvesting, the crop is laid out in fields to 'ret' allowing the linen fibres to naturally separate, the seeds are removed and used for cattle cake or linseed oil and the bark is used for chipboard - no part of the flax plant is wasted.  These are welcome practices for sustainability.

The fibres in linen fabric are very strong making it highly resistant to tearing and it's stability as a fabric means that garments retain their shape and don't shrink. The reason linen is so popular in summer is that it's light and cool to wear and conveniently absorbs perspiration, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be worn all year round. Linen clothes are easy to launder and will withstand numerous washes as the fabric actually becomes stronger when wet. If correctly looked after, linen clothing has the potential to last a very long time, which combined with coming from a renewable resource and being biodegradable, makes it an ultimate sustainable fabric.

A characteristic of linen is that it creases easily, although new technology is developing different finishes which are 'easier' to care for. The wrinkles identify linen as linen and you either love the look or you don't. I was brought up to think that creases were undesirable and fabrics that creased should be avoided or repeatedly ironed - perhaps the result of how the 'new' synthetic fabrics were marketed, back in the day. However, I've come to love the creases in linen; when you first put on a freshly laundered linen garment it's crisp and a little stiff. After an hour, the first creases stand out like lone footprints in the sand. By the end of the day, the garment has softened, draping in a way that only linen does with tiny, multiple creases that crisscross, reflecting the life lived that day. Of course, polyester doesn't crease and never needs ironing, but where is the sense of history and charm in that?

Irish Linen is durable, but it's durability is meaningless unless we rethink our attitude to clothes shopping and how we regard our clothes. The number of clothes that we buy has increased massively in recent decades. Clothes shopping has evolved so that buying as many items for as little as possible has become something to boast about. The reality is that we've been persuaded by clothing brands and the media that this buying habit is a good thing, something to be commended, but the reality is that it's not right; in so many ways, it's really not ok. We need to begin valuing each individual garment in our wardrobe, starting by choosing something that we truly love wearing, then taking care of how we launder and maintain it when it needs repairing. It is a different way of thinking about the clothes we own and Irish Linen, with it's heritage and elegance, should merit a place.