Natalie Chanin: Getting Undressed

ColumnNatalie Chanin’s bi-weekly column, Material Witness, offers a seasoned designer’s perspective on the fashion industry, textile history and what happens when love for community trumps all.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin and speak at the Hello Etsy conference. Every speaker was incredible and the amount of information and energy that was present during each presentation was astounding. I think that it will take me weeks to process the incredible passion that fueled those days (and nights) in Berlin. It is almost impossible, at present, to string together a cohesive thought as the ideas are still swirling in my mind; however, I keep coming back, over and over again to Charty Durant’s talk and the images she used to illustrate her ideas.

Charty is a former fashion editor of the Sunday Times, The Observer, and British Vogue and a lecturer at the London College of Fashion. Early in her talk, she reminded us that “Our love of adornment and artistry is uniquely human. Other animals don’t do it– you don’t see tigers walking around wearing earrings. It is as natural and necessary to us as breathing. It really is. How can this joyful human expression be driving our destruction?”

She goes on to talk about two photographs that were taken around the turn of the last century: “I love this picture. This is by Henri Lartigue, the great master who documented the last century. It is a picture of his family members. So, this was the beginning of the 19th century. And you can see here that women are wearing corsets, full gowns, very, very complicated stuff. It was the Victorian era.”

“But, you know twenty years later, they looked like this.”

Charty goes on to explain that in this twenty-year span, women went from the extreme constrictions of Victorian purity to “no underwear, suntans, and short hair.” She correctly states, “That is an extraordinary expression of how fast society went in a
twenty year period.”

Around the turn of this new century, I find the promise of such a leap heartening as I think about the throngs of samples now being presented globally in the name of seasonal fashion. The funny thing about seasons now is that there are so many of
them! We went from the four seasons we all know: spring, summer, winter and fall to additional fashion seasons with names like Holiday 1, Holiday 2, Cruise 1, Cruise 2, Pre-Fall, Spring 1, Spring 2, etc.

How encouraging to think that something that was so ingrained – the Victorian-era vision of the perfect woman – melted away in twenty short years into women’s freedom of living a more undressed life. The thought of that sweeping change gives me
incredible hope that the rapidly growing fashion industry will evolve one day soon, too.

Charty also pointed out that our fashion has changed so little in the last twenty years. It feels to me that we are caught up in a Victorian-like cycle of ever-developing seasons (with ever growing closets) that could possibly evolve any moment into a more humane, beautiful and forward-thinking fashion perspective. During her presentation, Charty talked about the joy of longing as she saved her money to purchase a beautiful chandelier from an antique store. She explained that she was not able to afford the piece but went back to the store over and over again to admire its beauty. The shop keeper saw her longing and agreed to sell it to her over time. During the months that she put away funds to buy it, she built a story, a relationship, a conversation with that product and she still loves that piece today. So it could be with fashion as well: we could long and want and save to get that piece that we will be proud to wear in 20 years.

I see our society moving towards a period of undressing. Charty’s comparison between the austere Victorian woman and the freedom of the modern woman is relevant in today’s world. I am beginning to witness such an undressing, a peeling away of cheap layers and transitional garments coupled with a return to the idea that quality clothing can last a lifetime. This undressing also includes the principles of sustainability and slow design. I see the undressing as a sexy and beautiful act, one that truly represents who we are as women today.

My grandmother had two dresses as she was growing up: one for every day of the week and one for Sunday. I am not suggesting that this is practical in our modern lives. My love for clothes could never survive such austerity in my closet. I prefer the thought of longing, saving, receiving and then savoring. As part of her Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin recently sent out this Bertrand Russell quote: “He forgets that to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”

Charty said at the beginning of her speech, “I spent 25 years in the fashion industry. I love fashion. I love creativity. I love the beauty and the passion of the industry. The thing I love most about fashion is that it’s a haven for eccentrics and mavericks – and long remained so.” I feel the same way.

Someone recently told me that they wanted to be buried in an Alabama Chanin garment. And, I can’t tell you how proud that makes me – but I hope that she will also wear the piece while she is alive. Wear it a lot. Because the true beauty of our garments lies in the fact that they grow more beautiful with each wearing.

Natalie Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of three books including Alabama Stitch Book  (2008), Alabama Studio Style (2010) and the upcoming Alabama Studio Sewing + Design which comes out spring 2012. Look for her bi-weekly column, Material Witness here and follow her on Facebook and her own blog at Alabama Chanin.

Top Image: Pennyspitter


Natalie Chanin

Natalie “Alabama” Chanin is owner and designer of the American couture line Alabama Chanin and author of Alabama Stitch Book (STC – February 2008), Alabama Studio Style (STC – March 2010) and Alabama Studio Sewing + Design (STC – Spring 2012).