When I entered in high school I was a ridiculously shy kid. I had been horribly bullied as a child and really struggled with having confidence in who I was. As most schools put a huge emphasis on athletics, I always felt somewhat on the outskirts of extracurricular activities because I don’t have an athletic bone in my body (Seriously. I’m tall, but just can’t seem to get the ball through the hoop). But, my high school miraculously put an equal value on sports and the arts. And I discovered theatre – which was kind of like landing on the island of misfit toys (in the very best way).
Though I had done a few smaller shows, the role I remember that really forced me out of my comfort zone was being cast in the musical Carnival. This show was about a young, naive girl who loses her father and happens upon a traveling Carnival, nearly getting lost in the glitz and glamour of a womanizing magician before wising up and staying with the puppeteer who had always loved her. Now, before you think this is the story of “Quiet Girl Gets a Starring Role,” I was not cast in the role of the naive lead. Nor was I playing any other typecast girl-next-door characters. No. This scared rabbit got cast in the role of The Seductress. A belly dancer who has her way with the magician and mesmerizes the crew with her gyrations. Let’s just say nothing forces you out of your shell faster than having to undulate on a box with your friends and family watching. I had to own my fear (and my sexuality) and commit to the role without second guessing myself.
When I put this bespoke carnival-themed skirt on for the first time, handmade for me by the incomparable Rebecca from Girl in a Whirl, I heard the flute start to play those first notes from Carnival. With a roller coaster zipping around in my stomach and the tightrope walker taking that brave step, I could instantly remember taking that first quivering breath each night and walking out onto that stage, shedding my skin and years of fear and insecurity. In truth, that show really was about a young naive girl finding herself. It was just happening backstage as much as on.
I approached Rebecca with an idea for this skirt, born from a true vintage 1950’s circle skirt I’d seen once that was several bags of Doritos too small for me. No one can make embellished circle skirts the way Girl in a Whirl can, and she quickly came back with sketches and excitement. One of the best aspects of working with Girl in a Whirl, is that it’s a fully collaborative project. You go with the idea and your measurements, she comes back with a quote and her way of making it a reality. I have opportunities to make comments and suggestions and then we’re off to the races! I sat in quivering anticipation as each new photo came through my email of the work in progress.
I have so much respect for what Rebecca – and others like her – does. Much like my high school, I see the enormous value in art and in perfecting a craft. Not only is this piece custom made to my exact measurements, with each detail individually embellished and painted, but it’s also machine washable! And Rebecca managed to capture a memory of mine: not just bringing me a beautiful skirt, but bringing me a piece of my past. Whenever a day comes up where something is pushing me out of my comfort zone, I plan to wear this skirt, take a deep breathe, and get my butt out on that stage.
When Mr. Dressed and I were partaking in fondue the other night, we were discussing the devaluing of art. In his field, people feel offended if they have to pay ANYTHING for an app. People even gripe about spending $0.99 on something they might use every day. He said that’s the culture of apps – and of creation – in general. And I find it shocking that the culture of the day seems to be to strive towards getting more for less. Sometimes getting more for nothing at all.
Something I have been seeing a lot lately raging across the internet is a blatant disrespect for artists. Knockoffs of someone’s designs. Haggling over prices of a one-of-a-kind piece. Demanding an artist for a guide on how they do what they do (and getting really angry if they refuse). All of these things add up to essentially devaluing someone’s time and expertise. There’s something really important here – we have become so accustomed to getting things how we want, when we want. In essence, we’re also trained to believe the value of something is what we’re willing to pay for it. On many levels, society craves fast, discardable fashion.
This is the second time I’ve purchased a one of a kind Girl in a Whirl skirt (the first being my most favorite shark skirt!). They are not inexpensive skirts, but I believe in paying for art and quality. And quite frankly, I don’t kid myself into thinking I could ever come close to replicating her talent and skill. But in Rebecca’s business and those like hers, I would not be shocked to know that they are probably inundated every day with hagglers. People who claim their work is overpriced. People who truly believe that they can walk down to Walmart and buy a similar circle skirt, so why should they have to pay for the owner’s skill? And it’s the same for my favorite vintage sellers – Why would someone pay more for an “old” vintage dress from the 1950’s than the 50’s inspired poly-blend dress from the mall? I’m frustrated with this on so many levels, because this is why small business struggle to survive.
For example, my handmade Counterdance dress was a labor of love. In terms of my time, the dress probably took about 10-15 hours to construct (taking into account the cutting and stitching, the fit issues and recutting (eh hem), and pattern matching), plus another 40 hours on the embellishment on the skirt. And I think that’s a conservative estimate (I would probably cry if I counted the actual number of hours). Now, this is not taking into account the time it took me to research and select the fabrics, the cost of the fabric and the embellishments, or the time it took to photograph and write a blog post. This also doesn’t take into account purchasing a high quality sewing machine and overlocker, or the money spent on hours and hours of sewing lessons over the years and the skills I’ve gained through practice. Just going from pure construction time, it was about 55 hours of work. Let’s say for fun I wanted to pay myself a really modest $25 an hour for my time – essentially the construction of this dress cost $1375. Before fabric, machinery, design, and expertise. And that’s just to break even. Suddenly a $150 skirt seems like a major bargain…
Most of us who sew as a hobby (hand waving wildly) have often had friends ask for sewing help. For close friends, I don’t mind at all…but many of us out there have also had the peripheral friend who asks for a custom dress, without really knowing or respecting what goes into making that garment. Or I’ve had people on the street commenting on a dress I’ve made myself, asking if I ever do commission work, commenting how they would “Totally pay $100 bucks for that.” Hmmm. I smiled and said I only sew for fun, but in my head I was thinking, “Come closer to $2500 and I might consider it.” It speaks to a culture that makes me a bit sad. Because somewhere along the way we stopped valuing true art. From the shy girl who learned to recognize her self-worth through art, we need to protect our artists and the beautiful things they create.
I will forever be grateful for having such a healthy dose of art so early in my life, that has carried with me through to adulthood (Hamilton tickets, I’ve got my eye on you). It wasn’t just that it helped me be comfortable in my own skin, it gave me an appreciation for the time it takes to create something from nothing. When I sew, it forces me into a state of delayed gratification. Not right now, my way, my price – but something that has to be earned, stitch by stitch.
So if any of my fellow artists are reading this: we appreciate your art and we appreciate you. What you make is amazing and worthy of being valued. And if any of my fellow appreciators of art are reading this: Consider (or continue) shopping small. Visit your community theatre. Support your local artists and hobbyists. Think about how much more value you will get out of a one-of-a-kind skirt that costs $150 over a $15 skirt that will fall apart after one wash (where the seamstress who made it was probably not paid a fair wage).
And most importantly, remember to celebrate you. Uniquely awesome, never-to-be-imitated, you.
Skirt: Handmade by Girl in a Whirl
Top: Pinup Girl Clothing
Necklace: Tatty Devine
Bracelet: thrifted from Bindaring (similar)
Handbag: gift, Olga Berg (similar here & here)
Lip Color: M.A.C. Ruby Woo