St. Charles Borromeo
A little while back, I was talking with a friend about how sewing my own clothes has changed the way I think about my body. You see, I think in our society we tend to judge our bodies by the way they fit into clothes. When we try something on that doesn’t look right, we don’t think that the clothes are wrong, we think that our body is wrong. It’s not, “Oh, this top is too small in the upper chest, and doesn’t have the right fullness across the back,” but, “Wow, my arms are fat.” We think that the problem is that our butt is too big, or too flat, or we have our mother’s thighs, and never stop to think that maybe the pants are badly cut or designed. Then, since we live in a society that equates conforming to a particular physical ideal with virtue, we beat ourselves up in a thousand different ways. It’s almost a kind of psychosis – like trying to shove a square peg through a round hole, and then blaming the square for not being round enough. It never occurs to us that maybe, instead of changing our bodies to fit the clothes, perhaps we might want to change the clothes to fit our bodies.
One of the side effects of sewing clothes for yourself, learning more about how clothes ought to fit, and confronting the challenge of getting clothes to fit properly is a deep familiarity with all the ways your body is not like any other. Moreover, it becomes clear that every one of these deviations has a name, and usually an unflattering one: swayback, widow’s hump, a broad upper back, being short-waisted or long-waisted, or whatever (body shaming has deep roots, yo). At first it can be rather daunting, seeing there in black and white what your actual measurements are. Your body is not just like every other body, and is not anything like the mythical ideal we’re all supposed to conform to. That can be hard to deal with.
But then this amazing thing happens. Your measurements become just your measurements, neither wrong nor right, just yours. They’re numbers that tell you how to adjust a particular pattern. There are ways to fix your sewing project, right from the very beginning, so that when it’s finished, you have something that fits you. And I mean really fits you. Doesn’t bunch or shift, or have weird lines, doesn’t make you pull on the waist or tug on the sleeves, or go around trying to remember to suck in your gut all day. Little by little, you stop thinking of your body as this problem object that makes perfectly nice clothes look bad. Instead, you think of your body as a perfectly nice one, which happens to not look so good when the clothes you put on it don’t fit properly.
Another side effect is that, even as you know your precise measurements more intimately than you ever have before, you stop identifying yourself with a particular clothing size. Sizes aren’t all that helpful anymore, since what Company A calls a size X has little relation to what Company B thinks size X is, and neither one is anything close to what a particular sewing pattern is labeling as size X either. And then, when you’re making a dress with the bodice size C, the skirt size B, and the sleeves size F, what size do you call the finished garment? All you can say is that it’s you-sized, and leave it at that. Ironically, while I could tell you my waist measurement, my high bust and full bust, shoulder width, arm length and circumference at bicep, elbow and wrist, I’m not completely sure what conventional size I wear anymore. Which is just fine with me.
A good example of this is the project I’m working on tonight. I have a long-sleeved shirt in my wardrobe, made of soft, thick cotton knit. I’d love to wear it under some of my work clothes this winter. However, the shirt has never fit me quite right. It rides up at the waist unless I continually tug it down, exposing a cold and unattractive slice of skin. The sleeves are too short, making my wrists stick out awkwardly. Between trying to either pull the sleeves down or push them up, and tugging on the waist, I always felt distracted, frumpy, and unattractive.
Before I would have thought dark thoughts about pudginess, and freakishly long arms. Now I know that the actual problem is that the shirt is not cut to allow for a larger than average chest (which is why it always rode up in front, but never in back), and the sleeves are on the skimpy side. It’s not my body, it’s the shirt. So I’m widening the crew neck into a wide scoop, which lets it sit lower on my shoulders and solves the waist issue, and turning the too-short sleeves into outright 3/4 length sleeves. Just like that, I’ll have a shirt that’s attractive, doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable, and fits like it should. Which is rather a marvelous thing.