“Crafting” the dress, the design sketch in the background
“Made to measure”, as practiced throughout Melbourne by various fashion businesses clustered around different geographic locales exemplify some of the attributes of “emotional durability” and “slow fashion”; ideas central to design for sustainability. The design of Zoe’s dress, employing the made to measure model, evolved like a story with designer, wearer and intermediaries contributing to a customised and appropriately executed narrative.
Made to measure is practiced in Melbourne most prolifically by the bridal couturiers of High Street, Armadale south of the river and Sydney Road, Brunswick to the north. Over time, the value we place in these types of services has dropped. This might be due to our waning domestic dressmaking skills, making us less appreciative of the workmanship involved, or the proliferation of ever-cheaper ready to wear. An article from The Age blames polyester dresses from China. I don’t buy into the “blame China” argument; firstly because very high quality, expensive garments are also made in China alongside cheap poor quality ones, and secondly because it implies that we are powerless idiots who will buy whatever is put in front of us. I like to believe we are more intelligent than that. Humour me. Suffice to say, for a combination of reasons, the made to measure fashion system invokes polarised viewpoints. On the one hand, the dresses are unjustifiably expensive and on the other they are the stuff of dreams for a day when only the best will do.
Made to measure is also practiced by a range of other designers. Toni Maticevski has spent the five years since last showing at RAFW “on his diffusion line for Myer … as well as private commissions” while in Fitzroy, a diverse range of designers such as Gwendolynne, Preston Zly and Richard Nylon create fashion and accessories that is made to measure, customised or collaborative in nature.
First fitting. Measurements are take, exact colours are discussed, proportions and amendments to the design are discussed.
Emotional durability is the idea that a garment will last because of its emotional connection with the wearer, rather than because of its physical durability. Arguably, a special occasion dress doesn’t need much of either emotional or physical durability as it’s only to be worn once, but if we use this dress as a metaphor for fashion practice in general it’s interesting to consider the ways in which made to measure encapsulates the ideals of emotional durability. In the case of Zoe’s dress, the aspect of the design and making process that could foster emotional durability was the engagement of all parties in a co design process of a dress for one specific person and event.
In recent conversations with designers and stylists in regards to fashion for red carpet events, a sentiment that has come up a few times is that someone was “disappointed” with the outcome of what they wore the previous year. However, a well executed made to measure design process functions like a well told story with designer, wearer and other intermediaries engaged in the process sharing in the evolution of the narrative. Disappointment at the ending is difficult to imagine as each person has witnessed or contributed to the story along the way.
Second fitting. A toile is fitted, dyed fabric are viewed and the placement of the geometric shapes discussed.
This notion of “narrative” is one “experiential framework” suggested by Jonathan Chapman as an approach to design for (emotional) durability. “Users share a unique personal history with the product; this often relates to when, how, and from whom the object was acquired.”¹ Furthermore Hazel Clark lists “transparent production systems and less intermediation between producers and consumers” as one characteristic of fashion that might be considered under the banner of “slow fashion”, an idea currently very popular in sustainable fashion circles. “More transparent production systems and less intermediation also provide greater opportunities for collaborations between designer, producer, and user, which, in turn, can bring new deﬁnitions to those roles.”² The made to measure fashion system, while admittedly prohibitively high priced for an entire wardrobe, nonetheless achieves on a theoretical level these objectives of design for sustainability.
What do I like about the made to measure design process? On a creative level, I like the negotiation of the design throughout the process, the way a design is open to change right up until it is worn. From a communication perspective, the skills required in the design process are very different to ready to wear designing. Explanation, empathy, consideration, listening, all these have to be finely tuned to put the client at ease. I like the way relationships with people are mediated through the dress. Other people might forge new relationships through their kids, jobs, food. For me, I like being able to do it through a dress. And from the production perspective, I like the way the dress is “crafted”. I draw on my accumulated experience of the properties of each fabrics to know how to piece the sections together. In the case of Zoe’s dress, the design differed quite a bit to the unstructured dresses I have been making, so it was a combination of remembering old skills, research and experimentation.
Third fitting. The dress is partially made up, and tried on with shoes and jewellery. It’s missing a zip at the back and the beaded pieces are mostly pinned in place onto a tear-away vilene backing. The hem is marked with pins and a finished measurement for the belt is taken.
For Zoe’s dress, the process involved a series of sketches followed by four fittings. Zoe’s dress began with the ideas I’d been working on, combined with the brief she gave me, then the design was funnelled through a refinement process to take into account feedback from Zoe and a stylist until a final design was agreed on. Then began the process of making. One thing I really enjoyed was the excitement of everyone involved throughout. I think I expected jaded Logies veterans, but the team at Channel Seven seemed to really enjoy the process. A comment that came up often was that this dress was so “Zoe”. I got the very strong impression that everyone felt that it was the fact that the dress had been designed with the exact wearer in mind that made it successful.
Fourth fitting. The gown is largely finished but for the belt and the hem, and some pieces still need to be sewn in place. It is finished and delivered to channel seven the day of the event!
¹Chapman, J. 2009. Design for (emotional) durability. Design Issues, 25, 29-35.
²Clark, H. 2008. SLOW + FASHION – an Oxymoron – or a Promise for the Future…? Fashion Theory, 12, 427-446.