FFB: Handmade Clothes and Social Class

The Feminist Fashion Bloggers theme for this month is Feminism, Fashion, and Social Class, and I’m looking at handmade clothing as an indicator of social class (namely, middle class). I believe Laura is also writing about something similar – great minds think alike, apparently! All the FFB posts are up at the group site. For the purposes of this post, I’m limited my discussion to the 20th and 21st centuries, since before the sewing machine was commonplace and available to a wide section of the population. Obviously before then, all clothing was handmade and this discussion isn’t particularly relevant.

There’s several broad tiers of clothing, grouped roughly by class. There’s high street fast fashion, which, in a race to the bottom, has quickly become the cheapest, most available, and most ubiquitous type of clothing. There’s designer clothing in the middle, which is increasingly out of reach (or unappealing, due to the saturation of the market by cheaper clothing), and way up at the top there’s the couture houses, which are available nearly only to the upper classes or the well connected. Handmade clothing has broken down roughly in two: there’s clothing that’s handmade, typically by the wearer or someone close to the wearer, and there’s clothing that the wearer has paid someone else to make for them. The economic split is pretty obvious – paying someone else to make your clothes is more expensive than just making it yourself.

This is shifting now, with the rise in popularity of home sewing (as well as knitting, crafting, and other domestic activities). But the rise in popularity is not evenly spaced – it’s primarily risen among the middle and to a lesser degree, the upper classes, and I think the biggest reason is a matter of resources: making your own clothes is time consuming and can be very expensive, particularly if you are starting from scratch and need a machine and all the bits and bobs that go along with sewing. Middle and upper class people certainly have more money to invest in a sewing machine and assorted tchotchkes, so there’s less of a barrier for starting to sew. While I started sewing because I thought I could make clothes more cheaply than I could buy them, I soon realized that this really wasn’t true. Fabric, and especially fabric that most people would want to wear, is not necessarily cheap. Add in the thread, zippers/buttons/clasps, interfacing, and it all adds up very quickly. But if you can make a hobby out of it, and sew as much because you like it as you like the end result, it’s worth it, but that balance is highly income-dependent.

There’s another layer that I’ve not seen discussed much, and that is that people who’re solidly middle class aren’t trying to avoid class stigma. There’s not the equation of clothing with status symbol (and pressure to show that status) that can be found in the upper class, and there’s not a pressure to not look poor, as there can be in the lower class. There’s space, in the middle class, to wear clothing that doesn’t look quite as exact as store-bought clothing, be it the top stitching is wonky or the pockets aren’t quite even or somehow it just looks homemade. An upper class person may be judged by their peers for wearing shoddy clothing when better is available, a lower class person may be judged by conforming to a negative image of poverty (ie, not being one of the “deserving poor,” which is a whole other kettle of fish for another day), but someone who moves through the world as middle class probably has a bit more leeway. Sewing has a significant learning curve – there will be garments that just, for whatever reason, look homemade.

I see a lot of parallels between the rise of domestic textile arts (sewing, knitting, etc) to trends in food culture (slow food movements, organic food movements, urban agriculture, etc), as well, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The trends seem both to be main among youngish, middle classish people, who likely weren’t raised predominantly in homemade clothing and food from the garden. To these people (and to some degree I’m one of them – I’m not trying to sound disparaging here) homemade clothing and food doesn’t have the emotional or cultural baggage that it did to our parents, many of whom saw moving away from that as a sign prosperity and progress. Now, we (ie, youngish middle-classish people) look at those same things, and in light of fast fashion and food, handcrafted goods and homegrown foods are a sign of propserity and progress. We regard reverting to less complicated, less produced goods as progress, which is pretty unusual in modern history. That all this is coinciding with a lot of ethical and environmental movements is not, I don’t think, a coincidence either, but that’s sort of taking things in another direction so I’ll leave that there.

I’m curious what you all think about this, though. What sort of clothing do you, personally, see as a luxury? How does that fit in within your community?

Editor’s Note: Magnificent Millie’s post originally appeared on her incredibly awesome blog, Interrobangs Anonymous, which you should totally be reading.

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Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

2 thoughts on “FFB: Handmade Clothes and Social Class”

  1. I can tell you, here in suburban Georgia, having handmade is something to brag about for 2 reasons. Handmade items (where I live) are slightly more expensive than their department store counterparts and ‘handmade’ is easily (and intentionally) confused with custom-made. Also, (again, where I live) if you make your own clothing there is this presumption that you must be some kind of a ‘home-crafting’ genius who has re-discovered the lost art of sewing. So, to sum it all up – handmade is cool.

  2. Thank you for expressing this so clearly. I have wondered at the popularity of “homesteading”, even as I embrace it.

    I make a lot of my own clothing, and have noticed another aspect of the generational divide. My mother grew up poor, and had some clothes made for her as a girl. Now, when she sees my garments, she comments on how ‘fancy’ I’m making them. I see my sewing as a intellectual challenge, and if I am going to put in the time, I want it to fit perfectly and look exactly right. This goes completely against the background my mother had, where clothes were made to be worn, and the details were not important.

    I have also seen this in older women who see me knitting decorative socks. These women once had to knit the socks for all their family, and the idea of doing it as a hobby, just for fun, is just strange to them.

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