Clothes have long been thought to be a mere projection of your professional qualifications: “the clothes make the [man].” Today they speak volumes about one’s ethics, resourcefulness and self-determination—mostly in absentia, and in a register largely unheard.
I’ve thought this after half a lifetime of collecting workwear and international military surplus. Like workwear, surplus is tailored to fit the average service man (here, like “service revolver”) in a given position. Slender men like myself will be swaddled in excess fabric, but a man of girth could just as easily wear the same jacket. There is a democratic quality to this clothing seen at “mass” department stores like Macy’s; everything can be worn, but nothing fits. The every man cut fits no one man, and this is to say nothing of women, particularly in ethnic variations of silhouette.
But fashion now parrots the conventions of workwear and militaria, with such success that the imitation has eclipsed its origins. Yesterday I mistook a jacket in the office closet for a Carhartt because it was identical but for the rivets, which were flat, cheap and polished. Close enough, right?
This state of affairs reflects the etiolated self-sufficiency of Gen X and Gen Y. I can barely sew on a button, so I put a sewing machine on my wedding registry. It’s time to learn, and Etsy has Craft Night and classes at their Brooklyn Labs if I can’t figure it out otherwise.
Most of what I’ve bought new in the past few years has been made outside of China/India, or military surplus. Even my suit is a union-made Hickey, albeit bought at a sample sale. A sewing machine would allow me to repurpose well-made old or ill-fitting new clothes: The cut of U.S. clothes makes me look like a scarecrow on chemotherapy. I could buy U.S. made and quickly stitch in some more continental tailoring, or do the same with surplus. Don’t make what can be fixed; the world is bursting with the demi-used. Given the quality of mainstream new things and the ethical conundra behind them (e.g. child & dissident labor, environmental impacts of tanning leather, supporting scorched-earth market dynamics), I hope to offer some models of how to reclaim our forebears’ utilitarian aesthetic of workwear and surplus while simultaneously learning new skills and interpreting today’s tailoring. I will also test the efficacy and colorfastness of Earth Safe Finishes’ dyes against the olive green that makes military surplus so unpalatable to some. Stay tuned.