Monday, March 05, 2012

Take it easy

In garment construction, 'ease' (or easement) is the difference between garment measurements and body measurements. It determines how tightly the garment fits, and as the name implies, how easy it is to move in the garment.

There are two kinds of ease – 'wearing ease', which is the amount of ease you need to be comfortable in your clothes; and 'design ease', which is the creation of looseness as an aesthetic choice. According to this chart, wearing ease is generally 6.4 cm (2 1/2") in the bust, 2.5 cm (1") in the waist and 7.6 cm (3") in the hip.

Ease could also be part of various clothing brands' marketing strategies – for instance, sportswear and casual wear might allow more ease than a brand marketed as fashion-forward, whose customers will accept a certain restriction of movement as the trade-off for achieving a very fitted look. I still need to do more research to discover whether different manufacturers have different ideas of wearing ease.

I'll also need to figure out if ease is factored into online size charts, because online shoppers are entitled to expect that if they measure their bodies to decide which size to buy, they should get a good fit.

Online vintage dealer Maggie Wilds consulted her colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild on how much ease to allow when purchasing clothes. Nicole Jenkins of Circa Vintage Clothing recommended an ease of between one and two inches at the waist, with less for smaller sizes and more for larger. Anne Marie Cook of Vintage Baubles recommends that since most movements – walking, sitting, bending – are through the hips, ease is more important there.

Ease, like other size and fit issues, changes over time; for instance, a 1947 Simplicity sewing guide suggests, "About 4 inches larger than bust measurement is usual allowance." My chapter discussing shifts in ideal silhouettes over time will have to address this.

Ease is also a factor in vintage clothes, because these fabrics often don't behave in the same ways we expect of contemporary fabrics. Christina Hendricks' costumes on Mad Men have very little ease – look at how this dress pulls when she lifts her arm. They're also very tailored – look at all the vertical darts on the back of this dress – and made from woven, rather than knitted, fabric – although Joan does wear sweaters, and in season four of the show she begins to wear more jersey and other knitted fabrics.

The vintage dealers consulted by Wilds suggest that fabric is a key factor in ease. Amber of The Vintage Vortex said: “I think if I were wearing a much older item than 1950s I would want more ease for myself as thread and fabric deterioration would be a factor … I think that the age of the garment should also play a part in determining ease.” Meanwhile, Jody of Couture Allure Vintage Fashion added that it's easy to stress the seams of taffetas, satins, and loosely woven fabrics and pull the fabric along vertical seams.

I was thinking about Joan because on Friday night I went to the launch of Australian Modern magazine and decided to wear a dress I altered back in 2010 to wear to a Mad Men costume party. The dress is in a crepe fabric; I bought it from Savers in a very large size, and basically put it on inside-out, pinned it until it was tight enough to recall Joan's costumes, then took it in along the line of pins.

When doing this I allowed more ease through the waist and hips, because I'm self-conscious about this part of my body and wanted the dress to flatter me. But I made it very tight around the bust and turned the skirt from a straight shift to a tapered pencil silhouette.

The consequences of this are that I find it very difficult to walk quickly in the dress, and I have to turn sideways to walk up stairs. Wiggling my hips as I walk really does help me move better. Also, I can't wear it for an entire day or evening, because it quickly becomes uncomfortably tight across my ribs.

Hendricks told UK Glamour magazine that the costumes influence Joan's distinctive wiggly walk: "I think I was just trying to get across the room in that tight dress."

Now I know what she means! But another provocative thought regarding ease is that perhaps we, the contemporary wearers of 'old-fashioned' styles of clothing, have very little idea how to be comfortable in these clothes. We interpret the tightness, the physical discomfort, as markers of authenticity, because we have a teleological idea of history in which things always get better with time. For instance, we think of 19th-century corsets as cruel and oppressive, but what if the historical wearer of a properly fitted corset interpreted that garment's tightness as safe, civilised, 'put-together'?


Josephine Grahl said...

what if the historical wearer of a properly fitted corset interpreted that garment's tightness as safe, civilised, 'put-together'?

I think this must have been the case for some people. My grandmother talks about a 'maternity girdle' and today we think 'a girdle??!??! for a pregnant woman?' but she says actually it was very comfortable - lifting and supportive. I have no idea what it meant for the halth of the foetus though!

Mel said...

Totally! I'm reading a great book at the moment called Bound to Please that is a history of the Victorian corset, and there's an entire chapter about maternity corsets, which were sold as early as 1830 (and patterns were available to make them at home). They had a complex relationship to the pregnancy taboo, in that they simultaneously supported the pregnant body, enabled a woman to participate in public life by minimising the evidence of her pregnancy, and could even be used as a de facto abortifacient for unwelcome pregnancies, given there was a huge stigma on medical or surgical abortion.

Jessamyn said...

Serious reenactors can tell you that a truly well-fitted corset can be a comfortable garment, for many reasons. Fleshy women in particular find them to be comfortably supportive, resting on the hips rather than pulling from the shoulders. And the more flesh you have over your bones, the more easy it is to rearrange it without pain. Also, women who've done reenacting farm work say that a good one works like a construction worker's back belt, providing lumbar support when lifting.

Of course, corset shapes changed dramatically over time, and some are much more oppressive than others, particularly those of the late 19th/very early 20th century, which were quite bad for the back, restrictive of the waist and hips, and completely non-supportive of the bust.

To address your last point, I would say from personal experience that even if a corset is somewhat restrictive, there is a comfort in knowing that I look good and the complex, beautiful clothes I am wearing over it are protected from the kind of rumpling and strain that non-corseted wear puts on very fitted clothes. You simply can't fit clothes to the unaltered body as precisely as you can to a body in good foundations.

I never tight-lace, and I can't tell you how many times people have been surprised to learn I was wearing a corset under a period costume - apparently the popular conception of a corseted figure is quite bizarre. But if I were not wearing that corset, I would not look like I do in that dress: the shape would be wrong, the smoothness would be lacking.