I know where I will be will be on Saturday, September 6th – the Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive and Madison Street at the Lyric Opera costume sale. There will be 3,000 items covering everything from chain mail to hats for sale. This event was mentioned in a small piece in The Chicago Tribune, so I’m selfishly hoping not too many people have read it. If I could comfortably wear costumes and wigs every day, I would. I plan to buy something I will probably never wear. I know pretty much nothing about the theater except for seeing a few shows and touring the costume department at the Goodman Theater. It was there that I learned that theatrical places take their costuming very seriously. One of the lovely milliners there, Susan Lemerand, told our group that actors have told her, the more authentic the costume, the better for getting into their character.
As we all know, clothing has long been used in productions to bring the arts to life on stage and in film. Costumes define and can be an extension of the characters. Who can forget Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet dress made from drapes hanging in Tara in Gone With the Wind, John Travolta’s white suit in Saturday Night Fever and the lack of clothes worn by the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes? But did you know that clothes can stand alone as art pieces? I went to an MFA show a couple of years ago at the SAIC and there was a performance/installation piece with two artists who were deconstructing wool sweaters and then taking the yarn and knitting it into new garments. The action of deconstructing and reconstructing the sweaters was the piece.
This concept of clothes being art caused me to troll the web where I came across a great story about a show in Austin, Texas. Clothes Stories is an installation by Johnny Walker. He acquires clothes from Goodwill and sets them out on tables and invites the public to pick an item and write a true or fictional story about it. The pieces are then hung up and displayed with their stories attached on tags. Later, the clothes, with tags attached, are brought back to Goodwill to continue into the next chapter of their lives. I hope Mr. Walker travels to Chicago to do a Clothes Stories installation here.
Clothes have always been a trouble spot for me. I’ve struggled with my weight for years and approaching my closet is always fraught with peril. Will I find something to wear that I feel good in? Will it fit? Do I look fat? So in order to alleviate some of this anxiety I took to wearing pink everyday. It is my favorite color, I look good in it, I feel good in it and it makes shopping more streamlined (I only buy pink tops, shoes and accessories). Has it made me thinner? No. But wearing pink has given me fewer choices to agonize over. I also kind of feel like I’m living my art.
After doing the pink thing for a year, I discovered that there are other people who also wear only one color. The New York Times published a piece, One is the Lovliest Color, showcasing five people who dress monochromatically from head to toe. They all had various reasons for wearing the colors but it clearly was a compulsion that became a way of life. As I’ve entered my second year of this endeavor I’m considering setting up a pink background and photographing my journey, perhaps in reverse, as I work my way back into the mainstream.
A twist on the one-color-for-a-year is the idea of wearing one dress for a year as Sheena Matheiken did with her Uniform Project in 2009. She wore one dress for an entire year but allowed herself to jazz it up with vintage, used or donated accessories. She raised $100,000 doing this for the Akanksha Foundation, which provides education to children living in Indian slums. If you look through the 365 pictures of her, you’d never know it was only one dress. Amazing what you can do with accessories.
Clothes always tell a story. Look down at what you are wearing. The designer who created your shirt or dress was inspired by something; it could have been the sparkle on the ocean, modern architecture or Victorian era undergarments. How do I know this? I took a few fashion classes at the SAIC. I wanted to learn how to sew better and signed up for Annie Novotny’s Intro to Fashion, Body and Garment class and had no idea what I was getting myself into. It turned out that I had to design an entire line of clothes!
I nearly had a heart attack when she gave us this assignment. How was I going to find inspiration, do sketches, make patterns, get fabric, cut out my patterns, learn how to sew and then sew five outfits in sixteen weeks? It turns out that we only had to make a skirt but we did have to create drawings for the other outfits. I picked “post apocalypse” as my theme and gathered images from two movies, Mad Max, starring Mel Gibson and Omega Man starring Charlton Heston as well as images from Russian artist, Vladimir Manyuhin, which I cut out and glued into my vision book.
I determined that the ultimate post apocalyptic piece of clothing would be a kilt. Sounds crazy but when the world nearly ends, I would feel comfortable if I had these three clothing items: a leather belt, leather boots and a kilt. A traditional kilt was twenty-four feet long, so you have a garment that can be belted around you on a hot day, wrapped around you on a snowy day, used as a tent, or a giant sling to carry your dog as Don Johnson did, in the 1975 post apocalypse movie, A Boy And His Dog.
My drawings were pretty bad but I did a nice job sewing a plaid and silver (signifying the future) skirt and a long “kilt-like” scarf. I passed the class but realized that designing clothes was not for me. Like with anything you attempt and fail, you develop an appreciation for those who pursue that avenue. I won’t say that I contemplate the inspiration of the clothes I buy but I do appreciate that an artist somewhere, followed his or her dream. I know they spent a lot of time researching the first chapter in the story behind each outfit I wear.
Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer and has been wearing pink everyday for a year and a half. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com