Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Coat Route

Let's start out the new year by talking about books. It's pretty appropriate because I spent a good chunk of yesterday just reading. It was wonderful. I also stayed up far too late in the evening (early morning?) reading as well. What absorbed my attention? Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. It is the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey series and is far more novel than mystery. If you haven't read it, be sure to start with the other books in the series, first. In order to really enjoy and appreciate it, you have to know Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. A warning, though. I'm pretty sure the series would never get published today. Dorothy Sayers was a proponent of a classical education and was extremely well-educated herself. As a result, there are chunks in her books in Latin, Greek, and French. The Latin I can get one or two words of, none of the Greek, and I can make a passable attempt at the French. She doesn't ever translate, but you can appreciate (and understand) the books without it... you just have know ahead of time it will make you feel somewhat small in regards to your education. Unless, of course, you do read Latin, Greek, and French.

But that's not really the book I want to discuss right now. Another book I finished reading over the holidays was The Coat Route: Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the trail of a $50,000 coat by Meg Lukens Noonan. Yes, you read that right, $50,000 for one coat. I picked it up because I was interested in what could have cost that much money and because I knew it was about the world of bespoke tailoring and hand-made clothing. It could have been interesting or I could have just been disgusted by the whole thing, I had no idea when I started.

My reaction is somewhere between the two extremes. In the book, Ms. Noonan takes each facet of the coat and delves into the processes involved in making it... the wool (vincuna), the silk lining, the buttons, the weaving, the bespoke tailoring. This part was fascinating. It was also vaguely depressing, though not for the reasons you would expect. Each of these components (with the exception of the gathering of vicuna fiber; that was a happier story) was something that involved knowledge and craftsmanship at an expert level. In each case, the craftsmen involved were older and near retirement. The sad part is, there were no younger men or women who were in line to take over. No one was interested in the hard work of learning to master the skills needed to create the beautiful items. In each case, while there were remnants of craftsmen making the item, the bulk of the production had shifted to massive factories, turning out cheap and unremarkable items, by people working in horrid conditions. All so we can go to the store and purchase $5 shirts which will fall apart after several months of washing.

The interesting part of the book was what it had to say about our disposable, consumer culture which expects new and cheap fashions all the time. Instead of investing in a few good and classic items of clothing, we spend money on clothing that is worn for a short period of time, whose production caused waste and pollution and human misery, and which will ultimately end up in a land-fill. One particularly telling story was told by one of the craftsmen, the button-maker, I think. Several years ago, they tried to start on apprentice program to teach their craft. It would both teach the craft and give the apprentices a job which would support them and allow them to make items of beauty. No one signed up. No one signed up when the business was located in a small town with over 65% unemployment. It was just a sad commentary all the way around.

Of course, there was also the portion of the book which made me roll my eyes and politely suggest the men she interviewed really needed to get a life. Men who pay for bespoke tailoring (the word 'bespoke' refers to tailored clothing created for a specific person... made to that person's specific measurements and much of it sewn by hand) have bought into a very small and very private club. They can often spot bespoke tailoring on another person and there is a strong bit of pridefulness which goes along with the whole thing. (It also fit in very nicely with my Lord Peter Wimsey binge, as he would never wear anything but bespoke. But he gets a pass, being fictional and all.) I grew just a little impatient with these men. There are so many more important things in the world.

I will admit to being torn, though. I hate to see knowledge and the ability to create beautiful, useful items disappear. I hate to see the ability to support oneself and ones family through being a craftsman disappear. the world seems a more generic, more harsh, and less beautiful place as a result.

In between their whinings about good dry cleaners, a couple of the 'bespoke club' (as I termed them in my head) had something interesting to say.

"'I don't know what happened to the old European trade idea, but it's gone,' David [Cutler, owner of the coat] says. 'And if we don't get it back we, as a culture, will be the poorer for it.'
'People still desire quality, but they have forgotten what it is. They buy things that are expensive and think they are getting something good, but they're not.'"

We have forgotten what quality is... in many, many aspects of life. We take what's easy and cheap instead of holding out for something better.

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