Over the last week, I’ve asked all of you to send in your stories about some of your favorite gifts you’ve ever received, regardless of occasion and regardless of whether you can wear them or not. Holiday gift giving can be stressful, but remembering stories of how someone’s gift touched you can be a welcome boost to put a little extra thought into holiday shopping to make sure the gifts you buy this season will be loved, appreciated, and kept.
Today I’m sharing the first in the collection of stories I’ve received. But there are more that will be shared over the next week, and I am still accepting stories through Wednesday December 13 at midnightCT. If you haven’t sent in your story yet, read today’s entries for inspiration or look back at one of my favorite gifts, and then email your story in!
The best gift I ever received was an Alexandrite and gold cocktail ring from my mom. It was passed down to her from her grandmother. My mom got it re-sized for me two Christmases ago after I had been admiring it my entire life. It always stood out to me in her jewelry drawer, and I was so honored to receive it. I have had it for two years now and always think of my great grandmother when I wear it.
Well, Ona made a Muppet version of me. This wasn’t for a holiday, but it was part of a long-running series of pranks. She colluded with my coworkers to pose this Muppet-me doing all the things I do everyday and then take pictures of the proceedings. I loved it. It takes a lot of effort to pull hijinx like that and keep them secret for so long, so I felt like a celebrity.
My favorite gift ever was from my mom in 2010. We’ve never been especially close and she’s not a really sentimental person, so it brought me to tears when I opened my gift that year and inside was a quilt she’d made for me by hand. On it, she monogrammed “To Megan Love Mom 12-25-10.”
Yvette (My mom!):
When I was growing up, I loved to read. Summers were spent waiting for the arrival of the Bookmobile on our block. I was the precocious child, and the librarians allowed me to read the “Y” books when everyone else my age was still on “J” level. My mom must have encouraged me, though I don’t remember anything she ever said to me. In fact, I don’t recall I ever saw my mother sitting down reading a book. There were seven of us children and I can’t imagine she had much time for that leisure activity. But she knew how much I loved books, and one Christmas she joined a book club and I was the lucky recipient of that “Get X free and you only have to buy 1 book in the coming year” incentive. And what were the books? Two volumes of Rudyard Kipling, two volumes of Shakespeare, and two volumes of Gore Vidal. I still have those books.
Ona is like a pioneer woman: you leave her alone with some pine needles and you return to an expertly woven basket. She has the dual gifts of resourcefulness and a willingness to try anything that enable her to take things that seem to have no life or purpose and create something new. Ona and my brother Jonathan were married this past summer at Ona’s family home in Maine in the most impressive DIY wedding I’ve ever attended (and since I used to plan weddings, I have seen quite a lot). Ona’s dress, like most for the wedding details, had a story of its own and easily proves that great things can happen by chance and that some rules are made to be broken.
Start from the beginning please!
I have been making dresses for probably 10 years out of skirts, scraps of fabric, and all kinds of stuff I found in my mom’s sewing closet. I would turn them into fun dancing dresses for contra dancing. My favorite ones are where I basically took a skirt I didn’t like, hoisted it up, took it in so that it was more form fitting, put on straps, and I had a knee-length dress. Pretty simple.
And so my mom has her favorites [of the dresses I’ve made]. She was the first person who suggested that maybe I would want to take a dress and repurpose it for the wedding. A couple years ago, she bought an off-white silk dress from Goodwill, and [when we started planning the wedding] she gave it to me to use.
Did she have any intentions when she initially bought the dress what it might be used for?
I can’t imagine, because I think she got it a while ago. She just thought “it’s silk!” and “it’s three bucks!” so she bought it. It didn’t fit me. It’s a sheath dress, so it’s very little fabric, kind of a heavier silk, and definitely not [made of] large pieces from which I could cut out other pieces. When I looked at it, I thought that it’s going be kind of challenging, but it could be fun. So I started looking around for silk that would match the dress. I took [a swatch] up to a fabric store in Brattleboro, Vermont. The woman who runs it is totally crazy. She’s padding around the store in her socks. The store is piled high with silks and gauzes and taffetas and all kinds of fabrics.
We spend an hour and a half looking for something to match the fabric of the dress. At this point, I don’t have a pattern, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I knew I didn’t want to have a big fancy wedding dress with a big train or anything like that, although that may have been more of a cost consideration rather than style. In the end, there just happened to be a remnant of silk that matched the dress perfectly – same weight, same color –but there were only 2 ½ yards. But it felt almost like it was meant to be.
Now I have 2 ½ yards of silk and a dress. I start looking around for patterns that would take advantage of what I have. I was at Jo-Ann’s that just happened to be having a sale on their Vogue patterns and there happened to be a pattern that fit all of the criteria. I decided to go with it, but the problem was that the pattern calls for 5 ½ yards of fabric and I have 2 ½ and a dress. Then it was a matter of making a mock-up, reducing, and on top of this, I have such little experience with patterns that I bought the wrong size. I got the Large instead of the Small/Medium, so I had to take the existing pattern and extrapolate down to my size.
I made a mock-up and I was able to reduce the width of the skirt. I figured out which pieces I could cut from the existing dress and which I could fit on the new fabric. My pattern pieces were just pinned down however they could fit on the fabric, so I was hoping that no one would notice that the pieces weren’t correctly oriented [on the bias]. I was not following the rules. In the end, I had almost no fabric left after cutting out all the pieces, but I was able to get them all cut out.
Did you learn to sew from your mom?
Yes, although she said I wasn’t a very good student, because I was not interested in learning exactly what she had to say.
How did she learn to sew?
I think she probably learned from her mom. I started pretty young. I made my first quilt when I was nine. It was a very simple squares quilt for [my sister] Gaelyn. It was her baby quilt. She sews too. It’s definitely a family tradition. I think I probably sewed my first dress in the beginning of high school. I know my mom sewed her own clothes probably throughout high school.
How long did it take you to make just the dress, not including the embroidery?
I procrastinated awhile because I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to the fabric store in January, so I had the fabric. Then it was a couple weeks before I had the pattern, and then once I had the pattern and the fabric, probably another couple weeks before I sat down and did it. I cut the pieces and assembled the dress as much as I could in a matter of a week, maybe two weeks. That was the easiest part.
To what extent did you know what you wanted the end product to look like vs. being inspired by what came up along the way?
I would say the whole thing was following a series of fortunate events. From the start, I checked out the Knot and Etsy to see what dresses people were making. I got some fancy sewing books that talked about different seam types and different necklines, so that helped in starting to shape ideas of how I wanted it to look. But in the end, the pieces just fell into place and made the dress that I got. There were only 2 ½ yards, I wanted to have the embroidered panel, the pattern that I found was the only one that fit all of those things that I needed it to do, so I felt like it was meant to be. Like I didn’t have to make half of the decisions. That’s just what was presented.
Can we talk about the embroidery? What inspired the cummerbund?
When [Jon and I] were out in Santa Fe, New Mexico, we went to the International Folk Art Museum. We saw a wedding outfit from an Eastern European village and it was a guy’s outfit. It was heavily embroidered. It had a full skirt, a top hat, and it may have had a parasol. It was bizarre, very unique. And Jon looked at me and said, “I think…I think we should wear something crazy like that for the wedding.”
Did he really say he wanted to wear something “crazy” for the wedding? Was he just looking for something memorable?
I think he was entertaining for a very short period of time something that was embroidered heavily and in the style of what we saw there. It didn’t last long though. He quickly moved on to a plain linen suit. But he got the ball rolling in my head about embroidery, because it plays such a huge role in cultures around the world and is specifically present in wedding ceremonies. There’s embroidery in American wedding dresses, but it’s all done by machine or it’s very simple. There’s no meaning behind the embroidery. It’s like the last remnant of embroidery in our culture and it’s lost all of its meaning.
So I became really interested in discovering the meaning behind wedding embroidery around the world. There were a couple of really great books I got from the library. One of them was called “Embroidered Textiles” by Sheila Paine. I looked at different embroidered textiles from all these different angles and pulled out the pieces I wanted to do. I wanted to have the Tree of Life. I wanted to have the Four Directions. I wanted to have fertility symbols, because that’s what you put into wedding embroidery when it comes down to it.
But more importantly, it was a fascinating discovery of the role embroidery plays in traditional cultures. One of the more interesting things I found was that aprons in many cultures are not to keep your skirt clean but to protect. You sew protection in with every stitch to ward off evil spirits. And who knows how much of this is actually being passed down in these cultures. The mirrors reflect evilness, so by sewing them in, you reflect the Evil Eye. Not that I believe in the Evil Eye, but why not bring in a little bit of extra protection? It was fun to be able to express that.
It tells such a story. It means so much more than what it is at face value.
And I had never embroidered before, so I also had to take out that book from the library. I had to teach myself a bunch of stitches. A lot of it was made up. There was symbolism, but a lot of it was my own aesthetic.
Will you be able to reuse the dress or any of the pieces? Or do you plan on wearing or displaying it in any way?
I would like to. We’ll take it out if we ever want to get dressed up in our wedding clothes, which my family has a tradition of doing. Every year, my parents get into their wedding clothes for their anniversary and we take a family picture. We might continue that tradition. It’s pretty funny because over the years, my mom doesn’t fit into her dress anymore and my dad doesn’t fit into his suit. The part that doesn’t zip for my mom doesn’t show, but my dad stopped buttoning up his jacket. And, of course, it’s just a nice time to take a family portrait to document how we’re all growing up.
Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your stories of handmade wedding traditions and what to do with those special event garments once the big day is over.
Henna and I met in a summer Ethical Fashion class at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. If you don’t know her, you’ll wish you did, because she is endlessly inspiring, incredibly smart, and one of the most humble people I know. With a background in art history and in her current role at an auction house, she is clearly inspired by beauty from times past. Our conversation gave me a peek into Henna’s intriguing style philosophy, but I felt a bit like a detective trying to solve a puzzle. What makes Henna’s style so special? And after much thought, here’s what I think: Henna doesn’t shop/buy/consume; she connects/experiences/explores the items she lovingly adds to her closet in a way that I’ve never heard someone describe. There’s a process to it. She uses the act of building her wardrobe to craft her own story and explore the world. And I’m so glad to be able to share that story here.
What are you wearing today?
I’m wearing a printed dress that my mother bought in Taiwan about 15 years ago. As a little girl, I always looked at this dress and thought, “When will I get a chance to wear it?” so I pulled it out of her closet recently and started wearing it. It’s actually a Canaletto painting of Venice, and I was wearing it in the elevator at Sotheby’s [where I worked] one day, and one of the clients came up to me and said “That’s my painting.” And I knew that because when I was interning, we took a tour of her private collection and I kind of recognized that, but I wasn’t sure if it was the same painting.
What was her reaction?
She was surprised. She said it looked “great as a dress as well as on my wall.” And actually I was walking by the Met the other day and someone stopped me on the street and said that she has a similar dress. It’s ironic that it was purchased in Taiwan, because it’s an Italian painting.
Do you dig in your mom’s closet a lot?
I do. She takes very good care of her clothing, and she’s taught me to do the same, especially in recent years as my taste has developed. I want to focus on quality and not quantity. I really enjoy inheriting pieces from her.
How has she influenced your style?
I would say that she’s very well-traveled, so I have definitely inherited the travel bug from her and the general curiosity for other cultures. She has items in her closet that are collected from her travels and each piece really tells a story. That’s how I try to build my wardrobe as well. I’m actually wearing a ring that I made recently. I took a class at FIT in wax carving and going along the European theme, it’s actually inspired by a 19th century French console table. It has the acanthus leaf motif with the cabriole leg. It was cast in silver as part of the class requirement, but I dipped it in gold at my current job.
Of what you’re wearing today, what is the most special piece to you?
It has to be the dress, but the [pair of] shoes are also one of my favorite things in my closet. It isn’t as meaningful, but I bought it two years ago, and I had been eyeing it for months. I saw it on a blog this girl based in [the] UK updates. So I went into the store asking for it and didn’t see it. The salesperson said “We’re getting ready to send it back to Italy. Do you want to see it?” And I said “Of course!” So I was actually able to get it at a discount.
How long was the time between when you first saw the post and when you actually found the shoes?
It had to be four months at least.
Who’s the designer?
Jil Sander. I think it’s just one of those things that is a statement and really inspires me with the organic form and the combination of textures and different materials.
Are they as hard to walk in as they look?
Umm, I have to admit that they aren’t the easiest to walk in. They are not my most comfortable heels, but they are manageable.
What’s your favorite thing in your closet right now?
There’s actually this scarf by Caren Shen I got at the Asia Society Store. It’s very crinkled and it’s two-sided, so one side is midnight shimmery navy blue and the other side is this bronze color, so the scarf is actually very versatile. You can wear it, I don’t know, like 12 different ways, as a vest, as a dress if you wear something over it or under it…
Does it come with instructions on how to wear it?
No, I just played around with it. But it’s one of those pieces that you can wear all the time, and you would be surprised with the way you style it every time.
What’s the most important thing when you get dressed in the morning?
How it makes me feel. Certain people have best outfits that they save for certain days, and I like to think that I want to feel my best [every day]…of course it doesn’t mean that it’s always an elaborate outfit. But I also like to wear something that incorporates at least one piece that reminds me of what my goal…[or] what I’m working towards, maybe?
What the most important thing when you shop?
I don’t shop as much as I used to. I still browse a lot, and I do enjoy seeing what other designers are doing to sort of get inspiration. But I think I have to love it for me to buy it. If I have to think about an item and think on it for a few days, when I find myself still thinking about that item, maybe I should just get it? But a lot of times if I don’t buy it then, I know that I probably won’t wear it anyway.
Can you remember the last piece you bought that got you that excited?
I don’t know…I did receive a gift from my mom from her recent trip to Turkey. It was this brass necklace, large pendant, floral-shaped but also some Ottoman influence, wire-laced with turquoise beads and tied with a fabric cord. That I was really excited about. I haven’t traveled in a long time, and I have most of my moments when I’m abroad, because I love learning about the piece from the person who made it. It makes the piece so much more personal.
How would you describe your style?
When I was in school, people always remarked how fashionable I am, but I really don’t think that I am. I have a style and it isn’t easily influenced by the trends. I am very interested in surface decoration, so I like to combine textures and match certain colors.
It seems like your style is really influenced by your work, given the sheer coincidence of wearing the dress and the [painting’s owner] is in the same building.
Yes, and I am lucky that I’m surrounded by people who inspire me. I’m really inspired by the patrons of the arts, the art collectors, who are dedicated to preserving our cultural heritage.
When was the last time you got hands-on with the creation process of one of your pieces? Whether you custom ordered a piece from Etsy or a local tailor, or you collaborated on a piece of jewelry, or even just asked some questions to the designer or artist, I want to hear it! Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear and tell me your story.
Correction (8/23/12): Henna is currently working for a fine jewelry company, not Sotheby’s where she has worked in past as originally stated.
Armand and I go way back. Well, only like a year and a half or so, but he’s one of those people you meet and you can’t remember what life was like without them. As colleagues and during this interview, Armand kept me laughing with his fantastic sense of humor. Though he grew up in DC, his daring style destined him to end up in New York. Of my many male friends, Armand stands out as someone who can seriously bring something new and unexpected to the typical guy uniform. So when I needed to gender balance this blog, I knew Armand was my guy. Not only was this a fun interview, but Armand inspired me to get excited about those pieces in my closet that I rarely wear and give them another chance.
What is your favorite thing you are wearing today and why?
Definitely my shoes. [I’m wearing] old Kenneth Cole brown motorcycle boots that I actually picked up from a great outlet in Virginia years and years ago. I never thought they would last this long, but they have. They are not as traditional as most other motorcycle boots.
They still look brand new.
I got them repaired recently, because that’s what New York does to your shoes.
Is a professional environment really limiting for men in terms of expressing style?
It is in some ways. It depends on your style and how much you dislike monotony. There are ways to avoid the monotonous office uniform, which is normally a collared shirt and some form of pants…
Hopefully some pants. [laughs]
Skorts! Capris! It is difficult for men, but you can’t really do anything about it, so that’s where accessories really come in, like socks. One of my colleagues at work has really fun socks all the time. We might be dressed a little bit more conservatively but with the socks, it can bring some fun to your ankles.
When you’re shopping, what are you looking for?
I like black, grey, basically all neutral colors. Mainly black. So it can be from anywhere from H&M to a random cowboy Western store or [laughs] this place called Gothic Renaissance here in New York…
That sounds scandalous.
I know, right? But I gravitate towards those colors, and then deciding if it’s a statement piece or something I can wear everyday. Because black can be very basic, if it’s something a little unusual, I gravitate towards it.
How often do you shop?
I have to look at my [credit card] statement [laughs]. It’s hard in New York, especially when you pass by stores everyday, especially where my office is located. I typically go to a few stores once a week that I know always have deals or changing inventory. That way I know what’s out there and I can snap up something that I really want.
Do you have a shopping philosophy?
My friends always laugh when they are with me shopping. I’m more of a hunter and if it catches my eye, I’m like “mmm, I shouldn’t really be spending money,” and I am trying to force myself out of the store. But I’ll keep looking back at it like it’s a puppy dog and I’m feeling bad. I’ll walk all the way out of the exit of the store, and I’ll turn back and say “Actually I want to look at it once again.” If I want to go back to it two or three times, then I know definitely that I need it, and I want it, and I shouldn’t give it up. It beckons me like a siren. I’m like “I need it.” [laughs]
Is that impulsive?
It’s not impulsive at all. I don’t really leave stores with bags and bags – I normally only have one or two pieces. That’s kind of why I go every week almost, because things change and I don’t want everything. I don’t get the adrenaline like some shoppers get from carrying bags and having something that you’ve bought. It’s more so that I’m really excited to wear this.
What is your favorite thing in your closet right now?
Hands down, it is this black leather motorcycle jacket that my sister brought me from Argentina. She came back with a garment bag, and I was like “oh god.” I looked at the jacket and thought that nothing this amazing is going to fit me. And actually when I put it on, I was really hoping it would fit perfectly, and it did. She really did a good job. She said she got ten people – any guy on the street who looked kind of like my build – to put it on, literally.
Once something is in your closet, how long does it stay there?
I pride myself on this. I wear everything that I buy, and I have a little rotation depending on events. It will stay in my closet for a very long time. I’m feeling this early 90s look with old school Tommy Hilfiger t-shirts – grey with the big logo in the middle – and early 90s rounded sunglasses. I’m really feeling that look with a backwards cap and plaid tied around your waist. I’m really mad that I threw out some of that stuff when I was moving back in DC between apartments or moving up here to New York. I normally keep things for a very long time. I’m now sticking to that philosophy more as I’m finding that there are things that I really love and that I had but don’t have in my possession anymore. Things come back around in terms of style.
So you usually keep things around?
Isn’t that what all vintage stores are? Basically, your old closet that you threw away that you’re trying to reclaim?
Do you have any closet confessions?
I went to a discount chain store randomly in Illinois. I found this great pair [of pants] – it was when I was doing this 80s look at night – and it turned out to be way too Miami Vice. It was these bright neon highlighter yellow dress pants, but they were a little bit more baggy. I thought I could put a look together with them, but I realized that no shirt every goes with that neon of pants and there’s no place I could ever go to [wearing] it. So I actually ended up wearing it for Halloween. I couldn’t bear for it to be in my closet anymore. It had to come out to play. So I turned it into a pimp old school look with a fur coat. [laughs] It was a whole look with a fedora. So that was my one questionable purchase, though I didn’t spend a lot of money on it.
Was that the only time you’ve worn them?
I think so. I tried to wear them to the beach once rolled up, with white converse but…
You blinded everyone?
Yes, and even with a t-shirt over it was not a good look. Never again.
Thanks to Armand for giving up his coffee break to talk to me. I’m curious to know how often you shop: comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share how frequently you hit the stores or browse online. A little lagniappe since New York City will indeed destroy every pair of shoes you own (because you just walk that much): If you’re in Greenwich Village, see Yakub Shoe Repair on Sullivan St. He will work miracles.
Amber is a recently returned NOLA native with the perfect mix of confidence and self-consciousness. While Amber’s style will pull you in, it’s her stories that will hold your attention. (And we didn’t even get to her colorful Toms wedges!) Like many of us, she’s shopping on a budget and trying to find clothes that fit well. She’s not afraid to show off her rocking little body or talk about her love of pockets. And I am happy to report that all of the (two) interviews I have done so far have references to housedresses.
What are you wearing today?
It’s a 50’s style denim-looking [dress] and a little woven belt.
How long have you had the dress?
I actually got it in New York at some random place. I think it was $15. It was near where I worked around 36th in Midtown in the Garment District.
What made you pick it out?
At that time, I had to dress in business casual, but sometimes those clothes are expensive. I went in to see what they had. It looked really comfortable, and it has pockets, which is really important to me. And it actually fit, which is pretty hard to do because I’m small.
What part of your outfit is most special to you?
The belt. It belonged to my long-term boyfriend’s mother’s best friend. She was a wonderful woman, and she recently passed away. She was tiny like me, so I got a lot of her wonderful hand-me-downs.
Do you think of her when you wear the belt?
Yes, but I didn’t know her so personally as my boyfriend’s mom did, but I like to wear things that have a story.
[Note: I did not pay her to say this!]
Do you have any good memories of her?
I actually got to know more about her through [her husband] after she passed away. You can tell by the clothes she used to wear that she was like a little “Jackie O.” She [had] all of her housedresses, perfectly buttoned up, and the best accessories. Just going through pictures of her and her old things, I got to learn more about her than I knew when she was with us. And I think it’s more for my boyfriend’s mom that I continue to wear these things. She gets very excited whenever she sees me wearing one of Mary’s dresses or Mary’s belts.
Because it reminds her of Mary?
Yes and that these things didn’t cease to exist. Somebody’s using it.
Name one item you’d love to add to your closet.
Recently I’ve been searching for a maxi dress that doesn’t have the low-v. And I’m really short, so everything I try on is really long.
Do you have to tailor a lot of your clothes?
I try not to. Tailoring can get really expensive, and just because you get it tailored doesn’t mean it is going to fit perfectly anyway. Tailoring feels like such an investment. I actually bought a sewing machine, but I actually broke it a week later. It’s gone now.
Were you planning to learn to sew?
That was the intention. It was when I was in New York, and I saw a cute little vintage compact sewing machine on Craigslist. I trucked all the way out to Brooklyn and carried this thing – it was like 30 lbs – on the subway. I got home, downloaded the instruction manual from a website, and then broke it almost immediately.
Did you leave it in NYC?
No, I brought it to Indiana, but my boyfriend’s mom threw it away for me, because she knew I had a hard time parting with it.
Thanks to Amber for the interview. Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share times you’ve been disappointed in Brooklyn, things a mom has thrown away for you, and/or your tips on finding petite clothing.