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Clothes to Perfect 

A designer, six artists, and a handmade clothing enterprise known as the Personal Dress Project

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
When I was a young girl I lived for a time in Oregon on top of a mountain in a large, drafty log cabin without electricity, indoor toilets, or running water. Our means of access, appropriately called Jump Off Joe Creek Road, was better suited to donkeys or llamas than to the small Volkswagen we used to shuttle supplies from town, but who was I to complain? In the hot summer months, the mountain was a glimmering pleasance, all sunlight and chlorophyll freshness; the "crik," which passed through Bummer Gulch on its way back to the Rogue River, was dappled by small waterfalls and swimming holes deep enough to harbor great, whiskered granddaddy fish that called for close inspection during my grueling games of "wild frontier explorer." During the winter, though, those long, verdant days were reduced to bright, icy moments, and snowstorms barricaded me indoors, where the only warmth was found a few inches from the sooty potbelly stove.

During those gloomy winter hours, my aunt, a busy-fingered hinterlander with a penchant for dark thoughts and bright fairies, would mold peculiar little gnomes out of clay, which I would discover later, during my summer treks, peeking out of tree stumps or perched in rock piles in the middle of the forest; or she would cut pieces of colored glass that might one day replace the thick sheets of plastic stapled over the yawning window frames; or polish and set small river rocks in the back room where we dreamed an indoor shower would magically emerge. My mother, who has an uncanny capacity for silence, would sit for hours watching the snow, as if waiting for something, with panels of bright wool embroidery in her lap or strings of colorful beads sliding between her fingers. I did a bit of it all, skittering from one project to another according to the women's willingness to edify -- embroidery, beading, stained glass, sculpting, weaving -- wishing that I had brighter light, anything other than kerosene lanterns, by which to work and read.

I don't miss that cold, dark house, but I have often wished for the silence of those long winter hours, the enforced patience and skills that such silence begets, and the essence of a long-forgotten era when everything, even the clothes, had fingerprints.

"Creating clothing by hand, making something personal and intimate, takes a lot of time," says a very harried Solveig Roberts, a West Oakland artist who is toiling against deadline for the Personal Dress Project, a show that explores the "inner essence" of six female artists through handmade clothing and the hands-on guidance of local designer Nancy Eastep. "The reality of time in our culture is very, very different than the reality of time in an agricultural society. Making something you really care about, that you really want to wear, that is a part of you, while still trying to pay bills and stay alive in our culture is like trying to blend two different time zones. We're not set up for it. There's a reason we are so dependent on prefabricated products."

Since October, Roberts, along with collage artist Marisa Vitiello, painter Christine Shields, unicycle rider Laura Prives, jewelry maker Prudence Longaker, and clothing designer Angelina deAntonis, has been considering her dream dress.

"The dresses are meant to draw on different ideas the women have about themselves," says Eastep, who more typically designs custom suits. "I wanted the dresses to incorporate their taste, history, and ancestral past, maybe the art, film, and books they like. And I wanted each of them to symbolize this moment in time, as if they were making wedding dresses without the wedding."

Roberts knew immediately that she wanted trees -- almost all of her artwork involves trees -- but she had no idea how to incorporate them into clothing. Eastep suggested a suit of leaves, a tree's embrace in the form of a pale suit made of hemp cloth. DeAntonis wanted to create the orange jumpsuit she had dreamed about since she was 12, when she saw her fashionable cousin step off a plane from New Zealand. Vitiello was more difficult: She had no idea what she wanted, so Eastep came to her house and went through a pile of images she had chosen -- boxes created by Joseph Cornell, old-fashioned bathing suits, iron grates, window frames, Louis Bourgeois' Femme Maison, and black-and-white photographs. Shields' dress sprang from a dream, but was augmented by old circus dresses and a Chinese silk jacket she had buried in a trunk. Prives wanted something sexy, inspired by jazz and collage. And Longaker wanted to cut up all her kimonos to chase away her fear of winter.

The designs were not even half the battle.

"I wanted the process to be really labor-intensive," says Eastep, standing over a stove, cooking couscous for the showing. "I've been in countries where cloth must be woven and dyed, then sewn and embroidered. A nice shirt takes months of effort, but it's so rich, so wonderful to wear. I guess it captures a bit of nostalgia for another time."

With the tireless support and skill of Eastep, the six artists applied their varying aptitude with needles and thread to their varying desires -- sewing, cutting, dying, fitting, and recutting, in pairs and in groups, over tea and cookies, and into the early morning hours. They got to know each other and learned exactly what one garment of clothing could take out of a person.

"It was really, really hard," says Longaker. "It's all math. It's very precise. Nancy was born to a family of sewers; she's a natural, but patternmaking is a lost skill. You have to measure every inch of your body and make allowances for how your body changes throughout the month. Bodies change a lot. I worked nine hours every day, thinking about it more than that, but I never had enough time."

No one did, but, despite school and work and family holidays, they got their trousseaux completed.

Inside Phobos and Deimos, the smell of warm couscous and the bouncy lyrics of Manu Chao float through the air. Six panels with six "dresses," accompanied by the sketches, watercolors, poems, patterns, cartoons, and lists that abetted the creation of the Personal Dress Project, hang from the ceiling. Nancy Eastep, wearing a bronze-colored shift with the word "Now" running down her body, shares a dream with the very packed, very fashionable crowd: A woman sits in a cold, gray room, surrounded by pictures of her ancestors, which she shatters. Her screams turn the roof to fog, and her tears melt the floor and foundation; blood from her foot stains the water and the garments in the photographs, and her ancestors come to life, tossing their clothes on her tears. The clothes blossom like flowers, which the woman harvests to make garments for the "future of her desire."

Prives steps onto the floor in a patchwork shroud and shares her childhood fantasy about wanting to be a hockey player until she was 30, then becoming a nun. She drops the shroud and reveals a short, bright dress with gold halter top and multicolored skirt panels.

"I had a great love, but it subdued me," says Prives. "I don't want to be subdued, even by love."

DeAntonis struts onto the floor, wearing her bright orange "action-adventure, power travel suit," playing a jew's-harp. She unzips, revealing one-piece underwear, patterned after a 1920s men's swimsuit, which makes her feel "smart." Shields enters, wearing a pale blue princess dress with a feline embroidered on the chest, the place where her cat sleeps while she's dreaming. Vitiello is accompanied by three women who cluck and pluck over her outfit of steely blues and Gorey grays, revealing a brassierelike top coiled with red silk springs. Roberts walks in, looking dapper in her "leaf"-trimmed ensemble, and shares a story about saving a 100-year-old African palm next door to her house while working on her tree-ish apparel. Lastly, Longaker enters, ensconced in the fabric of 50-year-old kimonos and wearing a hat of eucalyptus pods. With tears in her eyes, she sings herself to sleep, giving a small doll with matching braids permission to while away the winter, now that her work is done.

The crowd claps appreciatively, swarming the unintentional fashion models and fawning after their designs.

"I'd like to make something like that," says a young woman with purple fun-fur arm warmers, admiring Vitiello's skirt. "I just need a little time."

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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