Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lessons From 4-H: The Most Important Part

I learned a lot of things from my time in 4-H. I discovered everything from tricks that help me overcome my fear of public speaking to a love of full-skirted frocks. It's hard to say what's the most important thing I've learned, but I can clearly say what the most important thing I learned from my time in fashion review was.

No matter what you're wearing, how it fits, how it looks, whether it's considered conventionally fashionable or not, there is one thing that makes any outfit:


I wasn't a brave kid by any stretch of the imagination and not comfortable in my own skin. Modeling clothing that I had made myself, and doing so on a stage in a public venue, was terrifying. But I did it. I had to learn confidence, but, by the end of my 4-H experience, I had learned to own every single item of clothing in my wardrobe. If I picked it, if I loved it, then I was going to wear it and hold my head up high.

You know that cheesy song from Annie, "You're Never Fully Dressed (Without a Smile)"? Well, as cheesy as it is, the song has a point: you are what makes the outfit.

When you love what you're wearing and are confident in it, you can pull off most anything.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lessons from 4-H: Cost Per Wear

Sometimes, even a lady has to do some math.
Yes, this involves math. I don't like math all, but I promise that this is worth it.

4-H is an organization that promotes many things, but one of the biggest things that it promotes is budgeting. Every project requires you to calculate how much you spent and how much use you are getting out of the money that you spent.

Lolita is a fashion of expensive items. All that fabric and lace, along with custom-printed designs, costs a fair bit of money. Even if you buy secondhand or stick to offbrand and handmade items, it's still going to cost money and/or construction time. There really isn't another way around it.

One of the ways that these two things collide and actually start to play nice with each other is when you calculate cost per wear. Cost per wear is required information where the 4-H Clothing and Textiles project area is concerned, and it's a relatively simple thing to figure out. To calculate it:

How Much I Spent on the Item ÷ How Many Times I Wore It = Cost Per Wear

See? Easy as that.

Once you've figured out cost per wear, you can figure out if the items in your closet are really pulling their weight. For example, if you paid full retail price for a brand lolita dress but then wore it a few times before letting it languish in your closet, you're not getting the most out of that dress. And, if you bought something offbrand for thirty dollars and never wore it, that's just as much of a waste of money even if it didn't cost much to begin with.

One easy way to keep track of cost per wear is by keeping a tally. If you've already done a wardrobe inventory, that's easy. Just tally the number of times you wear a thing on your inventory. Don't worry about messing up the work you did; it's your inventory and you can do what you want with it. This is extra easy if you've done your inventory on the computer in a spreadsheet. In fact, here's a bit from mine:

Item Brand New/Used Cost Times Worn CPW
High Waisted Black Skirt w/ Rose Print Bodyline New 53 35 1.51
Black Velveteen Skirt w/ Chandelier Embroidery HMHM Used 40 25 1.6
Black Royal Seal Skirt w/ Gold Screen Print Princess Pearl Used 35 28 1.25

I can't tell you, though, what cost per wear should be for you. My usual rule is that an item needs to be versatile enough that, within a year or two, I can bring CPW below five dollars for items purchased new and below two dollars for items purchased secondhand. I know that sounds like a pretty tall order, but it's well within my reach if I am careful about what I spend my money on.

Personally, I impulse buy more than I would like. Most of my impulse buys are tights and jewelry, but occasionally I will make an impulsive decision while browsing comm sales. Keeping cost per wear in mind keeps me from buying something I won't actually use.

So, why is all of this important?

Most of all, keeping track of cost per wear makes sure that you build your wardrobe with things you use. If you're thinking of purchases as an investment rather than as something you wear once then sell on comm sales, you are going to get a lot more out of your wardrobe. That is not to say that you can't or shouldn't resell; obviously, if an item doesn't fit, doesn't suit your style, or if you' have exhausted the item's possibilities, go ahead and sell it. But if you are thinking about each purchase in terms of its value to you, you'll get a lot more use out of your wardrobe as a whole.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lessons From 4-H: Make a Wardrobe Inventory

The lolita in me wails at the word "practicality." The 4-Her in me thinks it's only natural. I like to think I can reconcile the two.

When I say "practicality," I do not mean it in the way that most people think; "Oh, be practical, you couldn't possibly wear that" is not something I am going to say to you. I mean only this: when you buy something, make sure it is something you are actually going to use and that it versatile enough to work with several different outfits.

One of the things that is required when one participates in Fashion Review for 4-H is an in-depth analysis of where the outfit that you purchased fits into the wardrobe that you have and the life that you have. This very often includes making a wardrobe inventory. As my 1981 edition of the clothing project curriculum puts it:
What you decide to make or buy depends on what you need. Have you taken a good look at your clothing lately? With increasing clothing costs, having a well coordinated wardrobe with fewer items can be better than having many clothes that don't "work" together. So.... update your clothing inventory.
This is true of any fashion, but I'm going to use lolita as an example because that's where I seem to be headed with my wardrobe and with this blog.

Lolita seems to be one of those fashions that runs on impulse buys, on sudden and insurmountable lust for a single item that overtakes the young lady involved. It is a fashion of dream dresses and of dramatic comings and goings in terms of personal style. Sometimes, we jump in headfirst and end up with a single not-so-very versatile outfit that we wear once or twice but can't do much with until we expand our wardrobe.

But that doesn't mean it has to be.

If there is anything I learned from being in fashion review for 4-H, it is this: anything I buy should have at least two different uses in my wardrobe. Whether that is two different lolita outfits or one lolita outfit and one vintage-style outfit does not matter. What matters is that I can wear each piece

I'm all for the tried-and-true 4-H method of actually making a clothing inventory. Yes, going through your closet may seem intimidating at first (see the picture from Confessions of a Shopaholic above), but it's worth it. Whether you do this just with the clothing you wear for lolita or if you do it for everything you own, knowing what you have can be a great help in knowing what you need or want. It also gives you some time to sit down, go through everything, and weed out some of the items you don't want or need anymore.

So what do we put on our clothing inventory?

I, personally, put mine in a spreadsheet with a column for a basic item description, a column for brand, a column for how much it cost (if I know), and a column for whether I bought it new or used. You might decide you don't need that much information. You might just pull out a notebook and write down a basic item description for everything and be done with it. It's your wardrobe; it's your choice.

And, while you're making the list, keep in mind that you might not use some of the items. It's easier to recognize them when you're pulling everything out and looking at it.

While a clothing inventory may seem like a lot of work (and it is, when you start), it can definitely be helpful when it comes to managing a wardrobe.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Lessons From 4-H: Introduction

Yes, you read that right. I'm doing a feature month on lessons I learned about clothing from participating in the 4-H program.

For those of you who don't know what 4-H is, the simplest definition I can give comes from Wikipedia:
4-H in the United States is a youth organization administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the mission of "engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development." The name represents four personal development areas of focus for the organization: head, heart, hands, and health. The organization has over 6.5 million members in the United States, from ages five to twenty-one, in approximately 90,000 clubs.
4-H was started in 1902 and was originally meant to introduce new agricultural technology to youth in rural areas. The intent was to encourage participants to "learn by doing," an idea that is still present in the organization to this day and is, in fact, the organization's slogan. One of the main ways that we "learn by doing" is 4-H projects that are judged and exhibited at the county fair.

Over the years, 4-H expanded its reach beyond its agricultural roots. Agriculture is still present, certainly, and most people who have had contact with the program know that one of the project areas is livestock. However, there are now literally hundreds of topics that project areas can explore including "Self-Determined," a catch-all for projects that do not fit into the other project areas.

So what does this have to do with clothing?

A lot more than you might think.

4-H has three projects under the "Clothing and Textiles" project area that are absolutely relevant to the alternative fashionista: clothes you make, clothes you buy, and fashion review. The point of the fashion-oriented projects is to help participants:
  • Discover their unique style
  • Discover what looks best on their body, how to make it or where to buy it, and how to care for it.
  • Express themselves through creating and planning an exciting wardrobe.
  • Develop skills to purchase and make clothing.
  • Learn how to use equipment to make and care for your clothes.
Essentially, the 4-H clothing projects are about self-expression through clothing and learning new skills of budgeting, coordination, and creation.

Clothes you make is exactly that: clothing you have created yourself. This is where young seamstresses discover how to make anything from a pair of elastic-waist shorts to a full suit. Clothing is judged on construction and, sometimes, whether or not the person doing the sewing challenged themselves.

Clothes you buy is actually much more difficult than it sounds. This project area involves not only buying a new outfit but establishing, either through a booklet or through some sort of visual aid, how the different pieces of that outfit fit into the existing wardrobe. This isn't a project area that's just about shopping. It's about estimating cost per wear, creating a workable wardrobe, and budgeting.

Fashion review is probably the trickiest area to figure out because it seems like it's the shallowest. Participants are judged based on how their outfit is coordinated, how well the outfit suits the wearer, and how well they model the outfit. Participants are judged privately and then model their outfit on stage at a later date. However, fashion review also requires a heck of a lot of confidence, which is more what it's about than the clothes themselves.

And, of course, I should explain where I fit into this craziness.

I was a 4-Her from first grade (the rule, at that time, was "first grade or age seven") through my freshman year of college, also known as "grade 13."  I spent thirteen years of my life working on 4-H projects and trying to "make the best better," as the motto goes. Many of those projects were part of the clothing and textiles project area.

I learned a lot about clothing through my time in 4-H and, since it's July and that means county fairs are popping up all over, I'm going to share some of that with you.

If you want to know more about 4-H, I'd recommend looking at their website, especially if you're young enough to participate yourself. I cannot say enough about how this organization helped me become the person I am today.