Carol Alayne

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Archive for December, 2008

The Rule of Thumb

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

ThumbIn some ways this post is an extension of the last Briefing for Bespoke post (Line, shape, proportion), but this time with a slightly more light-hearted tone as befits the Christmas season.

Strange as it may seem I first came across the Tailor’s Rule of Thumb when talking with the artist Kristin Newton, who uses a selection of ‘body’ parts for estimating proportion when teaching her drawing course at the Right Brain Research Centre in Tokyo (hence the notes in Japanese). This is an example of the way in Head proportionswhich the width of the eye is used as a preliminary means of mapping out the proportions of a face.

Before accurate measuring systems were in place the body was often used as a measuring system. For instance for the Egyptians a common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, whereas a span for the Ancients was the largest distance between the points of two fingers measured on a man’s outstretched hand; around 22.9 centimetres, 9 inches or 1/4 yard. The measurement of an inch is gauged as the distance between the base of the thumbnail and the first joint, and from this connection, in French and Portuguese both the words for thumb and the unit of measure have a common derivation; respectively un pouce and polegada (from polegar – thumb).

Gulliver in LilliputWith the Tailor’s Rule of Thumb however, the purpose is to establish comparative proportions so that by taking just one measurement, irrespective of one’s size, it should be theoretically possible to map out the basic elements of a body’s contours. Jonathan Swift has Gulliver refer to this during his stay in Lilliput (Gulliver’s Travels ):

“The Seamstresses took my measure as I lay on the ground, one standing at my neck, the other at my mid-leg, with a strong cord extended, that each held by the end whilst a third measured the length of the cord with a rule of an inch long. Then they measured my right Thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical Computation, that twice round the Thumb is once around the Wrist, and so on to the Neck and Waist, and by the help of my old Shirt, which I displayed on the Ground before them for a Pattern, they fitted me exactly.”

There is an anecdote in the tailoring community about a client who came in to buy some trousers, wrapped the waistband twice around his neck and left with them over his arm with the pronouncement that they  would be a perfect fit. An interesting snippet but one that perhaps needs a grain or two of salt. Much of the art of the tailoring process lies in the accurate measurement and the subsequent balancing of a pattern. A highly skilled job needing a critical eye, so perhaps this novel method should be left with the Lilliputians.

It might be fun however as we are in the midst of party season to find some alternative proportions that would work for everyone. Of course the true test would come once the post Christmas dieting has kicked in.

Let me know what you come up with! And of course… a Happy New Year to all.

Photo: thanks to Glasgow University, RBR (Tokyo)

Briefing for Bespoke: Line, shape, proportion

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

You may have caught the compelling TV series “Madmen“.  The story of the how the advertising industry took fire on Madisson Avenue in the 60’s.  (30 years earlier the father of PR, Edward Bernays had started the ball rolling by helping the tobacco industry sell cigarettes to women with the somewhat questionable byline ‘A Torch for Liberty’!).  In one episode an eager young secretary was given this down to earth advice from one of her more seasoned colleagues with regards to dressing in the work place.”Go home, cut 2 holes in a paper bag, put it over your head, stand in front of a mirror and take a good look at your at yourself”.  A novel way indeed to assess your body line, but also one that is not too far off the mark.  The first step in deciding how to dress is to get an accurate understanding of your own unique body shape and how to accommodate its proportions.

I can sense that for some this may be something that requires a little courage, but to help you, here is a method that you might find more effective than the ‘paper bag’ solution.
You will need:

  • a digital camera
  • a printer
  • a marker pen
  • some tracing paper or similarBody Shape

Over your usual foundation garments put on a leotord or some similar  body-hugging garment.  Using the self portrait setting on your camera,  take full length pictures of yourself from two aspects; the front and the side.   Print these out in full on A4 paper.  With the pen and  tracing paper copy the outline of your body, then mark in the top of your head, shoulder line, bustline, waistline, hip line, knees, elbows and wrists.

An alternative methoed for perhaps the more creatively inclined I learned from the artist Kristin Newton who has her students stand in front of a mirror looking at their reflected image through a sheet of perspex held a short distance from their face; it is important to view it with just one eye open in order not to distort the perspective.  Then trace around the outline of your body’s image in the mirror directly on to the perspex with a marker.

Before we go to the next stage however, let’s take a step back into antiquity and look at Golden Rationhow  proportion was perceived by  the old Masters using the system known as the Golden Section, or the Golden Ratio.  This is a special mathematical relationship whereby a line, divided into two parts (a, b) has a relationship between the whole and its parts so that the ratio between the small section (b) to the larger section (a) is equal to the ratio between the larger section and the whole i.e. a:b = (a+b):a.

This image showing how the Golden Section was applied is from a study carried out at the Virginia Wesleyian College into Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus.

You can see how ‘perfection’ was perceived as a matter or proportion.  The reality is that few of us conform to this sylph-like ideal, however what we aspire to when selecting the style of a garment is to give the illusion of a well balanced proportion.

Now, using both tracings and photographs, take note of  the areas where the body mass is most emphasised.  Compare how the shape of the silhoutte changes between the bust, waist and hip.  Notice the degree of definition of the waist, small of the back, hips and bottom. The reason for using both tracings is that you may find, for example, from the front aspect you appear full and round, whereas from the side you may have a flatter silhouette.

The way in which we can start to balance out our proportions is by using two separate systems of analysis.  A Body Type template (you will need a pdf viewer to access this file) which associates one’s proportions with suggestions for silhouette, fabrics, details and patterns, and a set of supplementary modifications I have called Qualifiers which help with the vertical and horizontal rebalancing.

With statistics showing that most women wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time,  perhaps with a little more knowledge in how to select for proportion, these statistics can be encouraged to change.  Fashion is one thing, the bodies we were graced with is another!

Initial Image: thanks to Guardian/BBC/AMC

Briefing for Bespoke: Psychology of Appearance

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Smile on frown, TokyoAppearance comes in two forms; how we see ourselves, and how others see us.  And one impacts on the other.  One is more to do with self expression, the other with fitting in.  The important thing is not to mix the two up or the consequences, at an extreme level, can be severe.

We read how there are countries where wearing the wrong sort of clothes can have devastating results; in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern India  women receive harsh punishments for openly wearing western clothes rather than the burqah or sari.   We don’t  have to journey as far as that to find  in our own backyard similar adverse reactions to styles of dress.  In Lancashire (UK) in 2007 a young couple dressed as ‘moshers’ or Goths were set upon by a group of teenagers and murdered because they stood out from the crowd.

The way in which we dress can provoke life influencing decisions from others and it is interesting to note that as we chart our way through one of the most challenging periods of financial uncertainty in modern times, this is having a corresponding effect on how people dress.  The pervasive ‘dress down’ styles which were becoming increasingly popular in City offices have, according to my clients who know such things, been supplanted by the more formal aspects of business wear in the interest of job preservation.

Paradoxically, this doesn’t just mean a visit to the ‘off the peg’ purveyors of business wear,  but a move towards something which allows for a closer reflection of personality and  tradition.  With job prospects under threat those first vital seconds, when appearance counts for more than words (Mehrabian. 1997), are becoming almost a new battleground for gaining an edge.  Remember the old cliché…”how do you dress in a recession…up!”, whilst at the same time fluctuations in the stock market apparently influence the height of hemlines.

Leveraging one’s appearance with regard to clothes has to take on board a number of different elements; colour, pattern, texture, style, detail, fit and proportion.  Of these, convention insists that colour, pattern, texture and style fit within fairly tight constraints.  This leaves detail, fit and proportion as the principal variables.

Detail by way of linings, button configurations, pockets, lapels, ventings, can all be used to create a sense of differentiation from others, but again these have to be subtle.  Perhaps the area which can create the most impact is with the fit and proportion.  ‘Fit’ refers to the way in which a garment follows the natural curves of the body, ‘proportion’ deals with the overall balance of a garment and can be influenced by all the other elements.  In some ways there is a sense of  Gestalt about the balance of all these different elements.

From the research that has been undertaken into the psychology of clothing, and my own observation of professional  women in all walks of life, from the concert platform to the boardroom, I would suggest three simple guiding principles.

1. Be aware of what is custom and practice in the environment in which you are going to be moving.

2. The right accessories, or subtle accents on a garment, can make an impact, and a little goes a long way.

3. Well cut garments suited to your proportions say much more about you than the latest fashion trend.

Let’s leave the final words with  Coco Chanel  “Dress sharply and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably and they notice the woman”

Photos: Thanks to Kimball Andrew Schmidt

Briefing for Bespoke: Colour Analysis

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Colour WheelColour analysis is something that came into vogue in the 1980’s with the publishing of two books, one by Carole Jackson (Color me Beautiful) and the other, with a confusingly similar title (“Color me Beautiful’s” Looking your Best) by Mary Spillane. They rely on the theory known as ‘simultaneous contrast’ that was first propounded by the chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in the 19th century when he noticed how colours, when placed in combination, will influence the way in which they are perceived.

So for instance in this example, the grey rectangle in the upper Simultaneous Contrastsection appears to be lighter than that in the lower, although they are in reality the same.

The system you are most likely to come into contact with is that of Mary Spillane’s  Colour Me Beautiful organisation (CMB) which is now a global concern and operates through a number of franchises.  Others you may come across are the Wright System by Angela Wright,  and that developed by Barbara Jacques for her Academy of Colour and Style.

The CMB system, which accomodates all ethnic types, analyses a client from a colour palette that is divided  into four separate ‘seasons’: winter palettes are bright, cool and contrasting; spring palettes are predominantly tints that are warm and clear; summer palettes are tonal, cool and muted; and autumn palettes are mostly warm and rich shades. All are based on the three dimensions of colour: hue, saturation and value.  These are co-ordinated with the natural colouring of your hair, skin and eyes in order to determine which colours of clothes and make-up are most complimentary.  This is not to say that there are inherently good or bad colours, it is more a matter of emphasis in that some colours look well when matched with the right person and less impactful on the wrong person.

There are two important considerations in deciding whether you should wear warm or cool shades. The first is your complexion. Skin tone is a combination of melanin, keratin, and haemoglobin. It is melanin which gives the skin its brown tones; keratin gives the yellow tones, and haemoglobin gives the red tones.

The second most important consideration is the intensity or saturation of each colour in a range. Some people respond better to strongly contrasting and vivid colours, while others seem to be dominated by them.  A simple solution to this is to wear softer shades with subtle patterns that place an emphasis on face and personality. In most cases however people can play safe by wearing a garment which is of medium colour value.

Once you have established your basic colour palette you may well be able to reach over into tones from other other ‘seasons’, but first you need to establish your primary ‘season’ and how it works with your complexion.

This is a subtle but extremely effective fundamental for the way in which you start to build your wardrobe and a number of ‘colourists’ I have worked with in the past are still active with their corporate clients despite the downturn.  Here is an interesting, practical and simple standby that I picked up from them and it is that in a pinch, the correctly matched shade of lipstick alone can make a dramatic change in lifting your appearance.

Moth Alert!

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Clothes mothLast year there were a number of newspaper articles about plagues of moths that was insinuating themselves into our drawers and wardrobes.  At the end of 2008 I have to report that our ‘moth man’  is as active as ever.  I was particularly distressed to find that one of my favourite cashmere scarves now resembled one of those string vests so popular in the 60’s.  And it is not only clothes they attack.

A violinist friend of mine went to his violin case after a few days break to find that the horse hair on his violin bows now resembled a collection of spun sugar.  Moth balls are now de rigeur alongside his other equipment.

Apparently moths often set up a colony in your wool carpet and will migrate from this to your clothes.  There are a number of different treatments one can get, from impregnated cedar balls to the old fashioned napthelene moth balls, the smell of which used to hover in the air around one’s gramdparents.

One of the most effective treatments I have come across is something called a Demi-Diamond.  It has a chemical, harmless to humans and pets, which gives off female moth pheremones which prove to be devastatingly irrisistable to the male.  He ends up by coming to a sticky end on the adhesive pad to which is attached the small phial of attractant.  After that the females pine away.  One of my clients was alarmed to find that when she used them in her wardrobe, instead of the couple of moths she thought she had, a whole squadron had landed in the trap after only a couple of days.


Recognised as a pioneer of bespoke tailoring for women, Carol Alayne has over 25 years experience of creating striking garments for arts, sports and media personalities and business wear for professionals and executives.



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