Bronwyn Polaschek

A New Velvet Jumpsuit

My love of clothes interests me profoundly: only it is not love; and what it is I must discover.
Virginia Woolf

 

It is wrapped in tissue paper infused with small, silvery discs that are a cross between sequins and glitter. A few of the discs stick to the black velvet after I unwrap it. This is my new One Teaspoon Velvet Night Lover Jumpsuit in Luxe Black. Style code 24610.

I usually avoid the moral dilemma involved in buying new clothes by stocking my wardrobe from Trade Me or op shops. Second-hand is ethical, I tell myself. The thrill of clothes that are new-to-me is purer. Of course, there is an argument that buying second-hand still fuels our consumption addiction. The point is to have less, not to find workarounds for owning stuff.

Today though, I didn’t buy second-hand at all. I bought full price.

 

I

When it comes to choosing clothes as a woman there’s always the question of my feminist credentials. Yes, feminists do use fashion for political purposes—“suffragettes must not be dowdy,” Emmeline Pankhurst apparently said—but then a central premise of second-wave feminism is to counter the objectification of women. Perhaps Virginia Woolf felt conflicted about clothes for the very reason that I do. She wanted to be taken seriously and being interested in something as superficial as the literal surface of people doesn’t seem particularly deep. The joy of fashion, the throb of desire, the visceral pleasure of wearing the right thing, does not sit well with rejecting to-be-looked-at-ness.

I grew up with a feminist mother who was almost entirely disinterested in fashion. She still doesn’t notice people’s clothes or haircuts. I thought this was the ‘right’ feminist way to be. It’s easy to demean a love of clothes, and it’s consistent with a view of femininity as shallow and silly and emotional. But Woolf, Frida Kahlo, Katherine Mansfield, Simone de Beauvoir and so many others loved a great frock. And there’s the generous, usable pockets in my new jumpsuit, a statement of female personhood if ever there was one: the woman who wears this garment has things to carry!

Fashion denotes a personal sense of identity. What we wear marks us—the groups we identify with, our politics, our image of ourselves. Most of us conform (right now, it’s fast fashion, contrived casualness, branded cool, active wear). Some don’t. Fashion gives us so many opportunities for minor rebellions. The schoolgirl who rolls the waist of her skirt once she leaves the grounds to lift her hemline. Our own Hilary Barry who takes on the haters when they object to her cleavage or shoulders. I’ve always loved the subversion of wearing a single rolled up trouser leg, as favoured by a select group, mainly young men. It’s such an easy thing to do—a fashion option for any of us who wear trousers—but the difficulty of pulling it off when walking down the street is immense.   

Buying the full-price Velvet Night Lover Jumpsuit is an unusual act for me. It is an extraordinary act for any person at all. How many people right now or in history have been able to purchase an item of clothing that is entirely for pleasure? It will be worn of course, but it is by no means necessary. I have enough clothes. And no one needs a velvet jumpsuit. It will not keep me particularly warm nor protect me from anything really. If I have to survive a disaster in this jumpsuit, I will almost certainly end up running around in my shirt and underwear like Linda Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure. This jumpsuit is urbanite styling for people who choose clothes as a matter of expressing the ‘self’.

A velvet jumpsuit then. As a piece of clothing, it’s potentially divisive. Certainly, more controversial in 2022 than a denim boiler suit or bold print dress. Its primary characteristics are its velvetness and jumpsuitness. It is also wide-legged with the aforementioned pockets and is black (my unoriginal favourite clothing colour: it’s both classic, and very Wellington, a sign of someone who chooses autumn over summer).

To me, velvet is a little bit royal, a touch bohemian, a pinch rock star. It is fundamentally satisfying to touch. It is a tiny bit old-ladyish, but I’m okay with that. I think old ladies as a concept are cool, and I hope to turn into one myself. I could actually wear this jumpsuit into my seventies, when I walk my two hypothetical post-retirement dogs, Betty and Duncan.

Before the jumpsuit, I sampled velvet, mainly in jackets. I have two great black velvet jackets, both bought from the Sallies. One originally from Max which is the perfect suit jacket shape, single-breasted, three buttons, with a slight puff to the shoulders. It’s always been a bit small, a commitment to put on because it takes a few wriggles to remove. Still, it’s so close to perfect I almost didn’t buy the Voon jacket I found, which fits my broad shoulders beautifully, and is cropped a little short to sit above the waist. Both jackets now fall into the category of those op shop purchases you feel slightly vertiginous about when you imagine missing them on the rack. My Night Lover jumpsuit is a more committed sartorial step in velvet. Full-bodied this time, which means unlike a jacket it can’t be removed during the day if I begin to feel too gothy.

The jumpsuit is a relatively new wardrobe innovation for me. It feels contemporary. A dress except with trousers. But if The Devil Wears Prada taught me anything, it’s that what I choose to wear was selected for me a long time ago by an elite group of much cooler people in a room in New York. At some point, maybe two, three years ago, perhaps longer, ‘they’ must have decided to bring back the overall/jumpsuit/boiler suit iteration as an edgy option for womenswear. In fashion terms, I am very late to the jumpsuit party.

 

II

This velvet jumpsuit I am unwrapping was made somewhere, with something, by someone, and then shipped to Matamata, where I bought it. The chain of commerce. There is the familiar obscureness of it—where is the velvet from? Is it from a sustainable source? (No. From the One Teaspoon website: “We’ve taken steps since the beginning of 2018 to increase more sustainable fabrics within our collections.” But this does not include luxe velvet.) Where was the garment even manufactured? On the label it says “India” but... where? By who? I type into Google: “Is One Teaspoon an ethical brand?” and read that it’s using more sustainable denim and has boycotted cashmere after a campaign by PETA. Small steps then. This is a depressingly archetypal consumer experience—the lovely velvet jumpsuit I’ve just unwrapped has an origin story I’ll never fully know.  

When I bought it, I thought wrongly that One Teaspoon was a label from Aotearoa New Zealand. This gave my questionable full-price new purchase a degree of moral purity, but one I don’t like to dig into very carefully. I am no patriot after all; why should the livelihoods of New Zealanders be any more precious than those of someone else? That way a dark jingoistic path lies.

What then of the brand itself with its intriguing cookbook name? I go to the One Teaspoon website. Flicking through, I see a diversity of models in terms of ethnicity—they’re not all blue-eyed blondes—but I don’t see much in the way of a variety of body sizes or shapes. Extreme thinness is the look with thigh gaps and clavicles that cast dark shadows. It’s not all hostile depression chic. Some of the models pose using teethy open smiles. In the ‘sale’ section a brunette wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Sex is Fun”, which chimes with the name and values and perhaps implicit expectations of my jumpsuit. The experience of scrolling through the website reminds me of how I feel when I walk into Glassons these days and wonder, “Is this still okay in my 42-ness?”

While One Teaspoon is not based in New Zealand, the shop I bought the jumpsuit from most certainly is. Shed is a locally owned business that has faced tough times with Covid and conservative small-town politics. My sister-in-law AP works there. She grew up on a farm near Tīrau and has one of the best wardrobes of anyone I know. She has the One Teaspoon velvet jumpsuit too (I first saw it hanging in her closet) and looks incredible in their Zebra Safari Camp Overall. Style code 24571. She buys her OT at cost price. While I’m browsing, AP brings me Zambesi trousers to try on—just for fun. “If people ask my opinion, I’m always honest,” she tells me. “Because I know their friends will be when they get it home.” For me, then, buying new from Shed is more than buying local—it is personal, familial. A few dollars of my purchase might make it into the apples and Milo my farm-boy nephews eat voraciously.

Buying the jumpsuit, I feel excited—those familiar instant gratification endorphins—and slightly sick to my stomach. It is an entirely ambivalent experience. The ill part asks how such active participation in capitalist, consumer culture can ever be justified. There are questions of class, power and exploitation. This jumpsuit is undoubtedly a product of Marxian alienated labour. Wearing it is a statement of privilege, however you slice it.

When I was at my uniformed intermediate, age 12, another student in my class asked me, “How are your socks so white?” I hadn’t noticed but when I looked, I saw that our socks were starkly different. Mine were the perfect fluffy-pencil-case white. Hers were yellowed, an unpleasant toughened cream. It was only years later that I realised the answer. How I got my socks so white was for my mother to buy new, expensive ones. The student asking the question was wearing hand-me-downs, owned by several older siblings first, and cheap to begin with. So, my socks were white. Hers were not. It created a straightforward distinction of fashion habitus. My not noticing the difference was its own kind of privilege. I didn’t even think to be sock-self-conscious as she clearly was.

Buying this jumpsuit reminds me I am compromised. I have no option to be outside of an unethical and polluting system of production, just choices about how I skirt the boundaries. My starting point is always already being inside it. I find it unbearable to ask the question: How can I buy this jumpsuit with what I know about the state of this polluted, capitalist, unethical world?

 

III

Buying a Velvet Night Lover Jumpsuit is a complicated decision in an uber-consumerist era. The pleasure is real but also profoundly uneasy.

A wise friend once commented that any thinking person right now should be on anti-depressants. The same friend once loved a new denim jacket so much she slept in it. I return to both memories as an unconscious reflex time and time again. The first points to how compromised we can feel in this world; the second is a remarkable act of complete and utter pleasure. My question is how they fit together.

If joy by its very nature is unmitigated, how can it exist with this knotty tangle of feelings and thoughts and impulses to dilute it? What joy can there be in something like fashion when the planet is burning? Perhaps I should seek mine in purer places—sunsets, native trees, the idiosyncratic calls of the tūī who live in the tī kōuka trees outside our house. Pleasure is now so bound up with materialism it is impossible to extricate it.

But I opened this piece using a quote as armour. The great Woolf declaring her intrigue at her feelings about fashion. Zadie Smith takes it a step further: “I love clothes,” she says. “Love them.” I’m with her.    

I will wear my velvet jumpsuit. I’ll love it. This will trouble me.

 

 

 

 





Bronwyn Polaschek

Bronwyn Polaschek lives on a hill in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She is a mother all the time, a teacher most of the time, and, sometimes, a writer. 

Image credit Jay Gavin Scott