Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.


Some days you just need to embrace your fashion self

October 28, 2008

So here is the moment, or one of them, I have been waiting for. It is not one that makes me particularly proud, but so what? I’m posting honest musings from an urban homesteader, not packaged ones. No gift wrap and bows here. Just the real dirt, inside and out.

So what’s the story? Well, for some reason I can barely stand to look at the garden these days. I walk outside, enjoy the last of the sunny autumn days, look at the garden beds planted with “green manure,” consider the few kale, sorrel, basil, pepper and yet-producing cucumber plants out there, and run back inside the house, exhausted by it all.

I can barely stand the notion of doing anything with my green tomatoes and feel nearly apathetic about the bountiful apple and pear harvest in full swing. Hell, last night I had the husband order a pizza.

I seem to be shutting down, turning off, lurching to the couch with a book and blanket when I should be scurrying around in the final punch of putting foods by. I think I’m experiencing blowback. Yeah, I have reason to be tired, and no one would fault me the efforts I have put into this life, but so what? That’s what this life is about. How is it that I’m feeling indifferent to the bounty? Where is that reason-for-the-season spirit?

Still life with shoes.

Now I have always been honest with you. I’m not doing all this work in the garden or kitchen because I’m either a half-wit or a purist. There is real cause for the effort, but I have always made a point of outing myself lest someone turn me into a role model. Hell, that would be too much to bear. I’ve got my happy-in-the-garden days and days, like the ones I have been experiencing lately, that depress me. Days when I think the only thing to do is gussy up and go shoe shopping. Yep, you heard me. I went to the mall.

Now I can’t say it was all that satisfying. I did like getting dressed up, but I’ve got real history dressing up. You see, I was raised on Vogue fashions. My father was an old-world tailor, apprenticed in Europe where the trade really meant something. He landed his first job within a few days after coming off the boat and stayed in the finest fashion houses in New York City throughout his career.

More importantly to me, however (I was a self-involved teenager, after all), was the fine personal tailoring I enjoyed and the shoes, hats, gloves, blouses, and miscellaneous accessories he would bring home after the season’s runway show. Ooh la la, kid-leather pumps and matching gloves. I know you feel for me.

Not only was my father sure to supply me with the best of the fashion world, but he himself was impeccable in every way. Tailored suits, cufflinks, silk ties, crisp shirts (which he always ironed), polished shoes, and never, ever, a T-shirt and jeans. I mean never. We were a stylish family, and not just by his urging. Nope, it was in the genes. If Marcus (my dad) was a fashion maven, I was his disciple.

I don’t think there was ever a time when I wasn’t interested in making a fashion statement. Even my fall from fashion grace during the late 1960s was peppered with design. I was the kid hanging out at the park in white silk slacks and tie-dye.

So giving up the fashion ghost has not been easy for me. In fact, I distinctly remember the moment at the Seattle WTO symposium and protests when I knew I would have to kick Paris fashions to the curb. No joke. It was a grieving of sorts, since it had always been a fantasy of mine to shop in the salons of Paris and send the outfits to my hotel room where I would engage in a personal viewing for my doting young lover (hey, if you’re going to indulge in make-believe . . .). Of course, I wasn’t completely frivolous. Sending the lover off to school in the morning (OK, law school if it makes you feel better), I would ring room service for the salt-of-the-earth — good coffee and the perfect croissant — to be enjoyed on my balcony overlooking the city.

So you see, I can relate to anyone struggling with this movement. I understand there are sacrifices that are sometimes too hard to bear. Luckily I have lived in Portland since 1978, which is long enough for a full fashion detox to take hold. God only knows what would have happened if I had to go cold turkey. I mean, until recently there was no real sense of style in this town; at least not one faithful to Paris fashions, fine tailoring, and even finer fabrics. Nope, this is/was a ready-to-wear town in Gortex and fleece. But old habits die hard. My husband still has to remind me that you don’t have to dress to go downtown.

So you’d think I’d be over it all by now. You’d think I would put my fancy self to rest since fashion is part of the poodle-ing of America I complain about. So what gives? Why did I feel particularly saucy prancing around in my latter-day Carnaby Street outfit the other day? Oh, I tried to play it down like it (or I) wasn’t really all that hot (you know the drill), but just as I was doing the full prance, I was busted by a friend registering voters in front of the post office. Holy crap. Talk about immediate karma.

“Don’t you look nice,” is what she said, but I figure there was some degree of judgment going on. Not that she’s kind of gal. Really, I think she struggles with the cost of caring as much as I do. Well, maybe as much, or else has come to terms with it in a way I have not. Still, I do a lot of big talking, so it seems fair if she did find fodder for a little gossip: “Guess which urban homesteader I saw today doing the hot trot?” Of course, she probably never even thought to mention it, but I felt both silly and sassy. In truth, I would have deserved a bit of it.

I would have preferred, I suppose, to be found signing up voters on the last day of registration than being caught doing the runway walk, but I wasn’t. It was a consolation of sorts that I was at the post office sending off the certified letter and check to the mortgage company. Honestly, I think my friend was more impressed with my shoes. They were pretty nice.

So today I am writing to say it happens. That in between the clear moves towards solutions are the moments when you just have to go back into the closet and pick out the furthest thing from a pair of overalls you can find. You need to embrace your fashion self or fine-dining self or high-living-in-high-style self, because it was all something to behold. But it is still a part of stuff we never imagined it would be, and that is true too. It is all so strange and sad some days. Sad to witness the passing of a lifestyle you never imagined could be so injurious to the planet.

So that’s today’s musing from the urban homesteader. Keep reading. Tomorrow (or someday) I will tell you how to hand-stitch a pair of old overalls into a sexy backyard party dress. Honestly, I once tried.

There are 3 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Holly on Oct 29, 2008 at 8:58 AM PDT

I have a visceral but unfocused reaction to this. The first thing I thought was, Why should you have to apologize for having a sense of style? Where is it written that in order to be TRULY environmentally and socially conscious, you have to be frumpy?

The fashion industry is, of course, tremendously wasteful. The idea that one would buy something ridiculously overpriced, made from rarified materials stitched by slave labor, and wear it for a single season (maybe only once), is indeed a passe’ concept.

But Harriet, I don’t even know you, and I seriously doubt you buy anything, wear it once and then throw it away. You strike me as the kind of woman who buys things with enduring value and wears them for 20 years.

And what about me? I’m a semi-professional stitcher. I make many of my own clothes, or alter almost everything I buy. I have been known to buy old leather garments and remake them. I insist on buying things made from natural, if not organic, fibers--silk, wool, & cotton--because they last the longest and I can alter them when they’re out of style. I’m better-dressed than almost everyone in my office, because a) my clothes fit, and b) they’re made of better fabric. And I probably paid less for them.

I say, to every vegetable there is a season, and for every outing there is an outfit. I wear Italian leather boots to my office job, army-surplus combat boots to work on the house and garden, and $25 Keds to tai chi class. I’ll wear them all until they fall apart.

As long as you’re not wasting what you’ve got, I don’t see any reason to feel guilty.

2. by Fasenfest on Oct 29, 2008 at 5:33 PM PDT

Thanks Holly,

You are right, I do not have to apologize for having style. Sorry if that was your impression. What I was saying is that fashion generally does not fit in my world these days. I don’t give it the time or effort I used to. I have other priorities.

So it was funny to see myself reach for the fancy clothes. Or maybe it was odd to see me do it in reaction to my exhaustion with growing and putting up food. I mean going shopping? How textbook. I’m not sure I felt all that better when it was all said and done.

So that was really the point. I felt like it was a default position even though I get why others embrace it whole heartedly. Hell, I used to love it all and have not stopped because someone told me I had to be frumpy to be green. I stopped because my life changed. Where I spend my days changed. How I see the world changed. Not that I can’t high five great fashion sense it’s just not me all that much anymore. And to be honest, it’s kinda liberating.

So sorry if you got the wrong impression. I was just laughing at myself and doing it in front of others cause my homesteading posts can be a little, well, high-minded. Not that fashion is the fall but that talking tall invites a few dives.

3. by giovannaz on Nov 1, 2008 at 3:35 PM PDT

Occasional dives are fine--they make one human. For this reader, they also make what you write about seem more humanly possible--if you didn’t have a swoop now and then, I’d have to dismiss all you do as impossible for me! Besides, a little style is always nice.

As for the friend at the post office, maybe she felt just as sheepish, getting credit when she was only spending an hour-and-a-half registering voters?

P.S...the only judgment was on the shoes. They were really, really, nice.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Our Table

Joy of Cooking app

A new tool for the kitchen

The latest in our collection of cooking apps.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice