Bill Cunningham’s Uniform

Bill Cunningham at Fashion Week. Photo: Jiyang Chen.

Bill Cunningham at Fashion Week. Photo: Jiyang Chen.

Some time ago and to much favorable response, Kelly announced her equivalent of a moon shot: the sewing and deployment of a practical, everyday uniform. With pockets, of course. Like most NASA scale projects, there have been cost overruns, delays and setbacks. Hopefully she’ll be getting back to it soon.

One person that did figure out a personal uniform was the late New York Times fashion and society photographer Bill Cunningham, the subject of an entertaining documentary you can watch in Netflix, “Bill Cunningham New York.” Cunningham had an eye for creative people, not necessarily rich or connected, with a sense of fashion. He cared little for the niceties of life, preferring to dine on $3 sandwiches, get around on a bicycle and sleep in his studio surrounded by filing cabinets full of 35mm negatives.

He also managed to engineer a uniform for himself in keeping with his frugal lifestyle, but at the same time, oddly stylish. Wherever Cunningham went you’d see him in a French worker’s jacket or bleu de travail. Reading between the lines in the documentary, it seems like he’d stock up on them when the Times would send him to Paris.

Blue worker’s shirts and jackets have a long history in all Western countries including the U.S. It’s the origin, of course, of “blue collar.” American uniform shops carry something similar but I like the cut and pockets of the French and German versions better (hint to American uniform manufacturers: you should bring back your vintage patterns and slimmer sizes!). Some enterprising Etsy folks have shops devoted to vintage European uniforms. Here’s a French uniform shop selling them for around 18€ (a steal at $20 USD–no wonder Cunningham liked them!).

So enterprising homesteaders, I’m handing you an entrepreneurial opportunity. Buy a pallet of European worker’s uniforms and open yourself a boutique or sell them on Amazon. I’m very surprised no one has tried the latter.

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Julian the Apostate’s Sleeping Advice: Sleep on the Ground and Your Mattress is Freeeeeeeeeee

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Ever since meeting Michael Garcia and Stephanie Wing-Garcia, inventors of the sand mattress that we profiled in a blog post and podcast, I’ve been thinking about the terrible mattress that Kelly and I sleep on and the possibility that the way we sleep contributes to aches and pains later in life. It’s possible that the softness of our mattresses are making our muscles and bones weak, just like the terrible running shoes and orthotics that ruin our feet and collapse our arches.

It turns out that the last pagan Roman emperor has ideas about how we should sleep. Ammianus Marcellinus’ Roman History Book I, contains a description of emperor Julian the Apostate’s austere sleeping habits:

And when the night was half over, he always got up, not from a downy couch or silken coverlets glittering with varied hues, but from a rough blanket and rug, which the simple common folk call susurna.

The Loeb edition of Marcellinus’ Roman History defines susurna as, “A coarse blanket made from the fur or hide of an animal.” 

Julian slept this way so as to stay in a state of readiness during his Gaul campaign and as way to prevent falling into the trap of luxury and flattery that consumed so many of his predecessors. His habits remind me of a couple I met who, despite being well into their 70s and living in a fashionable downtown apartment, slept on the floor so as to be always prepared for their beloved hobby: hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

Bonus idea: clothes as mattress

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In researching the susurna, I discovered another ancient Roman sleeping hack. A cloak made from a square piece of cloth that succeeded the toga in the late Roman period, called the pallium (Ancient Greek ἱμάτιον) could also double as a blanket or bedding. Isn’t it time to revive this idea?

Our neighborhood is fashion forward enough to allow folks to strut around in a pallium without much blowback particularly if you’re a young hipster. I predict that soon after I spot the first pallium wearer at our local Trader Joes, REI will come out with “tech” palliums suitable for hiking, urban philosophizing and sleeping.

Addendum: Kelly pointed out to me that fantasy literature is full of examples of cloaks doubling as bedding. 

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A Halloween Mouth of Truth

We are lucky to live on a block with a lot of friendly, creative people. Last year on Halloween, two of our neighbors did an elaborate Mount Olympus/Hades themed candy giveaway, while another, a professional DJ, turned on all his professional lighting equipment and smoke machines in addition to a full laser light show. This year all of these attractions returned with the addition of a new contribution from Kelly: a candy dispensing Mouth of Truth.

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The original Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verità) is a first century fountain or manhole cover on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy. A folk tradition holds that if you stick your hand in the mouth you have to tell the truth or else your hand will be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth had its fifteen minutes of fame back in 1953 when it was featured in the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie Roman Holiday.

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Kelly’s Mouth of Truth remix featured a puppet tongue that alternately gave candy and tugged on kid’s hands. It was a big hit. We had huge crowds and gave up around 9 pm after serving approximately 300 delighted customers (and two completely terrified toddlers).

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Zeus put down his cardboard thunderbolt and took a break from handing out candy two doors down at Mount Olympus to visit the Mouth of Truth.

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Our friend John donned his cat suit and acted as Mouth of Truth interpreter, explaining the the concept to the many hundreds of costumed kids.

img_1842Kelly donned a witch’s hat, in spite of the fact that she was out of view the whole evening performing the arduous task of tongue puppetry for three hours. I dispensed cheese, crackers and cocktails to visiting adults in the adjoining garage.

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John suggested that, next year, we create a giant candy dispensing Zardoz head as a tribute to this nearly unwatchable “so bad it’s good” 1974 Sean Connery science fiction vehicle.

zardoz-21No, I will not to wear Sean Connery’s Zardoz costume.

Zardoz costume aside, the fun that Halloween provides really helps get to know neighbors. We need more festivals in our lives like this, where we take a break from day to day concerns and work together, on the neighborhood level, to create space for joy and unity.

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Shedcropolis: A Garden Shed Made From (Mostly) Salvaged Materials

sideviewKelly requested a small shed to keep our garden tools, pots and fertilizer. I was not satisfied with either the small and ugly plastic storage structures nor the large, fake barn-like sheds available at the big box stores so I vowed to build my own. In a September blog post I wrote about my eccentric design process. Today, I’m declaring the world’s most pretentious garden shed, a.k.a. “Shedcropolis,” finished.

fencinggripFor materials, I sourced salvaged 2x4s and a window from the ReUse People of America. I finished the interior wall with pegboard from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Two doors found on the street got incorporated into the project. I even managed to turn a fencing grip into a door handle. The only things I needed to purchase at the big orange store were a few 2x6s, some plywood, metal roofing material and siding. If I had been a little more patient I could have sourced the Hardie board siding when it showed up at the ReStore a week later.

frontviewHow I got the columns is a funny story. We live on a hill and I enjoy watching house remodeling projects going on in the neighborhood through a pair of binoculars that I keep next to the door. One day I was watching the transformation of a run-down bungalow into a posh pad for Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, the cinematographer of The Revenant, Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men among other superb films. I just happened to witness the workers ripping the old columns off the porch. I immediately jumped in the car and drove over. The workers were more than happy to give me the columns as it saved them space in their dumpster. If I were one of those east coast reporters who drop into LA to write up a stereotype-heavy article I’d have to note my shed’s “celebrity columns.”

Or maybe I should call the shed “Chivocropolis.” But then we’d have to get goats.

A Cheap and Easy DIY Sewing Cutting Table

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Kelly, tired of hunching over the floor while she works on sewing her uniform, asked me to make a cutting table for her tiny sewing room, which is located in a vintage 1920s shed in our backyard. Using the Garden Fork TV ethos, “done is better than perfect,” plus a time limit of one day, I set to the task.

Cutting table dimensions
A cutting table should be just a bit lower than your palm when your elbow is bent at 90 degrees. Architectural Graphics Standards suggests that work tables be in the 36-inch to 38-inch range. My parents met in a club for tall people and Kelly’s dad played basketball in college which means that work table height around our compound needs to be higher. I ended up going with 36 inches, since that’s the size of the bathroom cabinets I scavenged for the project. I may end up raising the table, at some point, when I’m in less of a hurry to get things done.

Opinions about width and length for cutting tables vary in the sewing community. At minimum, a cutting table should be at least 3 feet by 6 feet. Slightly wider and longer would be better but there’s not enough room in Kelly’s 10 by 12-foot shed.

cheapandeasyMaking a cheap and easy work table
When I built my workshop I discovered a formula for creating work surfaces. I used a similar process to make the cutting table.

Step one: go to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore or ReUse People of America and find two or more matching kitchen or bathroom cabinets.

Step two: get a sheet of melamine at the big orange store.

Step three: cut the sheet of melamine to size. To do that I bought a plywood blade for my circular saw (I don’t own a table saw). I clamped a scrap of plywood to the board as a guide and ran piece of masking tape along where the cut to prevent chipping. You could also get the lumber yard to do this for you.

Step four: attach the melamine to the cabinets with screws.

Step five: Apply iron-on edging tape to the melamine to cover the edges.

Step six: Pop open a beverage of your choice and call it a day.

Look closely and you’ll see that Kelly’s cutting table also accommodates 20 gallons of emergency water since that’s how she rolls.

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