Yesterday marked the four-year anniversary of my dad's death. I spent the day curled up on the couch with a throbbing headache that left little room for thoughts or grieving, so today I take on writing this piece that I've thought about for years, and I hope I can share a bit of him with you.
I owe BettyFelonFashions to my father. I owe my talents, my interest, and my creativity to him. He was the one that taught me to sew, and he was the one that first introduced me to fashion. Sadly, he never really got to see the business I created.
I started BettyFelonFashions in 2012 making reversible corset belts pretty exclusively, and kept it mostly as a hobby. It wasn't until half-way through 2014 that I started working with spandex and made my first swimsuit design -- the Black Catsuit. I enthusiastically sent photos of the design to him and received his praise. By that point though, his health was forefront on his (and my mind), so we didn't spend too much time discussing or finetuning the design together. Then on October 21, 2014 he died. I didn't do much sewing or designing in the year following his death. Following the first anniversary of his death I found a renewed sense of inspiration and in the New Year of 2016 I decided to launch full-time into building my designs and really launching BettyFelonFashions as a business rather than a hobby. Though he is gone, he has been in every step since the start.
My Dad's Role
My dad was an artist at heart. He drew with skill, took to photography like breathing, and created beauty in cooking and baking. And he sewed. He learned to sew in his early adult years out of necessity and determination. He didn't have enough money to purchase the suits he longed to wear, so he decided he would learn to make them for himself, and he did.
I don't remember when I learned to sew by hand with a needle and thread, but I know I had mastered this skill (as much as a child can) by the time my dad decided he was going to teach me to use the sewing machine when I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember in vivid flashes sitting with him in our dark and unfinished basement at the sewing table and Singer Sewing machine: the bright light from the bare lightbulb hanging above, casting harsh light. It wasn't glamorous, and I was wary of the machinery, but I was excited to be learning something new.
I remember my dad patiently showing me the mechanics of the machine, how to thread the needle and bobbin and how to make it "go." I remember the feel of the cool, cast iron foot pedal on my bare foot and the satisfying craddle and swing rhythm of it as we sewed together. I was hooked. My dad was nonchalant about it, but I think he was pleased to be able to introduce me to what would clearly become a passion. That point is somewhat strange to think about. My dad and I were frequently joking around with each other, but when it came to developing my skills he did not joke.
Turning Sewing Into Passion
I think the first thing he had me make on that sewing machine was a pouch. Next, I would make pants and t-shirts for my Barbie Dolls and Teddybears. Soon I was making the actual dolls and bears. My dad always urged me to use sewing patterns and I would acquiesce -- he knew more, of course -- but I would frequently grow frustrated with the tedium of the step by step and the confusion of blindly following instruction. I wanted to envision the whole project at once and see how each step worked together before assembling, and that I felt I could do on my own. That greatly influenced how I developed my craft. Now I always start with a preestablished base and then adapt my own patterns to produce the results I want. I think it's a compromise I make with him in my head, even today.
Like my dad, my interest in sewing developed from a necessity (my dolls and bears *needed* more clothing!), but with my father's further influence, my sewing became more about an expression of creativity and a reference to fashion. I didn't really "get" fashion initially. I remember my childhood bestfriend trying to explain to me the concept of "clashing" one day on the playground, and I just thought of it as an arbitrary fashion rule that I wouldn't deign to follow.
My dad used to regularly watch Fashion TV with the family when I was a kid. I still didn't get it. I didn't understand how the clothing was indeed clothing when it mostly flowed across and off the body of the runway model -- who, invariably looked nothing like adult women I'd ever seen. I remember each episode would always have at least one outfit with a sheer shirt and bouncing puffy nipples revealed underneath, as the model strutted down the runway. I really didn't get it. Still, we watched, and I sang along to the punchy musical intro with enthusiasm and waited to see what the runway would reveal; and, eventually, I started to appreciate the "clothing" as fashion and art.
As I grew older, I would excitedly flip through the pages of Vogue magazine and study the shapes and colours, designers I wanted to remember. I discovered the creativity of fashion designers to be able to make clothing that was so much more than just clothing, and I started to get it. I started to get excited about it. And my dad cheered me on.
His Absense & Presence
But he wasn't there for my first fashion show or craft market. He didn't get to see my designing skills flourish. He didn't get to have his opinions on my pieces and my strategies. So often I think of him as I sit at my sewing machine. I wonder if he'd still have things to teach me. I wonder if he'd see himself in my work. I wonder if he'd be excited to see my items in photos, on runways, on customers. Then I send him a thought of love and bittersweetly return to my practice.
I know my dad was special. So few men of his generation would even consider learning such a domestic "women's work" skill as sewing. My dad never paid any heed to notions like that. He was ambitious and strong-willed and endlessly creative: the first feminist man I ever knew. As a father, he was patient, nurturing, supportive, and loving. I try to infuse his spirit into the brand, in the hopes that I can honour his memory and help him to live on in my work.