Prerecorded and posted: July 29th, 2021
Rachel Elspeth Gross
Rachel Elspeth Gross 00:00
Hi, everyone we're back with I Can Do That I'm here today with Justine Larbalestier. And we are here to talk about all kinds of things related to fashion and writing. So Justine Hi.
Justine Larbalestier 00:13
Rachel Elspeth Gross 00:13
How are you today?
Justine Larbalestier 00:14
Yeah, thanks for asking me.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 00:16
So we're thrilled to have you here. Would you talk a little bit about your work, we always like to kind of start with what you do.
Justine Larbalestier 00:22
What I do what I have done full time since 2003, has at least this century, is write. Primarily novels, some short stories, I was still at the tail end of my scholarly career at that time. So I had a scholarly anthology of essays about feminist science fiction come out. And I was still doing the occasional article. My, my novels have been across a wide range of genres. And what I learned very early on as a writer is that if you want to work full time, you need to be able to write a wide range. So that the more kind of strings you have to your bow, as my mother used to say, and the more possibilities you have all selling work, and making money and paying the rent. So I mostly, I mean, I wrote my first fiction was a fantasy trilogy, set in New York, in Sydney, which are the two places on earth that I know the best. And then I, you know, I wrote a comedy about fairies set in a completely different universe. I wrote, I've written psychological thrillers that I'm actually very easily scared. So if I'm scaring myself, as I write them, I feel like it isn't working. But but all my all my books are always about other things. And fashion comes up in all. And I have always been obsessed with what we wear, why we wear it, and what it means and how you can shape who you are in the world with clothes and, you know, glasses and a necklace and a bird. You know, and the way some people have a signature styles and kind of wear the same thing all the time. You know, for quite a while there, Janelle Monae was very into tuxedos and having her hair with the quiz, and that was a whole thing. But now she's moved on to other looks, which I also find that very exciting. But then you have some like Diane Keaton, who's kind of been locked in the same basic look for decades, and the same kind of basic color palette of black and white, you know, maybe a red lip, and very tailored and very kind of, you know, slightly met at the masculine and, and then she looks immaculate, just amazing and maintains this one style. And you know what I'm really interested. I mean, my problem is I'm interested in everything, narrowing it down to different kind of book projects that I'm working on. Like this, um, you know, I'm working on a picture book about a cube ruining her favorite sock and figuring out how to mend it. I love that. Yeah, I mean, I think all of us come up against, we have that favorite favorite item of clothing, we wear it all the time, and then it breaks in some way. And most of us have no idea what to do. So, you know, I have been doing hands on research. You know, I don't, I never learned how to solder. There was there was still Home Economics when I was a kid. But, you know, I was one of those girls who was very anti anything girly, which is actually incredibly sexist. But I realized that I'm appalled by it now. Like, you know, you couldn't have made me wear pink. I was one of those guys. But sort of now, decades later, learning how to many things. You know, and I have, over the years developed, you know, a close relationship with the best tailor wherever I'm, you know, wherever I live, right? And so this is wonderful woman and Andrea at the tailoring tailoring room. And you know, whenever something breaks, the first thing I do before All right, with except myself is take it to her and say, What would you do? This is something I need you to do or do, you know, I could do it myself. You know, and she, you know, she takes me takes me through and you know, and she's repaired a lot of my clothes because my goal is to keep everything for as long as possible that's never to go on land. Before you know, when it when it's unwearable, that is when I use it to polish my boots. That is use it to put over the top of the Steena. So I don't spray wet at my clothes. Like there's a lot of things you can do.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 05:38
Yeah, its like polishing, I mean, cleaning your furniture up for sure. Not I understand what you mean, there's I did learn how to sew, I went to fashion design school. And I knew my mom. So she taught me and I was a child. But still, there are things that I'm terrified to do for myself, especially if it's like, I don't know, altering, tailoring specifically. And there's a lady at a store in my town where, you know, sometimes it's not worth putting a zipper back in a pair of jeans. So labor intensive. Yeah, I completely understand. So, um, what would you say we were talking about vintage, we were talking about the importance of sustainability, and I'll put in clothes and the land fills. I read a lot of the stuff that you wrote on your blog online, which is amazing. And I know that you've got some very strong moral beliefs about all of this. Do you want to kind of fill us in a little?
Justine Larbalestier 06:34
Yeah, I mean, we're in the middle of a, you know, a global crisis. And too many governments not taking it seriously. That the weather is getting hotter is getting colder is getting more extreme and, and is killing more and more and more people. So the beginning of 2020, at the end of 2019, I was in Sydney, Australia. And we were having the worst bushfire season without a hat. And even though it's in the City of Sydney, I couldn't go out none of us could go outside for like weeks at a time. Because the air quality was so bad. You couldn't breathe without like special apparatus. And the the fires that are going on what north of those there were south of us. And there was a west of us, kind of the whole state was on fire.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 07:32
I remember when I was on the news. I mean, there was it was terrible.
Justine Larbalestier 07:34
yeah, more COVID everybody forgot about it. But you know, and right now, as I'm sure all of North Americans are aware, there are fires burning, you know, all up the West Coast. In Canada, a bunch of Australian firefighters have just flown to Canada, to help with the logistics, which is something a lot of people don't know. But the the countries with the biggest kind of firefighting expertise, regularly send people back and forth. American firefighters came to help that sound cheery, and in fact, I think one or two of them were killed. It was awful. Yeah, but all of this is a direct result of climate change. COVID is a direct result of climate change, because we're impinging on the habitats of these animals. So animals end up going in closer to cities. And, you know, because their habitats have been destroyed. And cities are actually pretty easy pickings for food for for starving animals. Because, you know, we throw a lot of food out onto the streets and typically secured bins and so on. So, you know, and a lot of people just like throw that food on the ground, you know, which animals can but the closer we get to wild animals, the more likely we are to exchange diseases. Yeah. So everything is linked is is you know, and, and fashion, the fashion industry is a huge part of it, because everybody wears clothes. Everybody at some point, throws those clothes away, or donate them. But a lot of the donated clothes don't end up in thrift stores and don't get reused. They end up in landfills, or they get sent to Africa where some of it does get reused, but the amount of energy in transporting those volumes of clothes around the world, often to countries that don't want them. We're getting huge pressure from the west to accept our cars. I mean, it's endless.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 09:48
There's a lot of hills to definitely understand. I mean, I grew up in Los Angeles and I lived there until I was like 16 and there were fires but they were not the way that they are right now. And I think, you know, we can all look at our own lives, and we can see how increasingly drastically things are changing. So I know one of the ways that you work on this, personally is through these challenges that you you've been doing on your on your Instagram account, you find, I mean, they're awesome to watch. And sometimes your taste and mind sync up, you end up posting about the same thing. How did you how did you make that decision to start?
Justine Larbalestier 10:31
Um, so I, I kind of reached a point where I want to write any more psychological thrillers because, yeah, I was finding them really distressing. And, but they are my most popular books, they're what publishers want from me. So I was trying to think of ways to kind of write what I want to write, and it got very sick. So I got this weird autoimmune disease, which cut down my productivity enormously. And that was at a time, whereas in the middle of, and of yet another psychological thriller, and I was like, really not wanting to write it at all. And it just made me think, like, you know, obviously, I'm gonna have to prioritize my health. What do I want to write? What do I care about what tone I'm gonna research? And, you know, I come from a scholarly background, I have a PhD in semiotics essentially, wasn't actually a semiotics department when I got it. So I did semiotics within an English department, but
Rachel Elspeth Gross 11:39
Justine Larbalestier 11:40
It is what I was doing. So in the semiotics is literally the study of how we make meaning, you know, of how we signify and it means that you get, you can study what ever you want. twice as much meaning Yeah, or I, you know, even back then I was really, there are various things around fashion that I very much wanted to study. But, um, there was no fashion study, like, there was just nothing at the University of Sydney, no one I could get as a supervisor. So, you know, that was one of the main ideas just went out the window. And they ended up, you know, working on constructions of agenda and sex in science fiction during the mid century, specifically in America. And that grew out of the archive, that Sydney University, this one collecter, donated all his science fiction. And he was a wealthy man who spent all his money. So it was full with these sort of amazing stories.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 12:47
Oh my god that sounds like a treasure chest.
Justine Larbalestier 12:49
And I was allowed to sit down in the park, and it was not about this catalog. So I sat down there, like, between these, you know, magazines off the shelf, and very carefully, and you know, that archival white gloves kind of reading through? Yeah, and it was, it was really fun. So, you know, I learned how to research and but the fashion, the science fiction magazines fascinated me as well, I wanted to write about that, but there's no way to kind of make it work. So yeah, I, this is what I've been passionate about my whole life, my whole life, I've swung back and forth between wearing what I want to wear and getting hassled and then trying to fit in and just not really liking it. And like the beautiful thing about getting me all that is you just don't care what anyone thinks, um, you know, we should have taken me longer, but it happens. Just like me. So now, you know, I wherever I wherever I want. But I was coming into it to really take it seriously at a time when a lot of the scholarship around fashion a lot of conversation and journalism around fashion was about its impacts on climate change in the world. So and because of my illness, I lost a lot of weight. And I thought I would be able to put the weight back on and I can't. But it meant that no of my clothes fit me anymore. So like, how is it gonna get new clothes and how is I going to do it in an ethically and sustainable way? So you know, first of all, I figured out how to wear dresses that were too big. So I would get a waistcoat that fit me and wear that over the dress. And boom, you have this cool look. And you know that I live in New York City. There are literally five vintage stores within like a three minute walk for me. So you know, I went vintage shopping and you know, it's not it's not fast fashion cheap. But it is cheaper than buying brand new semi archy for there, which there are a lot of there are a lot of designers I love very much. And you know, the first pay packet I ever had, I saved up to buy a designer dress from my favorite store in Sydney. So I've always, yeah, I've always been irresponsible to spending money on fashion.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 13:11
You are in a very good club, let me tell you.
Justine Larbalestier 15:40
in my defense, I still have those clothes, I used to have a lot of stuff from the 90s. You know, and I still wear it, and it still works. And I'm trying like, at an individual level, we can all buy less. We can all buy used clothes, clothes, on consignment clothes from thrift stores, you know, something my mum won't wear anymore that we think is really cool. Or a cousin we can swap clothes with friends are like I'm bored of this or it doesn't fit me anymore. So there are a lot of ways to still get that rush of the new, but not add to the sum total of the ways in which we hurt the planet.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 16:28
No, I think it's so important. I mean, clothing has this power, you can put on the right outfit. You can it's like armor. I said this on the show a lot. But I really believe it's true, that there's something intangible that very important about the sense of self competence, you can give yourself with what you're wearing. And that doesn't have to come from any specific thing. But it's important. I know that if I feel cute, I have a better day. And yes, that's probably a little superficial.
Justine Larbalestier 16:57
No thats, one of the things that come at in like it's been like, getting on for three years of just pretty much any reading about fashion. And you know, and I'm reading from every direction. I'm becoming with obsessed with books on how to dress, especially mid century ones, but I also really enjoy the ones now. And it's not super special. Our clothes are literally. And I mean and there are all sorts of legal ramifications. Like I mean, if you just follow @alokvmenon, so they're non binary trends. They think a lot of people would say a lot was very masculine presenting, they're very hairy and out stigma about hair, facial hair, your bodily hair, and then wearing a dress and a really beautiful designer dress with full makeup. And you know, and hair showing everywhere is very confronting to a lot of people. I like that. Yeah. Yeah. And it's so powerful, because it really says you can wear whatever you want. But there is a price like he, they see me my my thesis was about the gender binary. And I'm constantly reminded that I'm still locked into the way we were all brought up and it's true.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 18:43
holding ourselves accountable is really an accepting acknowledging our mistakes, like apologizing and trying to do better. I mean, that's so much better than.
Justine Larbalestier 18:51
No, I mean, we all fuck up. So the idea that we don't is just like, forget about it, the perfect people and things that changing really rapidly. Like when I was a girl when I was you know in the middle the existence in the prominence of someone like a lot or was someone like Layshia Clarendon in the WNBA, who goes by all pronouns is happy with he at bay. She's nonbinary she's married are about to be married to a woman. She's a really good basketball player. He Played briefly for the New York Liberty which is my team. You know, that just wasn't possible when I was a kid that's just like my head would have exploded like you know, in a really good way. I love it. And I love that, you know, I'm seeing more men out on oh masculine presenting people out on the streets in New York, wearing skirts and dresses and makeup. You know, and but I'm also profoundly aware that there are many parts of the world where not only is that not possible but that could get you killed? Yeah. So that my idea that fashion and how you dress is in any way frivolous? I mean, it's our identity. It's who we are. And that's essential, and especially right now, when republicans across the country, are literally trying to make a whole set of bodies illegal, and those are transplants.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 20:06
Justine Larbalestier 20:25
and that's gonna hit all of us. Not just a trans body. This is about enforcing the gender binary. This? Yeah, sorry.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 20:40
It's an important thing to talk about. It's important to acknowledge I mean, humanity exists regardless of labels and outlaw a person for who they are, is reprehensible for so many reasons. And I mean, I would a culture as again, this is something I say a lot of culture makes a decision about what beauty is a culture makes a decision about what valuable means a culture makes a decision about what, you know, you're negating value from, and all of those decisions are exhibited in our clothing. They are. I mean, what, I don't know how you could possibly separate what we were from the history of who we are. And, I mean, we're all a little trained to think that some stuff is silly. And I know it's I mean, it's so important. So are there any books that would be related to fashion that you like, in particular?
Justine Larbalestier 21:38
Um, oh, there's so many. Yeah, I mean, I'm a big fan of Robin, I'm not sure how to pronounce her last name. I've actually never heard anyone say it out loud. Um, her book, The Battle of Versailles,
Rachel Elspeth Gross 22:00
One of my all time favorites.
Justine Larbalestier 22:01
Yeah, I mean, it's beautifully written, and takes fashion absolutely seriously. And, and talks about fashion, not just as identity, beauty, but also as political. And also as an economic powerhouse. A lot of I mean, the fact that we cannot get a president right now to appoint someone to be, you know, the fashions are and oversee, one of the biggest industries in the US and the world kind of drives me up the wall, because we need legislation, we need to protect climate workers, we need to reduce toxic outflow, you know, rivers and oceans, there is so much that we need to do that has to come from legislation. Like it's great that individuals like you and me, are wearing vintage and awaring sustainable designers, you know, that that is never going to be enough, we're never going to get enough people to be able to do that. I mean, vintage shopping, is even even when you get massive bargains, you know, I just found a designer, you 1950s yellow belt, you can never find yellow belts in beautiful condition. It was $10, you know, it was perfect. But I've been searching for two years to find a good knit yellow belt. So that's a huge investment of time. A lot of people working multiple jobs with children, or looking after elderly parents or whatever the mountain of responsibilities. And thrifting is just not an option. Like that's impossible, they kind of have to buy fast fashion. So we have to hold fast fashion accountable, not the consumers. Like we can educate consumers and people who have the disposable income, we can put pressure on them, we can put pressure on stars. But until there's government legislation and consequences for the horrible, exploitative damaging actions of being fashion. Were not gonna get any change?
Rachel Elspeth Gross 24:24
So there's so many communities, but there is only a big box store with a certain name on it, the places where you can go and you can be as open minded and as good intentioned as possible. But yeah, if you only have one option, or your options are essentially the same option. Yeah, I mean, it's illegal to go naked I think.
Justine Larbalestier 24:47
Yeah, and also like in winter in this country, you would not want to.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 24:51
Its the place where the idea of sociology and anthropology intersect. I mean, there's inherent classism in that. I mean being able to go out not just inclement weather, but to be able to do it stylishly is a privelage.
Justine Larbalestier 25:07
yes. I mean, and the other thing that's happened in in the kind of smaller communities where there is only the big box store or you can only order online, like even if there is a charity store, a thrift store, what's given to that charity store in that neighborhood is really bad quality because it's from the crappy big box store and fast fashion doesn't last very long. And those thrift stores are not getting quality stuff donated. I mean, every vintage shop everyone history knows that the best charity stores are in the richest neighborhoods.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 25:47
No, I mean yeah, when when I've lived in LA you would go to certain parts of town because you knew you might find something designer it was likely even that you could.
Justine Larbalestier 25:58
Thats like freaking Vivienne Westwood, because you know they worn it on the red carpet. Charity dinner what you can't wear twice. daughter doesn't want it.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 26:15
that concept is always blowing my mind. Like if I like something I will wear it as often as I can. Maybe not like in the same week. Yeah, I have a Jil Sander pantsuit, which I bought myself, it was very proud to be able to afford this offline magical keys. I want it like five or six times spaced out. But next time I have an occasion next time I can go out in public. Absolutely gorgeous.
Justine Larbalestier 26:18
I mean, I like the idea that you can wear a piece only in one way. I mean, one of the things about beautifully made clothes, because you can wear them inside out. Because like, you know, with French scenes are like a really beautiful lining, they can look incredible the other way around, like you know, it means and then you can just belt it because you can't have the buttons, but you just wear a belt that you know, works with it. And suddenly you've got two jackets, not one.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 27:09
Now I want to go and seal on my dad's extra coats and do that because we have those gorgeous linings. I'd never even thought of that.
Justine Larbalestier 27:16
Yeah, the things you may be worn backwards, you know, inside out. I have a friend who frequently like, I can't figure out how she does it. She threads the sleeves of two jackets together, and then belts it and wears it as a skirt. And it looks like a really cool like I need to see a picture of it looks like a cool Comme des Garçons skirt good and she'll wear leggings on me. So I mean, the trick is getting it all together like this, this magic two sided tape. You know, safety pins are your friends. So actually, I just read the most amazing book, you know, Alison Freer, I think she's a costume designer in Hollywood. And she published a book in 2015, I think, and it's basically all her tricks of the trade. So she explains how she dresses, stars and how she maintains that look through a shoe and all that kind of disasters that she has to deal with.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 28:24
I'm sure there are disasters.
Justine Larbalestier 28:26
And she writes really well, like and she has a whole chapter where she basically says you need a tailor, you know, your clothes unless you're closer to just buying off the rack. don't fit. But this one little like just, you know, just adding event, just you know,
Rachel Elspeth Gross 28:44
Justine Larbalestier 28:46
And it's cheap.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 28:47
It makes me crazy about clothing is that somebody at some point in time figured out that if you put a little bit of stretch into any kind of fabric, you can make your sizes.
Justine Larbalestier 29:00
Rachel Elspeth Gross 29:01
Oh, God, it was evil, totally evil of cutting corners and cheating and I don't like that.
Justine Larbalestier 29:05
No. You know, a good tailor make, you know, you bought something and it fit you perfectly at the shoulders and it's got shoulders, that's the most important fit. If it kind of doesn't fit elsewhere. That's okay. Unless it's too tight, and there aren't things but the shoulder management is key. So if it's perfect to the shoulders, a good tailor can, you know, and it's usually I'm losing my words, but very simple adjustment. And it's not that expensive. I mean, they're there when they when new linings have to be moved and then it gets complicated. But there's a lot of very basic stuff that even if you can't so you can pay someone 10 $20 to fix it for you. Which you know if you're buying fast fashion, why would you do that.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 30:02
There wouldn't be enough seam allowances the extra fabric. No they just overlocking it they overlock everything. If anyone's confused by like overlocking, or French scenes, I even as somebody who has been obsessed with fashion my whole life, I only learned what those were, embarrassingly recently. So he doesn't know it's a way to hide the fact that there's a theme, you have a literal overlap of fabric that covers the stitches, it is the most beautiful thing in the world. And if you like geometry and or sowing, it is so much fun to make. But it also means that you can make it bigger if you need. Yeah, it gives you I think, on average, the same allowance for a standard garment is about three to five eighths, and gives you almost an inch inch and a half, I'm sorry, I can't convert that. It means you've got more space, you can make it bigger longer is fabric to work with.
Justine Larbalestier 31:06
Yes, which is absolutely key. I mean, I just bought this incredible three piece suit from I forgotten the name that the idea that but it was at the Manhattan vintage show. And you know, it was a double breasted, short sleeved coat, a skirt, and then a shell top, all made out of the same kind of late 60s psychedelic fabric, these crazy red and blue shell top, you realize that the crazy pattern is actually floral, because you get this center of the flower on the top, which is white, and then pedals explode out from it. And like, the top fit me perfectly, so did the jacket, but the skirt was like that much too tight. Just you know, like I could have wanted but who wants to walk around uncomfortable all day. And so, you know, I took it to my tailor and she's like, this is gonna be so easy. Oh, much seam it was just endless you know, she had me bringing the whole suit to the whole thing. She's just like, Oh, this is how biggest everything. You know, I could have, we could have made it like four inches bigger, if needed. Like there was so much you know, and she kept all of that. So it's all it can be adjusted to you know, someone bigger ever, wants it you know,
Rachel Elspeth Gross 32:40
that's one of the big things I think we're trying to do here at Little Red Fashion and with this particular program is to encourage the next generation of people who are going to be making our clothes to think about these kinds of concepts, these semiotic. There is a fast way to do things and then there's a good way to do things. And if you want to change the world, if you want to be a superhero, if you want to make it all better, kinder, easier, more inclusive, more generous, less painful. We can start by just adding a little bit of fabric and we can start by just making things ourselves or paying people properly to do the good work.
Justine Larbalestier 33:20
Yeah, no, I mean, I would I wish we taught every kid had to sew I wish I had been taught how to sew
Rachel Elspeth Gross 33:29
crazy thinking when people that I know personally cannot put a button back on.
Justine Larbalestier 33:33
Yeah, I can do that. I even learned how to do the fancy button, you know? Yeah. My grandmother was a seamstress. My mother's mother made all the family's clothes was an incredible dressmaker. But my mother completely rebelled like she hated all of that.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 33:55
You have to rebel. I mean yeah.
Justine Larbalestier 33:58
So she didn't have the all the skills to pass on to me and she regretted it enormously. So I mean there are basic skills that everybody really needs and I like boiling water making pasta and being able to cook being able to do so yeah, right up there.
Rachel Elspeth Gross 34:17
Well Justine this has been so lovely. I really appreciate it so much. Would you mind holding on after we end I just wanted to goodbye in private but everyone thank you so much for coming to this week's
Justine Larbalestier 34:28
feel free to contact me on instagram my handle is @drjustinefancypants
Rachel Elspeth Gross 34:34
and it is an amazing Instagram
Justine Larbalestier 34:36
because I have frequently with very fancy pens. And you know and a lot like Feel free to DM me questions or ask me you know, I love it.