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The Brave Little Tailor

“I have nothing to wear!”

Men can have one pair of pants and two shirts and be ready for anything. But women.... And tangueras in particular.... Well....

Clothes that fulfill tango requirements are hard to come by. They need to stay on, move with you, and flow. They can't constrict or require fiddling. They need to not be men's clothes. Some synthetics make bad-smelling sweat. Long hems get in the way. Fancy stuff in the front bumps against the men and no one is going to see it. In that vein, the more interesting the back, the better, but without interfering with the man's embrace. Clothes should feel the way you want your embrace to feel—and if you can't have a wardrobe made entirely out of silk, satin, and soft jersey, please keep your scratchy clothes to a minimum. And if you go out a lot, and see the same people over and over again, it grates on a woman's pride to be seen in the same dress all the time. But most of all the clothes have to want to dance, and they have to make you want to dance, otherwise they're pointless. (By the way, ladies, the same is true of your knickers. Knickers are paramount, because they determine your carriage.)

The first time I attended a tango class I wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt because I didn't want to draw attention and in our culture jeans are camouflage. But I don't like jeans and never have. It was always a fight to get me into fact, my style as a grown-up is the same as it was as a little girl. I was always running around in princess dresses that my mother made. Or leotards. More sequins was better. More silk and velvet, also better. Everything had to be pretty, and getting me into anything that might be considered “practical” was a fool's errand. But my favourite costume was wearing nothing at all.

So you see how tango is the perfect dance for me. As I settled in to my new cultural home, I investigated how to dress for dancing. I started with pencil skirts, which weren't a problem at the time because my legs weren't going anywhere. Someone I know pointed out that you should be able to tango in a tight-to-the-knee skirt, and if you can't, your technique is bad. For my début milonga I wore a dress with a pencil skirt, that I would never wear now, because my legs currently go places (and don't like to feel constricted) and don't yet have the beautiful technique required to do that and wear a tight skirt.

After pencil skirts proved nonviable, I took to wearing shawls, tablecloths, and big scarves knotted around my hips. While they were emotionally more fluid, eventually the reality came out: they too were overly constricting. Ok for some places (el Valenciano), not for others.

Then I had my American Apparel phase, where everything was short and stretchy. A short stretchy skirt gives your legs freedom, and moves with you. Fabulous. But eventually I found that if a skirt is short enough to free your legs, it's also so short that you have to keep worrying if it's about to hike up and show off your heinie, and that affects how you dance. And the minute you have to adjust your dance to your wardrobe, it's over, because you're not in the moment any more. You came here to get emotionally naked, or to polish a technique you've been working on, or to visit with friends. You can't do any of that stuff if you're thinking about your clothes.

Then I got out the scissors and cut slits in my clothes. Better! Viable! The niggling fear of, “but then I won't be able to wear this to some non-tango event” was gradually replaced by, “there's no such thing as a non-tango event.” The only less-than-fabulous aspect to the plain-cut slit is that there's no surprise to it. Your leg is out there, period. What's best are clothes with the slit built in to them, because then there's a certain amount of overlapping fabric. And tango is about that surprising glimpse of soul (er, leg), a little or maybe a lot, that slips out unexpectedly and then disappears again. It's about mystery and revelation. The desire to know more. Not about your leg constantly being on display.

All the while, I was learning about fabric, and by extension, the dance, and by extension, the nature of intimacy. I learned by dancing in them that stiff, starchy fabrics didn't work emotionally. Twill, wool, suiting cotton: nope. Because we don't want to be Nutcrackers. We want to be Nutcracker Princes. We want the moment to be soft and sweet. The reason those fabrics work so well for the office and the professional world is the precise reason they should be banned from the dance floor. Fabrics that dress the outside person have no place in the internal, intimate world of tango.

And a word about the Clan Tartan. Black is wonderful. Black is great. But black is a strong design choice and should be an active decision every time you put it on. Think about it, own it, wear it. But only because you're doing so consciously. And remember that when you get there, almost everyone else will also be wearing head-to-toe black.

I bought clothes at second-hand shops and changed them. Change the straps, cut slits, fix the problems and make them work uniquely for me. I also cut off the hems every time, which taught me why so many big-girl tangueras have asymmetrical long hems. It's because of how they move. Other people base their clothes' appearance on a static picture, so straight across the knee (more or less) works well. But tango clothes look like the shapes they create when dancing. And these shapes affect our dancing. The feel of a skirt floating languidly around you while you do an ocho or a boleo makes you do them right. And skirts with longer backs make you feel like you have a tail that you're swishing around and showing off...and...tango does lend itself to tail-swishing (as long as you don't venture into the disjointed crime of Salsa Hips).

I got sick of jury-rigging clothes and broke down and bought a couple of dresses and skirts from TangoStarModa. Sometimes real efficiency is just getting something that's purpose-built. I had been hunting for months for tango clothes that were simple, elegant, and secretly practical. Most tango clothes I saw were sleazy, dowdy, or fussy, and almost always way overpriced. But I love Christine's clothes and wish I had five bodies and a billion dollars so I could have more of them. I love that they're custom-made to your measurements. I love that they're simple, elegant, and secretly practical. I love that they don't cost too much, arrive promptly, and come with exciting Greek postage stamps. Best of all I love that I can throw one of her dresses into my bag without worrying about it, toss it on, look perfect, and then forget about my clothes and get down to the dancing at hand. And no, she's not paying me to say any of this.

But even though they're totally great, I still find myself making my own clothes. I like the process of figuring it out on my own. I like coming up with my own design solutions to the omnipresent problem of “what am I going to wear.” Besides, making a dress doesn't feel as profligate as buying yet another dress just for dancing, and it can be exactly what I want and how I want it. Plus, I get to show off my handiwork to friends.

I've made/am making a few things for other people and it amuses me that everyone, so far, has said exactly the same thing: “I can eat in it!” It makes me wonder what they're doing in their other clothes. Clearly not eating. But tango is about beautifully sating appetites. It's about sharing a beautiful yes, not about disciplining a no.

I like making clothes for tangueras and hope to do a lot more of it. They tend to have lovely bodies. They tend to inhabit their lovely bodies. And they tend to have exactly the kind of clothing needs that I understand.

So here's to all the little girls in princess dresses, leotards, and nothing at all, who grew up and suddenly had nothing to wear. A cottage industry is born.