This began as an “off-the-hook!” rant that I wrote after seeing pics of some of the newest dresses out there. I was, shall we say, a wee bit perturbed. I re-read it the next day…several times…could not make it through reading it again today. Why? Because I was not very nice at all. I do not think my objections are wrong, but my delivery left much to be desired. Brings me back to something I have been thinking a lot about.

I am a moderator for a message board group of Irish dance dressmakers. Recently I was in a position to begin thinking about policy for criticizing the work of other designers/dressmakers. Someone posted a negative comment about a dress that most of us had probably looked at. It was there a couple of days before someone objected to it, so I removed the post and began a discussion on what is appropriate for our board specifically while thinking about criticism and its value in general.

I wrote this as part of the post about criticism for the dressmaking group: “I have asked myself this: I am putting out a product that someone pays a lot of money for…am I so personally invested in my product that any criticism hurts my feelings? Is that professional? I consider myself to be a professional; before dressmaking, I was a professional artist and it was expected that when I presented my work, it would be “critically reviewed,” criticised on its merits, good and bad. My work was both praised and even occasionally vilified. At one concert, I heard the work I had set on the ballet company described by one person as brilliant while his companion found it disturbing and awful. Lift me up and slap me down!!! Worse yet, my work was routinely reviewed in the newspaper…talk about public!! My point here is that my feelings were irrelevant. I put my work out there and criticism was a given. What about us?”

Don’t get me wrong…being critically reviewed is extremely stressful. You freak out if you know the critic is there, you second guess EVERY decision you ever made because he/she might not like what you have done…and you DO feel that the review is directed at you personally. I was so mad at the author of my first review in college…amongst all the glorious stuff she wrote about my work, she had the NERVE to write ONE negative thing…”The dancers moved at such a pace that I got tired.” Big deal right? The rest of the review was grand and I had to focus on a simple, stupid negative. I was depressed for days…diva!

Took many years to deal with that artistic anxiety…and years to find a framework for processing other people’s opinions. I had to learn to sift the real “technical” perspective offered from the “personal.” I could learn from someone else’s point of view of my work – did my point come through? Could I have done something differently so my audience got the message I intended? Did they “see” what I wanted them to see, and if not, how can I do it so that they do? I learned to ignore the purely “personal” – “I didn’t like it because it was too fast/ too loud/ too long/ too short/ too ugly/too weird/ etc,etc,etc!” As I learned to disregard the “personal” negatives, I found I became much less invested in when they did like it! I began to rely on whether I liked it, whether a select few people in my life liked it, whether or not it “worked” for me.

One of the last dances I did before I got sick was one of my favorites, a duet between a man and a woman. It was very simple, so simple that at times I was nervous that it was not sophisticated enough, but it looked the way I wanted. I was in charge of my technical craft, inspired by that mysterious place in my head. I was content that it was clear. And everyone got the point no matter their personal opinion. My young students understood but just shrugged when asked if they liked it. My older students and all folks who’d been married or in long-term relationships also understood it and loved it. There was an older couple, early seventies, who always came to our shows…they came every night to see that dance and she cried. It did not matter to me if anyone ever liked what I did again!

In terms of Irish Dance dressmaking, I very often do not understand why a particular dress is thought to be beautiful. We do all have our own tastes…but sometimes I feel “taste” is lacking in ID costumery. A mystique has developed around the BNs (the big name dressmakers) that to me is mostly undeserved, yet people pay big bucks and seek to have those “looks” copied by dressmakers who do not charge as much. As someone on the boards always writes when this subject comes up, “It’s a case of ‘The Emperor’s new clothes!'” Have to say I agree, but do we ever talk critically about why? What is it that makes these dresses so desirable? And we NEVER discuss the bad designs, the over-use of the same design elements, the dresses made with fabrics that make no sense together, the colors that seem haphazard, the specific bad construction techniques and practices. Why not?

There is an over-whelming sense that we don’t because feelings should not be hurt. Very often that is exactly what gets said when someone is brave enough to post an opinion, and it is usually stated by someone other than the dressmaker!

So what do I think about criticism and its place in any field? I think that if you don’t want any, keep your ideas & creations to yourself. Ultimately, if we “publish,” we invite comment. If we present our work to the public, we are fair game for positive and negative review. I make dresses that people buy, and I use pics of those dresses here on my blog as advertisement for what I do…many people have looked at my dress gallery and there are as many opinions as there are eyeballs! Do folks tell me if they hate what I have done? Not directly, no. But should I ever create the ugliest of the doozies, perhaps then my name would be bandied about as “that incompetent dressmaker!”

But let me be clear, saying something is ugly with no explanation, badly made with no example, horribly designed with no critical analysis of why…well, that’s just personal likes & dislikes. That is not “criticism” to me. The American Heritage Dictionary states criticism is: “The practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works.” By doing these things when we look at someone else’s work be it a car or an ID dress, we learn something.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. picperfic
    May 02, 2007 @ 16:53:00

    woh! you know, the same thing applies to photography, well online photography. I started posting my precious photos when I first started to use a digital camera in 2002 and I got slated and I got cross and I got sad and then I got determined! I learned from my peers, if I saw a process that I liked, I asked the owner how they did it..I grew up and stop getting upset when people said they didn’t like the colour of the flower etc. Now I rarely post to these photosites, I post on my blog. As my confidence in photography has grown, I realise that everyone has different tastes and their opinions can vary quite diversly. All that matters at the end of the day, is whether you are pleased with your work. We all have our own style and isn’t that just the best thing? I find your work so beautiful, delicate yet it must be so strong to withstand all that rigorous dancing. I’ve not paid too much attention to the colours that have been used as I realise they are for events and are mostly the customers choice. Its the fine detail I am impressed with, and your vast knowledge of your craft. Your eloquence on the critique of others work is important because you have the confident knowledge that you know what you are doing.
    I for one would value any comment you made regarding my Irish Dance Dress work, not that I would ever ever feel the need to do anything so intricate…I’ll stick to sewing little girl’s dresses and knitting socks!

  2. Knitting Maniac
    May 02, 2007 @ 20:40:00

    Criticism has become a loosely defined, subjective term, hasn’t it?

    Critics are there to look at a piece of work, and offer their opinions. But when a critic goes off, espousing how much they hated something, how it didn’t make sense to them, how it would never work, I have to ask myself this: what were you “expecting”? Did your expectations not get met, or are you just wanting to blow off something because you just didn’t “get” it.

    So many people make blatant comments, and then hide behind that word .. criticism. Oh, I was just offering “constructive criticism.” No. To me it sounded like you were offering your opinion. Where in that criticism were you trying to help me understand your point of view, other than the fact that you just “didn’t like it” or “thought it was ugly.”

    Don’t take it to heart. There are just jealous people out there who hide behind that word. They are so critical of another’s work because they are jealous of them on some level or another.

  3. American Ex-pat
    May 10, 2007 @ 00:27:00

    I’ve been fighting this issue for years. Like many dancers, dressmakers, and designers out there, I have a pretty firm opinion of what is pretty and what is not. To be honest, I’ve mostly given up trying to give constructive criticism any more.

    Designers, or dancers who fancy themselves designers, ARE too caught up in their designs on a personal level–most of them, atleast. I am, too, often. But it’s come to the point where even saying, “Look, I like the overall thing you have going here–nice colours, fine shape–but adding that bit to the side of the bodice is going to add about 30lbs to you on stage” isn’t considered helpful. It’s ‘mean’ and generally ‘unnecessary’ and you get lambasted for trying to point out that the really poor design choice isn’t going to work or look good. There are a few “pro” designers (not really pros, if you catch my drift) whose work is consistently ill-fitting, poorly designed, and with atrocious colour choices (if really well sewn). There’s no way of bringing up these issues to help others produce a better dress without being torn to shreds for daring to criticize, because that might hurt someone’s feelings! It’s ridiculous!

  4. Trackback: Criticism II « Taoknitter
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