Criticism II

I posted this back in May: Criticism.

My last post, Letter to Dressmakers…or…Cogitating on Popcorn Thoughts…whatever, sparked  wonderful discussions on IDD and some great comments here.  It is so wonderful to read not only the opinions and perspectives but about the unsung support networks that have bolstered others, as well.  I love hearing from all of you as you make me think.

Ali always makes me think.  Her comments helped me organize this post which was sparked by all of you who commented here and on IDD.

(Cindy, I enjoyed reading your perspective on all art being derivative…that is another post that I need to ponder.  Susan & Ali, maybe you can write about that as designers.) 

Gina got this thought process going with her thoughts on the silence:

The easiest way to create silence and Pablum is to post a picture of your new creation on a board and ask “tell me what you think”. Regardless of the true nature of the beast, inevitably it’s “Great” “lovely” etc etc etc.

…[Einstein] said that above all we should be honest. If we feel we can’t be honest so that we spare someone’s feelings, then we should be silent. Didn’t Thumper’s mother say “if you can’t say nuthin nice, don’t say nuthin at all”?

The other side of this coin is – are we REALLY helping the blossoming seamstress by sugar coating the truth? They go blithely away thinking everyone loves their work – yet we are wondering at “Didn’t she realise the design has a hidden mouse?” “That dress is way too large in the neckline”, “the colors just do not work for that dancer” etc etc etc.

Should we be honest? IMHO Yes, but dare I say a word? No, because I use my name on the boards and would never hear the end of it.

Ali’s response:

“Should we be honest? IMHO Yes. but dare I say a word? No because I use my name on the boards and would never hear the end of it.”

As is often the case, Gina and I are in agreement.

I think the largest white elephant in our collective room is the fact that we are all consciously aware of each other still. We know our places in the network of dressmakers and designers NOT in a collaborative sense, but in a competitive one: “I charge less than X and Y, but draw better than Y and Z, produce a more coherent product than Z and A, and I know X and A won’t take clients for reasons 1, 2, 3…” and so on. Whether we fit in as moms or dancers (oh, heavens, lowest of the low ;) ) who are trying out designing or dressmaking for the first time, or as dressmakers of limited/some/extremely great renown, or as designers only (relegated into a sort of “separate but equal” mental status, usually), once you’ve been around–yes, even on our beloved CF board–for a short while, you start to get the feel of the community. It is, as you said, Ann, one so entrenched in not just competition but secret competition. We know it, and it makes us uncomfortable, and so we act “nice”.

Gina’s example is good: it doesn’t matter if the dress is crap or the best thing ever. If a dressmaker asks for feedback on her new creation, we will not give it. We will be kind to a fault and probably even lie–at the very least, lie by omission by choosing not to respond.

When we are not nice, we are especially vicious. We can rip others to shreds. So we usually avoid it–it makes so many of us uncomfortable to see any sort of “mean” comment that all criticisms are often avoided. Of course, knowing our internal social structure, we feel free (largely) to snipe at the biggest names. They are impersonal corporations, far away and faceless; they are the President to our local political action committee. We pose no threat to them, but they do to us, so we feel comfortable making real criticisms there and only there.

What the community needs is three things, to my eye: a) to learn that criticism is NOT meant to be mean, it is meant to help you grow, b) to learn that criticism of one’s work is not criticism of oneself, and c) to learn how to give criticism in a way that gets these points across. Musicians, dancers, other artists all manage this. It baffles me how stifling the ID community, and the dressmaking community within it, can be on this point. I think that innovation can only flourish when people both expect to receive and feel comfortable giving constructive criticism.

I responded:

As usual, your insight is right on, Ali. You know I have ranted about exactly the same things. Thank you, once again, for saying it so well…

And then she wrote:

It’s because we both come from a heavily academic space, I think. This is not to imply elitism, but I suppose it could be read that way. You taught for years, and I’m pretty over-educated for my age. DWe have stubbornly refused to let go of the idea of constructive crit being required for a healthy community; what baffles me is that, after seeing the poll on CF of what other dressmakers and designers do or previously did as their main job, we are the exceptions! The DM community as a whole seems to be pretty awesome based on that poll: we have biologists, engineers, teachers, social scientists. We have so many well-educated people, whether by formal or self education, who MUST have learned how to give and receive concrit at some point. Why do we allow ourselves, as a community, to follow the secretive, deadening path that Irish dance as a whole follows when we KNOW better? We are smart and creative. Let us set the example for how to criticize, critique, and share in an open, honest way. If we’re lucky, it will catch on to the whole of ID.

And then, before I could notate my profound thoughts on the subject,  Suz got in on the action:

You got me thinking on why we can take criticism in our “real” professions but not ID. Just my first ‘gut-reaction’ here but my two worlds were built different!

My ID world formed WITHIN my family’s cultural life while my professional life is OUTSIDE my family. The university not only allowed me to evolve independently but encouraged me to be independent! In my science based career I was taught to question the methods and practices of other scientists to get ‘proof’ for my opinions!

My ID life has evolved AND involves numerous family members both immediate and extended. I already had my ‘place’ given to me because I was hopelessly unable to dance. Unlike the DANCERS(said in revered awe…) I could make my way around the left side of my brain as well as the right side so I chose to join the ’support staff’ as a dressmaker….really as an avenue to remain ‘in the family’. (Whole ‘nother psych. paper in that statement!!) So I do have enormous problems separating criticism of my work as not being criticism of me personally. By the end of a dress it is MY CHILD and the more difficult the ‘labor’ the more I tend to want it to thrive. So if it is “bashed” (as stagemoms are so apt to do these days) I am hurt. I’m sane enough to know the defect in my thinking, and do know how to consider the source, but that would be my brain’s left side which does not always control my world!

I had begun to focus in on that in a different way, Suz.  I wonder if the fact that most (nearly all?) independent ID dressmakers learn and function in relative isolation has something to do with the resistance to constructive criticism.  In terms of ID, even though I began on my own, when I started working with Susan I put myself into apprentice mode.  The first time I brought a dress that I had finished on my own at home to her for inspection was so stressful (in fact, I think I brought my mother!)!  I just KNEW she was going to rip it apart…when she smiled after she inspected it, I almost swooned (ok, a bit of hyperbole for effect!)! 

I also feel that my dresses are my “children.”  I felt that way about everything I ever created.  But, I think I am pretty open to true constructive, intelligent criticism (“The practice of analyzing, classifying, interpreting, or evaluating literary or other artistic works.” ).  As not only a young artist studying dance and choreography but also a university professor and professional choreographer, criticism was part & parcel a given, proven part of the process and the culture.  I learned early on that since art really is a subjective form (there is no objective right & wrong), that criticism is irrevocably tied to the critic’s subjective eye and taste no matter what anyone says!  However, what I learned from the best of my professors was that a good critic helps you evaluate your own methods, thought processes and techniques so that your vision is as clear as it can be, regardless of whether or not they like it!

Do I always graciously give my thanks for negative criticism that helps me refine something?  Of COURSE I do as I am a perfectly formed female specimen of fully-evolved higher intelligence……………………………….NOT!!!!!  If I am unsure to begin with, the process is quicker, but for the most part I whine, I bitch, I argue, argue, argue (ask Susan).  I do, though, take criticism that is clear, well-articulated, and right and assimilate it.  Sometimes the criticism, while valid, serves to point out a flaw in my thinking that creates a different view than I meant and arguing the point helps me make it clear.

Do I want to hear when someone does not like what I have created?  If you are going to be mean for mean’s sake, no.  Go suck a lemon.  If you are going to explain why, and are open to a discussion (unlike a recent naysayer on the boards who hid behind “It’s my opinion which is enough and nobody’s business”…ppphhhththth!), then go for it!  As I said in the last post, I totally appreciated the person who said the red tunic dress looked like Renaissance armor and then provided pics! 

Why can’t we not only take the real, helpful criticism, but try to also be truly CONSTRUCTIVE (“Serving to improve or advance; helpful.”)?  Maybe we should each ask ourselves what we truly want when we post pics of our creations on the boards (I am asking myself this very question as I write this).  If true constructive criticism is not what we want, then we should not post.  If it is what you want, but folks are only being nice, be clear that you are open to it all and hopefully someone will take you at your word.

Will all of the competition that Ali pointed out disappear?  Probably not.  We all want to be liked “best.”  But, we all can learn so much from the rest who want to share, not tear down.  And, it has been my experience that sometimes there is an epiphany waiting to slap our foreheads because of a statement from the “new” one in the back who restates a known fact in a different way because she just figured it out for herself.

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Caroline
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 14:50:37

    Well, these are great points to ponder about… I also do not like hearing people talking my dresses down, but the simple fact is that I am not an Elevation or SR quality creator (I am referring to the “look” here, not the actual finish of the dresses). But I do want feedback. I need feedback to improve myself. To force myself to improve! When I post a dress for others to look at, I am well prepared to be shot down. I do know my own work 🙂
    I do not “shoot down” others, as I feel that for a beginning dressmaker the encouragement and positive response is more important at that point than pointing out all the mistakes. However, I have by occasion emailed people privately to discuss a lesser point about a dress. I just do not feel that those remarks belong on a public board as the tone can be taken the wrong way. I feel it is better to first connect with someone and then discuss all the points of refinement. I find the other person responds much better this way to criticisms on their work and can actually get the point you are trying to get across, as they recognize it as help- and not an attack.
    Something that we “professional” DM’s sometimes seem to forget is that some people are struggling with their first dress. They make one most of the time for financial reasons. They have no experience and although we try to help when we can, it is still a very hard process to live through. Sometimes the results are stunning and sometimes it is …bad. In our eyes. But perhaps that dancer from that first-time-DM is thrilled with her home-made, mum-made dress?? Usually the second is better and the third is really good. I have seen this many times and I think that if I would have “shot down” these people with honest and good-meant criticism that they might not have had the guts to make the second one. So, I always try to find good points about the dress first hand, even if it is ….bad. DM’s are not stupid, they are very capable to see the difference in good quality and poorer quality. Problem is how to get good quality, and it usually takes a few dresses and some time to develop.

    And there is the asking. Just ask and I will tell you all I know if I can. I will tell you what I think of your design, your stitching, your colors. If you ask. But when a dress is posted with the somewhat vague “what do you think?” -question, or merely posted to show off a finished project, I will treat it the same as anybody who is proud of something from their own hand. I will be positive about the effort, the work, and all the nice things I can find about it. I mean, (totally wrong analogy perhaps but…) do you tell your 3-year old they stink at drawing when they show you some scribbled thing you cannot identify as what they tell you the object is supposed to be? No, you say it is nice (as it probably is for a three year old) and encourage them to try again to get better at it. Now, don’t yell at me for comparing starting DM’s with 3 -year olds…. but I guess you get the point a little bit better this way.

    I am starting to slide off topic a bit, but I would like to state that I am perfectly happy with receiving constructive criticism on my dresses. Please do take a look:

    I do not take it personal and -don’t worry- I will just ignore anything I do not agree with 🙂 You will not keep me awake at night with a nasty comment about how horrible they are 😀 Seriously, I would even go as far as to want to PAY Ann and Susan to take a good hard look at my dresses and tell me what I could change to improve the quality of my work. I really do not understand why people would be afraid to tell me!

    So, if anyone feels the same and is waiting for MY opinion, just let me know…

  2. taoknitter
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 15:02:19

    So thoughtful and wonderful as always, Caroline. Your point about personal emails is well taken, and I truly do appreciate your empathy here. I had not considered this. Perhaps we should specify it that way when asking for feedback, and when the certain dm is comfortable, perhaps she can share to the benefit of us all.

    Wish I could hug you…so sending a cyber-hug. You are amazing.

  3. Adrienne
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 17:10:42

    I agree with the competitive argument, though it seems to me that some of the fault lies with the communication device itself. Email and web forums feel anonymous and instantaneous. So many folks type off the top of their head and post things that they would rarely, if ever say to someone’s face. It is a necessity to re-read anything you write for posting or emailing, and make sure you would be able to say it in a face to face conversation with someone…. BEFORE you post it. Hopefully this will encourage more constructive comments and more awareness of the human being at the other end.

  4. taoknitter
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 17:23:16

    “Email and web forums feel anonymous and instantaneous. So many folks type off the top of their head and post things that they would rarely, if ever say to someone’s face.”

    Good analysis….good point.

  5. Ali
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 22:43:55

    Adrienne, that’s a good point. I think that this will change as the cohort of people doing the designing and dressmaking changes, though–I’m one of the younger ones doing it, to the best of my knowledge. I’m 22. My generation grew up with computers in our schools and the internet in our lives, even if we didn’t have it in our own homes. I’ve been online for ten years, and that’s less than a lot of my friends. There have been a number of reports on how my generation has no sense of privacy and such, because of things like facebook and myspace. (I won’t use either–they kind of frighten me.) What this openness has wrought, however, is a small ability to better communicate online. This is not to say that my whole generation is better than yours, neener neener, but that younger adults who have been online for possibly half their lives or even more have adapted to the medium a little more quickly and are able to read tone a little better. It is still an imperfect medium, and I would be much more open about giving a real critique in person with the dress in front of me. It IS easier to give tone that way. But the lack of tone may fade as a new dressmaking cohort emerges in the next 5-10 years.

    I understand what Suz means about having her place in the ID world preset. I didn’t really have that, so I can only superficially relate: I danced from the age of 16, started designing at 17, and quit dancing at 19 to do only designs after I busted my knee and was diagnosed with chondromalacia patella in both knees. I simply can’t dance, and was never particularly good. I continued to design because I liked the costuming; I’m the only one in my family who ever did ID and the only one in my friend group. Essentially, I am isolated from it but by my own choice, so after reading Suz’s very helpful thoughts I think I understand a bit more why people get so caught up in the non-constructive web of ID thought patterns. I have it easy, extricating myself from them; others who are really tied into the system do not have half as easy of a time as I was granting them. That was unfair of me to assume (that everyone could as easily extract themselves from ID culture to recieve constructive criticism), and I apologize for it.

    I still think it is in our collective best interests to learn how to give constructive criticism. ‘Bashing’ has been mentioned a number of times, and it’s not cool or good, but I think it does stem from a place where people want to give concrit and have absolutely no idea how to do so. Because they lack the tools to give proper critiques, they instead retreat to the “it’s my opinion” corner, which isn’t helpful. We know it’s your opinion: you said it! Unfortunately, I have no idea how to help people learn to give and take critiques on ID dresses. I’ll have to think on it.

  6. Mary
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 23:37:23

    I never comment on other people’s dresses publicly for fear of hurting feelings, or appearing to put my skills above those of others which would not be my intention – I am well aware of how much time and effort goes into making them, and that they do almost become like children to some! However, I do also feel that some people cannot see the faults with their own dresses, or do not know how to improve next time, but to point out faults (trying to be helpful) on a public forum or even in a private email can sound so harsh and formal. Ann, if you really would like to know what I think about your pretty tunic dresses, I would be happy to discuss it privately, but I hesitate in case I unintentionally say something hurtful!
    Moreover, I have tried a few times to privately help new dressmakers when they have asked for advice, and put lots of time into writing as helpful an email as possible, only to receive either no response or a minimal reply – indicating that my comments were not particularly welcome!
    I know I personally still have a lot to learn with ID dressmaking, and although my fiftieth dress was heaps better than my tenth or twentieth, my hundredth will still not be perfect in my own eyes. I too would welcome constructive criticism of my dressmaking, especially if we are able to get together at some stage to talk rather than communicate in this more formal way.
    Anyway, that is why I don’t normally comment on others’ creations, or expect comments on my own. You wanted some discussion so thought I’d add my little bit! And you see – I read your blog too!

  7. taoknitter
    Dec 16, 2007 @ 00:54:35


    Your point about talking in person instead of communicating via “this more formal way” is well taken…but do you foresee a time, an event at which we might all ever be together to be able to truly discuss all of this? Try as we might, as you pointed out on IDD, it might never be practical.

    Where’s the happy medium?

    Most of us look to the boards as a source of information…my question concerns the practical use of that medium…if you do not want to know, do not ask there. What is it that people expect of the boards if not a response? I repeat, don’t post if you really do not want to know.

    And yes, I would like to hear your opinion on the tunic dresses. Perspectives from others will help me see them in …perspective.

    I have emailed you…I look forward to your reply.

  8. Lee in Darwin
    Dec 16, 2007 @ 06:06:23

    Well ladies I think we are all twins seperated at birth or something strange like that…reading here the same sentiments that I have seems almost weird. Some sort of dejavu type experience. I am a little like Ali in that I am kind of removed from ID world. I mean you all know that I run a school in a remote area of Australia (we are civilised just not well, but as we don’t compete it is nowhere near the same sort of level that you all get to work to. Until last year, when I went to watch the NANs in San Diego, I had never even been to and Irish dance competition. My dear friend Sarah who helps me to teach our little budding divas went to her first comp this year as she went to the Australian Nationals. For us, all we had seen was videos and the odd show that came to Darwin. Let alone seen a competition level dress up close.
    I don’t make dresses outside of my own kids at this point because I just don’t have the confidence in my work to be able to say – that it worth xx$. I still look at what I make as a ‘costume’. Which may or may not help me in the criticism stage, although after last nights concert where everyone oohed and aahed over the costumes I might change my tune – and nothing was actually finished – all overlocked/sergered together, no hems etc …but I digress)… still, each dress is like a child – I ma sure they take on a life of their own at night after we finally go to bed.
    I for one would LOVE to be able to say to someone – what am I doing wrong here? and then actually get told, well actually darling you are just shite at But the commute to see any of you wonderful ladies is a little difficult. Although, my middle dd has suggested that as we are all ‘starting to get used to 21st century technology, maybe we can do some sort of video link over the internet?” Very interesting to come from a 14 year old I think. But do any of you think it is worth us looking into that a little more… perhaps we could video interface when we have a problem, as it is in theory at least, an extension of what we are doing on the messageboards.
    I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. You always inspire me, and answer my questions (even the ones I haven’t asked) and I have always found everyone extremely happy to help and be supportive. So now that I have sucked up to you all, I hope we keep on doing all the good bits, and ditch some of the things we are not so keen on.
    Merry Christmas to all, and have a wonderful New Year too.

  9. tto
    Dec 16, 2007 @ 21:46:46

    Sometimes it’s better to comment on a dress, especially if it will draw unwanted attention to a dancer. Placing a swirl or two in the wrong places can end up looking like targets on her boobs. Looking at the new dresses at the SRO, I’ve seen rabbits, owls, and other strange things. Maybe the dressmakers (especially the BN) should take a step back and look at their work. I’d rather have someone tell me if they see something that I don’t, than have people talk about the dress behind my back.
    The tunic dress is an interesting concept. You would be able to change out the underskirt colors if you wanted to (from what I see)? One question, How could you adjust the back length if you try to resell it? Are you “stuck” at that length?
    Love to read your wise words of wisdom (so does my dd – the Irish Dancer and Ballet Dancer). Thanks for taking the time for sharing.

  10. Diane
    Dec 17, 2007 @ 10:11:30

    I have decided to live by the motto that I am constantly telling my lids – if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all – I guess I am afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings if a dress is not of my liking or is just plain bad, and they think it’s the cat’s meow. But, if they are asking how to fix a particular problem I will comment on how to fix it, if i know how to. Otherwise, I just read and keep my mouth shut. Keeps me out of trouble.

  11. Beth G.
    Dec 25, 2007 @ 11:39:51

    It is sometimes difficult to give frank concrit because when a dress pic is posted, it would be after the fact and too late to fix (example: swirls over the bust). I also wouldn’t want to point out something that would keep the dress from selling, since lots of mothers read our board (example: that SR dress that resembled marijuana leaves). What do you think?

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