Janet Aspley, who recently completed her PhD, was interviewed by the fashion company Liberty about her love for their fabrics, and how her design company Dandy & Rose, where she makes bespoke Liberty print western shirts, links with her interests in the history of fashion.
WHERE ARE YOU BASED, AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST START MAKING SHIRTS?
I am based in Lewes, East Sussex, where I’ve lived for 25 years. I started experimenting with making western wear in the late 1980s when I first became a big fan of country music and started writing for Country Music People magazine. A couple of years ago, I was interviewing the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale and plucked up the courage to show him a shirt I had made from a 1940s western shirt pattern. He loved it and started wearing my stuff onstage – and Dandy & Rose was born.
DO YOU HAVE A FAMILY HISTORY OF SEWING?
My mum Iris was an avid home sewing enthusiast – when I was growing up, she made all my clothes. She had learned her skills from my dad’s mum, who would make extra pennies by taking in sewing after she married my grandad, a coalminer. Sometimes when I see one of my shirts on stage or on TV, I wonder what she would have made of it. I bet she would have loved to have a workroom full of Liberty fabrics!
CONGRATULATIONS ON GETTING YOUR PHD – COULD YOU TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR STUDIES?
Thank you! About 10 years ago, I interviewed the tailor Manuel Cuevas, the ‘Rhinestone Rembrandt’, and realised his work would be a great basis for an academic study. ‘Nudie suits’ are made using incredible finesse of cutting and construction – but instead of the understated details that usually go with bespoke menswear, they are made in bright colours, embroidered with pictures and embellished with sparkling rhinestones. Walking into Manuel’s showroom is like entering a jewel box. In its 1950s heyday, the Nudie suit was a working-class version of luxury, an expression of rags-to-riches stardom. Since then it has come to be seen as traditional, and country singers wear their Nudie suits to show that they are the ‘real deal’.
HOW DID WORKING ON YOUR THESIS INSPIRE YOU TO START MAKING YOUR SHIRTS?
Studying dress means you need to understand how something’s made – for me, that means having a go at doing it myself wherever possible. The research and the making are an exchange, with each feeding the other. I did a lot of research at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, so it was a thrill when they included me in their ‘Featured Western Wear Designer’ exhibit a couple of years ago.
WHY DO YOU THINK AMERICAN COUNTRY SINGERS HAVE SUCH AN AFFINITY FOR LIBERTY FABRICS?
Gram Parsons, who is an inspirational figure to many modern musicians, had a Nudie suit made in 1968 embroidered with pictures of leaves, pills and poppies – a real product of 1960s counterculture. Parsons spent time in London and loved the iconic Kings Road boutique Granny Takes a Trip, which made the famous psychedelic William Morris print jackets worn by George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix. My Liberty print western shirts evoke this important ‘60s music moment – I’d love to find a photograph of Parsons in a Liberty shirt, because I’m sure he must have had one!
Musicians love Liberty prints because they’re beautiful. These are creative people, and they can appreciate the work of an artist in a different medium – which is what your print designers are. Tana Lawn™ is a great fabric for a touring musician. It’s very soft and light, and it doesn’t crease as much as most other cotton fabrics either. They can pull it out of their bag, put it on to go onstage and make an impact.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE LIBERTY PRINTS FOR DIFFERENT MUSICIANS?
I try to help my customers pick out a print that expresses their personality. Sturgill Simpson chose the print Gustav and Otto – he had a song out called ‘Turtles All the Way Down’, so I cut the shirt so that the tiny turtles in the design ran all the way down the button band. Danny George Wilson is highly tattooed, so he loved the tattoo-inspired Wild at Heart print. I love connecting my customers with the stories Liberty can tell about each print.
Sometimes it’s Liberty itself that is the connection. A couple of years ago, I made a shirt for the actor and comedian Tina Fey. Her brother Peter bought the shirt for her as a Christmas gift, because he knew she had special memories of visiting Liberty when she came to London as a young backpacker. He chose the print Queen Bee, which I suspect was a family in-joke!
WHICH MUSICIANS HAVE YOU BEEN ESPECIALLY EXCITED TO SEE WEARING YOUR WORK?
Aaron Lee Tasjan has all the flamboyance of the ‘60s and ‘70s menswear moment, so I loved it when he got a ruffled Dandy & Rose shirt in a psychedelic print called Amelia Star. When Jim Lauderdale wore one of my Liberty shirts on the TV soap opera Nashville, I had a viewing party with all my friends. And I’ll never forget sitting backstage in the bleachers at the Grand Ole Opry, a historic Nashville venue for country music, and looking up to see Jim wearing a shirt I had made on the huge screen – it filled me with awe to think it had come all the way from my little workroom in Lewes.
There are still some musicians I would love to make for, so Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello – if you’re reading this…
WHAT DRAWS YOU TO LIBERTY PRINTS?
The colours and details are amazing. I made a shirt in the print Wild Flowers, and was working to a deadline to get it ready for a show. Because I do a lot of pattern matching, I examine the prints very closely, but even so, I was right at the end of the make before I noticed that the designer had inserted the word ‘Strawberry’ into the print. I love that level of attention to detail.
An earlier version of this blog post originally appeared on the Liberty London website.