Peta Mathias’ new book Shed Couture immediately spoke to me. Not only for the message of accidental sustainability within, but because I find myself at a point in life where I’m seeking guidance. I hoped there’d be some kernels of wisdom from a woman who has seemingly got life worked out. If she makes mistakes, I bet she has a bloody good time making them.
The impression I got from my only face-to-face interaction with Peta (over a decade ago, on a photoshoot) was that she’s a woman who knows what she wants - or doesn’t want - and will likely go and get it herself.
Today the chef, author and broadcaster releases her latest book, a celebration of her love of well made clothes and fashion - and the joys they can bring. Here, a few lessons in life and style from within the pages...
Lesson #1 - Loving clothes is not something to be ashamed of
I’ve loved clothes since I was a kid, and Peta says she’s haunted by the clothes of her past. But in my 20-year career working with clothes, I’ve never felt more conflicted - what does it mean to be devoted to fashion today, and can it still be something to be proud of?
When discussing my job with strangers, I sometimes find they write the whole fashion industry off as harmful (fair, but improving) and frippery (unfair, but what do you say to that when you’re standing there in a frock and heels?).
Peta offers a case for the love of clothes. “Caring for yourself is not being indulgent and egotistical, and fashion is not a superficial pursuit; it is necessary for self-preservation.”
Lesson #2 - Make well, buy well, re-sell
But of course, Shed Couture is not offering a pass to buy a heap of new clothes. The book’s overriding theme is working with the clothes you already have.
Peta has done her research, and explores the environmental cost of cheap clothing and underpaid labour. But some of my favourite parts of Shed Couture are the storied and evocative explanations of the history and manufacture of natural textiles. In fashion textbooks, it’s often a very dry subject, but Peta blends her research with anecdotes from her own life and collection of garments.
A point she makes, which I hadn’t considered, is that buying quality clothes and looking after them isn’t just for you - it’s so that they’re in good condition when you decide to sell or pass them on.
Lesson #3 - Learn how to cook, mend, and maybe embroider too
This sounds like old-fashioned advice, but bear with me. Peta maintains that people will always like you if you can cook, and she would know. I adore all my friends who are great cooks, though it’s never been a strong point of mine.
Sewing on the other hand, I’m proficient at. Peta is spot on when she notes the meditative quality of mending - similar to that of bread making. Mending also extends the life of your beloved items, saves you money and keeps your damaged clothes out of landfill.
Shed Couture contains some nostalgic tales about handcrafting, and modern day examples too. Embroidery is a great way to up-cycle existing clothing, or cover stains, but I was really excited by the thought of smocking for grown ups. I wore it as a toddler, but the gathered but stretchy embroidery would greatly improve some of my existing tent-like dresses.
I came away from the book with two goals - to learn how to smock, and to increase my cooking repertoire.
Lesson #4 - Trust your intuition. But when it comes to shopping, check if it’s really your intuition talking
A story about regretting not buying a dress she fell for because her friend told her it looked ridiculous is relatable. Trusting your intuition on all things is wise, as is solo shopping. Peta reminds us “a few really good clothes are a much better investment than lots of bad-quality ones”.
When in a retail environment your gut instinct can be overshadowed by compliments and angled mirrors. Peta’s book contains an excellent list of questions to ask yourself when considering a purchase. This should be photocopied and laminated by those committed to buying less, which let’s face it, should be all of us.
Lesson #5 - Learn what suits your body and colouring... but take it with a grain of salt
Shed Couture dedicates many pages to the various body shapes and skin tones of women, and how to figure out what might suit you best. Knowledge is power after all. But the overall tone of the book is about being eternally curious: knowing the ‘rules’, so that you can wilfully break them, and wearing beautiful clothes and accessories in colours, textures and patterns that bring you joy.
• Shed Couture: A Passion for Fashion by Peta Mathias ($40, published by Penguin) is out now