“She’s long, she’s tall, she’s six feet from the ground,
She’s tailor made, lord she ain’t no hand-me-down”
… from Jimmie Rodgers Blue Yodel No. 4
We usually now use the term hand-me-down when we are referring to something that has been used and is now being recycled, like children’s clothing. What we mean is that it’s being handed-down, from one size of child to another, smaller one. It’s a good system, although it’s got a bit of an edge to it, an implication that rich people wouldn’t need to do this, and if you are, you obviously aren’t part of the 1 percent.
But hand-me-down had, at another time, quite a different meaning.
It was referring to the difference between something custom and something machine-made, to the products of industrialization as opposed to the triumphs of skill and patience. Before shopping centres, and maybe even before department stores, or even the dominance of urban culture, goods were purchased from stores with high ceilings and lots of shelves. If you wanted to buy a pair of new overalls, for instance, you might say to the store’s proprietor: “Say Bill, hand me down a pair of those overalls, size medium, the ones up on that shelf behind you”. Hand-me-downs, indeed. There was also an implication of economic status attached to the term then as well. The rich wore tailor-made.
Our relationship with the goods produced by industrialization has always been a bit conflicted. As the Industrial Revolution was gaining traction in the mid to late nineteenth century, a wider and wider variety of goods were becoming available at better and better prices. That’s the good news. There’s always a down-side and there were a number in this case: the hollowing out of rural communities as labour moved to the urban factories, the redundancy of traditional skills and its resultant unemployment, the standardization of sizes, to enable larger volumes, and environmental degradation, to name just some of them. There was an aesthetic objection, well documented through the history of the Arts and Crafts movement, and also a social or status implication. The rich didn’t need the benefits of low price. They could have their goods tailor made, whether they were clothes or automobiles. They would be made to fit the individual, to reflect their status, their preferences and to differentiate them from the common man (or woman).
Design is a skill that is predicated on a certain amount of talent and a lot of dedicated time and effort. Like almost all other skills, you get better if you practice. The resultant skill is then quite broadly applicable. Although the design businesses are highly specialized, many designers jump fences. Graphic designers might design themselves a house, for instance, and textile designers might design some jewelry. Sometimes this polymorphism is the result of confidence and sometimes it’s a response to a challenge, or to deflect boredom. Often, designers respond to the opportunities that present themselves.
Designing is a lot like tailor-making, even when the intended user audience is very large and the intention is to produce goods that are hand-me-downs. The designer is challenged to provide the best fit, so to speak, for the problem being solved. The versatility and adaptability of the skill can apply to very small numbers as well as to large ones, which, as an example, Industrial Design is about. The resulting product may not be tailor made, but the process might be.
A lot of my career has been associated with furniture, in one way or another. Early on, I built a lot of custom furniture. Later on, I designed furniture for other companies to make. In either case, there were similarities to the process. The right steps must be taken to yield an acceptable outcome. In the latter case, a lot more time was spent on each step, as the consequences were much larger. And either way, it always felt a lot like tailor-making.
When I listen to Jimmie singing about his gal, I know which business I’ve been in. And it ain’t no hand-me-down.
Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its Industrial Design department.