The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
The Monterey Bay Aquarium
42nd Street Moon
(02-01) 23:00 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- Step into Louise Jarmilowicz's rent-controlled apartment in the Inner Sunset - a treasure chest jammed with three decades of costumes, collectibles and cockeyed ephemera - and you'll feel as if you'd fallen into "Pee-wee's Playhouse."
There's an autographed Tom Jones album cover, her father's U.S. Postal Service uniform, the accordion she's played for 15 years, a mop-topped puppet that an ex-boyfriend made in her likeness, file cabinets stashed with hats and bags, and a DVD set of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
Jarmilowicz, who is 6 feet tall, grew up in Lynn, Mass., and moved to San Francisco in 1979. She works half time making alterations at Held Over, a Haight Street vintage clothing store, and freelances as a costumer for theatrical companies and individuals. Jarmilowicz also creates digital collages, which she posts on her website (www.jarmodesigns.net).
I had a really overactive imagination when I was little. If things weren't going well, I'd go to my room and make things. I had cats and would dress them up in costumes.
I learned to sew at 14, probably. I have two sisters and we're all tall, and our mother felt like we wouldn't fit into regular girls' clothing. So she made us learn to sew.
The clothes I made were colorful, but they didn't get crazy till I came out here. 'Cause everything changed, in terms of what I felt like I had permission to do. I felt I could re-establish my identity and be a whole new person.
I love making clothes for people. I love it when they say, "Here's some money. Make me something you think I'll look good in."
I did weddings for a while, but they were too restrictive. I do much better at alternative clothing rather than normal. There was one couple that got married, Doug and Candace. I made him an orange velveteen zoot suit. And then she had me make this white strapless bridal gown that had little pockets all along the skirt where she could put joints.
For the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, I made 22 seven-piece matching black-and-white habits. Six of the Sisters were over here trying things on with their hoopskirts and heels in this one room. There was barely enough room, 'cause some of those skirts are gigantic. So there was a lot of shoving and laughing.
I had to do their habits in a short period of time. Wimple, veil. Sash, collar, skirt. Then this long tailcoat. And there'd be cuffs. When I finished they "sainted" me.
I have a sewing ad on Craigslist. I never know what people are going to bring me. Sometimes it's really boring, like hemming someone's pants. Right now this guy is having me copy a vest and put fur on it. But it's really exciting because I get to find out about people's lives.
I haven't cared about making money for most of my life. Because I'd rather be happy. Not that those two things can't exist together. But being able to express myself creatively is probably the strongest motivator in my entire life.
The first job I had in San Francisco was a bookkeeping job. I used to work at the Berkeley Free Clinic. And then I went to Stanford and was in the physician assistant program. I didn't finish. There wasn't enough time to be creative and be in that field. I felt like a part of me was missing.
Edward Guthmann is a Bay Area freelance writer.