Tailor-made and sew unique: Where have the neighborhood tailors and dressmakers gone?
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Christmas 1984, lunchtime, somewhere in Makati: My brother walks into the kitchen with leaden footsteps, his shoulders hunched forward in defeat. He tosses a gaily-wrapped package on the dining table before slumping on his chair. The package has been opened, and I can make out something with a red-and-green checkered pattern inside it. Then I ask my brother a question I already know the answer to: “So, what did your Ninang (godmother) give you for Christmas?” Brother dear heaves a deep sigh before exclaiming, “Damit na naman!” (“Clothes, again!”) Dad pulls up a chair next to my brother so he can lecture his ten-year-old on the finer points of gratitude. Mom, who’s been watching the scene with bemusement, peels the holly-and-candy-cane-printed wrapper to reveal the cause of my brother’s consternation: two custom-made checkered polo shirts beautifully stitched and lovingly sewn by my brother’s godmother.
My brother’s Ninang Lydia was a dressmaker. Not a run-of-the-mill seamstress who copied designs from yellowing pattern magazines but a true modista who took pride in her original work. Her shop was called Lydia’s Creations, which employed an assistant dressmaker and put two Singer sewing machines through their paces every day. Her business card labeled her as a costurera. Lydia’s Creations was not the only sewing shop in the neighborhood. On my block alone, there were two: one being Ninang Lydia’s and the other a tailoring shop run by a family from Leyte. Five houses away on the next block was a shop that specialized in making copycat Levi’s and Jordache jeans. Right across that one was a contract shop that made office uniforms, and a little bit farther was a bridal wear showroom. Along narrow side-streets were shops that saw their own share of regular customers who dropped in for everything from alterations to United Nations school costumes.
The sastre (tailor) or modista (dressmaker) was the person to see if you wanted to look spiffy i in the latest fashions. Dressmaking and tailoring were not just something you had to learn for your Practical Arts subject in school. They were skills that people took seriously, skills that paid the bills, and nowhere was this fact more evident than in my own extended family. Four of my aunts had, at one point or another, sewn for a living. One aunt made doll dresses, another worked as an alterations girl for a famous fashion designer in Manila, still another aunt, a public school teacher, sewed and silkscreened table runners and bedcovers, while a fourth aunt tended a sari-sari (general merchandise) store while taking sewing jobs on the side. Nearly every household owned a sewing machine. Although my mother had never learned to use a sewing machine, her hand-stitching skills were second to none.
All mine and my brother’s school uniforms were custom-made. Buying ready-made school uniforms was almost unheard of and scorned as something only a lazy mother would resort to. Every first week of May, Mom would take me and my brother to Aling Helen to have our measurements taken. I can still remember how it tickled as Aling Helen looped her measuring tape around my waist and remarked how much I’d grown. She had kept a record of my measurements from the previous year in an old spiral notebook. Only she could be trusted with making our school uniforms. The family’s special occasion clothes were entrusted to another modista, however. Aling Vita smoked like a chimney and cursed like a sailor, but oh, how she conjured sartorial magic out of ordinary fabric! There was no peplum too flouncy nor sailor collar too nautical for Aling Vita’s gifted hands. One could point to any random dress on a sewing magazine and Aling Vita would put it all together in a few days, with her personal flourishes thrown in for good measure.
The last time I had a bespoke outfit made was in 1998. It was a pantsuit that I would wear to a friend’s wedding. My mother sought another modista after illness silenced Aling Vita’s once-busy hands. Mom continued to have her skirts and blouses tailor-made until the late 2000s, when my mom’s illness and a change in her modista’s personal circumstances made them see less and less of each other. Low-priced ready-to-wear and ukay-ukay (used clothes) became too formidable a competition for the tailors and dressmakers. But even before the winds of economic change started to blow, many of my barangay’s clothing artisans had long stopped plying their trade. The counterfeit jeans specialists had migrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s, while the children of the sewing family from Leyte did not follow in their parents’ footsteps. The others grumpily surrendered to failing eyesight and diminished dexterity. Not all dressmakers have retired their sewing machines. Last I heard, my brother’s Ninang Lydia, who must now be in her 70s, continues to produce her wonderful creations. Still holding the fort for a trade on its last legs. May her hands never lie idle.