A stitch in time saves nine. Old proverb.
My mind turned to tailors recently. Or to put it more precisely, my mind turned to why my mind had not turned to tailors for a very long time. Several years, in fact. There are good reasons for this. Over the past few decades, the sartorial world has shown a distinct preference for the readymade stuff. We live in an instant world. Everything is wanted yesterday. Instant coffee, instant tea, flavoured malts, milk, buttermilk, fruit juices – all available in neat tetrapaks, ready for immediate consumption. However, clothiers continued to ply their trade relatively unharmed. The search for that perfect fit which makes all the difference kept driving the punctilious, dress-conscious male to his personal, bespoke tailor to provide him with a suit or a shirt or a pair of trousers that was the envy of his contemporaries. P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal goofball, Bertie Wooster, once wrote a piece, though no one had actually read it, titled ‘What the well-dressed man is wearing’ for his Aunt Dahlia’s magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. Clearly, Bertie’s sole journalistic, if anonymous, effort was not going to set Fleet Street and the publishing world on fire. Even his trusted manservant, or gentleman’s personal gentleman to employ the mot juste, the equally immortal Jeeves took a dim view of it. In Bertie’s memorable words, ‘the lovelight suddenly died out of his (Jeeves’) eyes.’ In Wodehouse’s fantasy world, Savile Row was the temple of tailoring and all men of proper breeding had their suits cut there. That was then and this is now. More to the point, that was Imperial England, and this is free India.
To revert to the point at issue, tailors and the rarefied world of tailoring, if not quite becoming extinct like the dodo, are showing incipient signs of mortality. We see less and less of them. At this point, I must hastily qualify my statement, in so far as what I have been rambling on about pertains largely to tailors who cater to male patrons. The distaff side of things are still going pretty strong, which is hardly surprising. Blouses need to be stitched to perfection, hems taken in on newly acquired saris and skirts, and for reasons that do not need going into in detail, our gentle women folk are constantly having to address sensitive issues like weight loss and weight gain, and the friendly tailor round the corner is an indispensable support system. Though why a particular article of clothing is suddenly discovered to be a misfit, in a manner of speaking, has always been mystifying. 24 hours prior to attending a grand wedding reception, blood curdling screams ring out across the length and breadth of one’s apartment that ‘the blouse has become too tight, omigosh!’ And you found that out now? Surely there must be other blouses. Alas, you poor, ill-informed male! A particular sari has already been earmarked from a select shortlist, over a month ago to stun your friends and relatives at the forthcoming la-di-da reception. The matching blouse, which has not been worn for close to a year, is now discovered to be ill-fitting. You get the picture. And the more than passable imitation of Edvard Munch’s priceless painting, ‘The Scream’ is presented in all its horrific, pastel splendour. The limited point one is trying to make is that there is no clear and present danger of the tailor catering to the female of the species dying out any time soon. At least, not in India. The Singer sewing machine has been an integral part of most middle-class households, but nowadays, it performs the role of an antediluvian furniture piece, one with the dinosaur.
My earliest recollection of interacting with a tailor was when I was admitted to boarding school in Bangalore. The school blazer and cap were essential accoutrements as part of the school uniform. Within a couple of days of joining school, we had to line up in front of old man Rakhra, a tailor whose immense reputation had clearly preceded him. I was 10 years old and to my infant’s eyes, the bald and thickly bespectacled Rakhra looked like Methuselah, at least 90 years old, at a conservative estimate. The Biblical Methuselah, of course, was said to have lived till the ripe old age of 969! In our more normal times, I thought 90 was old enough to be getting along with. The truth of it was that he was probably in his mid to late ‘60s.
Now the thing about this Rakhra couturier, who was always turned out in spotless, creased whites, was his gruff manner with a disconcerting habit of patting, poking and prodding us all over the place while his assistant would keep tying us up in knots with the measuring tape, and reading out our embarrassingly puny chest, waist and other anatomical measurements. At least, the blazer and cap details involved only the top half of the body. When it came to the half pants, Rakhra’s hands would roam where angels feared to tread. All in a purely professional cause, I hasten to add. It was part of his job and I daresay the ancient tailor meant no harm, but for us children, we squirmed, shifted and often laughed out loud, particularly when his strong fingers would give our ribs a right working over. It didn’t help that the supervising House Master would, every now and then, administer a smart clip round the back of our heads, admonishing our needless histrionics. ‘That will be enough of that, Waller. Stop making an ass of yourself,’ about summed up the Master’s views on the matter. Then of course, we had to go for the trial, sometimes more than once, and this was a bigger trial than the initial measurement taking. To make things worse, at that age we quickly outgrew our clothes and this meant going through the whole rigmarole again. Like Topsy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, we just ‘growed.’
Thus, it was a great relief to have grown to man’s estate, as it were. Once we crossed the age of 15 or 16, chances of our growing further were remote. That was as far as height went. Weight and waist measurements were another matter altogether. It was a phase when we switched from half-pants to full length trousers making us feel that we were now adults – proper young gentlemen, strutting about the place like proud peacocks. Though there was a funny side to wearing full pants, as the school colloquialism went. A handful of us outgrew the long trousers as well, resulting in an awkward gap between the end of the trouser folds and our ankles. Leading to that classic jibe from other boys, ‘Waiting for floods, are we?’ That said, with each passing year our growth, by and large, stabilised. This enabled us to switch to readymades with a greater degree of comfort.
Getting into our time machines and fast forwarding to the post-millennial generation, it’s all about branded clothes wear. Just walk into any respectable department store or mall, and visit the clothes section, and you are spoilt for choice. All manner of sizes, in a bewildering array of advertised brands will be available, if it’s trousers you’re looking for. Convenient trial rooms enable you to try them on yourself in front of a full size mirror, and if some slight adjustment is needed like shortening the length or increasing the waist, the ladies at the counter will pencil in the details on your invoice, and request you to collect the merchandise a couple of hours later. Just like that! There is a tailor on hand but he does his job with great finesse. No prodding of your rib cage, sending you into paroxysms. Then again, if you are obscenely well-heeled and belong to the truly upper crust, it has to be Savile Row, London or its Indian equivalent. Since no one in India will notice the difference at parties, you will have to be inventive and find ways to obliquely communicate this to your friends and acquaintances. ‘You like my suit? Yeah, it’s fine but frankly, I wouldn’t waste all that money I had to shell out for this at Savile Row.’ Mocking yourself with false modesty. The oldest showing off trick in the book.
Here in India we can still find, if we looked hard enough, the modest tailor in his modest little shop, peddling away on his (erstwhile referred to) Singer machine, somewhere in an impossibly crowded street. He will be more than willing to loosen the waistline of your trousers, shorten the hem of your petticoat and sari, or even re-stitch the borders of your pillow cases, for a song. Oh, and another thing. When it comes to your trouser fly, always go for the button option. Those metal zips can be a right, royal pain. Literally. In the final analysis, clothes may make the man, but Polonious’ gratuitous advice from the Bard’s Hamlet is worth recalling:
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy / But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.