Women’s fashion: Twenty minutes at a Burmese tailor in Mawlamyine

I walked in, said ‘tailor?’ and ‘longyi’ – the women sitting on the floor looked at me in puzzlement for a few minutes. Then one stood to show me her longyi; it took a few attempts before I realised the style of her mauve longyi was in fact an improvement on the normal style – it had two extra clips so it didn’t bunch up around her waist where it would normally be tucked in, but stayed smooth instead. She took the fabric I’d bought two days before in mandalay, she took my measurements – waist, hips, upper thighs and outside leg – and then said ‘please wait!’

A younger woman cleared a little space at a bench, sat me down on a stool and gave me a small stack of magazines to look at. The woman in purple squatted down on the floor and began. She did various marks on the fabric – darts to make it fit around my hips. She chopped a triangle off one corner and a long strip off one edge (top or bottom, I couldn’t tell) then handed it over to another young woman; there were four, plus the woman in the lilac cotton longyi and see-through lace top, who I took to be the owner. She seemed to be the most confident and experienced, greeting customers, discussing designs with her patrons and giving instructions to the other women as she worked on the lino shop floor. I could see six machines: three singer-style, and a modern unused looking white sewing machine, plus two with three large bobbins on top (hemming machines).

I sat where I’d been told and flipped through a magazine – it showed a series of different styles of longyi outfits to choose from, modeled by beautiful Burmese women, all of whom would be considered as quite heavy by western fashion standards because they had large round bottoms and big breasts and (to me) looked very healthy. I began to write down what was happening around me.

Another customer came in, measurements were taken for top and bottom, then she sat, chatting and waiting for a while, until her boyfriend or husband came along from next-door, chewing betel, and off they rode on a motorbike. It was around then that I realised that the heavily pregnant woman sitting on the floor was a customer, not a tailor. Having discussed precisely what she wanted, measurements were taken – shoulder to knee, compensating for her huge belly. The mauve-clad owner worked on this woman’s outfit, squatting as she marked the synthetic pink and white fabric spread out on the floor, moving it deftly through her fingers. The pair chatted away – loud while one worked, quietly when she paused for a whisper. Then the pregnant women hefted herself up, put on pink flip flops and walked off, leaving the owner to focus on the work.

Someone moved across from one table to another to use an iron – there was only one, which created a queue when the girl in dark indigo longyi and a striped t-shirt working on mine finished sewing. I couldn’t tell what the first iron-user was making. When I saw it, it was 3 or 4 nicely hemmed pieces of red, almost Chinese-looking, silk (or perhaps satin). After they’d been ironed, she piled them all up, one on top of the next on the floor, perfectly aligned, and began to measure them again.

My longyi was handed over to someone else, once the ironing was complete. It has taken shape very quickly. Sitting on the floor close to the machine-table I was writing at (perhaps they each have a machine they always use, I thought. Was I in her way?), she stitched the two fastenings into my longyi by hand, deftly and very quickly. These women all seemed incredibly good at their job. They were all so swift in their work. Perhaps the fabric I had selected was particularly easy to work with – thick and reasonably stiff, it was easily cut and didn’t crease up very much when on the machine table.

Every so often, the owner sang a few bars of something. Otherwise, all I could hear was the snack-snack of scissors snipping away and the whirr of machines being propelled underfoot. The girls know their machines very well, I thought to myself.

The pregnant woman came back and returned to the same spot on the floor, just as my longyi is completed. The owner took me behind a screen and dressed me like she might a little child – I had to step into it, then she fastened me in, giving it a few sharp tugs to straighten it out. She showed me my reflection in the mirror. I went back out to the shop floor to show the women who made it how it looks, and to tell them I like it.

A girl bagged up my new longyi for me and I asked the price: 4,000 kyat. I handed the owner a 5,000 kyat note and refused the change she tried to give me. I thanked them far too many times and tried to show how impressed I was with the speed at which they work. I said goodbye. They all watched me climb back onto my borrowed bike and go. The owner stood motionless at the door as I waved back at them. I wondered whether this was the highlight of their day, as it was mine.

Originally written by hand at the Mawlamyine tailor’s shop, Thursday 27th August 2015.

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