Suleiman the tailor

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readSep 3, 2017


Suleiman the tailor

Source : Google photo

Synopsis : He was our tailor when we were young but I saw the disappearance of personal tailors with the change of times when the ready made and second hand clothes have diminished the role of traditional tailors like Suleiman. I still miss him.

He was our tailor while we were growing up who made our shirts and shorts from the same bolt of clothes so we looked similarly dressed. He also made the button holes small making it difficult to button or unbutton in a hurry. We as kids were always in a hurry to pee so cursed the small button holes. This was when the zippers had not been invented or Suleiman did not know about it.

We had to plead with him to hurry up and get our new clothes ready before the festival season but he had too many orders to fill so said he will try his best and delivered in a nick of time making us all very nervous. What good did it do if we could not wear our new clothes during the Pooja just like others?

As my brothers grew older, they preferred their own style of clothes and long pants because they did not like to look alike but I was way behind them so Suleiman still had a few more years to work on my clothes with small button holes. Later I too would choose my own style and tailor who could make my long pants of white jeans that we called butter jeans in those college days.

We as college students had our own dress code although it was not required by the college. We thought that white shirt and white butter jean pants with shiny black belt and black shoes were stylish in those days. The white butter jeans were a bit yellowish at first but after constant washing, it got whiter and softer so it was really nice to wear. It was all made of pure cotton. The synthetics had not been in vogue although nylon, polyester, rayon and many such fabrics started to appear but they were costly.

Then came the cotton mixed with nylon, nylon mixed with wool and many such mixed fabrics that were expensive but looked very nice and classy. The Indian textile industry is world class and produces the finest textiles in the world so you have tremendous range of products and colors to choose from but we were just poor students then.

You could find tailors in your neighborhood who could make very decent clothes for you if you were not pressed for time. Nobody bought ready-made clothes so we all wore tailor made clothes which now a days is a luxury.

Women wore saris so they did not need to go to a tailor. They made their own blouses and petticoats at home but the younger girls who had not graduated to sari still needed their shalwar and kurta that tailors made for them. They wore frocks up to a certain age as their school uniform that their mothers made for them at home. Their underwear were also home made by their mothers or elder sisters just like ours. I even learned to make my own.

Then came the ready-made clothes. You could find anything of any color and any fabric in any size so slowly people started to buy them because it was readily available. One did not need to wait for the Suleimans anymore. Also people had more money now and found it very convenient to buy clothes instantly. All you had to do was to get the right size and fit.

Women learned for the first time that they could buy fancy panties and bras that fit them well and were stylish. Who did not like to be stylish? It is the human nature to show off in fancy clothes that attract admiring glances. Women were coming into the work force in very large numbers because the education was spreading everywhere giving them more opportunities to get jobs.

So they started wearing pants and tee shirts as casual dresses or shalwar kurta that they found very practical for everyday wear. Saris were relegated to special occasions or a simple at home wear now although it remains the traditional wear in villages and small towns.

I always think that people choose their clothes as a function of practicality so if the style can be added to it then it becomes the popular mode. Working women found it hard to wear saris because it often got caught in the spokes of a rickshaw or the handle of a bus causing accident. My wife once had a bad experience when her silk sari got caught in the chain of my moped but I was quick enough to stop and untangle it. The sari was ruined but she was safe and had no injuries.

So I have seen the evolution of style and ready-made clothes over a period of time that has put many tailors out of business.

When I came to the Philippines in 1968, I was able to go to a tailor and get very nicely tailored clothes in a short time. They had a showcase full of fabrics to choose from with the price tags displayed prominently. You chose the fabric and the color and gave him your measurements. He got everything ready just in a few days. The tailors kept a record of your measurements so the next time all you had to do was to choose the cloth.

But here too the ready-made clothes have taken over so practically no one goes to a tailor anymore. There are many fancy Malls where you can buy anything at a price you can afford. The signature clothes in dazzling colors and styles and sizes are in abundance. You just have to pay the price. It is the same in India.

This has given rise to a worldwide industry that produces clothes to supply the markets everywhere creating jobs for millions especially in poor countries but also exploitation that I wrote about in a previous blog. Although China is at the forefront of this huge industry, there are many other countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines that produce clothes for export.

My wife was amused to find Philippines made panties and bras in Haiti. We visited one factory in Port au Prince in Haiti where they made clothes under the supervision of Filipinos for export markets.

The tsunami of second hand clothes:

We have now come to the era of second hand clothes but it started as donations to poor people who suffered natural calamities in Africa or elsewhere so the appeal was made to people in richer countries to donate their used clothes and shoes. Such donations often ended up elsewhere to be sold so a huge business grew out of it because people are unscrupulous and make money out of donated clothes. Huge container loads of such clothes are diverted to many countries where corrupt customs people take a share of the profit and release these container loads of used clothes.

They are then sold openly in the market where poor people can buy them at low cost. They are called ukay ukay here in the Philippines but you can find such clothes anywhere now.

There is a place in Rome called Thieves’ market where you can buy a sheep skin jacket for only 5 dollars when the new price in New Zealand or Australia for it exceeds 300 dollars. They were supposed to be donated for the poor people somewhere so how does it end up in a market in Rome?

The containers are also used to hide drugs hidden among bales of used clothes but that is another matter. The criminals are always on the lookout for ways to make quick money this way. All they have to do is to bribe the customs people.

In the United States they have stores run by The Salvation Army where you can buy used clothes , shoes or suitcases among various other things very cheaply. Just don’t ask them where the stuff comes from.

So I have seen the changes from homemade clothes to tailored clothes to ready-made clothes just in one generation. People change their preference in order to keep up with the demands and exigencies of time. You will be hard pressed to see Japanese women clad in their beautiful traditional kimonos except perhaps on special occasions. Now the emphasis is on comfortable yet practical and stylish clothes that define the present era of educated youth everywhere.

The media and the fashion:

No one can deny the impact of movies and TV shows on people these days. They will imitate the daring clothes worn by actresses because they think that it is stylish. If the plunging neckline and rising hem line is the fashion then so be it. If the faded jeans with shredded knees are the fashion, the women run to get it or get the blades to shred their jeans. If the short blouse that leaves their stomach bare is the style then you will start seeing many bare mid sections.

The designers and manufacturers jump in quickly to fill the shelves. The fashion is always a fad anywhere meaning it can change rapidly so make hay while the sun shines or in this case make quick profit while the fad lasts.

I started out with poor Suleiman who used to be our tailor when we were kids but we all have grown up and adjusted to the new world of ready-made clothes in most countries. Now the tailors here in the Philippines sew clothes for students who need their uniform in high school. I suspect it is the same trend everywhere so high class tailoring is now limited to those who can afford their Savile Row suits or Nehru style jackets.

The ordinary people can’t afford them so buy ready-made clothes although the fake signature brands are doing a roaring business these days. You can buy Gucci bags in Hong Kong for ten dollars or less depending on your bargaining skills or fake Levis for a few bucks. Just watch out for scammers because those jeans may not fit you after just one wash and the fast color may not be fast at all so you get what you pay for.

Then there are those tailors who will come to your hotel room with a briefcase full of sample fabrics and will take your measurement and deliver your suit or coat or whatever within 24 hours. Their price is negotiable but again there is no guarantee that it will fit you after one wash although you will be given all sorts of assurances by these crooks knowing that you are leaving the next day and may never come back.

It reminds me of an incident that I found so funny.

There was once an Afghani itinerant trader in his long kaftan gown. People in India called them Kabuliwallahs. He showed up one day in our community with a huge bag full of goods and spread them all on the side walk to sell. His most notorious item was a bolt of cloth he claimed to be made in England that was fireproof, of fast color and of highest quality that he staked his reputation on citing holy books so people were impressed. They had never seen a fireproof cloth made anywhere so they wanted proof which the crook eagerly supplied.

He then sprayed a small coating of spirit on the cloth and lit it. It burned for a few seconds and then was put out leaving no trace of fire on the cloth that impressed the folks immensely not knowing that the fire burned only the spirit and not the cloth because the Kabuliwallah put out the fire before it could catch on. So someone bought several meters of it for making a suit for him and my brother who got duped easily came home with a piece for his pants. You should have seen his face when his new pants were washed and all the color drained out shrinking the pant to a size even a kid could not easily fit in.

The itinerant merchant had disappeared long ago making money out of gullible people who were thus conned. It is good that my brother bought only a piece for his pants. I did not ask what happened to the fellow who had a suit made.

There are fake clothes, fake Rolex watches, fake Rayban, fake Gucci and fake everything because people buy them out of ignorance or greed or both. Just step out of the Termini in Rome where you will see these crooks.

Anyway the subject is Suleiman so I will conclude with him. He had grown old and bent with age when one day he came to see my father. He said that his eyes were not good enough to continue in his trade so he had retired. He said that most people these days bought ready-made clothes so did not need tailors like him.

He was a victim of shifting demography and their new tastes in clothes so I suppose the Suleimans of this world are a dying breed now. I miss him though.



Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.