Picture a fifteen-year-old girl swathed in itchy fabric held together by pins. She turns this way and that before she’s firmly admonished by a young woman telling her to stay still. That girl was me once upon a time. Everyone has a tailor or multiple tailors growing up in Nigeria. It’s simply a way of life. Even with the proliferation of fast fashion and social media, our tailors from the fancy to the functional remain a consistent presence in our lives. The question is: why?
The simplest and easiest answer is because of tradition. For weddings, funerals and all events in between, a good tailor for traditional outfits is a must. I still remember the green fitted skirt with a matching gold bustier top I wore to a wedding. It’s still one of my favorite looks ever. It is also something I wouldn’t have been able to pick up at H&M. For large events, you usually buy fabric from the event planner and then sew an outfit according to your relationship to the person hosting. For instance, men might wear one fabric, and woman another. To make it even more complicated there may be different tiers. The close family could wear green, for example, the extended family yellow, and close friends blue.
The first tailor I developed a consistent relationship with, met me when I was 12. A transition period in most people’s lives; becoming an adolescent.
I am 24 now, and she still makes clothes for me. She’s one of the most stable relationships I have ever had. Through fashion, she got to know me incredibly well. Where I’m from, your tailor is a part of pretty much every important milestone in your life. Sitting across from them, like a therapist you begin to collaborate on an outfit. It could be for your baby shower, your graduation party, or a funeral. Slowly but surely, they begin to carve out an outfit that will suit you. Most of the time they even source the fabric. Through this exercise, I learned to be bolder with my stylistic choices.
In order to meet your perfect tailor suited to your needs, you kiss a lot of frogs in the process. You will meet lots of tailors that will ruin yards of expensive fabric or who will adamantly go against your wishes and sew complete atrocities. I know I’ve been on the receiving end of unfortunate encounters with those types of tailors. But that’s what makes meeting your perfect tailor so rewarding. Meeting someone who’s on the same stylistic wavelength and knows your body intimately? Priceless.
With fast fashion under intense scrutiny from the public due to unfair labor practices and environmental destruction, I can’t help but think about the series of tailors I’ve encountered. They taught me patience and the appreciation that comes from watching an outfit slowly come together. I was shown how different fabrics sit on the body. Jersey, for smoothing and highlighting curves and linen for dressing up or down looks. I got to feel the fabrics with my own hands. Unlike many people who live in the West, I had an intimate relationship with the person who makes my clothes. Due to this, it was absolutely out of the question making them work harder than they possibly could. Or refusing to pay them the worth of their craft. The fact is, the further the relationship with the maker and creator of things; whether it’s fashion or farming the more likely for abuse.
I am fortunate that I have had the experience of learning the craft of making clothes from people who have been doing it all their lives. Recently, there has been a crop of sustainable fashion labels, with the designers and manufacturers based in the country of origin. People are more interested than ever in not letting their fashion add to their carbon footprint. This is a good step in fostering the relationship between maker, seller, and buyer. It’s not quite the same as having a woman with a thimble on both of her thumbs attempt to straighten out an Ankara skirt. But it’s a start.