Monday, June 13, 2011

Kochin Flashback-The Paris Tailor

“Where do you stitch your blouse?”

This is a query which is bound to pop up where ever two or three women gather for whatever purpose. I have lived in five states in India - Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra, and i have found that all sari wearing Indian women, regardless of the circles they belong to, can relate to each other on this issue. It’s a common ground for the housewife and the working women, the metrosophistcate and the rural innocent, the mallu and the bong to meet and discuss, all differences forgotten, and find a camaraderie comprising birds of the strangest feathers. Provided, of course, they all resort to the sari on some occasion.

Stitching the sari blouse is an art. And that too, a rare art which requires a skill of the highest order.

Here are a few excerpts from a sari blouse conversation. The M in the scripts is me. The other characters are real, but with names and relationships changed.
Period: 1970
Venue: Ernakulum
Nilu: M, where do you get you blouse stitched?
M: AT Menon’s.
Nilu: He does an excellent job. The neckline is very low (please reader, it’s BACK neckline, ok?), yet the fit s perfect. The shoulder doesn’t slip down.
M said nothing but smiled to herself.
Nilu: why are you smiling, M?
M: i just remembered what my father said as i was leaving for college this morning. He called me back just as i was about to open the gate, and asked –
‘M, who stitches your blouses? ‘
‘Menon’. It was my mother who replied
‘Next time you go there, you take take all my neck ties. I don’t use them anymore. You can stitch one blouse with each tie’.
Nilu: Was he angry?
M. No way. He was amused. After all it is only the back neck that’s low.

The plunging back neckline was becoming trendy, and M soon came to know that her blouses were becoming very popular in the college.

Now Tinkle, M’s classmate, was that jealous type, and for some reason, she hated M. So she spread the news that M. got her blouses stitched at the Paris Tailors.

Now, now don’t let your jaws hang like that or your eyes pop out like Jim Carrey’s. She didn’t mean that M flew out to Paris to get her blouses stitched, like Jacqueline Kennedy who flew out there to get her apparel designed. Paris Tailor was an elderly man who had a shabby shop on the road leading from the college to the MG road. Stylish women, including those from the ‘conservative, ancient Syrian Christian’ families went to him to get their blouses stitched.

It fits like the second skin, someone said during a typical conversation revolving around this much sought after tailor.
Yes, it fits perfect, yet it has excellent wearing comfort. You can lift your hands as much as you want. It’ll not pinch.
The thing about him is, there is consistency in his work. And if there is the slightest suspicion of tiny fold, he’ll alter it for you.
In fact, he’ll not give it to you unless it is a perfect fit.
You mean to say you have to show him after you try it out?
Of course. He insists on it.
He must be a pervert. That was M.
If you want to get your blouse done perfectly, you’ll have to put up with such perversions. Anyway, he’s very professional about his perversions.
Ha, ha, ha. That was M.
What ha ha ha. A skilled workman is very finicky about the details.
M remained silent.
Why don’t you tell her about the way her takes measurements.
You don’t have to go into that. I’ve heard enough about it. replied M.

M’s cousin had once told her about how the Paris Tailor guy took measurements. He’d ask his customer to step in behind the screen. If the customer was a young girl, the mother would usually follow the daughter behind the screen. Then the tailor himself would take the pallu down and tuck it around the waist of the customer. He’d then start measuring. To stitch a blouse like it is second skin yet enabling you to raise your hand as much as possible, or swing it in all directions without feeling the pinch, the measurement has to be correct to the hundredth of a millimetre.
It is said that this guy even suggests to his customers about the brand of inner wear she should wear so that his tailoring skill will be shown to the best advantage. Regarding taking the measurements, well, I leave it to your imagination. Was it Keats who said that what is left to the imagination is infinitely superior to explicit descriptions?

M’s mother refused to get her daughter’s blouse stitched by the Paris Tailor, though she was very particular that M wore well fitting blouses. She always took M to Menon, who too was meticulous about measurements, but he had a lady assistant specially trained to measure. Menon would stand outside the counter and ask his client to get into the counter. At the opposite wall of the counter was a small room at a lower level. The client and the assistant would go down into that portion. The client would face the lady. Menon, standing outside the counter would barely be able to see the customer standing behind the partially drawn curtain . The assistant would take the measurements and call them out to Menon who would note them in his book.
He’s so decent, said M’s mother. Not like Paris tailor. And his blouses are good too. How can any mother allow her daughters to go to Paris tailor?

His work is perfect, amma. It’s like second skin. And very comfortable to wear. You can swing your arms as much as possible and yet feel no catch, said M to her mother. Menon’s blouses have perfect neckline, but there’s always a tiny crease at the arm pits and a small pinch too.
Amma gave M a dirty look. Every blouse should have a tiny fold, or people would think you’re not wearing one. And why do you want to swing your arm? Are you going to play volley ball in a sari blouse? Said amma crossly. Don’t get any ideas into your head, young lady. Menon is good enough.

So M walked up to Tinkle and picked up a quarrel with her for spreading canards about her. Tinkle, Menon stitches my blouse, not Paris tailor. If ever i hear that are going around telling everyone that i get my blouse stitched at Paris Tailor, I’ll sue you for defamation.

Those were the days when i was hooked on to Perry Mason novels and so i could get a little technical which i think scared Tinkle, who, i knew, read only the prescribed texts.

In the year 1973, Paris tailor caused a rather serious discord between my cousin and her husband. One day, my cousin came to my college during lunch interval and took me to a lonely corner in the college compound.

M, can you do me a favour? She asked in hushed tones. I had given four blouses to be stitched at the Paris tailor’s. I had to come to Ernakulum today for an engagement, and was hoping to pick up these blouses. But when i tried them out, there were a few minor problems which he said he’ll correct. He’ll keep them ready tomorrow. I can’t come again to pick them up. Can you please collect them for me?
M was horrified. If someone sees me going into that shop and tells amma, i’ll be slaughtered.
You manage it somehow, M. Be a darling. And keep the blouses with you. DONT SEND THEM THROUGH ANYBODY. I’ll pick them up myself. If my husband or mother in law or sisters in-law comes to know, i’ll be slaughtered. They are as stupid and laid back like you and your mother.

M got her tomboyish friend Beena to pick the blouses. I want to take a look at that lecherous old goon, she said.

M gave the blouses to her cousin when she came down to Ernakulum next.

M saw her next at a common cousin’s wedding. She looked glum.

What’s wrong with you? M asked
My husband was searching my handbag for change and found Paris tailors ‘delivered’ chit. All hell broke loose.Not only is he not talking to me ever since, that spiteful outdated creature who doesn’t deserve to be my husband cut up all the blouses, so that i won’t wear them. That’s why I’m wearing this stupid badly stitched blouse today.
Did you tell him i collected the blouses? M asked alarmed.
You think I’m that stupid? It’ll become a big family feud then. Why did i have to get married into a family which demonises the Paris Tailor?

The legendry old man of the Paris tailor has now been long laid to rest, but his son’s capitalised on his brand name and is now doing roaring business in Kochi. He is equally sought after as his father was, but is not talked about in hushed tones, like his father was.

Times have changed. To be more precise, attitudes have changed. A professional doing his work is treated with equal respect, be it a doctor or a tailor. In the seventies, the Paris tailor represented the vacillation of a conservative puritanical affluent society between the desire for professionalism and the entrenched values of modesty for women.

Today, i wonder how many mothers accompany their daughters when they go to the tailor to get sari blouses stitched.


  1. 20 years ago, I didn't want to go in there. Wouldn't mind it today, for that perfect fit :-)

  2. Good, humourous and funny piece of writing . In Manorajyam weekly late Rachel Thomas was writing like this simple subjects but lovely writing and so nice to read. I have sent this to my wife who still have a problem with her blouses and she is very shy to go to a shop where tailor takes measurement, but goes to people who just by looking at you fixes the size.

  3. Raghunath Menon7:05 PM, June 14, 2011

    I lived in Ernakulam during mid 90s and I remember seeing this tailor shop somewhere along the Convent road on my daily visits to Ernakulam Public Library. Thank you for taking me down the memory lane...

  4. Rachel Puthuran wrote:
    I know both these tailors. My mom used to go to Menon & my sister to Paris.Unfortunately I missed out on the fun as I never used to wear sarees that time.

  5. That was a very interesting post.
    I differ in your statement ,'conservative and puritanical society'. I wonder what period in time in human history can be termed so.
    Well the much maligned old man must be still turning in his grave.

  6. A very interesting story indeed.

    I am sure the issue is important for women all over India. As far as my wife is concerned, getting a blouse stitched properly is the second most difficult problem in her life, which apparently has no solution. She is never happy with her tailor. (Need I tell you what her most difficult problem in life is?)

  7. hehe I too have been to the new Paris tailors for a blouse and they wanted me to wear a Sari blouse to take measurement. I said no its ok. They said then it wont fit well and I said no matter. It doesnt matter when Sari todya is an occasion-only wear I suppose.

  8. was nice to read...and yeah it indeed fits like a second skin when paris tailor does the blouse....


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