India: Old-school tailor-made

Sunday, January 27, 2013
I am in India for a couple of weeks.

To say that India is, in some areas, 'very foreign' is so trite as to be hardly worth repeating. What I find more interesting is the idea that in some respects it's actually not so much a different country as a different time. The streets of some cities (I am thinking mostly of Varanassi, Mirzapur and the surrounding districts, where I have spent most of my time), with their crowds and smells, rickshaws dodging free-roaming animals, and small boys pushing massive carts laden with fruit and vegetables, strike me as the closest I am likely to come to understanding what London might have been like a hundred and fifty years ago.

By the same token, I rather suspect that simply observing Indian life gives a remarkably accurate idea of what it might have been like to live in the UK at a time when there were servants in every household with any amount of money. From a simple cook and cleaner in lower middle-class households all the way up to grand houses with twenty or thirty servants, and where even the simplest meal was prepared, cooked and served by one or two staff. I find it interesting to note how servants are both ubiqutous and invisible, just as they were in 19th Century England. Casually talked about, politely spoken to, but mostly treated as a matter of no more concern than your laptop, DVD player or washing machine.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to a topic of more relevance to this blog, which is my interest at seeing that, while off-the-peg suits are by no means unobtainable here (particularly in the larger and more 'western' cities), in rural areas the way clothes are chosen and bought harks, once again, to the situation in England a hundred or so years ago. Cloth merchants and small tailors are everywhere and a man who wants a suit or a respectable shirt is as likely to choose some material and have one made up as he is to buy one off-the-peg.

Of course, how good the suit is depends hugely on the cloth and tailor chosen, and I suspect most bear little relation to the quality we would expect from a 'tailor-made' suit, but I like the idea that, here at least, people are still getting clothes made by small, independent craftsmen.

Nevertheless, in any situation a degree of 'convenience-shopping' is inevitable, and I was particularly amused by the box-sets offered in one cloth merchant. Each contains a length of cloth sufficient to make one pair of trousers, and a length of cotton sufficient for one shirt - thus a man can quickly pick up what he needs to create the standard uniform of the service industry or low-end professional worker in this part of the world. To me, they were vaguely reminiscent of those shirt/tie/cufflink sets sold in some shops in the UK, except somehow less ghastly because they still required the cloth to be taken to a craftsman and made into garments.