Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dressing Up for Life's Runway

“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.” – Coco Chanel

As long as I remember, I was always stylishly well-dressed. And, until I was about 12, for special occasions, my outfits had custom-designed hats. I owe this to my sister Jean, who worked at a high-end textile and tailoring shop in the heart of Colombo’s bustling metropole, known as Fort. At that time, Colombo’s Fort was in close proximity to Sri Lanka’s Parliament, Governor’s House (which became President’s House), all the major airline offices, banks as well as the most prestigious hotels and commercial establishments. It was at this shop that the crème-de-la-crème of high society shopped and had their clothes tailored by some of Colombo’s most sought after custom tailors. Fortunately for my sisters and me, Jean picked up some incredible deals on luxurious fabrics and learned intricate tips on sewing ladies dresses.

Being the youngest, and considerably younger than Jean, I looked forward to going with my mother to visit Jean. As I showcased my newly tailored outfits, I received gushing compliments from the elite clientele and store management while the tailors were impressed with Jean’s attention to detail. And Jean was pleased that although I was a tomboy at home, when I was all dressed up, I looked and acted like a lady and never ruined my clothes.

I was too young to understand what people meant when they said I had a great head for hats. I just felt elegant with the contraptions on my head so I walked confidently. To my dismay, I stopped getting my stylish hats when Leonard the hatmaker died suddenly. And, for reasons unknown to me, the store never replaced him. Beyond his craft, Leonard was also a very nice man and we had become family friends with everyone who worked with Jean. When he died, we mourned his loss as we would a family member.

As I developed into a teenager, inspired by some of the fashion magazines that my oldest sister Jan used to buy, I started sketching designs for my dresses, artfully executed by Jean. By then, I was becoming more involved in social activities, especially in church and in a culture where appearance mattered, Jean made sure that I was dressed to the hilt, often lending me her gold jewelry to complement my glamorous outfits at some very high profile social events.

When I was 18, I briefly worked for the United National Party, while they were in Opposition. At its first-ever Christmas party Jean proudly watched as I was chosen “Best Dressed Woman” by the future President of Sri Lanka, future minister of State and another prominent politician. With the cash award I received, I placed an order for a pair of shoes I designed.

During my seven-year tenure at Singapore Airlines, I was constantly complimented for my sense of style and my clothes. I remember the Ad Agency executive telling me on several occasions, “You must spend a fortune on your clothes.” Little did he know that, thanks to Jean, I spent nothing because she never charged for tailoring, nor did she charge me for the elaborate fabrics she bought at a significant discount from the store where she worked.
Jean never complained about staying up late into the night sewing an outfit that I could wear the next day for a special occasion. Those who hadn’t visited my home thought I was more affluent than I really was.

In the past 27 years I have lived in the U.S., I have continued my indulgence for fashion – with one exception. I have had to “spend a fortune.” But, I do it because I cannot bring myself to wear something that is ill fitting or with shoddy workmanship after I have had the privilege of wearing clothes that draped my figure well. And, because Jean raised me to be a fashionista, there are certain things that cannot be compromised.

"Fashion is a kind of communication. It's a language without words. A great hat speaks for itself." (author unknown)