Thursday, April 01, 2010

Cinderella Goes to Vietnam

Like all women, I sort of believe that if I could just find the right dress the boy would fall in love with me, I'd be crowned queen, and everyone I went to junior high with would be forced to sign an affidavit affirming that, despite what they may have said in 1991, I am actually very very cute. So when I found out that in Vietnam custom tailored clothing was as pleantiful as noodles in my soup, as four year old girls selling ugly soviener fans, as plastic bags floating like sad jellyfish in the Mekong River, I was thrilled for 30 seconds before I became terrified. What no one ever tells Cinderella is that no amount of tulle will make her thighs smaller. And Cindy is never expected to design her own dress -- the birds do all of the hard work!

Of course, I arrived in Hoi An with a plan. While I'd googled my netbook to death looking for advice on tailors and fantasized for weeks about the outfits I'd create what I actually really needed was a new suit. I figured the most practical thing to do was to have something made at a couple of different tailors and pick the one I liked best to help me suit up. Hoi An has (for once I am not exagerating) over 200 tailor shops and they mostly seem like duplicates of each other with the same double breasted jackets, flowy sundresses and business trousers hanging in the entry way. There are a couple of higher end places that are working harder than most to cater to Western tastes with uniformed staff and free bottles of water. This forced me to struggle over the battle of best price vs. possibly better quality. The fancy pants store was charging $45 for a pair of fancy pants and $15-$50 for a dress shirt -- basically JCrew sale prices. The smaller shop with just the owner hanging around in jeans to serve you charged $25 for trousers and $10 for shirts -- not quite yard sale cheap but a reasonable improvement. Ordering pants and shirts was fairly simple -- I started with what they had hanging in the windows and modified to match the vision of the Bannana Republic Martin Fit pants that make my thighs seem less thunderous than usual. Happily, save the very cute custom tag and buttons, the cheapie prototype pants are just as good as the fancies and I place my order for pinstripes at $75 cheaper than expected.

It's after the practical shopping is done that things fall apart. This shopping is fun and I love clothing; so why not get some dresses? Some shirts? Some casual tops? Do I need a sequined formal gown with a mile long train? Cause they have those! ROYAL BALL HERE I COME! I suppose I didn't really need anything other than a suit, but the thing is -- I have not been shopping in over 2 months. This is probably the longest I've gone without a new shirt since high school when the mall was a 4 hour drive. Add to this the fact that I have worn the same shoes everyday since February 8th. Add to that the fact that in Vietnam I am a millionaire and you have the recipe for my new wardrobe.

If only I had even a smidge of Project Runway in my DNA (or magical little birdies in my hotel room) things might have been easier. But instead I stand in front of bolts of beautiful fabric completely perplexed. How can I look at 65 pages of dreams and dollars and diagrams and see a technological wonder but be unable to translate yards of silk into anything more complicated than a table cloth?

Fashion is too much like dancing. One minute you're smiling at the mirror or in the arms of the prince shaking whatever you've decided might be your groove thing; the next you're wondering -- Why are my hands in the air? Why does this neckline have five layers of ruffles? Why has my foot been taken over by epyleptic seizers? Why does this dress have a huge bow over my butt? When you think things through you start to worry that you look ridiculous. And you DO! We all look ridiculous constantly -- the only reasonable outfit is brown sweats and a baggy tshirt but nobody (save the occasional C# programmer) would ever actually wear such a thing.

As I try to design casual seperates the thoughts that fly through my head are suddenly imbicile -- "I LIKE DRESSES!" "RED IS A NICE COLOR!" There are a lot of red dresses in the world and the tailor wants more from me than "can you make me look pretty?" What I would have given for one of the hundreds of JCrew catalouges that are right now overflowing the basket where my neighbor is trying desperately to stuff all of my mail. As I try to mentally construct a dress that is pretty but interesting, unique but likely to look good on my bottom heavy hourglass the tailor hovers over me. "They are very nice here," she says, holding a tape measure around my boobs. She is the third Hoi An tailor to comment on my very western breasts which almost makes up for the free flowing comments about how enormous my thighs. With all the pressure to make myself into Cinderella and no Fairy Godmother in sight I'll take whatever compliments I can get.

Despite the trepidation over fashion design I still get completely out of control.

For roughly $325 I bought:

  • 2 pairs of dress pants
  • 1 3 piece suit
  • 3 button down shirts
  • 4 dresses
  • 2 pairs of shoes

The speed that the tailors in this town work is a project management dream. An order for a suit placed at 7pm results in a fitting at 3pm the next day. I'm starting to doubt The Mythical Man Month -- if you need a baby in 4 weeks you should at least look into getting 9 Vietnamease tailors to attempt to put one together (but beware, rush order will incure additional fees and at the last minute they may have to substitute a polyester blend for actual fingernails).

The tailors custom fit each piece of clothing at least twice which is great except that they want you to have an educated opinion on things like fit and cut and how to fix them. This is hard for someone whose fashion vocabulary is as limited as my own. The moment of terror arrived when I'm standing in front of a mirror thinking "RED ALERT! The prince will never ask me to dance in this!" but have no ability to explain the problem. The tailor made exactly what was designed by Klemm Concepts, a sort of awkward shirt that despite its bright yellow polkadots manages to scream 54 year old woman who became a grandma much too early in life. How to translate such a problem into something a seamstress can act on seems impossible so I'm left hoping someone at the factory has a wand and a spare can of Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.

The second dress I pick up is a jersey number that I figure will make a good beach cover up for our last couple of weeks in Thailand and a decent brunch outfit for summer 2010 once we return to mimosas in Park Slope. After two fittings I take it home only to find that when I shake and shimmy my ample bosoms my bra peeks out the top. Geoff thinks this is no problem but you can't go by him -- he's constantly trying to convience me that a bra alone is evening wear and if you'd like a sweeping view of Crackville you can stop by his ass anytime. But the lesson learned is that I need to figure out what I want and how to vocalize it before I take anything else out of the shop. So, despite fears that the tailor will hate me and that I don't actually know what I'm talking about anyway I muster up the courage to have sleeves redone, waistlines moved and jackets lined in electric blue.

And I look good! I can't promise that I'll be queen by July (the clothing has been shipped by sea and will not ride the tide into Brooklyn until sometime in June) but I'm at least hoping to retain the prince that I've got (who had some new shorts designed and for now is crackville free) and return to the real world looking like the prettiest thing in the boardroom and if anyone from Home Street Middle School wants to eat some crow, please, drop me and email. Cinderella never had to design her own ball gowns or find her own glass slipper, or figure out why the website has been down since 3am. Cinderella never wore pinstripes. Maybe I could teach her a thing or two.


kp said...

oh i love this post...and the comment about stopping by crackville. and love the pink flower shoes!!! can't wait for brunch in park slope (or um, manhattan).

themikestand said...

Awesome story. Pity you aren't on a year long tour. I would love to have your travel diary in novel form.