The secret art of alteration
There comes a time in every married woman’s life when her wedding blouse no longer fits.
And if one does not subscribe to the “mix and match” aesthetic—just a lazy ruse, I believe, to allow people to pass off garish brocade blouses or those ready-made numbers with heirloom Jamdanis and Kanjeevarams—then this dilemma becomes even more acute. Another euphemism for mismatched blouses is “contrast”, which is a word forever tainted in my memory from the time I was admonished by the designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. I had suggested a green “contrast” blouse with my bridal Banarasi. “You are a good Bengali girl. You must behave like one,” he had snapped. So I got married in red and gold as my mother had, and my grandmother, and all the women before them.
There is a beauty in the original; in a blouse cut from the sari as it was meant to be. When it no longer fits, it is hard to find the right tailor to repurpose them when the need arises: before Dussehra, Diwali and the Big Fat Indian Wedding season.
The issue of blouse-tailoring always takes me back to the legendary Eve’s Tailor in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-I’s M-block market, which I had written about several years ago in Lounge. The reigning masterji Vineet Kumar’s father had moved to the Capital from Dehradun to start the tailoring store, which only makes sari blouses, in the late 1960s. Procuring an appointment at Eve’s is a lesson in patience and politesse, and even then it involves waiting there for close to an hour. Between being introduced to the world of Kumar’s creations such as “The Katrina” and the “Butterfly Blouse”, I had come upon their masterstroke: the Mother-in-Law blouse. These are varieties of risqué, backless blouses that come with add-on Velcro strips to cover up as required when your mother-in-law is around.
It is understandable that a place of such ingenuity looks down upon the derivative world of alterations. My Mumbai masterji, who always has the measurements of an actress pinned up on his softboard when I visit, because “abhi order aaya hai (the order has just come)”, gives me a wounded look if I bring up the topic of alterations.
It is here that Rajesh Rathod, who goes by the name Raju Tailor, comes in. Raju comes from a family of tailors and moved to Mumbai from Pali, Rajasthan, 18 years ago. Tailoring is time- and resource-heavy, he says, but he can run a profitable alteration business with one sewing machine. Tucked above a clothing store in Bandra, Raju blares Bruno Mars, has a changing room, and is now in the process of building his Facebook presence by listing his “classified clients”. He’s so good at his job that I once asked him why he doesn’t tailor instead. Tailoring is for everyone, alteration is about finesse, he believes.
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Raju works with around 25 pieces a day, with the busiest season being September-December. His years in the business have taught him not to follow instructions. “I let them tell me, tighten here, loosen here, but if I actually listen to them the outfit will get spoilt,” he says. Raju is aware that he benefits from human failings: impulsive shopping, ignorance of one’s own body shape, break-ups, vanity. College girls get him high-street clothes to personalize. He adds tucks, flourishes, bows and buttons, and the piece becomes one-of-a-kind.
When I had interviewed Kumar, he had shared what is perhaps one of the most perceptive quotes in any interview I’ve conducted. He was battling a teenage customer who wanted her blouse a little tighter than his measuring tape recommended. Kumar refused, and the girl and her mother launched into an argument. “Sexy aur vulgar ke beech 4mm ka difference hai (There’s a difference of just 4mm between sexy and vulgar),” he had told me later. “I try and reach a middle ground. I like the customer to think they got what they wanted.”
This is Raju’s driving philosophy too. The secret of the ladies’ alteration tailor is in knowing that the customer is not always right.