Who is Your Tailor?

It was a Saturday, the unbearably hot kind the New York summer is often privy to, and I unfortunately had an appointment to have my hair done in braids at a Harlem hair salon owned by Fatima, a Senegalese woman, who constantly spoke of how she could never return to her homeland to live because she was “practically American now”.

The usual hair salon banter took place, grievances on sex, love, money, and men in a mélange of French, Wolof, and English.

“I fed his eyes, his stomach, and his appetite. He’ll be begging me to carry him around in my pocket soon,” A young woman said to the much older woman doing her hair, hinting at a long established bond that allowed for that much disclosure.

The space was cramped with more women like her, women who were sometimes American but would forever be Senegalese, or Guinean, or Nigerian, shuttling between accents on the phone, talking to work, chatting with friends, or ordering take out.

I was half way through and fighting with my heavy eyes when a woman walked into the salon and was met with cheers of excitement. I asked Fatima who the woman was to cause such a reaction, “She come to sell her materials she bring from Africa,” She said in her heavy Senegalese accent, “she is the material lady.”   


The entire room marveled at the patterns and colors that were revealed one by one from a large woven suitcase, accompanied with the recitation of pricings, “This one is $280,” the slender dark skinned woman said, with the room sighing in disapproval in response.

“Who is your tailor?” Fatima sternly questioned a young patron, as she noticed her grabbing what the room had concurred where some of the best of the collection, “Because this fine material, no good tailor, your money is wasted and you will look like someone who doesn’t know fashion. African women have good tailor, that’s why we always look good.”

I was taken aback and asked Fatima why she said that to the young woman as it seemed to imply she didn’t have style. Yes, most older African women are want for censoring but to say that to a customer seemed rude, “A lot of time, you see how good fabric look bad because the tailor is bad and money waste and she look ugly, so in case she doesn’t know that because she is American, I just want to warn her.”

That day I left Fatima’s with a pounding headache and with a realization that those Senegalese women were not unlike the Nigerian women I had come across in hair salons owned by Nigerian women, greeting the “material lady” with the same cheer and disapprovals. These women shared the same culture for fashion that I, a Nigerian woman, had witnessed most of my life, Nigerian women in Nigeria and abroad in search of unique and beautiful fabrics to make outfits for myriad events, despite complaints of “the economy is bad” and the questions of who one’s tailor was.

If the theory of a good tailor being the cornerstone of “African Fashion” was so for the Senegalese and Guinean women at Fatima’s and the same for the Nigerian women I have encountered perhaps then an African woman looked only as stylish as her tailor was skilled. I reached home and immediately went to survey the fabrics that I had, all collecting dust in the corner of my room, fabrics that were given to me as gifts or were given to me by my mother and aunties upon their return from trips to Nigeria. I marveled at what they could become, a knee length jacket with slim leg trousers or a cropped jacket with a knee length skirt. The ideas grew rampant and began bouncing around my head, then it dawned on me, I needed to find a good tailor.

---- Written by Chatterbox