When clothing grows on fences
IT was Sunday afternoon... only two more days before Christmas Day. Traffic was very light, making it easy to spot the lone vendor sitting alongside a fence, displaying a variety of clothing. Fashionable striped polo shirts for men, full-length stretch-to-fit dresses and tights, in dazzling colours, rivalled padded brassieres in every shade of the rainbow. Sadly, not a customer was in sight.
Attracted by one of the polo shirts, and remembering my incomplete shopping list, I stopped to make enquiries. The vendor, eager for a sale, sprang to attention, but as it turned out, none of the shirts was the size required. No sale. The woman gave a sigh of resignation when I asked "How is business?" She responded dryly, "As yuh see't". It was an invitation to talk.
"Worse Christmas," she went on to say. "Don't ask me why I come out here. "Out Here" was the roadside where she had been trying to "mek a sale". Over several days into night, all she had taken in was $3,000, she said. In days gone, when the dollar had backative, that would have made a difference, "but that cyaan buy even a reasonable dinner...It cyaan pay back what I borrow to do business," she said. "Too much selling, too lickle buying."
She pointed out that everybody was selling clothing this Christmas, from market to roadside. Everywhere you went, clothing was displayed — on plastic sheets spread on the sidewalks, or draped on fences. Some of the lucky vendors sold from trunks of cars or backs of vans. In parks and other areas where there were trees nearby, underwear and outerwear alike were suspended on racks hung from branches. There were stripes and more stripes for the men's shirts. For women, it was long dresses fashioned from stretchy fabric, same basic style, one-size-fit-all — big, medium, small, all willing to qualify as "one size". This meant a parade of grossly overweight women crammed into undersized garments which did nothing to corral bulges and flab fighting to escape.
Sidewalk vending is nothing new, but the excess of fence-side clothing outlets is a comparatively recent trend. It brought to mind the experience of a visit to Llilongwe, the business capital of the Southern African nation of Malawi. Clothing for sale was spread out on fencing which ran along thoroughfares. Winter-weight men's suits, European-style dresses for women and children, designing anything but African. I learned that much of it was imported, second hand, from the USA. "How quaint," I thought with typical arrogance, which comes to the surface so easily when the subject of our dismissal is supposed to be less sophisticated than we are — or so we think. I never gave thought to the fact that our "clothes on the fence day" would come.
What do others think now when they see garments of all kinds set out along with ground provisions in the market? So where's the sophistication now? Necessity has become the mother of our invention. "Better selling than tiefing," was the philosophical acceptance by the vendor who was bringing me up to date on how things are these days.
Have we given serious thought to how much of what we've been selling is imported, draining our already meagre national purse? We forget that we used to manufacture a particular brand of elegant men's shirts which were sold in high-fashion shops in England. There was a time when we did batik and screen-printed fabric which was fashioned into cruise wear displayed exclusively in the windows of Lord and Taylor's Fifth Avenue store. We created delicate lingerie which was exported as well as sold locally. We had dress designers who could rival the best anywhere. Every bride's dream was to walk up the aisle in a gown fashioned by Flossie Thomas, Mae Feurtado or Francis Keane, the widely celebrated high fashion creators of custom-made wedding gowns. Now, we import mass-produced "seen it before" designs, legitimised by TV hype.
There was a time when Jamaican women prided themselves on dressing in well-fitting, stylish garments. Women of all classes used to boast of the skill of their dressmakers. Sadly, the trade of dressmaking has become almost extinct. Rarely is the sound of the sewing machine heard, whirring through Christmas Eve into morning to deliver the special frock. Only occasionally, if at all, we see the tailor steam-pressing one of his "bespoke" suits, putting the final touches on the final seam to meet the seasonal requirements.
That privilege of clothing us is reserved now for dressmakers and tailors in faraway sweat shops, who now box bread out of the mouths of Jamaican workers. We've accepted it without a murmur. We have willingly given up our individuality to march in lockstep because "a di style" and "everybody a sell the same ting", as the vendor pointed out in our Sunday afternoon conversation. Two fences down from her neglected display of unsold garments, there were other vendors whose stock and hers looked exactly alike. All were begging for buyers, or to put it another way, "looking a sale".
What to do?
The suggestion continues to be made that the Government should build factories and employ workers. The question is repeated: "To produce what?" A response came from a writer elsewhere in the Caribbean, when I asked the question in last week's column. Her challenge to Jamaica is "Why not marijuana, aka ganja?" My initial response was irritation. Is that what she and others think of us Jamaicans, that all we're good for here is to grow the weed?
When I cooled down, I revisited what she was saying. If the rest of the world is preparing to make a profit out of a plant which is rapidly being promoted from outlaw to substance of choice, why shouldn't Jamaica get a piece of the action too? Look how many fines we paid in the past, how much food crops were destroyed in "Round-up" spraying by outsiders claiming to have our interest at heart. Yeah, right! While we're at it, Colorado is now the first state in America to legalise marijuana, albeit with rules of conduct for the trade.
Best in the world
Has anybody noticed that one of our finest rums got knocked out in a "Best in the World" competition recently? Once upon a time, we were the boss. I cringe every time I hear about the name "Blue Mountain coffee" being all over the place instead of where it belongs.
I used to be proud as "please puss" whenever I read the name "Tia Maria" in the same sentence as the magic word "Jamaica". As to "Red Stripe", you would think I invented it. But times have changed. We are owned by others, if not completely, enough to make us no longer in full charge.
Why are other places able to protect what they produce while we can only settle for being bullied and brainwashed into accepting that we can't produce anything worthwhile?
We can't give up. Let's wish ourselves all the best for 2014. Let's go to work on finding sensible solutions to challenges which we are already facing.
Memo to Dr Phillips, do your best, sir, to avoid at all cost the tax on the gas. We really can't face that and the consequences which it will bring. We know it is hard, but it will be even harder. Do! Try your best.
All the new year best to you.