Nov 26 2010

A Donged

There are two reasons to visit Hoi An, Vietnam. One is the beach. The other is tailored clothes.

We happened to arrive at the beginning of Hoi An’s monsoon season, which left us with the second activity: having clothes made. Peter had been excited about the prospect of a new suit since we’d arrived in Vietnam, and had prepared by researching different styles and cuts online so that he knew exactly what he wanted.

I did not take that approach. I am bad at picking out clothes when they have already been sewn – I feel like my sense of personal style would be best defined as “clothes I can wear to the gym.” Ask me what kind of clothes I dream of having made, and I will give you the sort of blank, panicked stare exhibited by animals about to be flattened by a passing truck. I do not know what kind of clothes look good on me. I do not know what kind of clothes I want. If I could spend the rest of my life dressed for a yoga class, I would be happy.

It didn’t help matters to be in a town where every other shop is a tailor. I’m not exaggerating. Skirts, suits, trousers, shirts, a selection of identically cut winter coats – you can even have shoes made.There are so many tailors that it’s difficult to find your way around  the town, since you can’t  use shops as landmarks. “I’ll meet you on the corner by the dress shop” could be any corner in Hoi An. Leaving Hoi An without some sort of custom-made clothing would be like eating at Peter Luger’s and not having a steak: you’d be  missing the point.

Peter’s plan, which I agreed with, was to go to A Dong silk, one of the more reputable shops in town. It was immediately obvious that this was a higher class establishment than the small shops nearby. A Dong had greeters and a receptionist. They offered us thick catalogues of clothes to look through and glasses of bottled water garnished by slices of lemon. We each were greeted by a woman who became our personal sales assistant.

Peter immediately began describing to his sales clerk the exact type of suit that he wanted made. Two buttons, notch lapel, single vent in the back – even as he’s relating these words to me, I have no idea what they mean. I, on the other hand, asked if I might see a catalogue, and soon was leafing through several books, each over 100 pages, of every conceivable type of women’s clothing. It was totally overwhelming. And making things worse, I had a much less helpful sales assistant than did Peter. Instead of helping me select clothing from the tomes in front of me, her main goal was to try to get me – a freelance writer who works primarily from home – to buy a three-piece suit set.

By the time Peter was selecting fabrics, I was descending into a spiral of self-loathing that occurs any time I set foot in a department store. Worse, I was sharing it.

“I’m sorry,” I said to my sales assistant. “I just hate shopping. It makes me feel horrible about myself. I’m really bad at this. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with for quite some time. I really hate this.”

I’m not sure how much of my apologia she actually understood; she was too busy pushing the suit (which I eventually bought). I did, however, learn a valuable lesson: if I’m going to go shopping, it’s important that I do my laundry beforehand. We’d dropped ours off the night before, and adding to my usual sartorial self-loathing, I had been reduced to wearing too tight yoga pants and an oversized t-shirt from Peter that says “Ask me about my Sheep!”

But I struggled on. Eventually, I decided upon several things: the aforementioned suit set, a knee-length winter coat, and a pajama set.

Yes, that’s right. Faced with a Bible-length book of potential clothing choices, I chose to custom tailor pants that I wear to bed. I will add the experience to my list of evidence suggesting that, if I ever have a large source of disposable income (and willingness to part with it), I really should invest in a personal shopper.

The fittings themselves were hell, especially since my assistant, a young woman named Phuong, had an irritating habit of insisting things looked good when they didn’t. I also had suggested she call me “Kate,” a name I never use, since “Catherine” is a bit difficult to pronounce (though, as she said it, Kate turned into Kay – so maybe I just should have stuck with my actual name). The result? Dialogues such as the following:

“Kay, you try on the pants now?”

“Okay.” (Shimmy into pants, observe the way they cling to my groin.) “These are too tight here.”

“Really? Are you sure? I think they look nice. Are you sure, Kay? Are you sure?”

I guess the good thing about these exchanges were that while I am relatively clueless when it comes to picking out clothes, I do in fact have the ability to tell when things are too tight in the crotch. And after a few minutes of her insistence, I wasn’t afraid to be assertive.

The result? Peter got a couple of great suits made. And after several rounds of fittings, I went from hating the clothes and my body to actually being happy that I’d gotten a pair of custom tailored dress pants.

Now I just need to find a reason to wear them.