When we first came to Africa, I struggled with clothing. I wanted to fit in, to show that I was glad to be here, that I cared enough to try. But I just didn’t like the local clothing. I found the fabrics either ugly or gaudy, or both. I felt ridiculous in the mu-mu style dresses and I found the two-piece “complet” outfits restricting and hot. But mostly, I just felt like I was pretending to be something I wasn’t.
Over the years, though, I have come to love African clothing. Perhaps it’s that fifteen years ago, Pier One and World Market hadn’t taken off in the US, and ethnic styles weren’t “in.” Perhaps African styles have changed a bit. Perhaps it’s that I’ve walked into too many churches feeling like I was the oddball in my Land’s End dresses. But whatever the reason, I have reached a point where I would rather wear local clothing than my American clothing on a Sunday or to an event.
Aaaaaannnnnnnyyyyywaaaaayyyyy . . .
Nearly a month ago, I ordered some new clothes. Michée, the seamstress I use, came to my house and I showed her photos of what I wanted. She took my order and the fabric I had chosen and left with it. If you missed that post, you might want to back up and read it here.
The Denim Skirt
This is a bias cut maxi-skirt made from stretch denim. I got this photo off Pinterest. (Photo cred to Eve Collections.)
I gave Michée the denim, which I had purchased here, and some scraps for the applique. She added the sparkly trim and the buttons. The buttons will not last long. One has already come off, and for practical reasons, I’ll probably remove the rest of them.
It came out exactly the way I pictured it in my head. Michée assures me this skirt is acceptable to wear to church, but I plan on pairing it with a t-shirt for everyday wear, and with a slightly nicer t-shirt for when I teach all day in hot weather. Due to the denim, it’s pretty heavy but it’s so loose so it doesn’t feel hot.
The AG Cote d’Ivoire Women’s Ministries Outfit.
This outfit was kind of a Frankenstein of pieces I had seen. I gave her this photo, which I snapped, paparazzi-style, of a lady in one of the churches we visited, and told Michée I wanted this skirt.
I gave her this photo, that I found on a Pinterest board of Nigerian fashion, and told Michée I wanted the waistline of this top, but I wanted sleeves and I didn’t want the illusion neckline. I liked the top as pictured but felt like I would be uncomfortable in it in church. (Photo cred to weddingdigestnaija.com)
Here is what she created. It is very close to what I pictured in my head.
The outfit is fully lined with cotton fabric. This will make it a bit hotter than a loose dress, but the lining is cotton and it helps the outfit keep its shape.
The top zips up the front. She added the trim herself, and although I hadn’t pictured it, it works. She also did pleats around the waistline where I was picturing gathered ruffles. But they came out so beautifully that I forgot I was picturing something different.
She put fluttery sleeves on it when I asked for just straight. Normally I am not a fan of the fluttery sleeves—I feel like I’m flapping every time I move. But the flutters are high enough above my elbow that they don’t move around much.
The skirt has an elastic waist. She did perfect on the pleats up the back and while the skirt is tight, (as they usually are) I can still sit down. I don’t think this one will be counted among the skirts that I have to hike up above the knee just to get into the SUV.
This fabric was given to me by a pastor’s wife in Ivory Coast and is printed with the Assemblies of God WM’s logo and theme. It’s local branding and I love to collect these custom fabrics.
This is a dressy outfit and I probably will wear it mostly to church and to pastoral events.
The Boho Outfit
I found this dress on Pinterest and loved it. It is made from African prints, but as near as I can tell, it is not an African designer. I’ve never seen one similar here. It is a good example of the blending of different ethnic styles, and how access to the internet is making it easier and easier for African designers to blend American and European styles, and vice versa.
I showed the photo to Michée. What I told her was that I wanted sleeves and that I wanted it in two pieces instead of one , so that I can mix and match the skirt and the top with other pieces. I liked the corset lacing up the back and I liked the patchwork bustle style back with the front of the outfit in one fabric. (Photocred to Etsy seller ChopstixWaits. Listing is no longer active.)
Together, Michée and I browsed my fabric stash but we didn’t find anything appropriate. She asked me if I would trust her to pick the fabric and I agreed.
What she came back with was gorgeous. It’s probably not a fabric I would have pulled off the shelf myself, but it is absolutely perfect.
This is a fairly simple dress. The top is lined, but the skirt is not. She got the corset lacing perfect and it has a hidden zipper up the side. When I put it on, I need help getting the corset to lace right, but that would be true of any corset-back dress, and Phil is happy to oblige.
She did a fabulous job on the patchwork on the back of the skirt too. I do feel like the skirt is a bit too long and I may take it up myself. (We went to a village church this Sunday and the skirt kept falling in the mud.) And the density of the gathers in the back is not quite as thick as I was picturing.
I am really happy with this dress. It’s a fun outfit! It works for church but I am also excited to have something light enough to teach all day in without resorting to my t-shirt dresses.
How Long Did It Take Her?
It took her a little over three weeks to get back to me for a fitting. I was not surprised that it took this long, although at the two week mark she did call me to apologize for the delay and tell me she’d been sick.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is normal. In fact, there really isn’t a normal turnaround time. One seamstress once told me she could make me a dress in a day, but when she did, it was poor quality. The kind of work Michée did for me takes time, and she doesn’t run a shop- she just works out of her home. A professional shop might be faster, or they might be just as slow.
Like I said, no normal.
How Did She Do It?
She made everything without a pattern. She has a “Certificat Couturière” meaning she formally trained to make clothing. I couldn’t make this without a pattern- her skills are amazing.
She made it on a treadle machine. There are electric machines here, but the ones I have seen are 30-40 years old and in bad shape. Since electricity is always an issue, a treadle machine is a better choice for most seamstresses and tailors. Their machines look vintage, but I suspect they are still being manufactured. Michée also has a serger, so the interior seam allowances are all serged.
How Much Did It Cost?
Here’s a breakdown of what I spent.
- $5 for the denim fabric for the skirt
- $2-3 for the applique fabric part of the denim skirt. (She used scraps I had on hand, so I’m not sure how much that cost me.)
- $18 for the fabric for the patchwork/ Boho style dress
- $59 to Michée for her work. (Out of which she purchases the notions/accessories, etc.)
Total for all three outfits: $84.
A Note about Geography and Clothing:
Lest you expect me to show up in the US wearing these things, let me be clear. I am still very self-conscious of feeling like I don’t belong. There are very few of my African outfits in which I would be comfortable walking into an Applebee’s. But it works for me here! (And I’m looking for ways to bring African fabrics into my American styles when I am in the US. Right now, I’m thinking about a jacket made of wax-print. What do you think?)