In the Days of the Dressmakers.

dressmaker, T and R 001

When you move halfway around the world, all the basics of everyday life change. The moment I stepped off the plane in Manila, the first, most obvious difference hit me in the face—a blast of heat unlike any I’d ever felt. No more cool, drizzly Seattle days for me. I was in the tropics now.

We were going to need new clothes. Almost everything we’d worn back home was going to be useless in the Philippines.

My husband was fine. His new job was in an air-conditioned office. But the girls and I needed something cool to wear, fast.

It was 1971. In a few years, the Makati Commercial Center across the street from our apartment would have department stores and fancy boutiques. In the meantime, it was a shopping desert, especially for big foreign women. (At 5’4”, I was considered big.) There were dressmakers, though, plenty of dressmakers. Every woman I met had one to recommend.

seamstress, circle skirt 001I had experienced working with dressmakers, I thought. When I was growing up, my mom made most of my dresses …



seamstress, dance costume 001… and costumes.




My grandmother was also a talented seamstress. She made this little rabbit fur coat for me. According to my sister, she tanned the hide too.

rabbit fur coat

I even did a little sewing myself. (Two years of cooking and sewing in Home Economics classes was a graduation requirement in those days.)

So I was ready for the dressmaker. I even brought a stack of patterns from the States—Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity. I showed one to the dressmaker, and she just shook her head. She didn’t need a pattern. A simple sketch or description would do.

In one of my earliest letters home to my family, I described a fitting I had with the dressmaker. “She cuts all the dresses with a high round neck,” I wrote. “Then she asks me where I want the neckline, and she just cuts it on me.”

And what did she charge for making that dress? According to that same letter, $2.40. Or, in inflation adjusted dollars, $14.

dressmaker, Tagaytay 001

It was fun designing my dresses, even more fun designing dresses for our daughters.

dressmaker, batik 001

When my husband returned from his business trips, he often had fabric in his suitcase. Batik from Indonesia was perfect for this warm-weather dress.

dressmaker, Christmas 001Matching Christmas dresses for the girls.

dressmaker, party 001

The Year End Party sponsored by my husband’s employer, the Asian Development Bank, was a fancy affair. In this photo, Eugene is wearing a barong Tagalog, the traditional formal wear for men in the Philippines. My dress is made of Chinese silk that Eugene bought in Hong Kong. I don’t have it anymore, but as I remember, it was a kind of pinky peach color.

Those “days of the dressmaker” are long gone. Now I buy my clothes at the mall or at a little store in Edmonds called Sound Styles.

Where do you get your clothes? Do you sew? What about your mom and grandma? Have you ever had clothes made by a professional dressmaker?

This is my fourth post in the series inspired by the letters my mom saved.

my signatureSee also: The Letters My Mom Saved, “Everyone” Has a Maid (or Two or Three), and Two Maids? Really?

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
batik, clothing, Creativity, expatriate life, Philippines , , , , , , , ,


  1. I loved this, Nicki! The photographs are wonderful of you and the girls. I especially like the second photo of you striking a pose. 🙂 What a treasure these letters are!

  2. In answer to your question…I can hardly sew on a button. I skipped Home Economics in high school and opted for learning to play the clarinet. 🙂

  3. Those dresses look gorgeous on you, NIcki. Very well made, and the dressmakers back in the day certainly were very precise with what they did. My Chinese-Malaysian grandma was big on sewing and she had this brown, heavy sewing machine that you operated with a pedal in her home. She must have had it for twenty, thirty years. Whenever my favourite blanket (it is as old as me) had a seam loose, my mum would pass it to my grandma and she would sew it back 😀

    My grandma and mum were fond of patching clothes back together. According to them, when sewed correctly, the clothes could last many more years. I’m not all that good at sewing myself, however. But whenever a shirt is too long for me, I know how to hem it a little bit shorter 🙂

    • I think my grandma also had a peddle sewing machine at one point. My mom and my grandma always had one sewing machine or another. Both of them were into fashion. My mom used to take us to an expensive store. We’d try on clothes, and she’d sit in the dressing room with a pad and pencil, drawing pictures of the best ones. She was a meticulous seamstress. When she made a dress for me, she did what she called “chalking it up.” She used a special ruler with dressmaker’s chalk screwed in. Then she’d make chalk marks all the way around at the length we determined was right. This way the whole hem line would be equal distance from the floor.

  4. LOVE this post and all your wonderful photos! Very inspirino! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Those patterns brought back memories. The prints were distinctive. I learned to sew early and made some of my clothes through high school and for a while when I was working. My mother was an extremely good seamstress so I learned from the best. There came a time when I just wasn’t interested and now there aren’t near as many fabric stores and patterns tend to be bland and very simple. I am surprised that any of your dresses had sleeves with the heat. I especially love the formal dress. Your daughters look like you with a touch of the exotic! Very beautiful!

    • I made some of my own dresses until having a baby crawl around and play with the spools of thread became too distracting. I even made my own wedding gown, which sounds impressive, but it actually was a very simple pattern. I guess I wasn’t as interested in sewing as my mom. It took so much time to sew for myself, and ready-made clothes weren’t that much more expensive. My sister, on the other hand, still sews. Recently she’s been making cute dresses for her granddaughter and travel clothes for her upcoming trip to Ireland. She even belongs to an organization called Somewhere in Time for which she makes costumes for specific periods in the past. One of her friends had an exhibit of 40 of her exquisite handmade costumes. The art sewing isn’t dead.

  6. At my high school, home economics wasn’t required. My mother used to make dresses for my sister and me when we were young. After I graduated from high school, I bought my first pattern and started sewing my own clothes. Then when my sons were young, I made their Halloween costumes and sewed things for our home. I’ve gotten away from it, but at times I still get the itch to sew.

    • I remember the fabric store in town. Besides fabric, they had big pattern books on high counters. Sometimes we had to wait for one of the three high stools. My mom and I would spend what seemed like hours leafing through them and marking the pages we liked before choosing a pattern.

      When my youngest daughter was in high school, I hadn’t sewn anything for quite a few years. One day she came home from school with the news that she’d told her orchestra teacher that I would make her full-length gown for their upcoming concert. What? I thought. I don’t sew any more. But I was stuck. Fortunately I remembered enough to make the dress.

  7. I’m so glad you’re continuing the posts about the letters. It’s fun to look back at your photos. Love that dress you’re wearing before the Christmas photo. Women would buy that dress today! Eugene and you looked great at the Year End party. And what sweet dresses your daughters wore.

    My mom taught me to sew a hem and replace a button. So I can hand stitch. I never learned machine stitching, because my mom didn’t know how nor own a machine. The only clothing I make is crocheted or knitted clothing.

    • I like those dresses too. But they’re long gone.

      It’s worthwhile to be able to sew a hem and replace a button. I’ve seen the results of your knitting and crocheting. You’ve made such cute things. You must get a lot of pleasure from it.

  8. Traveller at heart

    You looked stunning in that party dress, Nicki. Eugene and you made a handsome couple.

    What were the Christmas parties at the Asian Development Bank like?

    I find that size varies from one brand to another. These days, garments are not always made from quality materials yet some commanded silly prices.

    I didn’t like the materials and most of the garments where I lived in Turkey. I had quite a fair bit of garments being made by two tailors where I lived however the materials were sourced from another city.

    My mum wore cheongsam when she was much younger. In her latter years (she was still young), she had kebayas made and the patterns were hand embroidered on very thin cotton.The delicate needlework technique is called tebuk lubang which means, ‘to punch holes’ and is similar to Venetian lacework, resulting in a fine lace-like embroidery on the collar, cuffs, lapels, hem and continuing to two triangular panels down the front. It was then fastened with an antique silver chain and buckle. She then wore a sarong to match. I have attached the links for readers who are not familiar with the respective garments.

    • The staff at the Asian Development Bank is from all over the world, especially Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America. Since not everyone at ADB celebrates Christmas, the parties were called “Year-End Parties.” They were very nice, especially in the early days when the Bank staff was smaller and we knew more of the attendees. They served dinner and drinks and there was a band for dancing. I remember one party that was at either the Intercontinental or the Peninsula Hotel, outside on a patio. Lots of fun!

      I had one cheongsam made in Seattle before our first daughter was born. I was disappointed in the fit but didn’t go back for another fitting. At Asian Development Bank, many of the older Chinese women still wore cheongsams to parties, but the fabric wasn’t as bright and the dresses weren’t as fitted as those worn by the younger women.

      Thank you for providing the links for the kebayas. Very interesting and informative. I have a silver belt similar to the one shown in your last link. My husband brought it back from one of his business trips.

      Here’s a link showing my pink cheongsam.

  9. I’m always in awe of people who can sew. Tanning hides is an added bonus, of course.

    The only dresses I ever had made for me were my dance costumes and my wedding dress. And they looked incredible.

    • When I was growing up, I took my grandma for granted. But now, I’m amazed at all the things she could do … and so effortlessly. I’m not sure if she tanned the hide, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

      I’ve had a glimpse of your gorgeous wedding gown. I’d love to see your dance costumes.

  10. What a rich life you have led and such a wonderful childhood for your daughters. Lovely piece. The photos are adorable. Mindy

    • Thank you, Mindy. It’s getting hard to find good photos. So many of them are faded even more than these. I do think my daughters appreciate their experience of living abroad and attending an international school.

  11. Hi Nicki, Glad to read you back here. Love all the photos of you and your lovely family and interesting ideas. When I was little, when there was no road, there was nowhere to buy any clothes. So we had to either make our own dresses or wear the recycled clothes from one gerneration to another. And I remember vividly, I made one colorful sweater, one sleeve was much shorter than the other. It was made from several old worn out sweaters. And I was so proud, though.

    I had one unpleasant experience with one woman tailor years ago in Shenzhen. I gave her two pieces of cloths, both were lovely gifts from my friends, one was from Vietnam and the other Indonisia. But she totally ruined both, instead to make what I wanted which was drawn on her papers. However, she claimed she did it right and it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t cheap, if I remember right, one was RMB280 and the other RMB300. I was pissed off.

    But that was that. Since then, I would rather keep the lovely cloth for myself. LOL

    BTW: I remember you liked my home village life. I’ve been sharing the first three chapters of my first English novel, Less Than Mystery. If you like to read more about me or my home village life, here is the link from my blog:

    • It’s good to hear from you, Heather. It always feels good to make something yourself, even if one sleeve is shorter than the other.

      Thank you for sending the link to your blog. Congratulations on your first English novel. I’ll take a look.

  12. Another great collection of photo memories! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Loved this post! I can sew simple things but there’s no way I could do a dress. My grandma had a sewing machine but she was quite old already when I was a child and I don’t remember her doing much herself. However she had many clothes made by a seamstress, and I also had a blue dress.

    Tailor made clothes are popular in China (C. has all his suits ans shirts made because it’s cheaper than buying them in a store!). Many foreigners have clothes made here. I only had a silk dress made once, for a wedding. It was beautiful!

    • China must be a great place to buy tailor-made clothes, and, of course, a good place to buy silk. When we moved to the Philippines, we stopped first in Hong Kong to meet my father-in-law. He took Eugene to a his own tailor and insisted that he have shirts and a couple of tropical-weight suits made before he started work at Asian Development Bank. Those suits definitely looked better than the one he bought from Sears.

      You’d look cute in a qipao if you ever decide to have one made.

  14. China must be a great place to buy tailor-made clothes, and, of course, a good place to buy silk. When we moved to the Philippines, we stopped first in Hong Kong to meet my father-in-law. He took Eugene to a his own tailor and insisted that he have shirts and a couple of tropical-weight suits made before he started work at Asian Development Bank. Those suits definitely looked better than the one he bought from Sears.

    You’d look cute in a qipao if you ever decide to have one made.

  15. This was a great post, Nicki. I love the reminiscing about the clothes in the home economics classes. I haven’t had any experience with dressmakers but my sister lived in the Middle East for a while and she too was able to have many clothes made at such a ridiculously low price. I have always had a love of sewing. Not to say that I’m not great at it, haha.

    • Home Economics classes were a long time ago for me. Our first project in 9th grade was an apron with gathers. Then we made something with set-in sleeves. When I was in 5th or 6th grade, we had a girl scout leader who taught us various kinds of embroidery and handwork. I liked embroidery, but at that age, we would have preferred something more active.

  16. Nice pics! My aunt sewed clothes, so I loved seeing her designs on my cousins.


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