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16 From Baghdad to Calcutta: 19th and early 20th century clothing

A Note on Jewish Women Dressmakers

Maggie Meyers

Maggie Meyers (right)

Jewish Women Dressmakers

by Flower Silliman

In the Victorian era, Jewish women wore traditional Arabic clothing that was sewn by other Jewish women. My maternal grandmother sewed underwear, wrappers, nightwear, bodices (old fashioned bras), and chemises for her living. She also sewed bed lines, sheets and pillowcases for trousseaux, as did many other women in the community. My paternal grandmother was more enterprising: she visited the homes of future brides and took orders for trousseaux, clothing and bed linen. From the 1920’s onwards, the Jewish community shed the wrappers and daglas and Western style clothing went into full gear.

While I was growing up there were many women in the community who made Western clothing, and a few men ran their own tailoring enterprises. Women dressmakers took on trade names, French and English, and worked from their homes. Probably the most renowned dressmaker in the Jewish community was Zon (Ramah Judah), who lived on Lindsay Street. Zon was stylish and had a great flair for fashion. A varied upper class clientele patronized her. It was chic during the 40’s and 60’s to have her style and make wedding dresses and trousseaux.

Zeca Modiste was more affordable than Zon. She catered her clothing to the middle-class of the Westernized Calcutta community. She also came to the house to select and advise on styles and to take measurements and orders. Later Maggie Meyers and Hanu had their own businesses and both lived and worked from their homes on Park Street. Lillian Abraham had her business on Free School Street and catered to Jews and Anglo Indians respectively.

Maggie was the only dressmaker from Calcutta who was trained in Paris. She cut and styled the clothes herself, whereas the others relied on tailors who worked under their instruction. Maggie also ran a tailoring school from her palatial home in Stephen’s Court. I took a dress-making course from her and was able to help cut and sew my own wedding dress which was made from an American embossed taffeta. Before the War, fabrics were imported from all over the world and sold in the New Market. During the War this was more restricted. In the fifties, after Independence, imported fabrics were scarce and the Indian fabric industry at that time was in its infancy. Many shops had hoarded stocks of foreign materials, which they gave to special customers.

We went to dressmakers to get special outfits for the High Holidays, weddings and for Bar Mitzvahs. We vied with one another to outdo our cousins and girl friends and nobody knew what the other was planning to wear for special events. Going to the Races also called for special clothes to be made. It was common for women to be dressed in suit and hat for the Races. There were two milliner’s shops – one on the Park Street and Flury’s corner, and another one in Palace Court on Kydd Street. Of course copies of what they made were reproduced and sold in the hat shops that were located near the center of the New Market. Handbags were made to match shoes and were made by Chinese craftsmen and sold in the milliner’s shops.

For everyday clothing numerous tailors visited our homes. They made our clothes as well as stitched children’s clothes and trousers, suits and hats for men. One popular ladies tailor, Latif, was sworn into secrecy, so that he would not copy a dress design for another customer! The designs for out clothes were taken from England, France and the US. I clearly remember my cousins having a Sears Roebuck Catalogue and another from Montgomery Ward. Ready-made clothes from the US and Marks and Spencer were given to the local tailors to copy.

Among Jewish men tailors there was Esquire Tailors that was owned by David Cohen, and located on Sudder Street. Mr. Abner’s shop, Regal Embroidery, was in Park Mansions on Free School Street. He mainly did embroidery on clothing and his sequined work on evening dresses was superb. He also embroidered Jewish ritual items like Parokhets, Tefillim and Talissim cases and prayer caps.

Jewish men were also quite fashionable and wore suits and hats to the synagogue, as they did to the Races and for weddings and other formal occasions. Their shoes mostly came from Chinese shoe shops, and the wealthier went to Cutherbertson and Harper, a British shop selling leather goods. The shop was on Old Court House Street.

By the 1940’s, all except the very elderly sported Western fashions. A few elderly women looked old fashioned, though elegant in their voile and silk wrappers with lace trim, and their splendid shawls with intricate Chinese embroidery. These silk shawls were colorfully embroidered with flowers and birds. The shawls had long silk tassels and looked like Spanish mantillas.