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Stitches in Time

Tailoring in New Orleans

Cheryl Gerber Photograph

“You have to be comfortable in your clothes: if you’re not comfortable, it affects your self-confidence.” Tatine Frater insisted. “Whatever you buy, it has to fit correctly!” What to do when you need that perfect fit? “I don’t think I’ve ever had a tailor say ‘No, I can’t do that,’” Ms. Frater admitted.

Through the years, people in New Orleans have depended on local tailors for their alterations. In 1927, the city directory listed 107 tailors in the city. Today, even counting Jefferson Parish, there are less than half that number.

Being sure you get clothes that will fit well can begin at the point of purchase. “It all depends on who is doing the measuring,” said longtime salesman Patrick McCausland at Perlis Clothing. (At Perlis, in-house tailor Than Nguyen does the alterations. He also takes outside work.)

“It’s the fit that matters. You want something that doesn’t cling.” Taking up or letting out a seam can make the difference, and “more expensive clothes usually have more let-out seam,” McCausland noted. “You also have to make sure the sleeves are the right length.”

McCausland also believes in taking good care of clothing: “When I come home from work, I put things on a hanger. And, I rotate what I wear.” In another clothing care tip, McCausland warned against too much dry cleaning. “Once those chemicals touch the fabric it takes some of the life out of it.” (Dab off spots yourself, he advised.)

Tailored clothes can also be intended for special events. Thimbelina Tailors often see wedding dresses come through the door. Formerly at Saks Fifth Avenue, Mrs. Hang Pham and Mrs. Khanh Tran took their nimble fingers and opened their own tailor shop twenty-one years ago. “Sometimes it’s the grandmother’s wedding dress made over for the granddaughter,” Mrs. Pham said. “We do a lot like that.” Did she sew her children’s clothes? Mrs. Pham, who began sewing at 14, admits that today it’s less expensive to buy ready-made. Her skill with a needle provided her with a career when she came to this country.

Another immigrant who became a New Orleans tailor was Henry Galler. He operated Mr. Henry Custom Tailor for many years. Galler had first worked at Rubinstein’s downtown, then went on his own, eventually at his Jackson Avenue location. He and his wife Eva were holocaust survivors and were tireless in educating young people on that subject. The business is now run by Annie Tran. “I used to work for him and I took over the business about fifteen years ago,” she said. Her customers include men and ladies as well. “Everything, even children.”

“I can make a $10 garage sale suit look like something James Bond would wear,” Peter Santos proudly announced. Now at Mr. Santos Custom Tailor, Santos learned his trade from his father. “We started out learning how to fit the person with tailor chalk, marking, how to cut, how to hold a scissors, how to work with a thimble and needle – he just taught me how the body works on the clothing, how the customer likes it to feel,” Santos explained.

Santos has altered military uniforms, priests’ cassocks, even outfits for pets. And, he does upholstery. One happy customer, Graci Rickerfor, came to him for a plastic cover for a large table. “He did it! A sort of square sleeve to protect the wood,” she said. “And, he made a custom tablecloth, too.” Santos’ family also works in his shop, so the enterprise will continue.

“Every August we get men coming for fittings for the Red Dress Run,” Ana Caldcleugh said, describing unusual requests for her mother, Ana Caballero, at her business, Lil’ Dave’s Tailoring. Ms. Caballero, self-taught as a seamstress, had worked for the former owner (known as Lil’ Dave) whose father (Dave) had started the business on South Rampart before moving to Oak Street. Ms. Caballero bought the business in 2003. Another unusual alteration was for a Christmas suit, “A man’s suit, the jacket and the pants were blue and they were covered with snowflakes.”  

Everything from Mardi Gras costumes to underwear – if it’s going to fit right, there is a tailor in town to fix it! n

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