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  • Writer's pictureLouise Lindenmeyr

Haiti Haute Couture

A woman in a traditional sailor styled dress on the road from Thiotte to Mare-Joffrey.

Esteemed Followers:  A recent NY Times article investigating the negative impact of donated clothes from the West on the market for locally sewn clothes got me thinking about Haiti's couture (see article below). I decided to dedicate this edition to the home-sewn dress of the Haitian woman.

Haiti's affair with the used clothes market started in the early 60s; the identifying term then used was Kennedys. The present day term for piles and piles of bound up duds from our ubiquitous charity dumpsters is pepe, which signifies anything imported which otherwise could be created here, hence pepe rice,  pepe chicken.  Now Haitian women wear pepe t-shirts from Canyon Ranch or Pine Woods Christian Camp with pink leggings or denim minis rather than the common homemade garb of the pre-Kennedys era. 

Nana, a pepe seller in Ansapit, sorts her goods with help from her family.

However, almost every day my eye catches a few homegrown dresses as they pass on the street or up close as someone sits in the clinic for a consult - their hand sewn buttonholes and delicate needle work call my attention as if it were the latest issue from a Paris fashion house.   I decided to dedicate this edition to the home-sewn dress of the Haitian woman.  May it survive pepe, Kennedys and beyond!

I am no expert on the topic - my data is purely observational over my last 6 years in Haiti. The women who wear these dresses are generally post childbearing age but still contributing to family and society - selling goods, keeping animals, cooking meals.  It appears there are 2 styles - a shirtwaist style with a large collar in generally bright colors, and a style in navy blue which is reminiscent of a sailor suit.

I grew up in a seamstress-managed household.  Our kitchen, where the 40's era Singer sat, was a domain for measuring tape, tracing wheels, tailor's chalk, tiny pieces of pattern tissues. My mom was magic at making Vogue fashions of the day; suits made from elegant fabrics with bound buttonholes and silk linings with a perfect fit.  Under her supervision I cranked out a few prom dresses, dozens of a-line mini skirts and even a surfer girl 2 piece with lacing up the back side. 

Hence my nostalgia every time I see a treadle sewing machine on someone's porch in Haiti.  How pleased I was to meet Nadège, a teacher and seamstress who lives close by in Marjofre.  She sewed up for me a kostim devosyon, or devotional dress, in time to wear to the fet Gede, which is the November 1st vodou celebration of Papa Gede.  He is the beloved and feared traffic cop who directs the coming and going at the crossroads of life and death.  We had been invited to a local party and I wanted to fit in!

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