Global fashion of a do-gooder

My dear friend Christine has been working for Médecins Sans Frontières since 2006. I met Christine as an overworked but dedicated pediatric nurse in New York some seven years ago, who dreamed of working for MSF one day. She’s done several missions since, including work in Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Myanmar (Burma).

On her last visit to New York, between her projects in the DRC and Myanmar, Christine was packing up her Lower East Side apartment one evening when I stopped by to visit her. Her life reduced to boxes and suitcases, she pulled out a small bag to show me her “MSF clothes”, as she called it. What came out were not just beautiful handmade items of clothing that Christine brought from her missions in Asia and Africa but also touching stories about where the clothes came from.

That got me thinking about how disconnected we are from most clothes we wear these days. Mass-produced in sweatshops continents away, so many of these items are totally removed from the social realities behind them. I’m the first one to admit I’m guilty of not knowing where all of my clothing comes from. I wish I could find “the poetry behind the purchase”, as Nicole Mackinlay Hahn, the talented artist I met at a Harlem party last summer, so aptly says it in her REAP WHAT YOU SEW® project.

I was inspired by these global garments that Christine proudly wears on her journeys. She called them “light, practical, easy to pack and travel with” plus, most importantly, they remind her of the places she has lived and worked. So inspiring was Christine’s worldly fashion that I managed to convince her to do a mini photo shoot, posing in her favorite clothing combos and sharing the stories behind them.

These photos were taken on January 8, 2010, in Christine’s apartment, the day before she was heading back to Myanmar for her second mission there. Pictured above is Talo the tailor in Niger, who made three of the first items below. What follows are Christine’s favorite garments, and her stories about each.

This is the first piece that I got, back in Niger. In 2006, I spent seven months there, on a mission (a nutrition program for malnourished children) in Magaria, a small town on the border with Nigeria. To make this tunic, I used a curtain from the compound where I lived. It was so bloody hot, 45 °C, and I didn’t have time to go to the market and pick up the material. This curtain fabric was just lying around so I took it to Talo the tailor and had this tunic made. This became my usual work outfit, that I’d usually wear with cargo pants. When I went to another mission in Myanmar a couple of years later, my boss recognized the fabric from the curtains back at the compound in Niger.

I found the fabric at the market in Niger and took it to Talo the tailor to make this dress, because of a heat wave we were having. I love wearing it because it has pockets, which is very practical, since I can stuff lots of things there. When our driver saw me wearing this dress one Sunday afternoon, he said to my coworker: “Wow, she actually looks like a woman!” He was so used to seeing me in my MSF clothes! In Africa, it is accepted for women to show their breasts in public but not their legs. That’s why this dress was so perfect for different occasions – weddings, church and other special events.

I had this piece made as a memory, a souvenir of Niger. I got the fabric as a goodbye gift from the staff I worked with. That meant a lot. It’s great because it can be worn as a dress but also works really well with pants. In Africa, women really dress up so people are happy to see foreigners do the same, especially if they make a little effort to wear something traditional.

I spent five months in Myanmar in 2008-2009, working on the Cyclone Nargis emergency relief mission in the delta, around the town of Setsan. I bought this fabric at the market, because it was so hot and I needed something light to wear. Minmin, a coworker and friend of mine, told me her mother was a tailor. So I took the fabric to Minmin’s mother and had this dress made. Without even asking me, she made me these funny little heart pockets. I love to wear this one to work, with the pants.

My friend Eve from Yangoon gave me this fabric as a gift. The thing is – in Burma, your legs always need to be covered but I didn’t like wearing the longyi (the sari-like garment that all the women wear) so I avoided it. I went back to Minmin’s mother and had this tunic made. I used to wear it back in Burma when we went to the city or on a rare occasion of going out. It’s comfortable and cute, my favorite.

When the nights got colder, I had to get something long-sleeved. So I bought this checkered fabric at the market – which is actually for men’s shirts – and had this piece made. The cut is pretty traditional plus it has pockets, which makes it very practical. I wore this to my first pwae, which is a religious festivity that takes place at a monastery and lasts into the night, with show groups and music (starting with traditional and ending with local rock bands).

Usually men wear these pants from the Shan State in the northeast of Burma but some women do too. I got them from a friend who went to Yangoon. They’re unbeatable on hot days – really keep you from getting too hot! The shirt is made of fabric that Eve gave me. We spent time in a village where an aunt of Eve’s lives, working on the nutrition program. We slept at the monastery and the aunt would cook meals for us at her house every night. A really cool lady. We had a great connection, despite the language barrier. When I was leaving, she came to the jetty and gave me this shirt that she sewed as a farewell gift for me. We both cried.

The young Burmese nurses I worked with gave me the fabric as a Christmas gift. I didn’t know what to do with it at first. And then I saw the traditional nurse outfits that they wear and found the cut really beautiful. So this inspired the shirt. The fabric comes from the Karen people, the oppressed minority in the country’s north, who are renowned for their beautiful fabrics with very typical patterns and designs.

I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009 for four months, in the region of Haut-Uele, which is one of the areas most affected by the civil war. The program was for primary and secondary health care, focusing mainly on war victims but also on nutrition. It was difficult to find a tailor because of time constraints; I was working very hard there. So I got this fabric at the market. It is a very typical African print, very popular there. I loved it for the colors plus it has images of St Cecile, who is the saint of musicians. So this is my next project. Although it’s a bit of a question mark, as I’m not sure what to do with it. Maybe a dress and pants?

Blog Comments

Gorgeous outfits these are what I would wear, unique, handcrafted and come with a story that lasts beyond the threads. Thanks for bringing me back to why I travel Anja and your friend as well.

I love this. Thank you. The stories, the memories of faces, in which these garments are steeped are as gorgeous as the garments. Wow.

Beautiful both the clothing as well as the stories behind them.

Thanks, Cate! I love the way you said that, "a story that lasts beyond the threads."

Thank you, Jocy, for stopping by and reading.

I also found the clothing and the stories beautiful, Wendy. Hence the post.

Great post – I really enjoyed reading the stories. It's so true that certain clothes remind us of great trip and people too. I love the idea that we can take our friends with us in our suitcases!

I like your blog very much. Beautiful perspective.

Niamh, I wish I could always take my friends with me in my luggage when I travel. My trips would be so much more fun!

Thanks for stopping by, Meera, and for your positive feedback.

Nice outfits! The blog is also beautifully written.

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