Wednesday, July 25, 2012

July 24 - I Get to Play Dress-up for Two Years Straight!

When I was little, “dress-up” was one of my favorite games.  I didn’t have the mass-produced, cheap satin Disney princess dresses; instead, all my dress-up costumes were real clothes that we got from thrift stores, hand-me-downs, or other sources.  There was a black-and-white former prom dress that I remember, several folky outfits that served for “little house on the prairie” reenactments, striped shirts that were great for pirates…and plenty home-made costumes from Halloween.  Dress-up morphed into full-blown living room theatre as I got older, the same costumes providing scope for historical plays based on the “American Girl” series and “Ranger Rick” stories about animals sharing environmental messages.   

 I distinctly remember worrying that I wouldn’t like to play dress-up any more when I grew up.  If I could go back in time, I would tell little six-year-old Bethany that she has nothing to worry about – I have successfully become an adult without loosing my love of dress-up.  And I’ve recently landed in the perfect setting for someone like me: West Africa.  Clothing here is all about bright colors and unique styles.  It’s possible to buy western-style shirts and other clothes, much of it used, but the majority of the outfits you’ll see on the street are locally-sewn out of brightly-patterned cotton cloth.  Many patterns are abstract, but I’ve seen ones with motifs of fish, birds, fruit, wrenches, computers, umbrellas, and families of chickens. Unlike in the United States, where it is very un-cool to run into someone else wearing the same outfit, in Benin people buy outfits out of matching fabric (or tissu) for all sorts of occasions – weddings, religious events, funerals, etc.   We’ve been told that, after speaking the language, wearing local clothing is one of the best actions we can take to become accepted by our communities.  

A little more than a week ago, my Bariba classmate Sarah and I went to the market with my very stylish host sister to buy tissu and get outfits made.  I ended up getting three different fabrics.  One, neon colors with umbrellas, was for a casual “pagne” to wear around the house.  A pagne is just two yards of fabric that women wear as a wrap-skirt whenever they’re dressing casually.  My second fabric, an abstract-looking pattern of flowers in blue, pink, and beige, was for a formal outfit to wear to church.  I have been attending mass with my family every Sunday, and church is a very formal affair here.  There are hundreds of people there, and every time I go I can count maybe one or two women at most wearing western-style clothing.  I only planned to get the pagne and the mass outfit, so my third fabric was the impulse buy.  I found a fabric with a pattern of little trees and hearts – and as an environment volunteer who may well be working with trees for the next two years, I had to have it!  My fantastic host sister did the bargaining for us, so we ended up getting all the fabric for a little more than $2 per yard.  (1,000 francs).

The next step was the tailor.  My sister called a tailor to come over to my house, and she brought photos of various clothing styles with her.  We chose photos for the styles we wanted, and then (with my host sister translating since the tailor didn’t speak French) discussed how to modify the styles.  With multiple languages being spoken and tailors own artistic sense, you never are completely sure what you’re going to get!  The sewing for two outfits and a hem on the pagne was about $14, or 7,000 francs.  Again, with bargaining help from my sister.

Our outifts were delivered on Friday!  It was very exciting to get the call from my host mom and rush home to try them on.  There to be sleevless, for example, the dress had sleeves - but all in all I'm pretty pleased with the results.   I’ve been having fun playing “dress-up” since then, modeling my “I love trees” dress at our weekend training session with the other volunteers, wearing my formal outfit to mass and living in my pagne when I’m at home.  I  look forward to more – it’s so cool to be somewhere I can wear outfits patterned with bright yellow umbrellas or featuring flared “mermaid” skirts in the name of cultural integration.  Fashion-wise, these two years are going to be great fun.  

 Sarah and I model our formal outfits.  More clothing photos to come when the internet obliges!


  1. When you say mass do you mean Roman Catholic (the context in which I am used to hearing the term) CS? Phil Lohnes

  2. Oh! HOW FUN!!!!!

    I love dress up too. I loved wearing Indian clothes all over India and I know you'll have a BLAST wearing clothes native to Benin as well!

    Bethany, you look GORGEOUS!!!


  3. How lovely, refreshing, affirming and bodacious! Thrilled for you!

  4. Yep, my family is Roman Catholic and I have been attending with them. It's been nice to learn about a different church, especially one that is so important in Benin. There is a Christian Science society in Cotonou, the largest city, and I hope to visit them next time I'm there.

  5. Wow! You're certainly living "Love's divine adventure". The blog is great! Much joy,Paula