Third World Tailors Make Suits, Third World Tailors Make Men
Story and photos by Luke Armstrong

When it's time to step up and attend a function for respectable people, an expatriate living in Guatemala learns what it's like to get the bespoke suit treatment from an Antigua tailor.

Starvation, lack of infrastructure, political corruption, bathrooms last cleaned when the Berlin Wall crumbled, and smooth salsa dancers named Rico Suave who steal your girlfriend with their superior salsa skills. These are the typical third world annoyances travelers face here.

Guatemala suit

Some people with battitudes seem to want to do nothing but complain, complain, complain about these things. I'm sorry your third world doctor prescribed you benzos for your bug bites, and I empathize with the cockroaches, beg bugs, mice, rats and magpies infesting your $3 a night hostel. I really can relate to the blocked highway causing you to miss the flight that was to take you back to your comfortable first world home. But after you're done reciting a laundry list litany, take a deep breath and let's go get ourselves a tailor-made suit in the failing state of Guatemala.

I read somewhere once that at some stage in every man's life (ladies, my apologies for such sexist filth) he must purchase a tailor-made suit. Like smoking big Cubans, drinking black label from a tumbler, hiring a private eye, and going on safari (don't be a Hemmingway-jerk, use rubber bullets), going to a tailor is a dying art of the endangered Nineteenth Century gentleman.

For most would-be gentlemen, a tailor-made suit is way too freaking expensive. And here is where the third world's tailors step in to lift the dark, elitist gate on the financially impossible road.

New Suit = Year's Supply of Grilled Mystery Meat
I was not always a promoter of tailor-made suits. I actually used to be on the opposite side of the fashion wheel. About a year ago, I was headed to a reception in my expatriate home of Guatemala. The first lady was likely to attend and formal dress was insisted upon. My Guatemalan co-workers tactfully informed me that the blazer I found in a friend's dingy basement during a beer pong tournament during my sophomore year of college (the same blazer I'd been using to "pull off" formal events for years) was not going to work this time. Despite the fact that you could barely see the pink thread from where I had stitched up Ol' Yeller—the name of my blazer—it would need to stay on its hanger.

As I thought about owning a suit, a tinge of dread surged from the dying vagabondish-free spirit I had envisioned for myself as a young humanities major, and I threw up a little bit in my mouth. Just a bit. It was actually probably from the street-meat I had just had for lunch. As I chewed the last bites, I began to suspect I was eating dog meat. Not from the distinct doggy flavor, but because around the grill where the street meat sizzled, I noticed that sad street dogs had made a half circle of mourning.

The dogs' solemn expressions seemed to say, "Rest in peace Barky. If you were here today, you'd be proud at how good you smell right now."

Guatemala street stall

How was I—a guy who had obviously just eaten dog meat for $2—a person who had any right to parade around in a three-piece suit, choking on caviar, and toasting my champagne glass while heartily laughing at politically themed, observational humor?

I think most of my resistance toward suit-owning-hood came from not wanting to dish out the dough. I was clearly the kind of person who preferred to spend his money on dog meat. And the cost of a nice suit represented nearly a year's supply of street food.

But despite my timidity towards the thought, I needed a suit. All my Guatemalan friends topped out at a towering 5'5", so borrowing a midget suit from one of them clearly was not an option.

Solex pharmacy

Armani, with a Side of Pain-killers
I asked around and found that the best place to buy a suit in Antigua, Guatemala was the Solex pharmacy. It seemed to make sense that at the same place I'd be dropping hundreds of dollars on an outfit I'd wear a few times a year, I could also buy cheap, generic anti-depressants.

So off I went. There was a woman with crazy eyes selling baby rabbits and mangos outside the pharmacy. I bought a bag of mangos and opted to wait on the rabbits until they ended up on the grill, next to the dog meat.

The suit shop occupied a small cinderblock room off from the pharmacy. A short man, who I will call Don Cultivo, greeted me with a warm handshake as he eyed me from head to toe. "I've come for a suit," I announced with a solemn air.

"Yes, or course you have," he responded taking a deep breath of aged wisdom communicating accumulated secrets to whimsical youth. "A suit," he said, "Is what gives a man his manliness. It defines him. We will need to find a suit that shows what sort of man you are."

Guatemala men

What gives a man his manliness? All these years I'd been thinking my beer chugging ability and vast variety of man-bags was what made me macho. As I looked around the room at double- and triple-breasted suits, the dazzling cufflinks, starched collars, and variety of ties, a sinking realization dawned. I was still just a boy lost in a world of manly, suit-wearing men. But here, underneath the care of Don Cultivo, surrounded by cinderblocks, was my ticket to the real world. Here was where boys became men.

We spent the afternoon taking suits off the hangers and posing for the tripled paned mirror. Many of the suits seemed okay to me, but Don Cultivo knew better. With every one I tried, he sadly shook his head, "No, not this one either."

When it seemed that I had tried on every suit in the shop, and began to worry that I was doomed to be trapped in perpetual boyhood, Don Cultivo touched his chin, "What you need," he said slowly, "is a suit made especially for you. And you are in luck. I am a tailor and with mucho gusto, I can make a suit for just for you."

My elation at being able to finally become a man was temporarily eclipsed by the fear of how much this service must cost. "Cuanto? " I ventured in a timid tone, that I hoped would indicate to Don Cultivo that not every white person had remembered to water the money tree they were issued at birth.

"No mucho," he reassured me. "$150 and I'll include a tie and dress shirt gratis."

"$150!? Not even Wal-Mart's slave-made suits could compete with that. I stood on a stool while Don Cultivo measured me meticulously and imagined my soon-to-be suited self.

Guatemala suit

When he finished his measurements, I paid the deposit and he caught me just as I was leaving, "The last thing we need to do is decide what brand of suit you want me to make."

It seemed somewhat oxymoron-ish, but Don Cultivo produced from behind the counter a basket of designer labels for me to choose from.

A week later, when I picked up my handmade Armani (don't tell Giorgio) suit and shook my tailor's hand, the boy who entered the tailor shop walked out a wistful man. On the way home, the dog meat sandwich tasted different. I looked out at the world with my new manly eyes and decided I should start drinking scotch and smoking more cigars. But first I would need to locate a third-world cobbler. I needed shoes to go with my suit, and I'd be damned if I was going to spend more than $50 getting them.

Luke Armstrong

Luke Maguire Armstrong did what any financially oblivious recent grad would do: took out a large student loan and set off hitch-hiking post college from Chile to Alaska. He made it as far as Guatemala where he directs the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados in a mission to "break the chains of poverty through education and formation. His is the author of iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About and is in the process of finding a publisher for his first novel, How One Guitar Will Save the World. He is co-editor of The Expeditioner's Guide to the World, which will be released October, 2010.

Related articles:

The Burning of the Devil in Guatemala by Luke Maguire Armstrong
A Bridge on the Border in Central America by Molly Beer
Granada on Haphazard Guitar Strings by Luke Armstrong
Guatemala's Running of the Horses by Michael Shapiro

Other Mexico and Central America Stories from the archives

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