When Alla Making Costume for Sally by Barbara Jenkins


When Alla making costume for Sally, wasn’t just Alla alone, was all of us in that part of Belmont that involved.

After Christmas Eve, after Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Holy Innocents, after Old Years, New Years, Laywah, big people used to have a lil’ rest. A quiet do-nothing week or so. By then, batteries on toy car run out, dolly hair thin from too much combing and styling, first saucer of china dolly tea set done break already, and we children gone back to playing in dirt in the yard, to following stinging ants to their nest and poking a stick down the nest hole and run when they scramble out looking for us, to playing skip and lavay on the pavement, before our free paper burn and school open back.

In that in-between time, Miss Alla would come to our gate, ask if Marmie home, walk up the steps and sit in the gallery, waiting for one of us to run to the back to call Marmie and tell her Miss Alla there to her, and for Marmie to stop picking through rice, or washing wares, or seasoning meat, or whatever she doing and come out and talk. In those days children didn’t take interest in big people business so we didn’t know what the visit, the conversation, the nodding of heads was about, and it was always a surprise when a few days later, Miss Alla big son, Mario, and their next door neighbour big son, Carl, come in our yard, walk up the steps, go in Marmie’s bedroom, and then walk out into the gallery, down the red concrete steps, along the path, out the gate down Pelham Street turning out of sight into Clifford Street, hefting my mother’s cast iron foot pedal Singer sewing machine all the way to Alla’s house.

The home of Ursula Gibbings, known to one and all as Alla, her home at 13a Clifford Street, Belmont, was a mas camp for Sally’s band throughout my girlhood. From there, Harold ‘Sally’ Saldenah, Carnival masquerade designer, producer and bandleader brought out his annual masterpiece of historical mas. I say Alla’s home was a mas camp not the mas camp because as far as I remember it was mainly women’s costumes that were made at Alla’s home. The men’s costumes were mainly made somewhere else in Belmont, I think somewhere by Chenette Alley near the big Dry River Bridge where Belmont Circular Road meets Observatory Street was also a mas camp for Sally.

There were other people involved in making costumes for Sally. Ken Morris beat copper to make breastplates, helmets, and other accessories at his home at 107b Belmont Circular Road, and the tooled leather bits were done by shoemakers, among whom was Zanda who lived and worked out of a parlour across the road from our home at the corner of Reid Lane and Pelham Street. (It was from watching Zanda at work that I learned something about the slipperiness of words, words like ‘last’ and ‘awl’.) A feller with woodworking machinery turned long, long pieces of wood into long poles for standards that would later be painted gold or silver and carry fluttering gold fringed white satin pennants bearing the hand-stitched letters of gold braid SPQR. All that was in 1955 when I had just turned thirteen and Sally brought out Imperial Rome 44BC to 96AD. There was a certain secrecy, a definite rivalry, around Carnival bands at that time. Bandleaders didn’t let it be widely known what they were bringing out. I didn’t know the name of that band until I saw it on the street on Carnival Monday and read the words on the banner.

Sally was a stickler for accuracy. Accuracy was supplied through researching whatever was available—encyclopaedia, library books, my Latin schoolbook, and, above all, Hollywood. It was the era of studios owning movie stars and producing big budget Biblical themed films—Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah which we saw in Cinemascope at Globe, De Luxe and Astor when they first came out, or at our own Olympic as a double with films like Saadia and Salome many moons later. Sally drew on these depictions of history to design his costumes. He tracked down the black and white photos distributors sent to the cinemas as promotional material; he wrote letters to Hollywood studios for additional photos. He then did drawings on pages from a sketchpad like those children at the time took to school for art class and he coloured in the designs with coloured pencils. Those drawings were all that Alla worked from to cut and sew costumes for Sally’s band.

Alla’s workspace was her back bedroom, which she’d extended by adding on an enclosed shed-like structure. Lodged there were her sewing machine, which she alone was allowed to touch, and my mother’s, at which Verne, Alla’s next-door neighbour’s big daughter, would sew. Sally brought his drawings to Alla, and together they agreed which costumes she would make. I remember Vestal Virgin was one and Slave Girl, another. Pretending to be absorbed in a True Confessions magazine, I listened as they discussed fabric, thread, braid and whatever else the costumes needed and, after that, they set to work out quantities. “Put down that magazine and come here, child,” Alla, who knew I was minding big people business, called me over.

I stood while she whipped off her measuring tape, worn round her neck like a priest’s stole. She ran the tape from my shoulder down my front to my waist; then down my back, shoulder to waist—stop fidgeting—round my bust, round my waist, my hips— stop looking down, girl. Stand up straight—down the front from waist to knee, the back, waist to knee, waist to floor, neck to shoulder joint, shoulder to elbow, around upper arm, wrist, loose at the wrist, all the while noting inches, halves and quarter inches against a list that read: F to W, B to W, B, W, H and so on, on a page torn from a school exercise book. From that brisk but complete measurement of my body, she could work out how many yards of satin, how many yards of velvet, of silk, of decorative braid, would be needed to make one costume for a full grown woman.

The young women, the masqueraders-to-be, were working girls. They trailed into the back room—a succession of Ediths, Monicas and Doreens, Marilyns, Jeans and Maureens, Jocelyns and Sandras, to be measured. As Alla ran her tape measure over a body, calling out vital statistics, Verne wrote down the numbers in an exercise book, one masquerader per page, at the top of which she wrote the young woman’s name and the section she was playing in.

When it was time to convert fabric into costume, Alla moved her eight-seater dining table into the extension room. She placed a bolt of cloth at one end of the table and rolled it out, slapping it, plap-plap-plap, on the mahogany surface. She then used the tape to measure out a length of cloth. She would then fold over the length, make sure the edges were aligned and slip one blade of her long scissors within the fold, make a snip, then glide the scissors through and along the fold, more ripping than cutting the cloth. Cut velvet left a furry trail; satin long, shiny threads; silk, just a shimmer in the air. I would run my finger along the lines of fabric dust and spread it on the back of my hand like powder, purple, gold, white, red.

Satan finds mischief, Alla would say, handing me a length of material with a line of stitching just within its raw edge. She showed me how to pull a thread of that stitching to gather the fabric. The thread must not break or the stitching would become undone; the gathers had to be even, not bunched up one place, scanty another place. Looking over her glasses at me as I worked, she would summon me from time to time, to check how I was doing and to put her hand on the ruffles I’d made, no matter how perfect they looked. She would call me over to measure and compare the gathered length with the customer’s waist data, for this was a skirt for someone whose name was written on a piece of paper and pinned to the fabric. Other times I would be set to pin and tack a length of braid along a neckline, a sleeve or a hem while talk of gore and flare, bias and cold shoulder, flute, gather, baste and bell floated above my head.

Through that Christmas to Carnival season, Sally, already very slim and near gaunt, got thinner and thinner. You could gauge his weight loss by counting the number of holes at the end of his belt as it moved further and further away from the buckle, you could see the gathering of fabric at his trousers’ waistband. His worries showed in the furrows along his brow, and they were many—money the biggest. He took bolts of fabric from the Syrian Frederick Street merchants who would usually advance some credit when credit was good, but the people who worked making costumes had to be paid along the way, and his masqueraders, poor working people, could not afford to pay in advance for their costumes, only putting down a deposit towards their costumes when they got measured. Each week, as she got paid, a masquerader would add to her deposit, diminishing her debt, sometimes clearing it by Carnival but more often completing the payment sometime in Lent, or sometimes never, but she would collect her costume anyway. “What else I could do with these?” Sally would ask on Carnival Monday, holding up some Slave Girl and Vestal Virgin costumes. How many masqueraders were subsidised by the heroic bandleader is anybody’s guess— bringing out a band made Sally bankrupt not prosperous, except in the sense that he loved it, loved the excitement, loved seeing his people happy on the street celebrating themselves, showing off his idea made flesh, his imagination materialised.

And there was too the constant nagging worry about time draining away: Would the costumes be ready for Carnival Monday morning? He would come round to Alla’s home and sit, back bent, head bowed, elbows on thighs. He would be looking at his hands, clasped between his spread knees, he would look at the floor, as if studying the grain of the wood. Maybe he derived comfort and reassurance from hearing chunk, chunk, chunk of the treadles being worked up and down, the belts whirring along the big cast iron wheels, the needle zzzzzzing while nodding through yard after yard of fabric, the click of a new full bobbin being inserted into the lower thread chamber, for Sally said little on those visits, rarely asked even a “So how’s it going?” I guess he did the same at each of the places that was making his costumes—paying a silent call, being a quiet presence amidst the activity, his only acknowledgement that he was the mastermind of the enterprise coming as he opened the Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin on the top of the shelf housing the rolls of braid and reels of thread, and gathered without even a glance the scant flutter of dollars left by his masqueraders.

The young women came in to try on. Alla would drape bits of half-finished costume over the masquerader’s body, stripped down to full slip, and reflected in a cheval mirror. With a mouthful of straight pins she would adjust, tuck, release, shift— mmmmm—gesturing the live mannequin to turn this way and that or lift one arm and the other. They would leave and come back the following week for final fitting— oftentimes just the Friday or Saturday before Carnival. Alla and Verne would have gone without sleep for a week, fortified by coffee ground from San Rafael beans, Anchor Special cigarettes, Vat 19 rum, Crix and cheese. It would be Sunday night or even Monday morning when they could hand over costumes. And somebody complaining that they requested a yellow scarf, and look is a pink one she get, a Vestal Virgin’s skirt is too long, she is bound to trip up and it has to be hemmed up right away, a slave girl’s bodice is too tight, like she put on some size, let it out.

We waited on Jerningham Avenue for Sally’s band. Surging out of Norfolk Street they came, banner aloft, bellying in the breeze—our own Vestal Virgins and Slave Girls, along with gladiators carrying shields, legionary soldiers wearing knee length skirts, breastplates, helmets and swords, Christians in chains, ready to be thrown to the lions, gowned matrons, robed priests, gods with their trappings and wreathed emperors, all present. The chief masquerader, the man playing the Big Mas, the King of the Band, was Valmon Jones, a legendary Belmont personality, now a real emperor, Nero, for two whole days. Valmon, no, Nero, reclined on a canopied palanquin carried by four strapping Egyptian slaves, his twenty-five-yard ermine-trimmed royal purple cape draped round his shoulders and falling to the ground, his beard, nurtured over the months before, trimmed and groomed, a dead ringer for Peter Ustinov’s Nero in Quo Vadis. Wearing a Ken Morris copper laurel wreath and a disaffected smile, Nero plucked at a golden harp while slave girls walking alongside fanned him with ostrich feather fans. This performance, this tableau vivant, caused a stampede among onlookers, so realistic it was thought to be.

I am convinced that this early success at duping us impressionables persuaded the star performer to take up in the following years a career in trickery and deception, fooling the whole population of Trinidad, to the extent that he eventually had to flee to the Mother Country while we, left behind, burned with rage. But that was yet to come. In that glorious, innocent Carnival of 1955, Valmon Jones was Nero, Ken Morris beat and shaped copper into arms and armour for gladiators and legionnaires, Ursula ‘Alla’ Gibbings and Verne Lumsden turned out Vestal Virgins and Slave Girls on my mother’s sewing machine, and Harold ‘Sally’ Saldenah led Imperial Rome 44BC to 96AD to win the Band of the Year title.

Barbara Jenkins was born in Trinidad and lives there. Writing came as a late life gift that she opens with great delight when she is not immersed in the green-gold water of Macqueripe Bay or the lives of her scattered children and grandchildren. Her debut collection of short stories, Sic Transit Wagon and other stories (Peepal Tree Press) was awarded the Guyana Prize for Literature. Her first novel, De Rightest Place (Peepal Tree Press), is due for publication in September 2018.