Bangkok, circa 2003 – It’s the last night of my first business trip to Thailand. Having failed to get to the shopping center the night before, I head out on foot. This time, I make it.
Everything in the mall is lit brilliantly and polished to a dazzling shine. Having just come in from the heat and humidity, I also glisten. Excessively. No matter. I’m on a mission. I want a proper Thai outfit for my wife. I’m lucky she is Asian: it gives me a better chance of finding something in her size.
I move quickly from store to store. Most of the more traditional offerings clinging to the bosoms and waists and draping down the legs of the mannequins are overly complex. Fabrics tend to be uncomfortably crisp. Colors are almost garish. Prices include digits my budget cannot accommodate. I keep looking.
The stores will be closing soon. I scale the escalator in leaps and bounds, grateful for the air conditioning. The second floor has nothing more suitable than the first. I head for the next floor. I’ll look in every store if I must. Time is running out.
Different colors, different fabrics, shifts in design–from more Indian to more Japanese–none of these are any closer to what I want.
I’ve come to the last store. A petite young clerk approaches me, using the best English she can muster. I try to explain: I’m looking for something classy but casual. She points out a teal/red/white costume that would not be out of place at the opera, onstage. I smile apologetically and walk around the store one more time, just to be sure. The clerk follows at a polite distance. The store closes in five minutes.
Wait. There. That. YES. That’s EXACTLY what I’m looking for!
Hanging on a rack of miscellany somewhat out of the way is a simple, fitted, long-sleeved, bronze/gold dress. Traditional peg-and-loop buttons go down the front from the low-rise Mandarin collar to the waist. The naturally crinkled fabric is soft to the touch. The slightly flared skirt splits just above the knee on one side. The whole design speaks of comfortable elegance.
I cannot find a price tag. Perhaps it’s a return. I don’t mind. It’s the right size. It’s perfect. I ask about the cost.
“I’m sorry; I cannot sell that to you,” says the clerk, graciously.
It’s precisely what I want, so I inquire again. Apologizing anew, the clerk insists that this dress cannot be sold to me. I’m baffled.
“Why can’t you sell it to me?” I ask. Surely it’s available. She’s wearing one just like it.
“That is our uniform, sir,” she says.