Remember When?

Wear? Where?

Keeping Islanders clothed in “the old days.”
By Jody Rathgeb

There was no Amazon. No Island Bargains. No daily flights from Miami. No family members zipping away to buy fashions abroad. So how did Turks & Caicos Islanders in “the old days” get the clothing part of their basic food-clothing-shelter needs?

Look to the women. Their homespun businesses took care of it. Long before any little island princess posed for Instagram in a fancy dress, there were island women who figured out how to clothe their families.

Make it sew

This archival photograph shows two Grand Turk women sewing, circa 1979.

Early on, women in the out islands were particularly resourceful, and sewing was the name of the game. Doreen Been of Salt Cay recalls that there were several seamstresses on island, including her own mother. The women would get cloth and other sewing supplies from the merchant boats that came from Jamaica. Been’s daughter, Kadra Been-Handfield, with whom she now lives on North Caicos, notes, “Their underwear was made from the bags that the flour came in at the time!”

Addison Forbes of Middle Caicos also recalls the women who sewed, adding that Haiti and Miami were other sources of fabric. “There was more trade back then,” he says of his childhood on North Caicos.

Texas Supply

Some of that trade included large supply companies in the United States, particularly Texas Supply (based in Miami, despite its name) and Montgomery Ward. Forbes’ mother, the late Wealthy Forbes, served as an agent for Texas Supply on North Caicos. “People would come to Mom and say, ‘I need pants for my boy.’ She would place an order by mail, and in about a month big boxes came on a freighter into Grand Turk. Then things would be shipped on TCNA (Turks & Caicos National Airways) to Mom. It would come to North.” He adds that mail service was much more regular and reliable than it is these days.

In describing how payment was made, Forbes remembers a man named Fred would make trips every few months and collect from all the agents in the Caribbean.

Local merchants

The TIMCO (Turks Islands Importers) warehouse at Cockburn Harbour, South Caicos (1965) was an outlet for dry goods.

Places like Texas Supply also provided goods for the small stores that began popping up in the Islands in the 1970s. Doreen Been says that Salt Cay Islanders would visit such stores on Grand Turk until some popped up at home. “There were small store owners in Salt Cay who would take trips to Miami for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. They would get stuff as well from the Flea Market, Texas Supply, and McCrory’s and resell them,” relates Been-Handfield.

And always, everywhere, there was help from family members abroad, mostly in The Bahamas and the U.S. Sometimes the goods sent via mail or boat were new, and sometimes they were hand-me-downs, which Been says were called “bang yang.” Shoes and hats especially were sent or brought down by family. “Dad and them always had nice felt hats,” Forbes says of his father, the late Aaron Forbes. “Dad lived in The Bahamas a while, and he would bring back shoes and hats for him and my uncles. Then the Kangol hats, when they became popular.”

Family connections

Family members abroad also brought back notions of fashion, going beyond simply serviceable clothes. Visits home were a “show and tell” of fashion in the days before homes had televisions, and the major catalogs (Texas Supply, Montgomery Ward, Sears) reinforced what was “in.” Forbes says he and his friends were particularly taken by the “Superfly” looks of the 1970s based on the popular movie, and they would order outfits accordingly. “We would dress up in those suits, with open collars and jewelry and the hats, and down in Bottle Creek the girls would follow us instead of us following the girls!”

Forbes left North Caicos in 1981 and lived and worked in Miami until the mid-2000s. “I went to Texas Supply once,” he says. “I found out where it was located and dropped in.” His mother was remembered there, and he was offered some free clothing. He laughs. “Hey, I was in America, I could shop at the malls!” His Texas Supply days were behind him.

Catalog shopping was one of the ways to not only get clothing to the Islands, but also to see what was in fashion. Images like this one from a 1971 Sears catalog influenced young people.

Those days are apparently behind the company, too. Although an internet search brings up an address and phone number for Texas Supply, the phone is disconnected and there is no Web address. As for Montgomery Ward, the original company, which was founded to serve Midwest farmers in rural areas, went defunct in 2001. It was relaunched online in 2004 and its brand has been purchased by a series of other companies. Today’s still sells clothing, although the boys’ white shirts with attached ties that Addison Forbes remembers are not available.

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