Although stopping for food was certainly a necessary part of our trip to Altai’s zah, it was not our primary objective. That had long since been established: we were going to get me a deel.
The deel (transliterated from the Cyrillic дээл, but pronounced more like “dell”) is the traditional dress of Mongolia. It’s a wrap-style outer garment that reminds many Americans of a robe, though it’s worn more like a coat. (Albeit a coat with a very useful front pouch in which you can put things like your wallet, or a bottle of vodka, or the adorable rabbit you’re petnapping from the vegetable store.)
Deels come in two varieties: summer and winter. The summer ones are lighter, though not exactly breathable. Of old they were supposedly made of silk, and some of the fancy ones still are, but most of the ones you find these days are synthetic. Winter deels, too, are usually synthetic, but the nicer ones are made from lambskin. It’s also pretty easy to get a woolen lining, which makes even a cheap winter deel considerably warmer.
In the countryside, many people wear their deels every day, but city-dwellers typically don them only for Naadam, Tsagaan Sar, and special occasions like weddings, graduations, and haircutting ceremonies. They also tend to favor updated styles for these special-occasion deels; they’re often cut much closer and are pulled over the head or zipped close rather than wrapped and tied. Even the ones with front closures bear as much resemblance to a dress as to a traditional deel. I wore one such garment for our Teacher’s Day concert last month, and I’d like to buy one before I leave the country to wear on special occasions back home.
But our search that day was for something simpler: just a common winter deel. Preferably a blue one, to match my eyes and approximately half the clothing in my wardrobe. Even so, this proved trickier than expected. While the lady at the first place we went to was very friendly and helpful, the deels she showed us were all turquoise. I like turquoise, but not like this; these were flat, unpatterned, and eye-smartingly loud. We did spot one swath of ice-blue fabric way up on a shelf, but it was far too ornate and definitely out of our price range.
I tried a few on anyway, shrugging reluctantly out of my coat and pulling them on as quickly as possible. An unheated Mongolian store in January, even a mild January, is not a comfortable place to be without a coat. Especially when the “warm” clothes you’re trying on have been chilling on those freezing cold shelves for goodness knows how long.
Unfortunately for me, fastening a deel is an acquired skill – one which, needless to say, I had not yet acquired. Common deels do not zip, and while some of the nicer ones have buttons, most don’t have those either. Instead, they close with small loops of trim through which you slip knotted trip affixed to the other part of the garment. The system is button-like, to be sure, but less secure; the knots are far more likely to slip from their holes than your standard button. It’s also more difficult to master, as the trim is somehow simultaneously slick enough to slip between your fingers and rough enough to hurt that one nailbed that was exposed when you broke a a nail last week. The placement doesn’t help either: two on your collar, two to three along your shoulder, another two to three along your thigh, and one under the armpit. The shoulder and thigh fastenings are easily visible and accessible, but the other two locations are not, even if you hoist your arm awkwardly to try to peer under it. And they’re all on the right side of your body. Being a lefty is a definite advantage when it comes to getting deel-ed up.
Eric helped me fumble through the process, but even after all that trouble, we were forced to admit that these were not the deels we were looking for. We did find a very nice white fur hat (to the back of which, I swear, the rabbit’s ears were still attached), but hats are apparently one of the things for which the price mysteriously doubles when a white person does the asking.
So on to the next delguur we went. This one, thankfully, prominently featured a little space heater. By no means was it roasty-toasty in there, but at least I wasn’t covered in gooseflesh the instant I unzipped my coat.
It only took a few moments of browsing for us to identify the deel I wanted to try on. A shade or two darker than cobalt, with white-gold trim and embroidered blue flowers outlined in white, it matched my specifications much better than anything I had seen thus far.
This time, we has a shopkeeper’s assistant to help me into my deel. She made quick work of the fastenings, though she clucked in disapproval at the apparently inadequate length of the deel itself, and especially of the sleeves. Hudoo deels often have extra-long sleeves with flared ends, which can be rolled back to free the hands or extended to keep them warm. Mine is not a hudoo deel, but the little boy’s in Gracie’s adorable photo is.
Shopkeeper-lady apparently though I needed one. She extended one of my arms, taking my hand to demonstrate – and gasped, clutching both of my hands in hers and exclaiming at how “хүйтэн” they were. I get this reaction a lot: from friends, from boyfriends, even, when I was in UB for Thanksgiving, rom a a drunk man on the bus on whose foot I tripped. Mongolians seem particularly concerned by it and often make much over the temperature of my hands even when I don’t find them noticeably cold.
Eventually, she stopped fussing about my hands and started fussing over my choice of бүс, or belt. They wanted to give me one in construction-sign orange. It’s a common belt color, and my father the faithful Illini fan would have heartily approved the color combination, but I was not a fan. The next one they tred to give us was green. But while the tattered leaf-green sample sash we’d used when I tried the deel on went nicely with my blue deel (and dark green Mongol boots), the fabric they had for sale was much… brighter. Acid-green belts might be just as common as fluorescent orange ones, regardless of what color deel they’re holding on, but that didn’t mean I wanted one.
Finally, we persuaded the shopkeeper to cut us a strip of white fabric, which I thought looked better with the trim and embroidery on my deel. Helper-lady wasn’t pleased with this one either, declaring it neither long nor wide enough. It was just long enough double knot when (tightly) wrapped around me twice; the more elaborate tying methods would have required a few extra feet of sash. I’d like to have that option, but fabric is easy to buy, so I shouldn’t have much difficulty finding a longer bus. So we paid and headed out to catch our ride. I had my first deel.