I HAVE a theory that the colder the climate, the more attention is paid to fashion. It explains why Melbourne is more stylish than Sydney, and why none of the world’s fashion capitals are known for their pleasant weather. New Yorkers often say that one’s coat is one’s car – meaning, outerwear is both a means of transport and an important status signifier. (This argument is deployed to justify spending a month’s rent on a jacket.) By contrast, on a tropical island such as the one I now live on, clothes are low on most people’s list of priorities – below finding the best poke bowl around, and certainly way less important than knowing the jellyfish hot spots.
Illustration: Simon Letch.Credit:Fairfax Media
When my wardrobe was recently ravaged by mould – one of the few downsides to life in a balmy clime – this point quite literally hit home. Every item felled in the attack was plainly ridiculous for Okinawa living. The fancy dry-clean-only fabrics of my former city-mouse lifestyle were, in one slow, damp sweep, done for. It was as though the mould knew my life had changed dramatically, and with it my clothing requirements. Because in addition to moving to a sleeveless latitude, I recently experienced the fashion Armageddon known as parenthood.
Although my new boss is definitely my cutest (no offence to Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood), the job is demanding. Requirements include: performing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on loop in a melodious yet somnolent fashion; a KPI that both employer and employee keep crying to a minimum; an unspoken expectation that, at least for the moment, workers forgo personal indulgences such as showering and teeth-cleaning.
All of this is to say that the time was up for my velvet trousers and silk shirts. Post-mould, my wardrobe is almost entirely machine-washable and moisture-wicking. “Wick away!” I whisper to my clothes every night, before turning on the air conditioning and the dehumidifier. (Humidity, in case you didn’t know, accentuates both pores and eccentricity.) But even places with palm trees have unofficial dress codes. And as anyone who has bought a tie-dye sarong in Bali and thought “This will really come in handy for supermarket runs at home” can attest, different locales call for subtle differences in outfit choices.
The Japanese dress for hot weather differently than we do. For one, they’d never dream of wearing thongs. The thousands of Americans who work on Okinawa’s many military bases wear what Americans do the world over: shorts. Bonus points if they have cargo pockets, and bingo for a baseball cap. Locals, though, tend to cover up, in billowy blouses, ankle-skimming skirts and loose linen trousers.
This could be to do with the Japanese virtue of modesty, known as kenkyo. Regardless of social position, Japanese people are expected to be humble, and assertiveness is more or less discouraged. (“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is a Japanese proverb which sums up this attitude.) It could be because – rather than a tan – smooth, porcelain skin is considered desirable here, making sun protection all the more important. Or perhaps it’s simply that the Japanese have hit on the most elegant and practical solution to a problem – in this case, dressing for unrelenting heat. It wouldn’t be the first time.
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