This is Karen – I haven’t really been participating in the blog posts, but I’ve decided to step it up and not let Dave have the last word from Samoa. One of the things I like about Samoa is that people still wear traditional dress in their day-to-day lives (although they also wear Western clothes). Of course, the traditional dress I talk of is not the clothing that Samoans have been wearing for thousands of years. Instead, it’s the clothing that Samoans started wearing after Christianity arrived in the mid-nineteenth century and the missionaries taught that showing the naked body was shameful. A minister from the Samoan Congregational Church came and spoke to our group a few weeks ago and he pointed out the irony that the British forced Samoans living a hot climate to cover their bodies, but if you walk down the streets of London nowadays, Brits wear even less clothing than the Samoans did.
On casual occasions, the most common attire for both men and women is an ie or a lavalava. Essentially, an ie is just a wrap-around skirt that you tie in a knot to keep it up. Men usually tie the knot in the front, while females tie the knot on the side. On top, any type of shirt is standard attire, although men normally go without when working around the house. Probably most men would never wear shirts, but many villages have rules requiring shirts while walking along the main roads. The amusing part about the ie, in my opinion, is that 99% of Samoans wear shorts or pants underneath. Some girls will wear short shorts that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in the States, and boys wear long basketball-style shorts. Personally, it’s usually so hot here that I try to wear as few clothes as possible while still conforming to cultural norms, so I don’t really understand the double layers. Most of the school students even wear a complete outfit underneath their school uniforms! There are some interesting cultural norms that regulate when an ie has to be worn or not. For example, one of my host brothers in my first family almost never wore an ie. He preferred to wear a pair of khaki shorts. However, if he was going to dance, even if he just danced in the living room when he was teaching me, he always put a lavalava on.
For work, church, and village events, dress changes. Men wear an ie faitaga and an aloha shirt. An ie faitaga is a more formal wrap-around skirt. Instead of wild patterns like an ie, they are solid colors – usually black, navy blue, or dark green. For church, most men wear a white one. Ie faitaga have two important features – pockets and ties to hold it on instead of the ever-loosening knots. An aloha shirt is essentially a button-front Hawaiian shirt. Women, on the other hand, wear puletasi. A puletasi is a matching skirt and long shirt combination. The skirt is usually a wrap skirt with ties. It is ankle-length and normally I tie mine right under my chest. The shirt is tunic-style. Some shirts are long enough to reach the knees, while others end are only hip-length. The great thing about puletasi is that you usually have them custom-made to fit – hardly anyone buys them in the store. I buy fabric in Apia, usually three yards or so, bring it home and take it to the su’isu’i (seamstress). She takes my measurements and two or three days later, voila! A brand-new dress designed exactly the way I want it to be! And for only around 40 tala! That’s a deal that can’t be beat.
The downside of Samoan clothing is that it is HOT! Most people wear polyester. Cotton is more expensive. Why polyester? Two main reasons. First, it dries really quickly, which is incredibly important in such a wet climate. Every time I do the laundry (which I do by hand in the river) and hang the clothes out to dry, I notice that my Samoan clothing is dry almost immediately and my American clothing takes two or three days to dry. Second, it doesn’t stain like cotton does. That’s pretty key when you have to wash your clothes by hand.
Another funny thing about living in Samoa is that it has made me see fabric in a whole new way. Fabric plays a huge role in Samoan culture. People give it as presents at fa’alavelave, use it to cover their TVs and the interior of their roofs, and use it as decoration. And they use the same fabric for all those uses. One of the other Pisikoa in my group came to language class one day with a new ie. He said to us that he really liked it, because it somehow seemed familiar to him (the pattern in the fabric). Halfway through class, he suddenly realized that the ie was the same pattern as the curtains in his bedroom. Almost the same thing happened to me. Someone gave me a puletasi as a mealofa (gift) to wear during our teaching practicum. The next day, I went to school to teach Year 3. I was setting up my teaching materials when I realized that the table I was sitting at was covered in a tablecloth with the same material. — Just another day in the life of Samoa!