My snowy-haired grandpapa, while reminiscing with me after seeing “Great Expectations,” narrowed his eyes, sighed, and said, “Women lost a lot when they gave up wearing beautiful hats.”
At 10, with the fashions of the 1950s coming in mostly hatless or with a small toque or wisp of veil, I thought, “Oh, he’s terribly old-fashioned.” These many years later, though, I might copy him, paraphrasing: “Women of Hawaii lost a lot when they gave up wearing mu‘umu‘us.”
While considering encouraging the return of the mu‘umu‘u as island fashion, it pleased me to discover the nice spread on January as “Mu‘umu‘u Month” by Dennis Fujimoto in The Garden Island (Jan. 27, 2019, “Lifestyle,” C1 and 4.) I couldn’t agree more with the take on this traditional, missionary-inspired garment, the focus of the interview with Shannon Hiramoto.
My first knowledge of the loose, often bibbed and puff-sleeved garment known as the mu‘umu‘u was back in the ‘60s, when my mum wore one in the California heat during one of my summer visits from Ohio, which was, for a time, home. I noticed she had several of these “outfits.”
Her favorite department store was carrying them “from Hawaii,” and the floral patterns had caught and delighted her eye, while the relaxed fit had captured the heart that beat in her plump little form.
Toward 1980, my sister wrote of a trip to Hawaii. She and my late brother-in-law had been delving in The Salvation Army store as he enjoyed wearing and collecting vintage Hawaiian shirts (the exact opposite of the austere black coat and white clerical collar he wore officially as an Episcopal priest).
In Honolulu, they had run into a sale of a woman’s quality clothing. My sister hoped I wouldn’t mind receiving several items she had purchased that she felt would suit (and fit) me. She assured me that they were made of good fabrics. Several had classy labels. Some were custom-sewn.
I anticipated their arrival and was not disappointed. My sister knew me well: the colors and patterns were pleasing. The dresses were understated far more stylish than our mum’s mu‘u off the rack and, no doubt, expensive originally. I tried on the various gowns, and they fit.
One particularly “sparked my joy” — an emerald green satiny cheongsam (Chinese) gown. To my regret, I didn’t have an appropriate place to wear it. (Remember — this was back in the day of A-line dresses and polyester pant suits.) I stored my sister’s gift fashions carefully, thinking they might provide what was then labeled “hostess outfit” for a future holiday party.
Who knows? I thought. I might actually throw a fancy dress-up party one day. My children would eventually be getting married. Maybe I’d have the perfect dress for one of their weddings?
Things didn’t quite work out that way, but those nice “Hawaii dresses” came with me when I transferred myself and my work to Kauai, and I did get my chance to wear them.
In the early 1980s when I arrived, the mu‘u or longer gown was what one wore to evening or “better” occasions. I wore one to my first book party, another to my poetry reading for YWCA Women’s History Week.
A few traveled with me as “dress-ups” on the trips around Hawaii and South Pacific nations as I worked guiding Elderhostel trips. Others went to parties and events here on Kauai. A friend of mine found some cool cotton, everyday mu‘u at local thrift stores and passed a few to me, which I wore out.
Meanwhile, I was introduced to the art of sewing a pa‘u (hula skirt), and wearing a holoku (formal costume with a train) and pin-tucked missionary-style dresses. (Try dancing in soaked “pin tuck,” kicking the flounced hem out of the way so as not to fall flat on your face, as I did during my first rain-blessed hoike hula, dance recital, in the botanical gardens.)
Meanwhile, I learned about Hawaii designers like Mamo Howell and the late Maile Amorin, a hula sister who designed for Liberty House. I then began to understand my new husband’s choice of a magenta-on-white, quilt-patterned Mamo wedding shirt. Also, I was overjoyed when Mr. K and I were asked to chaperone the Kapaa High graduation ball. Finally, I could don the emerald green satin!
Out of curiosity the last few weeks, I’ve been people-watching while “in town” and attending some community events to see if I could spot a mu‘u (or an aloha shirt).
Sad to say: no, to the mu‘u; and just a few, to the shirts. The present-day, out-and-about women’s uniform seems to be black or patterned tights plus an easy top, something that in the past would have been seen at the ballet barre. For men — excluding banks and airlines — my survey comes up with baggy cargo shorts and tees predominating, along with a cap (on backwards), a la Norman Rockwell poster boys.
Ah, me — please forgive me: It seems we have lost a lot from the standpoint of personal presentation in public in our island world. How is it, I wonder (like grandpapa), with all our conveniences and time-saving devices, that we have less time than ever to devote to dressing ourselves, slipping on something beyond the most ordinary? (She is very old-fashioned, you’ll be thinking …)
Anyway, I challenge you, Dear Wahine Readers, to help me promote “Mu‘umu‘u Mondays” (and more) to extend that month of January’s “Mu‘umu‘u Month” by donning one of your own neglected mu‘u lurking in your closet.
Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, made her home on Kauai in the 1980s. She and her husband, a retired biology teacher, live with books, music and birds in Wailua homesteads. They share the passion of nature and travel to far-away places. The writer’s books may be found in local outlets and on Amazon. For further information, email@example.com.