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It’s an oft-repeated saying that, in the fashion world, “what goes around, comes around”. On a much grander scale, this is what has happened in the South Pacific in a clothing role-reversal.
When missionaries ventured into the region in the early 19th century hoping to convert the various island populations to Christianity, they naturally brought their prejudices and cultural blueprints along with them. The most famous of these missionary organizations, the London Missionary Society (LMS), wished to “spread the knowledge of Christ among heathens and other unenlightened nations.” This is work still being carried out in the region by the Church of Latter Day Saints, Evangelicals, and Seventh Day Adventists .
When the missionary ships arrived in the early 1800s, as Susanne Küchler and Graeme Were discuss in their 2003 Anthropology Today article, clothing these naked peoples was an overriding concern. Such common and innocent displays of nakedness undoubtedly offended the missionaries’ Georgian – and later, Victorian – sensibilities, so the newly arrived Christians encouraged women and girls to participate in sewing classes in order to produce garments suitable for attending church. These items of clothing were designed to protect the modesty of the wearer, though their appropriateness in tropical and sub-tropical climates is questionable. The most (in)famous of these is what is known as a ‘Mother Hubbard dress’ – a somewhat shapeless, long, loose-fitting gown – which is still a very common sight throughout the many Pacific nations which had encounters with missionaries.
The missionaries themselves took women’s adoption of such clothes as a sign of willingness to religious conversion – though Küchler and Were instead argue that it was rather the decorative patterns, texture, and color which led to their acceptance. Animistic belief inspired the harnessing of the power contained within the fabrics. However, as Christianity displaced (but didn’t necessarily completely replace) local, traditional religions, the prejudices toward nakedness were absorbed and internalized. Wearing the high-necked Mother Hubbard dresses became woven into the fabric of Pacific Island societies.
Fast forward to the late 20th century: Mother Hubbard has experienced a makeover. The necklines are a little lower! The hems are a little higher! The sleeves are shorter! But these dresses are still being worn–and the sense of modesty they imbue still important. It is not uncommon for (Western) female tourists to be the talk of the town if they wander round the local markets in short shorts and bikini tops–such a display is in part offensive. The 2010 in-country handbook for Peace Corps volunteers to Vanuatu clearly states that it is “never appropriate for women to show bare thighs…when swimming in non-resort areas, women should wrap a lava-lava around their waist. Many female volunteers find it is most acceptable in rural areas to wear a ‘Mother Hubbard'”.
Where once the islanders’ lack of clothing shocked Western sensibilities, the tables have now been turned. Skimpy outfits for maximum sun exposure (amongst other qualities) are the unwelcome accompaniment to the flourishing tourist industry which sustains numerous island communities. 200 years after Europeans and previously-converted Polynesian and Melanesian missionaries spread the word that a lack of clothing was ‘uncivilized’, the irony of their descendants coming close – in some cases – to imitating islanders’ former state of ‘undress’ is difficult to ignore.
As cultures continually evolve, it is entirely possible that Mother Hubbard dresses will one day become no more than an occasional reminder of Pacific history as fewer and fewer women choose to wear one. Instead, typical future style choices include jeans, ra-ra skirts, and the already well-established T-shirts brought by different Western missionaries: those preaching the gospel of consumerism.
Originally published here by the Foreign Policy Association.