The Fashionable Side of Guam

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Chamorro Performers| Image via Marilyn Sourgoseoriginally posted to Flickr as IMG_7883

Although the news focusing on Guam has lessened, there is a wealth of information concerning the culture and life on the island. It is a place filled with a diverse population and serves as a major tourist destination within the Western Pacific Ocean. The island often stays out of American news and popular culture, which may be due to its immense distance from mainland US. However, the 30-mile island is home to a historic and growing fashion culture that incorporates traditional costume with a modern international and local shopping market.

Guam is currently an American island territory, but it has a history as both an indigenous and colonized country. Among its citizens, the indigenous cultural group of the Chamorros calls Guam home. These people’s ancestors date early in Guam’s history and provide a strong example of how the influence of colonization affected the dress of a local culture.

Early Dress
Documentation of early dress in Guam often comes from personal accounts from foreign explorers. This can illustrate the actual traditions of a people, but can also provide a personal and cultural bias of the descriptor.

The early Chamorros utilized the natural surroundings to fashion coverage for their bodies. According to Judith S. Flores in “Dress of the Chamorro” (2010), women wore leaf and bark around the waist and at times, used turtle shells styled into an apron-like item. Women could also wear a tifi as a top and men were bare chested, but both genders used floral and coconut scents that suggest a sensual importance. In numerous European accounts of early Chamorros, men and women were documented as having long hair. Men tied their hair into buns, while others stated that men shaved their head with an exception of one lock.

This form of dress is still remembered today with the works of Guam residents Joe and Ray Viloria. Together they have created clothing and accessories that are inspired by the items worn by Guam’s early indigenous population by combining ready-to-wear with an anthropological approach. Through this effort, the designers have the ability to teach audiences and acknowledge social taboos.

Dress Under the Spanish Empire
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This mode of clothing changed once the Spanish Empire colonized the island in the mid-1600s. The Spaniards were a Catholic-based nation who embraced ideas that hid the human body, especially the female form. According to Flores (2010), this resulted in a rise of the mestiza (mestisa) costume, which originally developed in the Philippines. Men wore an outfit of loose, bleached cotton (manta) trousers that ranged in length depending on the formality of the situation and a loose button-down. Women covered their bodies with a round neckline slip with bell-shaped sleeves that was paired with an ankle-length skirt. The style evolved during the Victorian era from what Flores calls  “the soft bell-shape that draped over the arm to the starched “butterfly” look.” During formal occasions, women covered their heads in white handkerchiefs or shawls. However, the Chamorro appearance of this time was less restrictive than typical Western attire due to the need for comfort on an island.

Guam transitioned into American hands after the Spanish-American war in 1848. The island was under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy and held under what Dough Herman at Smithsonian.com relates to as martial law. In 1941, the island was bombed hours after Pearl Harbor and was held under Japanese rule for three years. This occupation resulted into over 13,000 locals imprisoned in camps and 1,123 dying under Japanese rule.

Fashion Today
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After the war, Guam fell back under American rule and became an island territory. What may be due to the American influence and/or its reputation as a tourist destination, Guam has formed into an economy that provides a variety of shopping opportunities and a culture that embraces American dress. For the tourist looking for the newest designs by international fashion designers, the island offers the Tumon Sands Plaza that houses Balenciaga, Chloe, and Givenchy, alongside malls and outlets with more moderately-priced options.

Events like Guam Fashion Weekend and the Guam Fashion Delegation showcase local fashion designers and talent. There is also a scene of local fashion designers who integrate Chamorro culture with Western trends and styles. For example, Tao Pacific Designs creates ready-to-wear clothing in block prints that identify and honor Chamorro culture and The Native Worldwide intermixes local fashion with art.

The history and status of fashion in Guam evolves from one influence into another, but there is still a sense of pride and acknowledgment in the island’s Chamorro culture. This is a rare feat for an indigenous group who has experienced a significant amount of colonization that demands change and dismissal of one’s original norms. Although Guam is a part of the United States, and maybe one day be an official state, it is also an island with a rich history that is communicated through its fashion scene.

For more on the island of Guam, visit Guam.gov or the website of the Guam Museum.

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