Within the United States, Guam is often known as a strategic U.S. naval base. However, the 30-mile island is much more. It is home to a historical and growing fashion culture that incorporates traditional costume with a modern 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 Chamorros call Guam home. These people’s ancestors date early in Guam’s history and provide a strong example of how the influence of colonization affects the dress of a culture.
Documentation of early Chamorro dress in Guam often comes from personal accounts of 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 their 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 clothing piece. Women would also wear a tifi as a top and men were bare-chested, but both genders used floral and coconut scents on their bodies. In numerous European accounts of early Chamorros, men and women were documented as having long hair. In some reports, men tied their hair into buns, while others stated that men shaved their head with the exception of one lock.
This form of dress is still remembered today with the works of Guam residents Joe and Ray Viloria. Together they create clothing and accessories that are inspired by the island’s early Indigenous population. Through this effort, the designers can teach audiences and acknowledge social taboos, like showing excessive skin, through their clothing.
Dress Under the Spanish Empire
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 of dress 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 a loose button-down and bleached cotton (manta) trousers that ranged in length depending on the formality of the situation. Women covered their bodies with a slip that had a round neckline and bell-shaped sleeves and an ankle-length skirt. The style evolved during the Victorian era from what Flores calls “the starched ‘butterfly’ look.” During formal occasions, women covered their heads in white handkerchiefs or shawls.
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 calls martial law. In 1941, the island was bombed hours after Pearl Harbor and was held under Japanese rule for three years. This occupation resulted in over 13,000 locals being imprisoned in camps and 1,123 dying under Japanese control.
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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. For the tourist or local looking for the newest designs by international fashion designers, the island offers the Tumon Sands Plaza, which houses Balenciaga, Chloe, and Givenchy. For more moderately-priced options, there are many malls and outlets within consumers reach.
For those wanting to dress in local wares, events like Guam Fashion Weekend and the Guam Fashion Delegation showcase Guam fashion 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.
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 norms. Although Guam is a part of the United States, and may 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 Guam Museum.