clothing culture

I have several suitcases full of summer clothes that I may never wear again. I loved them once. Still do, in fact. My body hasn’t changed. My mind hasn’t changed. Minnesota has hot summers so the climate isn’t dictating that decision. But when 90 degrees Fahrenheit rolls around in June, I won’t be slipping into those outfits.

Prior to Retiring in Bali, I Dressed in Business Professional Mode: Tailored and Boring 

But the streets of Ubud teemed with visitors from everywhere. There were women in calf-length, flowing organza gowns and high heels out for an afternoon stroll. People in leggings and halter tops hurrying to a class at the Yoga Barn were a familiar sight. Matching Hawaiian shirts, billowing Muslim abayas, ripped jeans and tank tops, and the occasional guru all in white were everyday fare. Sadly, oblivious to the modest Balinese culture, revealing bikinis, and shorts so short that butt-cheeks smiled where the short shorts ended, also strolled those sidewalks.

Shops along bustling Monkey Forest Road and Jalan Raya, the main streets through town, featured every woman’s dream. Whether seeking high-end designer fashions, something funky and fun, or handmade, one-of-a-kind wearable art, all were available in abundance. 

I had a penchant for embroidery and lace, and Ubud did not disappoint. My collection grew and I paired gauzy tops with flouncy skirts or capri leggings. At home, I had a dozen cute and cool sundresses. I owned one pair of shoes that I wore on flights back to the States. Otherwise, my feet exclusively enjoyed the open-air freedom of flip-flops. I had a pair in every color. Some plain, but many adorned with sparkles, fringe, or floppy flowers. Dressed in my eclectic Bohemian style, I felt deliciously myself. 

Early on, Dewa, the Owner of Jati Homestay Where I’d Landed Upon My Arrival in Bali, Invited Me to a Relative’s Wedding 

In answer to my question about a gift, he said an envelope with 100,000 rupiah (apx. $8 USD at the time) was appropriate. Then he politely suggested I wear a sarong, the acceptable attire for such an event. I’d seen Balinese women entering the temples in Ubud carrying towering offerings on their heads and wearing tightly wrapped fabric secured by a long scarf tied at the waist.

Excited, I set out for the market to find one for myself and was quickly overwhelmed. Every other stall had stacks and stacks of six-foot lengths of cloth in every conceivable pattern. I was accosted by vendors who unfurled one after another of these colorful creations repeating the mantra, “I make good price, good for me, good for you!”

It wasn’t long before my head ached and my eyes crossed. The dimly lit, congested space triggered mild claustrophobia. I had to get out of there. “How much?” I asked and blindly clutched one of the pieces fluttering in front of my face. The happy woman grabbed my arm and steered me deeper into her cubical where scarves festooned the walls. She chose a length of gold satin to add to my purchase. “This good,” she said. I paid, hurried away, and promptly got lost in the maze of aisles and dead ends in that massive complex. 

Finally, safely back in my room, I experimented. How on earth did Balinese women roll themselves up in all that fabric and manage to look svelte? When I wrapped it so it didn’t drag on the floor, there were wads of it bunched at my waist. When I got the hips right, it was so tight around my legs I couldn’t walk. I remember sweating profusely. I may have cried. It just wasn’t working. 

Somehow, on the auspicious day, with safety pins and more sweat, I managed something that resembled what I’d seen on the local women. With a tee-shirt on top, my gold satin sash, and six feet of birds on a yellow background hugging my lower torso, I hobbled to the wedding which, fortunately for me, was in the family compound next door.

I Had Much to Learn

I didn’t know that Dewa’s family was the Satria caste, second only to Brahmana, the highest in the Balinese Hindu system. And they were wealthy. There I was, surrounded by women with golden ornaments dangling from upswept hair, see-through lace tops revealing matching, bone-crushing corsets underneath, mermaid-tight sarongs, and strappy heels. I slunk among them in tee-shirt, flip-flops, and safety-pinned cloth that threatened to unwrap at any moment. My humiliation was complete.

But the Balinese are the most genuinely kind people on the planet. I was taken in tow by Dewa’s cousin. She explained the corset. “We call it a Mona Lisa,” she said. I told her I would never attend another wedding without one. She advised me where to buy one. Throughout the day, the feasting, the entertainment, right up to evening when the dancing started, she didn’t leave my side. Finally, exhausted, I thanked her profusely and headed home.

During my 10 years in Bali, I attended countless weddings, funerals, and ritual events in traditional, Balinese costume. I owned many sarongs, lace kebaya tops, and three Mona Lisas. I was shown more than once how to wrap and secure the fabric so it hugged my hips and thighs yet still allowed a comfortable stride. I learned how to sit on the ground at ceremonies for hours, my legs tucked under me, the rigid corset shoving my breasts up to my chin. But I never achieved enough confidence in my wrapping skills to ditch the safety pins.

When I moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, it was high desert, sometimes hot and dry, sometimes cold. Many side streets were cobblestone with no sidewalks. I ditched the flip-flops and invested in walking shoes. My attire changed with the weather, but I maintained the Boho chic look I loved and avoided any cultural clothing faux pas.

Now, in This Northern Minnesota Farming Community Where I’ve Come to Roost, Dressing Up Means Putting on a Clean Sweatshirt

I am sensitive to the culture. I want to fit in. But I’m also who I am, and I’m too old to want to change that. So, my dress-up sweatshirts are unique, stylish, interesting. I feel good in them. My favorite is a longer-than-usual, grey leopard print. But there’s a magenta one with flowers on one side and a placket sporting oversized, antique brass buttons. An all-black number has gold grommets and gold tips on the hood strings. There’s also a tie-dyed blue and white with a V-neck and a partial zip front in my collection. 

But Summer’s Coming…

I haven’t figured out appropriate summer dressy attire yet. Whether gardening in jeans and work shirts or mowing acres of lawn, everyone is busy at home making the most of a very short season so invitations calling for other than casual wear are nearly non-existent.

I’ve adapted well so far, stayed true to myself, and managed to make the cultural shift. But one thing I know for sure. My lace tops and flouncy skirts aren’t coming out of storage. There’s no place for a peacock in a chicken coop. 


Let’s Have a Conversation:

Do you have a bag – or closet – full of clothes that you love but can no longer wear? What are you thinking of doing with them? Why can’t you wear them? Do you think certain clothes are appropriate only for certain cultures?