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Vanessa Workman: The Island Fashionista

Anything you have indeed "had for years" will soon transform into an ill-fitting, colour-faded, mildew-smelling mess.

by / Published: 21 Sep 2015

Vanessa Workman: The Island Fashionista
Photo: iStock

Vanessa Workman is a sand-and-sea girl through and through. Moving to the north of Malaysia from a job in Singapore, she found her home and now writes about her experiences as an expat on a tropical island.

Once again I stand in front of my closet proclaiming I’ve got nothing to wear with a pile of rejected outfits strewn about the room to prove it—the ever-present humidity often an influencing factor. This ritual has become so predictable that I’ve learned to allow ample time for dressing, rather than wean myself from the process 12-step style.

Wardrobe déjà vu, when does it end?

How did this happen to a self proclaimed ‘city slicker’ gal like me who once upon a time unpacked a suitcase full of expensive labels ready to conquer polite island society in her ohso- charming Southern way? Well, unless you’ve walked in similar flip flops, here’s how it happens...

One could be an absolute style maven when beginning their island lifestyle journey, but it isn’t easy to consistently dazzle the masses while casually offering, “Oh, this old thing? I’ve had it for years!” when someone compliments your fashion sense. Because trust me, anything you have indeed “had for years” will soon transform into an ill-fitting, colour-faded, mildew-smelling mess unless your particular armoire doubles as a wine cellar. And on a tropical island, even that wardrobe safety net could be questionable.

Some of us expatriates simply look scruffier than others for a variety of bloodline or lifestyle reasons. And some certainly adapt to the temperatures better than others. But since we can’t always improve genetics we can at least try to improve our wardrobe choices, right?

But having any modern fashion sense or even a bit of style can become labour intensive on an island. The 24-hour sarong option eventually reaches its limitations, especially when living in a multicultural community. And this is where the challenges of island shopping come in.

With regional and cultural fashion trends being the supply standard, in addition to mysterious size factors, shopping for clothes can become flat-out exhausting.

Few of us can keep up appearances, so to speak, but even the most pampered of island dwellers can fall into a ‘style’ trap. Looking enviably carefree and casual for many means embracing an island uniform.

For some ladies, the one size fits all housedress cum sundress uniform is an easy breezy choice, which can sometimes become a bit too comfy. Especially if your social life is centred on gardening and trips to the market. The tropical version of the tracksuit or sweat pants loungewear, if you will. Then again, some ladies choose their island wardrobes with an attitude of eternal youth and sex appeal rather than adhere to the stuffy constraints of being age or size appropriate. But it slowly becomes a uniform nonetheless.

For men, the Magnum PI circa 1980s look becomes a uniform norm with tropical button downs and muscle shirts (regardless of workout regime) becoming their preferred island fashion statement. Add a pair of timeless and wellseasoned shorts and they’re good to go.

As time goes on the challenges of island shopping can become painfully tedious and finding anything that is deemed perfect can lead to shopping in bulk. This can even happen if you occasionally escape your island paradise for an off island-shopping excursion.

Next thing you know, your wardrobe becomes akin to Noah’s Ark filled with two or more choice outfits duplicated in colours or patterns. You have now taken your personal fashion statement to another déjà vu level. There is no turning back either. And if said item is on sale? Of course you’ll buy two and get one free!

This bulk-shopping affliction is not just applicable to women, by the way. Although men by far have a much easier time shopping for appropriate all-occasion clothes, those tell-tale fold marks on their just-opened bulk shopping shirts are a dead give away. I suspect those stashes are reserved for ‘special’ occasions, which on a small island could mean dining out with ‘other people’.

You just never know who you might run into in polite (or not so polite) island society, so I heed my mother’s advice and try to look my best. Even if my new island social life is indeed centred on gardening and trips to the market.


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