Skirts for men, or everything you always wanted to know about the sulu
The humble wraparound skirt fashioned from a big square of cloth you tie or wrap around your waist has multiple names: sarong (Indonesia), lava-lava (Samoa), laplap (Papua New Guinea), and in Fiji, the sulu. You see a fair amount of the sarong-style beach coverup sulus as casual wear and (duh) at the beach. Since it’s impolite for a woman to show her thighs when visiting a Fijian village, tourist ladies are advised to wear shorts, carry a sulu in their purse or rucksack and then do a quick wrap and tuck of the sulu right before arriving at the village.
It’s perfectly acceptable for men or women to wear this kind of sulu in daily life, but since it has to be tied or tucked, there’s always the chance it might not stay on if someone steps on the hem when you get off the bus, and thus, you usually see this type of sulu worn over shorts or swimwear. If you stay at an upscale resort, you will likely get a pair of sulus with the resort’s logo silkscreened onto it as part of your amenities. My university sells sulus with the name and logo of the school in the campus bookshop.
However, there are two other types of sulu, and unlike the sarong-style sulu, these are gender-specific. First is the sulu jaba (pronounced “chamba” since B in Fijian has an understood “M” as part of the sound: “tabu” (aka “taboo” in English) is actually pronounced “tambu”), a two piece sorta-formal outfit for women usually reaching to the ankles and made out of matching bright/patterned fabric.
As I don’t actually have any good personal photos of sulu jaba, here is a photo I stole from Fiji Fashion Week’s website:
These ladies are modeling “high fashion” sulu jaba that were finalists in a sulu design contest, so these aren’t exactly typical everyday sulu jaba, but they are close, and it gives you an idea of the varieties.
The light orange pattern (6th from left) would be a typical SJ fabric, though those bare shoulders (also seen in the yellow SJ third from the left) or the strapless/sleeveless design on the lady in beige next to her are NOT typical. The cap sleeves on the lavender outfit are what you usually see.
SJ are rarely fitted at the waist: they overlap tunic style. Sometimes the top stops at the hip (like the lavender or orange outfits above) but it often extends to above the knee (like the outfit third from the right). SJ pretty much ALWAYS are ankle-length.
As you might guess from the length and the overlapping fabric, sulu jaba do not lend themselves to fast walking or other unladylike movements. They are very popular for wearing to Sunday church services. Most are custom made by tailors: you don’t usually buy one of these at a clothing store. So even though they are made to your size, the shapeless fit is part of the style. I guess they are sort of the descendants of the Mother Hubbard dress, which is even less fashionable and still worn in Vanuatu and some other parts of the South Pacific.
Besides church, you might wear sulu jaba to important events like graduations, hosting a conference or international visitors at your workplace, as part of a staff uniform, or just for everyday wear. You probably would not wear one on a first date, unless you were a minister’s daughter. Plenty of middle-aged Fijian ladies at my office wear them for no specific occasion, though women in their 20s and students almost never do. If you are heavy set, this outfit is somewhat forgiving. If you have a nice figure, this outfit isn’t unflattering, but it’s not going to draw attention to the fact that you have a nice figure, either.
When you are required to wear a uniform at work (especially at resorts), it’s usually a sulu jaba for the ladies and a bula shirt (like the Hawaiian aloha shirt) in the matching fabric for the men. Here’s one from the Outrigger:
Note that the tunics on the ladies in the front show both the long (above the knee) and short (to the hip) hemline variations.
Air Pacific, the local airline, doesn’t have sulu jaba for their flight attendants, but considering the impracticality of an ankle length skirt in a narrow aisle whilst pushing a drinks cart, that’s no surprise.
If you’re wondering, I don’t have a sulu jaba…yet. I will probably have one in a few months because my workplace has an event that requires a staff uniform, and it’s usually sulu jaba for the ladies and bula shirts for the men. However, if the budget is tight, we might luck out and get bula shirts for everyone to be worn with black skirts or trousers.
If you’re looking at the above picture and saying, hey, aren’t those guys wearing skirts, too?, good eye. That’s a sulu, too, but instead of the sarong style that you tie, that is a tailored sulu with a zipper and pockets called a sulu vaka taga.
So here are the two weird things about sulu vaka taga:
1) There’s not really a similar sulu for women, and if a woman wore one of these, it’d be sorta inappropriate.
2) This is formal, conservative wear. Think of it like the Scottish kilt: it’s traditional and staid and does not signify flexible ideas about gender roles/clothing.
Men wear sulu vaka taga to church. President Frank wears one when meeting diplomats or when he visits some civic project like a dam. Boy’s school uniforms typically include sulu vaka taga. The few times I’ve seen Mormon missionaries on the streets in Suva, they were wearing gray sulu vaka taga.
Here’s some photos I’ve taken of men in sulu vaka taga over the months (rear views so I can take the picture surreptitiously and not invade anyone’s privacy by posting their photos without permission):
In that first photo, I think the straw mats over the sulus are Ta’ovala, which is primarily a Tongan thing, but apparently happens in some of the more remote Fiji Islands (ie, not Viti Levu) too. I haven’t seen that very often and for all I know those dudes are Tongan on their way to something important.
The next two photos are typical school uniforms. Yes, someone thought it was a good idea to make an ALL WHITE school uniform for adolescent boys. Their mothers must do laundry CONSTANTLY. Neither uniform includes a tie, and sandals/flip-flops apparently meet the dress code.
The last picture might be school uniforms, can’t tell because the guys are wearing hoodies. I took this photo in September, which is right after “Winter” ends in August, though Winter here means it seldom gets colder than 70 degrees F. It’s currently “Winter” as I write this, and my co-workers are acting as though the 20 degree (F) difference between the seasons is drastic and COLD. I’m serious- they break out the knit caps and the puffy jackets right at the temperature where I’m finally finding it comfortable to endure long sleeves. It’s kinda cute, but I hope they never visit Norway or Minnesota in January and see what REAL cold is like.
That’s about $10 US, by the way. No idea what the higher end sulus look like compared to the FJ$18 ones.
This article is from 2009, and I have no idea if the Methodist church in Bua is still uptight about pants vs. sulus, but I figured it might be of interest (plus I like saying “pants ban”):
That jacket, tie and sulu vakataga look in the “Pants ban” article photo is also common church wear, though as far as I can tell, jackets and ties aren’t really necessary to be formally dressed for church here (button down oxford-style shirt plus sulu appears to be fine). Indo-Fijian men sometimes wear sulu vaka taga (one of our Indian IT guys wears one almost every other day), but Indian women seem to never wear sulu jaba, unless it’s a required uniform for work. But then again, I’ve never seen a Fijian woman in a salwaar kameez (which I think are both elegant AND comfortable), either.
And to bring this all back to Seattle: Seattle is home of the OTHER skirt for men, the Utilikilt, which is quite popular in the Northwest. Coming to Fiji and seeing a bunch of men in skirts wasn’t THAT weird to me. Though probably church in the US isn’t quite ready for men in Utilikilts.