Papua New Guinea
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Do we have a national dress for special events?

Wearing clothes’ these days is anyone’s business. But once upon a time in Papua New Guinea, clothes as we know today was the sole business of the masta or the white man.

The fashion-minded, especially the womenfolk will find this story intriguing. It took one Milne Bay woman to take the first small step that opened all kinds of doors; perhaps also shutting one or two others as well.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, you had to have special permission to wear ‘clothes’. I don’t know about New Guinea but it was the case at least in Papua. Among the first Papuan given this privilege was a very brave woman from Taupota named Molly Towonia, later Mrs Molly Spiller who married a dimdim – white man (or a stranger).

She was a nurse when she caught the eye of expatriate planter Hobart Spiller who fell in love and married her. To be a masta’s wife and to live in a masta’s house, Molly Towonia had to throw away her grass skirt and wear proper clothes. To do that, however, required special permission which Mr Spiller arranged with the resident magistrate for Northern and Eastern Division, a Mister Cridland. Molly definitely lived ahead of her time.

In 1972 hair dressers weren’t that many and certainly we did not have the money. But bobby pins were common for girls with straight hair. Hair bands came much later. Everyone else had afro hair- the style was not new but we had no name for it so we went to America where there were a lot of black people who had this bushy round- shaped hairstyle.

The afro hair was complimented by bushy side burns for men, sun glasses and slacks- trousers that widened from the knee down. A small number of women who were adventurous enough wore sun glasses and huge round earrings. The rest of the girls wore miniskirts, something that was like a half skirt with hem that stopped many centimetres above the knee.

Slippers or thongs were not considered decent so for work, it was shoes and sandals. Then Papua New Guineans started to travel around bringing with them new trends. Films and magazines added their bit and as wages improved, the economy got stronger and what you could buy from the shop got interesting.

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, in a way, had an interest in fashion. As Prime Minister, he introduced Friday as Toana Day, to promote one identity and the idea picked up very quickly. A lot of textile designs of today which are based on PNG’s primitive art forms are reminiscent of the Toana Day.

Men started sporting moustaches and spectacles to show that air of importance and the ladies, what women do to their looks. As grays began to appear men started sporting “goatees”. Full beard was not fashionable and dreadlocks and tattoos were sneered at as primitive.

Then dresses for women, and trousers for men came to be. Men obviously have lost a lot of hair while for the ladies there are very few afro hair styles left. Bobby pins have gone out the window altogether. It is interesting though that after 47 years, some “souvenirs” are creeping back-for instance- the Toana dress and the ever popular miniskirt. Shaving the head was popularized by an actor named Yule Bryner on the later part of the ‘80s and an American named Mr T whose hair cut resembled a coin head.

But fashion generally is not a big deal as Frank Hurley’s 1920s picture of a woman from Basabua in the Northern Province and a woman from Fane show. The Fane woman is sporting dog teeth in her braids, while the Northern Province woman is strikingly Masai of Africa. She is holding her smoking bamboo in one hand and the art work of her tapa is sensational. Notice too how healthy they look; their skins are very smooth. Sometimes you will wonder if the people of old were better- today than us.

1970 was an interesting year when all sorts of things happened in politics. The Pangu Pati was never far away. Sense of humour is probably good in politics.
Members of the House of Assembly had the last laugh when the question of what they should wear at Independence was discussed in August 1975.

The Speaker, Barry Holloway, suggested that long trousers, long sleeved shirts, ties and shoes- or national dress- should be worn. That was the regulation House of Assembly attire. He then said that although it was up to individual Members to decide, personally he felt it would be better if they wore coats as well. “It is important that all Members look neat,” Mr Holloway said.

The matter was decided democratically when Members voted in favor of coats. Soon after, Mr Tim Ward (Esa’ala) rose and asked the Speaker: “If we have to wear coats, will you wear your wig?” The normally wigless Mr Holloway slightly red in the face, said members could decide on this too.

They voted loudly and enthusiastically in favour. “All right, Thank you,” Mr Holloway said when the vote had been taken. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I suppose”.

The question of whether Members’ wives should be able to accompany their husbands to Independence celebration was also raised. Mr Holloway said travel warrants could be provided but accommodation was a more difficult matter. But there were greater problems than this.

“What about Members who have two or three wives?” asked the Mines and Energy Minister, Sir Paul Lapun. Mr. Holloway replied that accommodation could only be provided for one wife.
The views of the Member for Ijivitari, Paulus Arek was very different. Mr Arek took his seat in what the Speaker referred to as “un parliamentary dress”. Mr Arek wore lei into the House because he did not agree that a suit, collar and tie was the national or usual dress of Papua New Guinea.

“If I stood next to a representative from one of the African countries or Fiji, you could see I’m a black man, but there’s nothing to show I’m from Niugini”. He said he wouldn’t mind if the Highland Members wore part of their headgear into the House. “And if the Speaker is going to wear a wig then it would be modified with bird-of-paradise plumes.

You see men in the street wearing beads and it looks quite colorful so why can’t we wear them in the House?” But Mr Arek freely admitted that the Territory had no national dress. “Let me make a start now and let the younger generations carry on”, he said.

It was Mr Arek who moved a motion in the House to set up a Constitutional Development Committee. He later became Chairman of that select committee and forged a place in the history of PNG as being in charge of a group of men who set the stage for an independent Papua and New Guinea.

Soon after Mr Arek brought on his stunt, another MHA had his turn. Tom Leahy (Markham), the spokesman for the Administrator’s Executive Council, wore a woman’s wig into the House of Assembly. Mr Leahy said he was standing outside the chamber and did not think he was doing anything to disregard the dignity of the House.

He told the House he had stood there only for a “while” and then left. He had stood at the entrance to the chamber just behind the Speaker’s chair. “Mr Speaker, you were present at the time when I was there. By wearing the wig I was not meaning or intending to disregard the integrity of the Speaker”, he said. Mr Leahy then apologized to the House.

He made his statement after a member of the Pangu Party; Mr Paul Langro (West Sepik) asked him if he was aware that his behavior had been “childish”. Mr Langro said later outside the House that Mr Leahy’s actions had upset the Pangu members because at the time the House was debating the Public Order Bill.

Mr Leahy was asked if he “kicked people while they were down”. The question was a Pangu Party attack on Mr Leahy for the way he gagged debate on the Public Order Bill. Mr Leahy moved that debate be stopped on the Bill before Pangu Party members had a chance to speak to the third reading. Under House Standing Orders MHAs could speak to the third and final reading of a Bill. But most speeches were made on the second reading, and third reading debates were rare.

Mr Michael Somare had just started to speak to the third reading when Mr Leahy moved that debate be closed. Outside the House Mr Somare said this was what he meant by “kicking people when they are down”.

The Pangu Pati and other MHAs had obviously lost their cause in trying to have the Bill thrown out, he said. The party had been anxious that MHAs opinions went on the record of the third reading but Mr Leahy, on the winning, Government side had prevented the speeches. Mr Leahy told the House he had “never in his life” done what Mr Somare alleged.