Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dressing for the tropics

Dressing for the tropics

Updated 00:53am (Mla time) Dec 08, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the Dec. 8, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ETHEL Colquhoun is a name familiar to the strange birds that frequent places like the Lopez Memorial Museum, the National Library, the University of the Philippines Main Library, or the Rizal Library of the Ateneo de Manila University. Her Book Two on their travels (London, 1902) is just one of many travel accounts on the Philippines available to researchers or plain interested readers.

Unlike other authors who narrate their trips "around the world," Colquhoun is different because she is a woman. Most travel books are written by men, and it is fascinating to see the world from a different angle. She was also an amateur artist and captured what she saw in delightful pen and ink drawings and some watercolors reproduced in color. One wonders where the original notebooks or sketchbooks are today because those images made at the turn of the last century have now attained some historical or anthropological value.

Last weekend, a friend and I were browsing at the Samsonite shop in Glorietta, looking at a wide array of luggage and wondering how sturdy these had to be in order to take the beating of modern air travel (and of course, rough careless baggage handlers and thieves in foreign airports). In the days when people traveled by sea and train, they had trunks that came complete with drawers and hangers. They were like portable cabinets and definitely weighed more than the 20 kilos allowed for economy passengers. These wouldn't fit in the overhead bins of planes and would be declared "oversized" today.

Travel in the past seemed such an adventure, requiring real planning, unlike today when you can get a discounted tour package, fly and be assured of hotels and transfers.

Colquhoun traveled in southern Philippines, visiting Sulu, Dapitan, Cagayan, Misamis and other places that wouldn't be in a tour package today. Come to think of it, foreign governments these days advise their citizens to avoid Mindanao altogether. Thus, it was a delight to read her impressions of the country at the time.

Surely, the Philippine climate has not changed much in a century, although my father claims it was cooler before the war. I attribute this to global warming and his imagination. Colquhoun and her husband wanted to know what to wear in the tropics and couldn't think of anything aside from a wide sun hat.

It seems they brought a number of trunks that eventually got lost, just as luggage gets waylaid today. This is what she recommended that women bring on a trip to the tropics:

"Take for evening wear...the thinnest black gown you can get with long sleeves...not very tight. The reason is that one's arms get mosquito-bitten and that long gloves are out of the question in the heat. It is better to have the dress black because if you are seasick and your Chinese servant or your husband packs for you, he will probably put the stuff you shine your patent shoes with on the top, and it will break and intimidate the whole trunk. Boot-blacking smells nasty but doesn't show much on black silk. Don't take fine muslins or coloured cottons, except for special occasions. Don't have collars to your frocks, and don't take Paris hats. All these things are a weariness to the flesh."

Reading the above made me grateful for modern conveniences like mosquito repellent (with moisturizer if you want) and, of course, Tupperware and Ziplock bags to contain spills in the luggage.

Like most men, Colquhoun's husband advised her to travel light and just buy clothes along the way. There was not much she wanted in many stops and was promised that Manila shopping would make up for all the disappointment. One did not really need formal clothes since the chances of being invited to a wedding or state dinner were quite slim. So, more on what to bring to the tropics:

"(1) A warm coat and skirt -- serge for preference -- rain proofed. (2) An unlined alpaca coat and a couple of skirts. (3) Quantities of white cambric and silk blouses, and plenty of linen skirts. (4) Some dark-coloured cambric and silk blouses to match coats and skirts. (5) Some loose wrappers of nun's-veiling. (6) A Panama straw hat, and a burnt straw shape, with one or two made-up 'trimmings.' (7) A couple of evening frocks, say, one coloured and one black, as described above. A high silk bodice to one of these (unlined) will do duty as an afternoon gown.

"With these as foundation, you can count on being neatly and comfortable attired under almost any circumstances -- unless, of course, you are going to attend race-meetings or vice-regal garden parties."

These days, we have wash and wear, drip-dry clothes. We have the convenience of washing machines and Laundromats, but in those days one really needed laundry and pressing service.

Maybe Colquhoun was just concerned with what to wear socially, but the Spartan list above doesn't mention underwear and sports clothes. One wonders what excess things she took in her trunks that got lost. The above list in itself is a useless bit of trivial data, but when one uses it to compare and contrast what was fashionable and basic a century ago with our own times, it is an exercise in historical reflection and imagination. It aids us in trying to piece together what the Philippines was like at the time.

From what she wrote in her book, Colquhoun seems to have enjoyed her stay in the Philippines.


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