My Blue Hawaii
I've never been to Hawaii. Despite glowing reports from friends who've made the trip, it wasn't until I became a fan of the TV series "Lost" (and saw the incredible beauty of the landscape) that I had any desire to visit. A beach is a beach, and my dream vacation rarely includes sand and sea. I'm too restless to lie still on a towel. And sunbathing slathered in SPF 50 seems a silly waste of time. Sure, I love letting the waves bury my toes in the sand, the smell of the sea, combing the shore for shells, all that stuff. But after a day or two, I've had enough. So while I do miss the water (and twinkling bridges) here in land-locked Atlanta, until recently, I gave Hawaii little thought.
Then I discovered the clothes.
I was familiar with the prototypical Hawaiian shirt, of course. My husband wore a modified version (J. Crew) for our casual, night-before-the-wedding low-country boil. Here we are, dressed for the occasion. You can just make out the subtle hibiscus-flower border at the chest pocket and along the hem of his shirt:
closest any man of mine has come to a Hawaiian shirt gratuitous shot of me at my happiest, 9/15/01
Until I opened Better Dresses Vintage, the subdued shirt you see above constituted my entire up-close-and-personal experience with Hawaiian fashion. But now, with a year's worth of collecting for the shop, and all its associated research under my belt, my eyes have been opened to the fabulous construction, attention-grabbing patterns and figure-enhancing magic that is the vintage Hawaiian dress!
The styles range from casual barkcloth hostess caftans to ultra-sophisticated cocktail dresses in luscious silk satin.
Check out this outrageously vibrant 1960s home-sewn holumu'u (a style that, unlike the loose-fitting, falls-from-the-shoulders mu'umu'u, is cinched at the empire or natural waist via inner ties):
Or how about this party-worthy, but still comfortably casual early 70s version, from (believe it or not) Sears! Our sweet customer promises she'll send some photos of the dress in action at one of the Tiki extravaganza weekends she regularly attends (an entire genre of party and lifestyle I had no idea even existed!). Note the decorative frog-detail under the bust, and the dramatically flowing watteau-style back:
Lately I've been feeling a bit bummed out about my figure. As someone who's spent her entire life dancing and exercising, eating right (or at least "righter" than the average bear), and happily suffering for the sake of fashion and propriety, I just don't appreciate my body parts up and moving around, changing size, shape and placement of their own volition. While I'm learning that aging is indeed "not for the faint of heart," I have to remember that as my mom says, "it definitely beats the alternative."
Those mid-century styles I most long to wear? These days, the wasp-waisted, full-skirted New Look ensembles I've loved all my life just don't look the way I'd like them to, on me. So, after moping for a few minutes, I decided that rather than fall into a deep blue funk, I would see what style would look good on a getting-curvier woman "of a certain age." After all, there are just as many, if not more, Joan Holloway wannabes than there are Megan Draper wannabes. Right?
I noticed that the traditional Hawaiian wiggle dress, with its knee-length (or longer) wrap-front skirt, nipped waist, and bust-enhancing bodice, looks great on women of varying shapes and sizes. It's sexy, but covered. It's sophisticated, but fun. It might just be the way to go. Perhaps donning one of these iconic frocks would get my chin (if nothing else) back up where it belonged. So I started shopping.
I was clearly not the first to see the appeal. Authentic versions in good condition were commanding high prices. And because these dresses, for whatever reason, seem to have been made in "wearable sizes" (to use the industry term for "big enough to fit a woman with some meat on her bones"), competition for the prettiest examples is fierce.
Finding one that would work for me -- close enough to my measurements to fit or be successfully altered, in a flattering color and a pattern I liked, at a price I could afford -- was a challenge. As with any search for vintage, because every item is one-of-a-kind, it's a matter of timing, perseverance and luck.
And then I found, at a beautiful Etsy shop called Jumblelaya, the mother of all Hawaiian dresses. So sublime, so perfect, so to-die-for gorgeous, I was already figuring out what party I could throw or anniversary I could celebrate just to wear it. It was in just-about-my-size and ... on layaway. Well, that's frustrating.
I quickly emailed shop owner and good sport Jennifer Fleck with arguments for why I really should have "The Stars Tonight" (as she'd dubbed the dress), and the mystery buyer be cut loose.
"You'd already have your money!" I half-joked.
"But then I wouldn't have the future funds to look forward to," she countered.
And so on. Back and forth. Eventually we branched out into other topics, and struck up a budding, vintage-inspired friendship. Meanwhile, the buyer has until the end of June to fork over the cash, at which time my holy grail of Hawaiian dresses will go home with someone else. The lucky, lucky dog. Emphasis on dog.
As I waited for lucky dog to default on her loan, I continued my search. And, at another Etsy shop called HotRodHeidi's Vintage Closet (with another friendly and helpful proprietress), I found this:
Now, I realize it doesn't compare with "The Stars Tonight." But it's certainly more versatile. In fact, I think it will be perfect for a poolside baby shower I'm attending this weekend. It fits like a dream and makes me feel good. So good, in fact, that before this one has even had its inaugural wearing, I'm hunting for another!
Here are a few of the lovely options I've found in the same sarong silhouette. All are available on Etsy, at the shops indicated (please note that the photos below belong to the individual shop owners, who should be credited accordingly if you pin or copy):
Of course, no cocktail dress (or cocktail dress shopping spree) is complete without a cocktail. And what could be more fitting than the classic Blue Hawaii, created by Hilton Hawaiian Village bartender Harry Yee in 1957, at the behest of Blue Curacao maker Bols. Here's the recipe:
1/2 oz Blue Curacao liqueur
3 oz pineapple juice
1 oz sweet and sour mix