ONE of the minor benefits of being an expatriate male public servant in pre-independence Papua New Guinea was that we didn’t need to think too much about what to wear each day.
There was no worrying about which tie would work best with which shirt, which shirt would go best with which suit and which suit to wear in the first place – as was the case when I worked in corporate Melbourne.
The official dress ‘uniform’ for us schoolies back then, as for most expatriate Administration officers, was a collared shirt - usually white and short-sleeved; dress shorts (that is, worn with a belt); long socks - almost always white, and lace-up shoes – frequently of the suede variety.
This was sensible and practical, up to a point, borrowed as it was from British colonial days and from contemporary practice in such places as north Queensland, from whence I came.
Supplies of shirts and shorts could be replenished, if need be, at most Chinese-owned trade stores.
I tended to favour the inexpensive two-pocketed white cotton Chinese shirts: plenty of room for pens, small notebooks and a packet of cigarettes.
My shorts were, likewise, crafted from cotton in hues of khaki/taupe, grey or black.
The drawback was that this was the era of tight, short shorts which rather defeated the purpose of allowing air to flow freely through one’s nether regions – something which the much-maligned British colonial style of Bombay bloomers did achieve, albeit at the expense of being pleasing to the eye and ill-suited to slender-pinned chaps like me.
Going commando was an option, of course, but the very tightness of the shorts presented certain dangers to one’s tender parts if the option was exercised.
The figure-hugging nature of these shorts also restricted the carriage of more than a few small items in the pockets: hence, the preference for two-pocketed shirts.
Long socks (and shoes), a legacy probably, from the Scots, were the least sensible items of attire.
Everyone knows that to feel cool, it helps if one’s extremities are cool,
Encasing feet in thickish cotton and leather or suede did not help in this regard, and presented other risks in the form of tinea and other fungal afflictions.
I determined early on that I would don the long socks and shoes only when I expected to encounter another expatriate government employee.
This was prompted within a few days of arriving at Angoram, my first PNG posting, where, as is well known, mosquitoes are ubiquitous, abundant and come in a range of sizes.
Well before the end of each working day, my socks would be spotted and flecked with blood where I had crushed the life out of a multitude of mozzies (bearing in mind that one learnt that it was far more efficient to use one’s fingers to simply press death upon the feeding mozzies than to waste energy slapping at them).
Rather than look like the walking wounded, I therefore chose to don sensible sandals, the best of which, I discovered, were those issued to PIR soldiers.
(I did, however, keep a pair of desert boots and long socks close at hand just in case of an unexpected visit to the school by the District Education Officer.)
I don’t recall any official advice regarding headwear, although every type from toweling beach hats, Akubras to recycled ex-Australian Army slouch hats could be seen gracing the heads of teachers throughout the country.
No bowlers, alas, and few fedoras. Pith helmets were restricted, in my experience at least, to the occasional Roman Catholic priest.
My own preference was a sturdy, practical – if somewhat hot-to-wear - slouch hat.
The only time I found myself in any sartorial difficulty was when, in all innocence, I matched an army-style khaki shirt with khaki shorts and was told, in no uncertain fashion by the Assistant District Commissioner that such attire was the preserve of kiaps.
Whether or not this was the case, I quickly gave the shirt to my domestic servant and stuck thereafter to shirts of a non-khaki hue – just in case.
In the grand scheme of things, matters of de rigeur attire were of little concern or consequence but I always felt for the National Service (Nasho) teachers serving with the Pacific Islands Regiment.
When outside the barracks after sunset, they were required, they told me, to wear long-sleeved shirts buttoned up, long trousers, socks and shoes.
This was said to reduce the possibility of mosquito bites and malaria.
As a postscript, Michael Tom Somare’s adoption of a Fijian-style sulu, loose shirt and sandals as his formal attire shortly before Independence appeared to herald a more sensible, Melanesian dress code for officials.
It is sad, then, to see the likes of Peter O’Neill and his colleagues in distinctly non-Melanesian suits and ties.