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The distinctive dress code of those old colonial days

Colonial dressED BRUMBY

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.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

This might interest you Arthur.

"The Northumbrian Kiap" by Robert Foster. Just out. I'm waiting for a copy and will do a review.

Meanwhile, check out the website:

Arthur Williams

Just came across this post Ed. With me on my initial training at ASOPA was Geoff Swainson another Pom. Think he may have been oldest of group. He had been working in Liberia some time prior to becoming kiap.

He told me that one of benefits of wearing Bombay-bloomers was, if the neighbouring missionary and wife seemed determined to make their visit a long afternoon, he only needed to sit down in an indelicate manner ‘unknowingly’ exposing his family jewels and Missus Misso would soon advise hubby it was time to go home.

Last I heard of him was going to his first posting at Maprik. Then disappeared of the edge somewhere.

In my island posting I was clearly informed by my boss the Distruct Local Government Officer that he considered my thongs (flip-flops for any Pommie reader) and lack of socks unsuitable for kiaping.

I explained that hopping in and out of dinghies perhaps to wade ashore made socks unsuitable for coastal kiaping.

I found the original so-called leprosy sandals very well made and their rivets must have been stainless steel because they didn’t rust out as quickly as the later models from China that lasted less than quarter of the Hansenide ones.

The canvas army boot with rubber soles were relatively cheap and especially if you bought the ones with drain eyelets could be worn through streams, rivers etc. Once again cheaper copies soon hit Kavieng’s Asian shops and I found they would wear out in a month or so.

The only time I wore a tie was when elected to New Ireland Provincial Assembly. Long trousers and shirt with collar and tie were written into the rules.

I got kicked out for wearing a stylish barong with PNG map and crest. The Speaker told me I was ‘improperly dressed’.

My arch-enemy and old friend, the Premier Pedi Anis, came to my assistance by taking me to his office where he gave me a spare tie I could wear. Worn with my lovely Filipino shirt I looked like a stupid white kanaka.

I still have it but must have shrunk as it is too tight - or could it be too much kaikai bilong masta?

Michael Dom

An amusing tale, Ed Brumby. And we are decidedly non-Melanesian these days, aren't we?

In the early 90's high school boys wore shorts from Grade 7 to 10, usually Number1 (which I still favour).

We'd get up to all kinds of sport games, grubby and sweaty, but wash it all off quite easily at the next tap. A tee-shirt on the inside was all we needed to be ready to go play.

Nowadays the lads have to wear long pants from Grade 8 onwards.

I think the change was meant to make them more respectable/responsible, feel more mature or something like that.

With the number of high school nuisance cases reported in the media, I don't know if that plan is working.

Who said play wasn't a good way to get mature? At least we burned off all that excess energy constructively.

I also here that 10:30 recess and lunch hour games tend to be more restricted, so maybe the kids are too busy on their mobile porns - oops, phones.

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