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Dressed to Thrill

"In the mind of the wildest bush native," Margaret Mead wrote in a letter home in 1932, "the Sepik [River] stands for mosquitoes, crocodiles, cannibals, and floating corpses—and I can assure you we have seen them all." Except for a few mosquitoes, Nancy and I saw none of the above. After taking a riverboat from the spectacularly remote and comfortable Karawari Lodge, we spent two days on a motorboat touring villages along the Karawari, a tributary of the Sepik. Not so long ago, the river people of Papua New Guinea were headhunters. Many ceremonies, especially male initiations, included head-hunting raids. Villages were under constant siege. By the 1950's, however, the missionary and colonial presence curtailed ritual killing, and an atmosphere of peace prevails.

We didn't see any skulls mounted over the tambaran, or spirit houses, that we visited. We did, however, see a lot of self-decoration, most notably scarification. During rite-of-passage initiations, young men are subjected to a ceremonial skin-cutting, which symbolically cleanses them of their mother's blood and leaves them with skin on their backs and arms that resembles crocodile hide. Face- and body-painting are also popular. In the village of Yimas, the women and children were covered in mud patterns that make Versace's look tame.

While the Sepik region is known for its muddy colors and muted fashions, the area around Tari, in the southern part of the highlands, is where every fashion mistake you ever owned has landed in happy hands. If you threw it away because it was too gaudy, shiny, froufrou, or Cher, it will show up in Tari, where secondhand clothing is a booming business. Nancy calls it "the Land of Shaft." I called it heaven. The bumpy road from the airstrip in town to the first-class Ambua Lodge farther up in the valley was an endless fashion display. We saw men in fake fur, ski goggles, giant feathers, and velvet bell-bottoms, all mixed to create hilariously flamboyant looks.

If elegance is refusal, as Diana Vreeland once said, then the Huli of Tari must be the yes-men of the universe. Huli males don't need a special occasion to paint their beards white or their faces yellow, to put cassowary quills in their noses or feathers in their baseball caps. And the accessories—everything from bone daggers to vinyl pocketbooks. I saw one man wearing a blue blazer and rep tie over a grass skirt. Another had a fuzzy toilet-seat cover around his neck. It was all beyond John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier—or even John Waters.

Part of this unbridled, childlike extravagance may have to do with the fact that these highlanders were some of the last people in Papua New Guinea to encounter Europeans. (The film First Contact includes footage of tribes seeing white men for the first time, in the thirties.) Indeed, modernization has come so gradually to Tari that the transition has been relatively smooth. Ritualized fighting is still part of life (although never directed at tourists), along with a system of theatrical ceremonial exchanges between clans.

Anthropologists describe the highlanders as protocapitalists. That would certainly explain the prosperity of the fat witch doctor Paija, whom Nancy had been to see several times before. "That love potion you gave me didn't work," she told him in Tok Pisin. "The day after I put it on my face, my boyfriend broke up with me."

"He'll come back," Paija said.

"And that health potion," Nancy continued. "After I drank it, I threw up for two days."

"You were just ridding your body of toxins," said Paija, who was wearing face paint, an apron of leaves, and a pig's tusk through his nose. "You look as young as can be!"

If there's something you want from life, Paija will come up with the potion to help you get it. I bought some gingerroot wrapped in twine to ensure that my upcoming flights would connect safely, and, against all odds in a country of airline cancellations and absurdly long delays, they did. "Everybody uses Paija," Nancy said with the snobbery of a socialite. "He's very good."

No fashion trip to the highlands would be complete without a visit to the great hairstylists of Papua New Guinea, the bachelor-students at the Haroli Wig School. Because women are considered pollutants in many highlands cultures, these young men live together in isolation for up to three years or more, steeling themselves for the rigors of marriage. We were welcomed to their forest compound by the school's elderly headmaster, who charges either 200 kina (about $75) or several pigs for tuition. He teaches his students magical incantations and dietary practices that speed hair growth. After each disciple's hair has grown into a lovely round shape—a process that generally takes a year and a half—it is cut off and made into a crescent-shaped wig, dyed red or festooned with plumes and flowers. Such wigs are worn pretty much all the time by the notoriously vain Huli men.

Life at this wig school is a nonstop beauty regimen. Students wash their hair with purified water four times a day, say blessings over it with a ginger leaf, and sleep on coiffure-preserving headrests. "We grow our hair for personal beauty," one bachelor said proudly. An institution even more self-absorbed than Canyon Ranch! I had traveled halfway around the world to find myself with men who freely admitted that they lived for their hair. When they showed me the little trough of water they use as a reflecting glass, I asked if I might take their picture looking into it, Narcissus-style. "We'd love that," they said.

I needed nothing more from Papua New Guinea, and flew home after that. Back in New York, instead of suffering from culture shock, I felt more attuned to the status-conscious, style-obsessed culture of Manhattan. Remarkably, too, something seems to have changed among the fashion cognoscenti since I left. People—well, at least women—are finally starting to take to the new romantic ideas that have been supplanting minimalism on the runways. Feathers, fur, beading, and color, it turns out, are having a fashion moment. Smiling is, too. Of course, it's not the full-tilt exuberance of Papua New Guinea. But it's a step in the right direction.

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