Urban Oceania

Exploring Urban Social Change in Oceania

Reading Group Summary: November 30th, 2020

Article Discussed: Cummings, M. Looking Good: The Cultural Politics of the Island Dress for Young Women in Vanuatu. The Contemporary Pacific, [s. l.], v. 25, n. 1, p. 33–65, 2013.

Jeannine Taleyratne

Cummings (2013) explores the ways in which ni-Vanuatu women negotiate the boundaries of dress code where they find themselves negotiating their identities between “looking good” as both an aesthetic and moral obligation. The island dress code reinforces the significance of kastom (cultural heritage and tradition) and national identity. As such, the Fijian identity is framed by kin relationships. Wearing the Island dress is a visible symbol of showing respect to family, community, church and kastom authority. The island dress is long, loose and covers the body which shows neither skin nor shape of the woman’s body. Due to colonisation, it’s Christian influence underpins the values of modesty and humility. Cummings (2013) further explains how these values become an embodying experience for pregnant women and its association with motherhood and domesticity. However, Cummings (2013) draws from Durham’s concept of multiple views and experiences to explain the contesting experiences of the dress-code as oppressive or overshadows the aesthetic for women to “look good.” She shows the ways in which the dress becomes a moral imperative that starkly contrasts with unmarried, young and childless women’s experiences who find themselves in an ambivalence about wearing the island dress and the ways in which it refrains them from “looking good.” As such, these moral imperatives for imposing strict dress-codes towards women, shows how revealing attire such as, trousers is seen as immodest and sinful. Here, we see young women finding themselves in a liminal position where the influence of western media and culture, such as, celebrating International women’s day conflicts with the traditional bodily aesthetic. Cummings highlights how wearing the island dress is not a natural experience but rather something that is embodied and regulated to reinforce the moral logic of modesty. Despite the women claiming it to be hot and uncomfortable, they continue to wear it as a moral imperative to uphold family and community values.


  • Lucas Watt

    I am a Post-Doctoral researcher on the ERC-funded TransOcean Project at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), Norway. My portion of the project sets out to analyze maritime mobilities, exchange, and conservation, in the increasingly securitised region of Oceania. I graduated with a PhD from the School of Media and Communications at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University. My ethnographic fieldwork in Suva Fiji analyses how rural-urban migrants living in “informal settlements” articulate tradition in urban spaces.

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