Friday, July 2, 2010

Parnell Woman

Two examples of the type were on our flights to and from Port Vila, and at the same resort in the intervening week. E and I first noticed them at Auckland Airport. One was tripping to and fro in her expensive black sandals, fussing about getting she and her friend out of the economy queue and into whatever the superior queue was called. She looked mildly batty. But not in an interesting way. And both of them were already togged up to the nines in resort wear.

Resort wear. Now there's a sartorial category to ponder.

It connotes clothing unsuited in every way for any context or activity beyond posing in the vicinity of a warmish body of water holding a tall glass festooned with lumps of exotic fruit and umbrellas, preferably with a smiling brown person hovering at hand. 

Resort wear is floaty. Designed for the heat, its fabric light to ethereal in weight. It billows and wafts, only now and then making contact with the body inside, which, it suggests, is cool, honey-toned, at ease.

It occurs to me as write, though (as E M Forster said, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"), that the essential feature of resort wear is nostalgia. However contemporary it appears, however much modern flesh it reveals, it's designed to call to  the minds of wearer and witnesses a Golden Age. An age of pink gins, long cruises, and far-flung colonies. An age when one could don a clean white garment as often as one chose and let the discarded one drop to the floor for someone else to pick up, launder, iron and replace in one's wardrobe. When nothing was required from its wearer but to languidly puff on her cigarette holder, swat the occasional mosquito and assume a slightly bored air.

Our Auckland fusser aspired to this look. Her three-quarter black and white checked pants were topped off with a piece de resistance comprising several lavish metres of white cotton lawn, which flew about her as she scuttled thither and yon. She might have got away with the look if the white cottony thing hadn't been so elaborate, so pleated and darted and overstitched and over-designed. So try-hard. But in the general airport melee of travellers and baggage, on a chilly day, she just looked weird.

People stared, their attention intially caught by her garb but held by her face. Everything about her demeanor and appearance - including the face - suggested she was entitled to national super. Yet the face had been the focus of many thousands of dollarsworth of work to make it look two decades younger. The effect resembled something you might disinter from the depths of the freezer and have to defrost in the microwave before you could identify it. The entire mask was tight and shiny, make-up coloured. The lower half filled - stuffed, actually - and set solid. No evidence of crowsfeet or wrinkles or smile lines. No evidence of anything at all. Its total lack of affect was what made her look batty.

If her friend, standing more calmly in the economy queue, had also had work, it was less painfully obvious. She was just as lavishly dressed - clinking silver bangles halfway up her arm, and more pale billowy clothing - but she still resembled a normal woman of a certain age. Both were, of course, blond and evenly tanned.

E and I, togged up in the winter clothes we'd arrived in from Wellington that morning, were fascinated. We immediately dubbed them The Monsters. Later they became Major Monster and Minor Monster. The fussing from Major continued at the resort, the first fare they were shown apparently being unacceptable. They were finally installed up the other end of the beach, and once or twice a day, one of us would announce she was off on Monster watch. E was impressively dedicated, sometimes veering shamelessly near their fare and squinting inside. Only once did we catch either of them wear anything but black, white or gray.

One evening we saw them in town, sticking out (as my ex-husband would have put it) like dogs' balls. The Parnell look on the rackety pavement of Port Vila - the capital city of a country with an infant mortality rate 12 times greater than ours, where only three-quarters of the adult population can read and write and children only go to school if their parents have the money to send them. 

I don't mean to take the high moral ground. Tourism is, for better or worse, one of Vanuatu's main income earners. And, though I doubt I will ever again want to spend time in a plush enclave in a third-world country, I was gladly taking advantage of what was on offer. But why would one want to flaunt one's privilege? 

Back at the airport the following Saturday, Major Monster was got up in a black playsuit affair that sported a big bow across the bust. Her conversation opener was, "There's a lovely Longchamps bag over there." She kept ducking off to the shop to examine it, but eventually decided that at NZ$300 it was ridiculously expensive. I felt a bit sorry for her when, having taken Minor Monster over to look at it too, Minor Monster promptly bought it "because I'm going to Europe in three weeks".

Minor Monster confided that, although she was married, Major was single - "So my husband lets me go on holiday with her once a year."

Lets me.

E and I were delighted to be single, to be dressed and holidaying at our own expense, and to be returning south of the Bombay Hills.

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