In Jamaican society, looking good is highly valued. It is not unusual to see prom-style gowns at a grade school graduation. Acceptable attire in a Jamaican church is often more formal than you would find at some American weddings. And the weather has almost no effect on Jamaicans’ choice of clothing. You will see longsleeves, jackets, polyester pants, ski hats, etc. every single day of the year. Comfort is not part of the equation.
The rules for acceptable attire, especially in work and ceremonial situations, are often different than what we’re accustomed to- providing a cultural hurdle for some of us volunteers. I’ve never ironed clothes so often in my life! “Chakka chakka” (messy) is just not done. Shoulders are always covered so tank tops are out, low necklines – even low backs – are avoided, skirts should hit the knee cap or below, flip-flop sandals (anything with a strap between the toes) are considered too casual. Trying to stay comfortable and cool, while professional at the same time, has many of us compromising one or the other.
The Ministry of Education actually spells out their dress code for teachers- I’m not sure if this is done in other workplaces. Shoes that don’t cover the toes must cover the heel, or at least have a strap behind the heel. I can’t remember if fabric choice was a part of the guidelines, but sometimes I get the feeling that anything cotton is considered too casual. Enforcement of these guidelines really depends on the principal, and fortunately, we volunteers can play the “foreigner card” to get some leeway.
Girls’ hairstyles at my school
Fashion is another one of Jamaica’s numerous contradictions. Whereas situations like work are uber formal, at home and in social settings, you’ll find almost the opposite. Anything goes, from a night gown and curlers while out on the front lawn to borderline scandalous, club-wear walking down the streets of town. For young women and men, clothing is often tight and bright. And color coordinated. Regardless of a family’s economic status, they dress to impress. A reoccurring issue in schools is that young parents are even prioritizing fancy new accessories for themselves (or their children) over school supplies or bus fare to school. Fashion in Jamaica seems to hint at a culture trend which tends to place more emphasis and energy on the appearance of things than on the actual substance behind them.
Our friend, who is volunteering on the other side of the island, started documenting the wide variety in Jamaican fashion on her blog Jamaica Sartorialist. Here you’ll find a photo of three teachers at my school, as well as many other examples of Jamaican flare. I highly recommend checking it out!