Many of my fondest memories are inextricably tied to what I was wearing at the time. The first dress I really loved, as a tiny toddler, was a hand-smocked Swiss cotton lovingly made for me by my godmother, Marion Murphy, wife of John F. Murphy, who served as vice president of Castle & Cooke and president of Honolulu Symphony. Then came the matching mother-daughter red and cream teacup print dresses we wore when I was 5; I was so proud to be matching my beautiful mother. And, oh, the turquoise and white polka dot dress I wore throughout the year I spent traveling the world at age 20. (Most young Americans traveling in London, Athens, New Delhi, Bangkok and Istanbul in the late ’60s were hippies, and I was determined not to look like one of them.)
As I look back on what I’ve worn, and having spent most of my life in Honolulu, many of my most cherished memories have one sartorial thread in common: a mu‘umu‘u.
I recall spending hours after school with my nana at her little Punahou Cliffs cottage, learning to sew so I could make the mu‘u of my dreams. I wore it to the airport to greet Punahou’s first foreign student from Norway. We raised $7,000 through bake sales and such to bring him here, quite a lot of money in those days.
Graduation from Punahou is remembered by a lovely white cotton pique mu‘u, with a high neck and princess seams. A few months after graduation, several of my classmates and I wore these mu‘u to serve kaukau at my parents’ 25th anniversary lū‘au.
Soon after, I bought a lovely mu‘u at Liberty House to take to Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, “just in case.” It saved me when I was asked to dance a hula in Goucher’s foreign student talent show. No, they didn’t seem to get that Hawai‘i was a state.
When I was married on the lawn of my parents’ North Shore beach home in 1972, I wore a lovely, fitted, floral-print cotton pique mu‘u with pakalana down to my knees. So fresh and flattering! That mu‘u lasted longer than the marriage, I’m afraid.
Years later, when I needed to earn some extra money for a swing and rocker for my infant son, Duncan, I got a part-time job dancing hula at J.C. Penney in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Needing a mu‘u, I made my own out of aloha print fabric my mother sent from Hale‘iwa.
For my second (and far happier) marriage in 1988, I wore a pink silk suit and pillbox hat for the wedding at Punahou Chapel. As I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm, I could tell unequivocally that my groom did not like my suit. I let my stomach flutter for only a second, deciding there was really nothing I could do about it. As soon as we arrived at Halekulani for the reception, however, I changed into an eyelet Princess Ka‘iulani mu‘u to dance “Pua Hone” for my beloved Jerry. His eyes lit up and happy tears began to stream down his face. He still lights up every time I wear a mu‘u.
There are a few naughty mu‘u moments in my past as well. When I was little, about 4 or 5, Mother tells me I used to “forget” to wear panties under my mu‘u to parties I didn’t want to attend. We would get halfway there and I would announce we had to go home to get them. Though I reportedly tried this tactic time and time again, I guess it only worked once; after the first episode my parents made me suffer sans undergarments.
I have always loved mu‘u and will never understand why they have been allowed to disappear from many island women’s wardrobes. “Out of style,” some say. But how can they be out of style when they are, arguably, our state dress? After all, the mu‘u is to woman what the aloha shirt is to man – and the aloha shirt is hotter than ever all over the globe. I continue to hope every woman in Hawai‘i will own at least one mu‘u.
I recently appeared on an Australian morning TV show that was filming in Waikīkī with a former Miss Hawai‘i, and she was wearing one of the hip new Princess Ka‘iulani mu‘u. Everyone, including the Aussie TV anchors, asked her where she bought it. Out of fashion? I think not.
There’s another thing about mu‘us: Men love ’em. I never get as many compliments from men as I do when I’ve donned a mu‘u. Strangers stop me on the street to tell me how pretty I look in it. So why on earth do women say to me: “A mu‘u? Oh, no. I would never wear that.” When I ask my husband what he would like me to wear on a date night, he invariably replies, “A mu‘umu‘u.”
I will always have a closet full of mu’u, and they will always hold bountiful memories for me.