Easter is one of those holidays that reminds me how much Haitians like to dress up. As a child, I remember going Easter dress shopping with my mom well in advance of the holiday…then waiting for what seemed like an eternity to actually don my new dress and perfectly pressed (and perfectly matching) hair ribbons. I wore fancy ankle socks that when folded, resembled a mini ballerina tutu, my shoes were shiny and my hair was done just so. Then Easter morning the whole family went to church looking squeaky clean! I know most cultures turn the dress code up a notch for Easter, but I think Haitians just love any excuse to dress up, and Easter is another good reason to do so.
Everybody likes to look nice, but Haitian people like to dress up — sometimes even overdress. We sometimes even dress up when dressing up is not called for. I guess I’ve known this all along, but it’s only in retrospect that I’m fully realizing it. For example, you can bet that there is always at least one little Haitian girl/boy who is dressed to the nines on any given flight from P-au-P to JFK. A typical Haitian baptism or First Communion is a huge to-do, and is oftentimes (in my humble opinion) overdone. There’s the super elaborate gown for the celebrant, and the parents usually dress to match. When in doubt about how to dress, Haitians choose “up”, never “down”. And although I grew up going to an ultra casual Catholic Church (where churchgoers often wore shorts or tattered jeans) we were never permitted to go to church in shorts (even on the hottest of Sundays), and we only rarely got away with wearing jeans to church — and on the few occasions when we did, they were never – ever – tattered.
Haitian children, at a very young age, are more often than not, bejeweled. When I was younger I remember almost every Haitian girl I knew had a pair of those little gold dangling flower earrings from Haiti. Do you know the ones? They usually had a stone in the center of the “flower”, surrounded by tiny gold petals, they dangled just slightly, and clipped shut? I had my pair…along with a gold bracelet and necklace…and they stayed on whether I was going to church or to the playground. I remember learning that girls should never leave the house without earrings…and I still shutter if I notice that I’ve inadvertently left the house sans earrings.
The “bejeweled” bug was even passed down to my (half-haitian) daughter. She was adorned in a gold bracelet and gold necklace (compliments of her Haitian Grammy) well before she could crawl. The pediatrician I take her to pierces ears in-office at the 6 month visit — and for six long months after she was born, I fielded questions from both my mother and grandmother about when (not “if”) I would finally have her ears pierced. And of course, Grammy had a pair of earrings waiting. It wasn’t until people would make comments to me about my daughter’s jewelry that it began to dawn on me that everybody doesn’t do this.
As an adult, I’m realizing that the lesson learned is that presentation is important. This is not just a Haitian lesson obviously, but all these things helped to solidify what my parents had been trying to ingrain in us. I’m the queen of casual when I can get away with it, but I certainly know when dressing up is necessary, and what is or isn’t appropriate to wear. I still mentally shake my head when I see parents wear sweats to a parent-teacher conference, or kids who are inappropriately dressed for an interview. I know that’s a direct result of being raised the way I was. Although I believe that there is such thing as overdressing, I know when in doubt it’s usually safer to dress up than down. I also know that how my children are presented are often a reflection of me. And I know that how I present myself for certain occasions is a not only a reflection of me, but also of my upbringing.
So I try to make the story that I tell in my appearance a good one. And although I sometimes smirk when I see an overdressed Haitian person — I know where they’re coming from and I appreciate the effort.
How has your upbringing shaped the way you dress or present yourself? Did you or your family member ever dress up for a flight from Haiti to the States (Did you/they clap when you landed)? Were you a bejeweled child? Do you have bejeweled children?