Clothing is an important part of the American culture, an element of our daily lives that simultaneously represents both individuality and superficiality. Americans use clothing to portray specific styles and serve as mini works of art as well as they use it to portray class status.
My first day of service learning at Cristo Rey happened to be the high school’s one and only dress down day. This entailed that the students did not have to wear their uniforms but could display their own styles of dress, for many of them a liberating experience. On this day the students acted out of their dress by merely just acting out; the teachers even warned me that the students were acting like completely different people, that their dress down day became a day of complete self-expression (both inside and slightly outside of the school’s disciplinary rules). Clothing for these students represents a form of individual expression that on normal uniform days is not completely present. I attended a public high school and completely understand where the students are coming from in almost rebelling against their uniformed-selves. However, while clothing can be a form of individuality, it is not the most important form of personal depiction; those who wear uniforms are not deprived of individuality but are rather encouraged to pursue other ways of expressing a sense of self other than by superficial means. Clothing can follow one’s travel, especially since one’s clothing choices tend to show how he or she has changed in style and in self-expression, but clothing should be not considered a permanent form of travel or liberation.
In thinking of clothing as a superficial display of one’s travel, the description of the Oceanic tatau as “clothing for life” seems a little off. However, this form of clothing differs extremely from the American literal form of clothing in that it is completely permanent and represents one’s history and self. Unlike clothing styles, the tatau is not a form of decoration or deception but rather a representation of community and individuality. The tatauing process is supposed to serve as a process of the recognition of voice and of the intimate transaction between the tattooer and the person receiving the tattoo, a process that is far more sacred than the designing and buying of literal outfits. For the Oceanic communities, the tatau is more important than actual, superficial clothing because it is fixed and sacred and forever representative of development (both historical and self).
The American culture does not have something as distinct as the tatau, something that marks one’s history, development, and future. Although the tatau is compared to clothing, the American version of clothing does not serve as an adequate version of the tatau. In a way Americans must each find their own symbols of travel and of individuality; we must each find our own form of the tatau. We must also find a way to incorporate the past into this “tatau” and choose which parts of the American culture we deem appropriate to recognize our sense of selves. Just like the tatau is a test for those who receive it, a test of their courage and their ability to produce a fruitful future, the American lack of a cultural tatau is our own form of a test. But our test is whether we can make something of ourselves and at the same time remember to hold on to what makes us Americans and what brought us to where we now are. Considering the Oceanic cultures and the American culture, both having a tatau and not having a tatau are, in different ways, paths to discovery and to the realization of past and self.