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Dressing up the early natives of Guam

Chamorro women adopted clothing styles similar to those of the Philippines and Mexico. Photo courtesy of Springer Link

By Raquel Bagnol

In the 16th century, the CHamorus lived a simple life. Nobody went “shopping” for clothes. The islanders walked around garbed in their natural “island wear,” consisting of nothing other than a tifi, a fibrous bark from the palm tree to cover their private parts.

When the first Europeans led by Ferdinand Magellan landed on the shores of Guam in 1521, the natives went to see the visitors. For the Europeans, it was a shock at first sight. They were floored by the islanders’ nakedness.

The CHamoru people looked at Magellan's crewmen, who were fully covered in starched clothes with ruffs and stiff cuffs and all. Then they laughed.

A century passed and everyone went their own merry way. Until the Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1665 to initiate the colonization of Guam. The Jesuits took one look at how the islanders were dressed— err, undressed— and decided that their nudity was barbaric. It must end. And soon.

Little did the natives know that they were about to undergo one of the most dramatic changes in their lifestyle.

The Jesuits wanted to introduce Christian morality and impose values such as decency, virtue, shame and decorum. They viewed the nakedness of native women as a "menace for the pure conscience of the missionaries and for the soldiers."

Sandra Montón-Subías and Enrique Moral de Eusebio published their research online for Historical Archaeology in April 2021 titled "A Body Is Worth a Thousand Words: Early Colonial Dress-Scapes in Guam."

The authors focused on Guam's "dress-scapes" from 1668-1698, and how dresses became a fundamental “civilizing” item in the 17th-century Jesuit missionization of Guam.

Antonio di Pigafetta, an Italian scholar and explorer who joined Magellan's expedition, as well as numerous archeologists later, documented the nudity on Guam. Drawings made 150 years after the initial colonization of Guam showed women farming with naked torsos.

However, the reference to the island nudity was just a description. There was no explicit moral statement from visitors, except for the Jesuits.

After Magellan's stopover in 1521, Guam became a stopover in the Manila-galleon global trade route linking Acapulco and Manila.

1819 illustration by Marie Joseph Alphonse Pellion depicting the three CHamoru castes

In 1662, Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, a member of the religious order of the Jesuits, was on board the Spanish galleon San Damian with other missionaries. They were headed for a stopover on Guam en route to the Philippines.

San Vitores’ mission was to Christianize the CHamoru natives. But first, he saw the need to cover their nudity. So the Jesuit priest went shopping.

In their research, Montón-Subías and de Eusebio cited a 1668 inventory in Acapulco records where the Jesuits loaded essential clothing items for Guam. The list of items included Indian blankets, hats, generic cloth to be converted into cassocks and “poor people's dresses,” cordovan leather and soles for shoes.

The Jesuit missionaries constructed schools and churches. Children were "textualized and textilized" at the same time. The Jesuits believed that schooling the children was the most effective way to transform the future.

In school, the boys were taught to use lathes and grow cotton. The girls were taught to use spindles, plait mats, weave and sew clothing.


To help address the need, a dozen families from the Philippines or Mexico arrived on Guam to perform and teach the Marianas girls how to sew and spin. Later on, locals were sent to other islands to spread their knowledge and teach others their skills.

However, dressing the CHamoru natives did not come easily or smoothly for the Jesuits. The natives rejected the idea and just refused to dress.

The natives’ attitude toward dressing wavered between defiance and collaboration.

To set an example, San Vitores ordered robes to be made from palm mats. He then wore one and walked in front of the natives. The CHamorus laughed at him, but eventually, he managed to persuade them to put on some clothes. Soon, dressing up became part of their Christianized lifestyle. But they did not go for the Europeans’ “stiff and starched fashion." Instead, they adopted clothing styles similar to those of the Philippines and Mexico.

Obviously, the cotton production did not flourish to a point of supplying the needs of the island. Textiles had to be imported from Manila.

Raquel Bagnol is a freelance journalist. She is a former reporter of Palau Horizon and Marianas Variety. Send feedback to

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1 Comment

Jul 04, 2022

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