More Life: Kenya Hunt Writes About Clothes that Transport You
For a person who writes and edits articles about clothes for a living, it’s ironic that I’m at my happiest when I’m wearing hardly any. I’m a child of the sun. I grew up in a coastal town in Virginia in a corner of the American South, where the winter months were fairly mild, the spring was hot and the summer even hotter.
A friend read my astrological chart recently and my constellation of planets and ascendants seems to underscore this: sun in Leo, with a rising sun in Leo and an ascendant ruler that is the sun. I like hot, hot heat. I like the kind of humidity that makes your hair swell, thick with the volume that only the combination of sea and extreme warmth can yield. It’s a bittersweet experience to write about one’s happy place when one can’t access it. I write this while swaddled in a cashmere blanket that sits atop a cashmere hoodie and track pants, as the UK braces itself for the arrival of a polar vortex. It’s a phenomenon the British media is calling an Arctic bomb, the kind of apocalyptic winter headline that was once the stuff of US weather television networks, but is now a thing here in England too. We’re in the midst of a cold snap, in lockdown. And I’m yearning for the lightness of a white cotton dress and an itsy-bitsy bikini on a sweltering day. I’m longing for the hot weather of home. This is connected with my nostalgia for a life pre-Covid, when we could all book flights without having to calculate the sickness-or-health risk, but also for a point in my life when I felt at my most carefree.
Like many expats I know who are grounded by Covid, it’s been roughly a year since I last went to the US. And I’ve spent some of the downtime reorganising the clothes I miss wearing most: the clothes for going out out in. Not out as in nightclubs and parties (though I miss those too), but outward-bound out – as in nature, the world. Summer holidays. Adventurous expeditions.
Some of my happiest memories involve crisp, white cotton, salt-sticky nylon and Lycra and Birkenstocks worn in tropical climates. Basic, yes. But true. There was the time I went on a whale diving trip in Belize in June 2006. I had packed a few swimsuits and a small selection of white cotton vests and shorts for day and wispy slip dress- es and sheer, voluminous, floaty sundresses for dinner.
But it was can’t-catch-your-breath hot – we were located 17° 15’ north of the equator. (This was before climate change and global warming had reached the crisis point it’s at now, when a heatwave comes with a side of existential angst.) So I left the jazzy dresses in the suitcase and only pulled out the swimsuits and cotton vests and shorts.
The only way we could really cool down was by boarding a small skiff and heading 22 miles off the coast of Placencia to an aquatic oasis called Gladden Spit, where we jumped into choppy waves feet first and let the water swallow us whole. One of the most euphoric moments in my life happened on that trip, as I hovered, suspended in blue, above a school of spawning bronze dog snapper – one of more than 500 species of fish that make the protected waters there their home – and then watching a black hole, an enormous open mouth, slowly rise up underneath them to swallow the snappers’ cloudy eggs and sperm for dinner.
There is something uniquely humbling about watching a whale shark emerge from the depths of the ocean, to swallow the eggs of a school of fish, metres below your paddling feet. It’s both thrilling and chilling to witness the food chain at work in its natural habitat, to be within touching distance of gentle giants that are, on average, 30 feet in length and live for up to 130 years.
I saw seven whale sharks in the water that day. And in the years since, I’ve often thought of them when I need to remind myself to have some perspective – when I’m so caught up in the drama of people that I forget to think about our place in the big picture.
When I wasn’t in the water in Belize (whether for a casual swim in the pool, a dip at the beach or a search for whale sharks out in the ocean), I stuck to that uniform of white men’s Hanes vests and white cotton shorts from I can’t remember where. White because it felt airy in the heat, but also because I loved the contrast against the even darker richness of my suntanned skin. Speaking of, that trip also stands out in my memory because my temperamental skin was at its clearest, which tends to happen when I’m in tropical environments. And perhaps this is why some of my happiest memories tend to involve incredibly bright, hot places – because my body responds best to it.
I married my husband on a record-breakingly hot day in Virginia. The temperature was so high we had to change our plans to wed in an outdoor garden at a museum to the air-conditioned gallery inside instead. On the day of the ceremony, when we stepped outside to take a few portraits, the hot air fogged the photographer’s lens as if we were in a shower. Condensation had formed in little droplets on the giant crystals on my Miu Miu shoes. I didn’t complain. I loved how our guests started to sweat through their suits and dresses when the dance party heated up during the final hour of our reception. When I think of the clothes, I think of Paul Smith suits and Marc Jacobs, Alaïa and Proenza Schouler dresses spotted with damp, their wearers doing the electric slide, a body roll, a dip it low, a twerk to Prince, Fela Kuti, Biggie Smalls, Mary J Blige, UGK and the Ying Yang Twins (this was 2010!). It ain’t a good party if the walls aren’t sweating. The aircon was no match for our crowd.
I still remember the white swimsuit I wore to my local beach in the week leading up to the big day. It was popular because of its high population of dolphins, but the only fins I saw during those days belonged to local surfers kitted out in their neon pinks, yellows and blues. That week was bliss.
As was a trip to Cuba, where the temperatures were so high the ice cubes wouldn’t stay frozen in our mojitos for longer than a few minutes. It was my first time on the island, which up until that point had been forbidden territory for Americans.
The occasion: a work trip to cover a historic runway show scheduled to take place in Havana, the first international fashion show there since the communist revolution ended in 1959. I was in my happy place because I was on a hot island, yes. But happier still because I was surrounded by Black and brown faces and Afro-Cuban culture. Having lived for years down the road from East Harlem’s botánicas, small storefronts containing all manner of candles, incense, herbs, amulets and usually a priest or priestess, I loved getting a closer view of the religion that birthed them.
I could have sat on a bench in Havana all day, watching head-wrapped santeras walk by in their white cotton dresses, parasols in hand. And now that I think about it, they must have inspired the wave of white dresses I accumulated in the years following that trip – full-skirted sundresses by Mara Hoffman, Caroline Constas, Vita Kin, the list goes on. Dresses that became my uniform on the hottest of holidays.
Dresses that I stare at in my closet right now, all lined up and ready to go the minute I can once again board a plane and head home to Virginia and a world of warm places beyond.
Photography courtesy of Kenya Hunt. Taken from Issue 66 of 10 Magazine – MY, HAPPY, PLACE – is out NOW. Order your copy here.