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Imagine walking into a bar where the drinks are garnished with fresh orchids and the wallpaper is awash in palm fronds; where bamboo and ceramic macaw mugs filled with rum transport you straight to a tropical paradise.
Now imagine you’re behind the bar, where your job isn’t just making the drinks, but also dressing the part, too. What is life like when your workplace’s definition of “professional attire” involves parrot earrings, Hawaiian caftans, and tiki shirts? And where do you shop?
Tiki, a Polynesian-inspired lifestyle movement marked by rum-soaked cocktails (think Mai Tais and Zombies) and kitschy bamboo decor, first took root in the US in the ’30s, and it became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon in the ’50s and ’60s, when restaurant chains like Trader Vic’s could be found in every major city.
Since its midcentury heyday, the tiki bar phenomenon has evolved to encompass a broader — and, yes, less appropriative — definition, with many self-described tiki bars offering a more vaguely tropical, escapist, island vacation theme and nixing cultural elements taken out of context, like mugs engraved with the faces of Polynesian gods.
No matter how you define it, tiki has inspired generations of hardcore devotees: Punch describes it as “a Comic-Con level of fandom.” That goes for the attire, too: Tiki bartenders are often just as serious about their costumery as they are about their drinks. Seriously — no one knows how to channel “Grandma and Grandpa on their 40th anniversary vacation on Oahu” vibes like the person serving you your next Mai Tai.
With that in mind, we chased down two very well-dressed members of the tiki bartending community to teach us their ways: Mindy Kucan of Portland’s Hale Pele and Shelby Allison of Chicago’s Lost Lake Tiki, each of whom comes from a bar team with its own distinctive take on tiki and tropical aesthetics. And of course, both take a great deal of pride in their tropically inspired closets (Mindy’s own wardrobe contains more than 250 pieces of “aloha-wear”).
Below, they share their insights on what it’s like to work in a place where “tiki tacky" is the dress code, how they hunt down their finest orchid-print caftans and Hawaiian shirts, and what they’ve learned from being constantly dressed for vacation.
Choose your own adventure
From midcentury kitsch vibes to modern, moody tropigoth, there are so many different ways to interpret tropical style. On the authentically old-school end of the tiki spectrum, Kucan says she likes to work a lot of rich earth tones into her look. This might come as a surprise to those more used to the modern-day iteration of tropical style (like lush greenery on millennial-pink backgrounds), but just picture a classic tiki hut à la Don the Beachcomber: You see warm hues of golden-brown bamboo accented with pops of greenery here and there. “Green was more of a filler, not at the forefront,” she says.
More broadly, “flora and fauna” is how Allison shepherds her staff’s aesthetic (flowers, palm fronds, animal prints, fish, coral, and, when used correctly, bright, geometric patterns). “We don't do tiki faces or statues in Lost Lake at all, and I didn't want people to be wearing them while working here either, so I asked them to stick to plants and animals,” Allison says. “In 2017, I think there's a better way to create an escapist tropical environment than leaning on some of the things that might be viewed as problematic that borrow from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s tiki era.”
She adds that some of her personal favorite interpretations are riffs on tropigoth, black lipstick and all. “I have another bartender who also shares that aesthetic with me. The way she interprets it is lots of dark, moody tropical prints with big gold jewelry.”
Both Allison and Kucan say that in their respective bars, the staff’s interpretation of tropicalia is totally individualized. “It's been really interesting to watch how the new hires embrace the tiki style as their own, and how you can see their own style in their work outfits,” Mindy says.
One colleague might rock a palazzo-pant jumpsuit with a floral print, while another might combine a low-back black leotard with a floral skirt, woven belt, and giant hair flower. (Case in point: While we were on the phone, one of Kucan’s servers walked into the bar wearing a white short-sleeved oxford shirt, a pair of flamingo-print shorts, and a matching flamingo-print necktie. Truly, the sky’s the limit.)
Tropical style is more than just Hawaiian dad shirts
While it shouldn’t be too hard to scoop up a ’90s Tommy Bahama shirt at your local thrift outpost, these bartenders aren’t limited to the realm of the tacky button-down. (After all, when it’s your job to dress like this every day, you tend to get a little more creative than that.)
Kucan gravitates toward dramatic vintage caftans and muumuus, and says one of her all-time favorite finds is this particularly incredible tiger dress she serendipitously scooped at a Portland Goodwill for $12. (She says she also occasionally scores finds at Hawaiian aloha-wear outpost Hilo Hattie’s.)
Fast-fashion stores are a wealth of resources
If the current ubiquity of palm print is any indication, it’s never been easier to add tropical flair to your wardrobe. “Sometimes it's fun to go on some of the younger-leaning website shops like ASOS or Topshop because it’s really easy now to find tropical patterns that work well,” says Allison. “And I think when you find something silly or inexpensive, you can turn around and mix it with a thrifted item to make it very cool.” (Speaking of mixing vintage finds with newer pieces, Shelby tells us that one Lost Lake bartender has been known to rock a black bodysuit with vintage men’s tropical swim trunks. Inspiring.)
The best-dressed tiki bartenders are good at thrifting — and sewing
It probably comes as no surprise that both bartenders, and their colleagues, rely on thrift and vintage stores quite a bit to score their best, most unusual finds. Allison says that Lost Lake’s team frequents Chicago’s Village Thrift and Family Thrift; Kucan mentions Portland staples Artifact, Rerun, and Village Merchants. Online marketplaces like Etsy can yield gems, and Kucan often looks to Depop, because once you hone in on a seller whose style you like, you can follow them to keep an eye on new listings.
Kucan is also no stranger to the men’s section, where she says she occasionally finds shirts that may just need some sleeve shortening and perhaps a pair of darts for the right proportions and shape. (The only trick here is making sure the sleeves and bust of the shirt don’t limit her range of motion when she’s behind the bar, constantly pivoting and reaching for bottles, shakers, and tools.)
She also mentions that every now and then, if she stumbles upon a truly badass vintage tiki-esque dress with a to-die-for tropical print while scouring a shop, she’ll scour the men’s shirts and shorts section, too. Why? “There may sometimes be a cabana boy outfit in the same print, because in the ’50s and ’60s, couples sometimes wore matching outfits,” she explains.
Palm print is only the beginning
While the silhouette of a palm frond or banana leaf is 2017’s preferred tropical aesthetic, take a note from Lost Lake’s flora and fauna directive (and from Zendaya’s Met Ball gown). In short: Mastering prints is the name of the game, and it doesn’t always have to mean literal palm trees, beach scenes, or Māori tiki motifs.
While not tiki in the traditional sense, bananas, parrots, bird of paradise flowers, monkeys, and even certain geometric prints can all read as island vacation material, especially when piled high with the right accessories — the kitschier, the better.
There’s no such thing as too many accessories
From flaming punch bowls to 12-ingredient drink recipes, tiki is all about going over the top. And just as every good tropical drink should be adorned with a swizzle stick or banana dolphin, a good tiki outfit needs all of the accessories to go along with it.
In the name of excess, Kucan, Allison, and their co-workers often reach for bamboo bangles, wooden parrot earrings, basket-weave beads, and hair flowers — the bigger, the better, and often easily scored on the cheap at H&M, according to Kucan. (Case in point: Lost Lake actually has a stash of extra tiki gear on-site in case a staffer needs a little extra, well, flair. Excess accessorizing is the name of the game here.)
Patterns are meant to be power-clashed
Like we said: More is more. “I love power-clashing patterns,” says Kucan. “I feel like leopard print is a neutral.” Allison agrees: “Don't be afraid to mix something that's leopard print with something that has big, giant tropical flowers on it. Don't be afraid to wear black lipstick with your neon tropical outfit. And I think the main thing would be... just be fearless.”