I never go on a summer trip without a pareo, even if I am not headed to the beach. They scream warm weather – vacation, tropics, beaches – but I actually first started wearing one in the dead of winter. I was pregnant for the first time and working at Glamour, and if there was a place to buy maternity clothes in New York, I did not know about it. (Although I probably would have thought myself too cool to go… I was the first of any of my friends to expect a baby, which resulted in equal parts naivete and embarrassment on my part.) By the coldest months of the year, I could hardly fit into any of my normal clothes, and my stretchy Isaia skirts and Sid's jeans could only get me so far. So I had this long wool stole that I would wrap around my hips pareo-style and secure with a belt. When I figured this out, it felt like cracking the code. I had two in tartan and one in plain black wool. They kept me warmer than any skirt could, and I could always make them fit.
My technique wasn't without its risks – you do have to check that the belt is actually holding it up. I learned this lesson the hard way, when I was at a market appointment with the PR team at the Emporio Armani boutique. I was nearly ready to have the baby and at this point my stomach was big enough that I had no business trying to wear a scarf as a skirt. The belt was so high it was practically a bra. We were chatting about the collection and suddenly the scarf just dropped to the floor. I was left standing in my knee-high rubber rain boots, black tights, and a turtleneck. Kind of mortifying.
The baby came, but I did not ditch the pareo uniform. And by the time summer rolled around I had a whole new set of options. It was so easy! Because it is just a rectangle of fabric, a pareo can be anything you want it to be. It is a skirt – a dress – a scarf – a halter – a jumpsuit – even a major head wrap if you are Erykah Badu. Off the body, it can be a picnic blanket, a place to sit on the beach, a sunshade, a tent for your little ones, even a superhero cape for an imaginative toddler.
I may have felt like I invented my own winter sarongs, but a lot of cultures have been wearing this type of garment long before my pregnancy. Islands especially, but much of Southeast Asia, the Arab world, Eastern Africa. 'Pareu' is just the Tahitian word for a wraparound skirt. You have seen them in Gaugin's paintings. Just like those women, when I am at the beach I just tie the scarf – no belt involved. In the store I get asked a lot "how to do it," but I will tell you that there is no real trick to it. Just practice. It does help to twist the corners a little. You need to experiment on your own body with where you start the wrap so that the tie ends up in the front. I usually start at my left hip to finish at the center, but it really depends on the length of the pareo itself. Over the years I have used all kinds of scarves and stoles and random pieces of fabric. I had one piece of floral chintz left over from a sewing project that was not quite long enough to make work. I tied shoelaces to the end and somehow rigged it up to be able to wrap around my body. (I must have been determined, because trust me, it was even jankier than it sounds.)
A pareo is often traditional batik or tropical-print, and it is easy to find at all points on the high-low spectrum. I have seen super-chic ones for sale at little gift shop shacks on the beach, and Sid actually gave me an amazing one from Hermès for our second anniversary. (Cotton is the traditional gift and we were really into the themes for awhile. Year #10 – tin - was a weird one.) This one is beautiful and actually very Gaugin looking – but I have to say that I really don't find myself wearing it as often. It just doesn't feel quite as much like 'me.' The boldness of the birds of paradise and bright colors is too different from what I typically wear. I feel like I should be at the beach and not at the grocery store.
This is actually why I love our Liberty ones so much. They DO feel like me. Sid and I have been using Liberty Fabrics since our first collections. It is fabric that feels familiar and easier to wear for everyday, and, when worn as a pareo, just as easy as – but less expected than – a more traditional batik. And unlike my random rectangles of leftover fabric, they are designed for this very purpose. Sized perfectly to wrap. No shoelace hack needed.
Sid and I got to go on our first overnight trip in over a year just last week. Having loved the forced pause on travel and the way we had cocooned our family for the past 13 months, I was oddly apprehensive about the trip. I nearly canceled for a multitude of reasons, but in the end, we made it to Cumberland Island with our great friends Matt and Yolanda. I am still pinching myself because it was such a fantastic 36 hours. As soon as we got settled in our room, I threw a Boyfriend Shirt over my bathing suit, and folded my pareo in half lengthwise so it would be short enough for me to ride a bike down to the beach. (Another amazing feature – you can make it any length you want.) Yolanda actually filmed a quick video of me re-tying it – it's on Instagram if you are a visual learner! The island is incredibly rustic and magical (there are wild horses that literally roam around,) but dinner is more formal. They require jackets for men and "comparable attire for ladies." To me, it is the coolest, chicest juxtaposition. I could have shaken the sand out from my pareo and worn it to dinner, belted vs. tied like at the beach, with a crisp white shirt on top and heeled sandals. I ended up in a dress, but I have worn this pareo outfit a million times and it is the perfect blend of casual and pulled-together. You need one, I promise.
how to tie it