Martha Stewart Would Be Proud

[by Mike]

When the Tiki theme was announced for this year's LUPEC party no outfits immediately came to mind. Last year I went all out with a full zoot suit and a Hawaiian shirt just didn't seem sufficient to continue the tradition of over achieving. When the full details of the party were announced, not just Tiki but 1950s Tiki, the ideas finally starting coming.

My initial inspiration was a fusion of a three piece suit and hulu skirt. Weaving a vest out of dried straw wouldn't be too time consuming and properly executed the finished product would be both classy and unique. Dried straw, however, isn't exactly ubiquitous in the city. Banana leaves are another story.

Available in the frozen food section of any Asian grocer, banana leaves are a great freezer staple. After a quick defrost they're soft and malleable, readily wrapped around foods destined for braising or steaming to provide a sweet, fruity aroma. More importantly for this particular application, they're incredibly cheap.

Unfortunately, banana leaves provide little in the way of structural integrity. The leaves easily rip along the grain and those that do survive in one piece are extremely perishable, drying out into a brittle mess in little more than a day. My strategy was two-fold: layering and hemming the leaves would help reduce ripping along the grain while sealing the leaves in acrylic would help retain moisture and avoid fragility.

Without any experience with sealers, I eventually decided upon Mod Podge upon the recommendation of the staff at Pearl. The acrylic sealer was easily brushed onto the leaves and dried with an attractively glossy finish. It would have been perfect if not for a fatal flaw: when exposed to even mild heat the sealant would soften and become tacky again. Once assembled the vest would stick to itself, becoming vulnerable to ripping upon separation.

After initial testing and design, the vest came together in three pieces: the two front flaps and the back. The fronts were quick, almost entirely single banana leaves hemmed along the sides with folded leaves, while the back involved cutting the leaves into strips and weaving them together into a singe piece. I used hot glue for all the adhesion and then sealed the pieces on all sides with the Mod Podge.

The afternoon before the party I completed the assembly and adding some finishing touches: wooden buttons and faux pockets along the front. To reenforce the seams I added some duct tape along the interior, an addition that would prove all too insufficient.

Not long after arriving at the party, the vest began to rip along the chest. The weight of the vest, especially the weaved back, proved too much for the leaves that laid along my shoulders. Without any backup tape, little could be done to salvage the effort. Well, little beyond lots of hands holding the whole thing together. I don't think anyone caught a picture of the weaved back at the party, so I took a few after the party for posterity. You can already see the banana leaves curling up where the Mod Podge sealant failed and the surface was exposed to air.

Save for the premature structural failure, I was really happy with the effort. Immediately after assembly the vest looked great and with a few improvements it would have lasted long into the night, maybe even through a few dances.

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