Traditional Clothing in Hawaiian Culture

Updated July 19, 2017

The island chain which comprises the state of Hawaii was first settled by Polynesian explorers sometime between A.D. 800 and 1000. By the time Europeans made first contact in the late 18th century, the native Hawaiians had established a rich and thriving culture which was nonetheless strictly divided along caste lines. Social status was marked by what a person wore and this convention continued even after the arrival of Christian missionaries and their Western modes of dress.

Grass Skirts

One of the most easily identifiable symbols of Hawaii because of its association with traditional hula dancers, the grass skirt was actually constructed from the outer bark and leaves of the banana tree. The skirt's waistband was tightly braided and fit the wearer snugly. Longer strands of fibre hung down from the waistband. Traditionally, the same fibrous material was fashioned into anklets and worn during ceremonial dances.

Kapa Cloth

Kapa cloth, also known as "bark cloth" in the West and called "tapa" throughout the rest of the Pacific Rim, was the material from which the most common articles of Hawaiian clothing were made. Traditionally manufactured by women, kapa cloth is made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree through a complex process which renders the bark into a pliable, felt-like fabric. Kapa cloth was often dyed or printed with bold, colourful patterns. The finished cloth was then fashioned into "malo," the tucked skirt worn by men, or the "pa'u," the short skirt worn by women.

Feathered Attire

The intricate feathered capes, cloaks, and headdresses worn by Hawaiian nobility and royalty are easily the most stunning of all traditional garments. These items were constructed from a base of a finely woven fibre netting and thousands of brightly coloured feathers in a bold design. Lesser chiefs wore shorter feathered capes while kings and high-ranking officials wore longer cloaks. The all-yellow cloak of King Kamehameha (who died in 1819) survives today and is composed of approximately 450,000 feathers of the mamo bird. Each mamo bird only yielded about six or seven of the appropriate feathers so it is little wonder that royal Hawaiian tastes for feather garments led to the extinction of several species of birds.

Women's Garments After European Contact

Christian missionaries were the first permanent white settlers to the Hawaiian islands and they brought with them restrictive ideas about modesty. Before the arrival of whites to the island, Hawaiian women did not typically cover their breasts but afterward they were expected to adopt more modest forms of dress. Hawaiian women began wearing the "holoku," a loose fitting, high necked, long sleeved dress adapted from the styles worn by the missionary wives. The mu'umu'u was originally intended as an undergarment worn together with the holoku, but Hawaiian women began using them for sleepwear and swimwear instead.

Men's Garments After European Contact

Hawaiian men quickly adopted a Western style of dress after the arrival of white settlers. For instance, missionaries introduced the plain dyed work shirts which, after the addition of the distinctively bold floral prints common to Hawaiian kapa cloth, became the ubiquitous "aloha" shirt still popular with tourists, natives and stateside party people alike. One piece of traditional men's clothing which did survive intact to the present is the "lava lava" wrap skirt. Worn wrapped snugly around the waist, this kind of masculine skirt could be worn knee length or longer.

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About the Author

Rebecca Romero has written extensively on topics such as literature, film, relationships, nutrition and pop-culture. She holds a Master of Arts in English from New Mexico State University.