Traditional Hawaiian Costume

Deidre Dykes
Hawaiian dancer

When people think of traditional Hawaiian costumes, what generally comes to mind is clothing worn after European settlement of the islands. Many Hawaiians, anxious to preserve the strong history of their culture, have gone to painstaking efforts to re-create more exact costumes to be used in festivals and other important rituals. While some items are artisanal and difficult to purchase, some traditional Hawaiian items can be bought or even made to wear and enjoy.

Traditional Costumes of the Hawaiian Culture

The tropical climate of Hawaii has never been conducive to more conservative European dress. Early Hawaiians covered themselves more in tattoos than garments. Tattoos, or kakau, were a way of designating one's position in society and one's abilities. As far as actual Hawaiian clothing was concerned, this was made of bark-cloth or grasses and kept to a minimum.

Such clothing could protect delicate skin while also keep the wearer comfortable in the heat and humidity. The kapa, a woven and pounded cloth made of bark, took trained artisans sometimes months of painstaking work to create one garment. Rituals were important, and with them were ritual clothing and makeup, usually made of clay. Men and women both used feathers in addition to tattoos to designate their position. Chiefs used feathers to show their importance. Capes and helmets were made of woven feathers, the more spectacular the better.

The Hawaiian Lei

It's impossible to think of traditional Hawaiian costume without envisioning a lei, the floral wreath with which every visitor to Hawaii is customarily greeted, showing that they are welcome. It's said that these were originally given as offerings to the gods. Other legends say that the wreaths were introduced by Polynesian visitors and quickly caught on as a form of beautification. More importantly, they were also used as peace offerings between warring tribes. Leis are usually made of flowers, but can also include such items as shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, bones and teeth.

Buying Hawaiian Leis

Leis can be made out of a variety of materials.

  • Buy beaded leis from Hawaii Flower Lei. They come made from kuki nuts and shells or he'e berries and are priced under $20. Colors range from black, blond, and brown kuki nuts to pink berries.
  • The Hawaiian Lei Company makes real leis from tropical flowers like orchids, dendrobiums, and plumeria, among others. The number of leis purchased, flower variety, and style contribute to the cost, which can start as low as $10 and go up; most fall into the $40 and $50 range.
  • Select from the silk lei collection at Hula Flowers. They come in varying lengths, from chokers to 24"+, and are priced from about $6 to around $20. Find a selection from yellow to red and white, along with different silk blooms. You can also pick up matching crown and lei sets.

DIY Hawaiian Leis

sew long stitches along the center to make crepe paper lei
Sew long stitches and bunch up the crepe paper

Crepe paper leis can be made using a few supplies like crepe paper on rolls, a needle and thread, and scissors. Adults and children alike can make crepe paper leis easily with the following steps:

  1. Measure out enough thread to make a lei. Double that amount and cut the thread.
  2. Thread the needle so that the center of the length of the thread is at the eye, leaving two even tails of thread. Tie a knot twice near the end of the threads.
  3. Sew 1/4-inch long stitches through the center of the crepe paper.
  4. While sewing along, bunch the crepe paper up tightly like a folded fan.
  5. Once there is about 2 inches of bunched up paper sewn, twist the scrunched up paper clockwise to form spirals. Keep the tension on the thread for the best results.
  6. Repeat sewing a few inches and twisting the paper clockwise.

Leis can also be made by stringing silk or other fake flowers together to form a necklace or head piece.

The Hula Costume

The most recognizable traditional Hawaiian costume, it is ritualistically one of the most important. The hula dance was a way of worshipping the gods and telling stories - crucial in an oral tradition. The basic costume was a lei, a pa'u skirt or grass skirt, and ankle bracelets made of whalebone or dog's teeth. Both men and women performed the dance although only men were allowed to sing the stories. The men's dances were more active and vigorous. Missionaries denounced the hula and in 1830, queen Ka`ahumanu, a convert to Christianity, banned public hula performances.

Officially, the hula was prohibited, but the dances continued to be performed in secret, so that they could be passed down. Nowadays, they are still performed today much as they were centuries ago. The costumes, however, are now more modest, even in a traditional ceremony. Women wear long skirts and a top or a muumuu and men wear trousers and a malo, a wrapped cloth. Only a few performances will feature grass skirts, and these tend to be worn over fabric clothing.

The "bra" of coconut halves seen in Hawaiian costumes for sale or rent in costume shops is a mythical European idea of what women wore to dance, as they generally did not wear anything to cover their torsos.

Buying a Hula Costume

Pa'u Hula Skirt Haula Dream at Shaka Time Hawaii
Pa'u Hula Skirt at Shaka Time Hawaii

Women can purchase leis or floral head dresses or make them using flowers or crepe paper. Then pair them with the rest of a purchased costume.

  • Go with a fabric skirt option for ladies and purchase a traditional pa'u hula skirt from Shaka Time Hawaii. They come in colorful options from pink to blue and in sizes that fit up to 2XL for most ladies. Pricing is about $45 for most options.
  • Grass skirts are budget-friendly when picked up from Party City. There, you'll find skirts in a variety of lengths and colors from green to pink to rainbow. Pricing is around $10 or so for a skirt, depending on style selected.
  • Men can pair a grass skirt with a Hawaiian printed shirt from stores like Avanti Shirts. There, they will find shirts for around $70 to $80 and in a variety of colors and prints. Sizing ranges from XS to XXL.

DIY Hula Costume

A hula costume is as simple as making a quick skirt and pairing it with the right top and accessories.

  1. Start by making a grass skirt.
  2. For women, a bikini top or a bandeau (can be made 1.5-2 yards of stretch knit fabric, knotted snugly at either the front of back of the chest) can be worn as a top.
  3. For men, the grass skirt can be paired with a Hawaiian shirt or with a bare torso.
  4. Both genders can wear leis, floral crowns, and bracelets and anklets made from flowers or beads and shells.
  5. Sandals or flip flops can be worn or bare feet are acceptable to complete the costume for either gender.

Hawaiian Shirts and Muumuus

Men's Hawaiian shirts and the similarly patterned muumuus for women are both descendants of the missionaries' design that was forced upon the native people. They are both now considered acceptable for a luau and a classic part of the Hawaiian wardrobe. The best shirts and muumuus are made of natural fabrics like cotton and silk and feature beautiful floral patterns native to Hawaii, traditionally using watermarking or stamping techniques. Although these offered more coverage than the native people were once used to, these natural, less treated fabrics can still breathe, thus allowing the wearer to remain comfortable in the tropical climate.

Both men and women at a luau will traditionally wear some sort of floral headdress, rather than a hat. A straw hat can be acceptable if one chooses, especially if it is adorned with flowers, shells, or other accessories native to Hawaii.

Buying Hawaiian Shirts and Muumuus

Gradation Medley Orange Poly Cotton Hawaiian Long Muumuu Dress
Muumuu Dress at Aloha Outlet

Women and men can easily find authentic options online.

  • Women can purchase a variety of muumuus from Aloha Outlet. There, they'll find options from bright oranges to colorful pinks and more, with designs ranging from hibiscus ferns to plumeria blooms. Most muumuus are available in sizes XS to 2XL for anywhere from $30 to $80+, depending on the style.
  • Men can purchase Banana Jack shirts made in Hawaii. They come in colors from white to blue to purple, with most costing around $40 to $65. Sizing ranges from S to 2X on most.

DIY Hawaiian Shirts

It is also an option to buy a plain short-sleeved button-down shirt and paint it with fabric paint. Pair this with khakis, board shorts, or a grass skirt and sandals for a luau look.

  1. Pre-wash and, if needed, iron the shirt.
  2. Use several newspaper pages, mailed flyer pages, or wax paper and tuck it flat inside of the shirt - this will keep paint from soaking and bleeding from the front to back.
  3. Using paint brushes, hand-paint flowers and leaves onto a plain shirt or tropical flower and leaf stamps can also be purchased, dipped into fabric paint on a paper plate, and stamped onto plain shirts.
  4. Only paint one side of the shirt at a time and then let the paint dry for 12-24 hours. If the paint is very thin, it will take more like 12; if it's puffy paint or paint applied in a thicker fashion, it will take upwards of 24.
  5. Flip the shirt over, make sure the paper inside is still flat and protecting the reverse side, and paint the back of the shirt.
  6. Paint or stamp the back of the shirt and let dry another 12-24 hours
  7. Garments with fabric paint can be washed gently (in delicates bags, if possible) in a washing machine and should be tumble dried on low or left to air dry

The Tradition Lives On

Traditional Hawaiian dress has been passed down through the centuries, and examples can still be found today, especially at cultural events. While the modern world has certainly exerted its influence on the islands, the Hawaiian people still work to preserve elements of their original culture and share them with the rest of the world.

Traditional Hawaiian Costume