When we think of traditional Hawaiian costume, 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 tribal festivals and other important rituals.
Traditional Costumes of the Hawaiian Culture
The tropical climate of Hawaii has never been conducive to European dress. Early Hawaiians covered themselves more in tattoos than garments. Tattoos were a way of designating one's position in society and one's abilities. As far as actual 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. It also created no strain on the environment - every year, people just harvested what was needed to make new coverings. 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. Warriors especially 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.
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 grass skirt called a pau 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 forced the Hawaiian royalty to have it banned.
Officially, the hula was banned, but the dances continued to be performed in secret, so that they could be passed down and thus 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.
Hawaiian Shirts and MuuMuus
Men's Hawaiian shirts and the similarly patterned muumuus for women are both descendants of the missionary 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. The cotton or silk is crucial to one's enjoyment of an island luau. Although more covered than the native people once were, natural, less treated fabrics can still breathe, thus allowing the wearer to remain comfortable in the tropical climate. Both men and women traditionally wear some sort of floral headdress, rather than a hat. A straw hat can be acceptable if you so choose, especially if it is adorned with flowers, shells or other accessories native to Hawaii.
The Tradition Lives On
Traditional Hawaiian dress has been passed down through the centuries, and you can still find examples today. While the modern world has certainly exerted its influence on the islands, the Hawaiian people still manage to preserve elements of their original culture and share them with the rest of the world.