Hawaiian Tropical Dresses and Their History

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Jenny and The Hawaiian Tropical Dress

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So my good friend Jenny went to Hawaii a few months back, and Luaus, coconuts, and pineapples were all things that she could think about. While Jenny was visiting Hawaii, she found that part of what makes Hawaii a great travel destination, as well as a place to live, was its own unique culture. Of course, part of that culture is the Hawaiian clothing, which happens to have its own history. The climate shapes Hawaiian wear in Hawaii. Living and traveling to Hawaii can be a welcomed change from cold, dark, dreary days and tons of snow and Jenny quickly fell in love with Hawaii and Hawaiian clothing, particularly Hawaiian tropical dresses. To quench her curiosity, she promptly sought out to learn more about Hawaiian tropical dress history.

Hawaiian Dresses

History of the Hawaiian Tropical Dress

Living in a benign climate, Hawaiian requirements for shelter and clothing were minimal. The basic garments were a malo, or loincloth, for men, a pa`u, or skirt, for women and a rectangular shawl or kihei for both. All were made of kapa, a bark cloth made from wauke, mamaki, oloa, 'akala, or hau plant fibers. While kapa is produced throughout Polynesia and the first settlers brought wauke plants (paper mulberry) with them, as Hawaiian kapa evolved, its quality surpassed that of any other region. Kapa in Hawai`i displayed a wide variety of weights, textures and designs. Hawaiians used plenty of unique techniques including producing watermarks with patterned beaters, printing designs with bamboo stamps, achieving greens and blues with vegetable dyes and beating perfumed flora into the cloth to impart a fragrance. At least 68 distinct types of kapa were produced, each with a specific name. Kapa was used for many things other than clothing, including bedding or sheet material and as banners or as wrapping material. These beautiful pattern designs and colors have been carried forth into the look on today's Hawaiian shirts and Hawaiian Tropical dresses.

Other garments included the kihei, a type of cloak worn over one shoulder. Ti leaf capes provided protection against cold or rain. Ali`i wore feather capes, cloaks, helmets and lei as signs of rank and status. These were created from the feathers of hundreds or thousands of birds attached to a mesh backing, feather garments used striking geometric patterns, most often in red and yellow. Since only a few feathers were taken from each bird caught (the live bird was then released), gathering the feathers for one cape could take decades or even generations.

Before the New England missionaries arrived in the 1820's, the native women wore very limited body cover except for tattoos on their skin and feathers on their heads. Some also wore a pa`u, which looks like a hula skirt, and a rectangular shawl or kihei. All were made of tapa, a barkcloth made from plant fibers. As Hawaiian tapa evolved, its quality surpassed that of any other Polynesian region, displaying a wide variety of designs, weights, and textures.

When the Christian missionaries arrived in the 1820's though, they preferred the women clothed and designed a two-piece outfit for them consisting of an under-layer called a 'holoku' worn with a chemise they called a 'muumuu'. The holoku featured long sleeves and a floor-length unfitted dress falling from a high-necked yoke. Over it, they wore the muumuu, which means "cut off" in Hawaiian, because the dress originally lacked a yoke. The native women thought that the two layers were too hot and so they wore the muumuu only for daily wear.

It wasn't until the mid-1930s that Hawaiian clothing manufacturers decided to produce cloth that was uniquely Hawaiian in design. Watumull's East India Store led the way by commissioning artist Elsie Das to create fifteen floral designs. Her hand-painted designs were shipped to Japan where they were printed by hand onto raw silk. Over the years, women's Hawaiian clothing has tended to feature floral designs: ginger blossoms, plumeria, hibiscus, orchids, and birds-of-paradise.

These colorful dresses were the direct ancestors of modern aloha wear. As the muumuu mated and morphed with traditional Asian designs, a unique series of women's garments emerged. For informal entertaining, the pake muu featured long, wing-like sleeves based on a Chinese design. The popular tea-timer was a tight-fitting, tailored, sleeveless top with a short mandarin collar. The holomu was a fitted garment for more formal evening wear while the holoku was a full-length dress for formal affairs.

While both garments continue to be very important in Hawaii, it is the mu'umu' u that is regarded by most of the world as Hawaiian dress and the holoku that is practically unknown outside of Hawai'i. For formal events, and other celebrations related to Hawaiian culture and ethnicity, the holoku is the quintessential Hawaiian gown, fitted and floor-length to the body but with no waistline. Some even have long trains. The comfort of the holoku was noted by Isabella Lucy Bird, who traveled through the Hawaiian Islands in 1873. She described the holoku in great detail, praised its simplicity, comfort and beauty. In contrast to the confinement of Western fashion, Bird noted that "if we white women always wore holoku of one shape, we should have fewer gloomy moments."

After her trip to Hawaii and the Hawaiian Tropical dress history lesson, Jenny no doubt now finds Hawaiian tropical dresses are both comfortable and cool. Jenny warmly agrees with Isabella Lucy Bird that wearing a Hawaiian Tropical dress makes her look and feel great with far fewer "gloomy moments". Find your happiness with a beautiful and uplifting Hawaiian Tropical dress of your choice.

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