Throughout the years of late-prehistory, 1400s – 1700s AD, and through much of the 1800s, the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawai`i. Most permanent villages initially were near the ocean and sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds, as well as facilitating canoe travel between villages.
Although the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi, extensive cross-country trail networks. Overland travel was by foot and followed the traditional trails.
Then, in 1803, American ship under Captain William Shaler (with commercial officer Richard Cleveland,) arrived with three horses aboard – gifts for King Kamehameha.
In the 1820s and 1830s, more horses were imported from California, and by the 1840s the use of introduced horses, mules and bullocks for transportation was increasing.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, riding on horseback had come to be both a common means of efficient travel and a common form of recreation and entertainment. The recreational aspect of horseback riding made the greatest appeal. Hawaiians became enthusiastic and expert equestrians. (Kuykendall)
So, how did the women adapt to the horse transportation environment? In pre-contact Hawaii, the predominant form of dress for women was the pāʻū.
This consisted of a rectangular piece of kapa (tapa,) which was fabricated from the inner bark of wauke (paper mulberry trees) that was wrapped several times around the waist and extended from beneath the bust (for royalty) or the waistline (for commoners) to the knee (it looked like a hula skirt.)
By the time of horse travel, Hawaiian fashion had already transitioned to Western wear, and Hawaiian women chose to ride astride, rather than sidesaddle. They adapted the traditional pāʻū by adding length to it – it was worn as a protective covering to keep a woman’s fancy garment from getting soiled on the way to a party or gathering.
The earliest pāʻū skirts were formed from fabrics of the day, primarily calico or gingham. It was made of a single piece of fabric, up to 12 yards in length, wrapped around the rider in such a way as to flow over the stirrups and to the ground.
There are no “fasteners,” such as buttons, pins or buckles; the pāʻū is held in place with kukui nuts that are twisted inside the fabric, tucked into the waistband for a secure fit.
There are different methods for wrapping, depending on family tradition. Some start from front to back and use just a few kukui nuts to hold the skirt in place, while others gather the fabric from the back, using up to eight kukui nuts.
In 1875, Isabella Bird noted, “There were hundreds of native horsemen and horsewomen, many of them doubtless on the dejected quadrupeds I saw at the wharf, but a judicious application of long rowelled Mexican spurs, and a degree of emulation, caused these animals to tear along at full gallop.”
“The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass-bossed, high peaked saddles, flying along astride, bare-footed, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers and many coloured dresses”. (Isabella Bird, 1875)
“Sometimes a troop of twenty of these free-and-easy female riders went by at a time, a graceful and exciting spectacle, with a running accompaniment of vociferation and laughter. … In the shady, tortuous streets we met hundreds more of native riders, dashing at full gallop without fear of the police. Many of the women were in flowing riding dresses of pure white, over which their unbound hair, and wreaths of carmine-tinted flowers fell most picturesquely.” (Isabella Bird, 1875)
By the early-1900s, the automobile made its appearance and soon reduced the need and use of horses. Then, a group of women made a society to keep the culture going and Pāʻū clubs were formed.
The Hawaiian Star, February 22, 1906, headlined the “Floral Parade a Great Success.” “It was a great day for Honolulu. The Promotion Committee’s inauguration of what is intended to be an annual event in celebration of Washington’s birthday …”
“… could have asked no better day, no greater success, no more wide spread interest in all classes of the population, no greater enthusiasm among those who participated In the parade, and no more unique, striking, or picturesque a feature to Individualize the celebration In Honolulu, and make it separate, and apart from the pageant of other places than the Pa-u riders.”
“The Pa-u riders, of course, were the magnet and center of attraction. This revival of an old custom, picturesque and under the conditions that gave rise to it, strikingly useful, was a happy thought of the Promotion Committee.”
“ It appealed to dormant but when aroused, pleasing associations, among the older residents, especially the Hawaiians. It appealed to the love of oddity and the striking costume in the younger generation.” (The Hawaiian Star, February 22, 1906)
“To the old-timers of Honolulu Time seemed to have gone backward in its flight when they saw this morning the long line of pa-u riders following the automobiles and other rigs in the Floral Parade.”
“The pa-u section was a picturesque part of the parade, and it was a reminder of old times to hundreds of those who watched, for pa-u riding, which has been unseen here for many years, was once a regular performance.” (The Hawaiian Star, February 22, 1906)
The next year reporting on February 22, 1907 edition of The Hawaiian Star affirmed the annual tradition by describing the second annual floral parade, noting, “Flowers and bright scenes every where marked the parade and showed a happy combination of modern achievement with the customs of Hawaiian days of long ago.”
“There was a most striking array of pa-u riders. … A new feature this year were the Island princesses. It was in this division that the most elegant horses were shown.“ (The Hawaiian Star, February 22, 1907)
“The pa-u riders were undoubtedly the most unique feature of the parade. The revival of the old picturesque riding costume is certainly an excellent idea. It has undoubtedly returned to stay, for it has now made it evident that after this no parade would be complete without it.” (Evening Bulletin, February 22, 1907)
Pāʻū riding is a uniquely Hawaiian equestrian style; one notable horsewoman, Anna Lindsey Perry-Fiske introduced the continent to the riding tradition at the Calgary Stampede and the 1972 Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. She later show-cased “Old Hawaiʻi on Horseback” pageants.
The tradition of wearing the pāʻū is kept alive today and has evolved into an elaborate display in which lei-adorned women demonstrate their horsemanship at parades and celebrations throughout Hawaiʻi.
With the pāʻū queen and her unit leading the way, each pāʻū princess presides over her own unit representing one of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, with each island unit displaying its island flower and colors.
Niʻihau has niʻihau shells and their colors are brown/white; Kauaʻi has the mokihana and their color is purple; Oahu has an Ilima flower and their color is yellow; Molokaʻi has kukui and their color is green; Maui has the lokelani and their color is pink; …
… Lānaʻi has the kaunaona and their color is orange; Kahoolawe has ahinahina and their colors are grey/blue and Hawaiʻi Island has the ʻōhiʻa lehua and their color is red.