The origin of the name for kapa (bark-cloth) is simply ka = the, and pa = beaten, or the beaten thing. It was made with akia, wauke, palaholo, mamaki.
Its earliest and most important use is for clothing; malo: a strip of cloth nine inches wide and nine feet long for the man, and pa‘u for the woman: a strip a little wider and somewhat longer.
In pre-contact Hawai‘i, men wore a ‘maro’ (malo,) “pieces of cloth tied about the loins, and hanging a considerable way down.
The only difference in (women’s) dress, the pā‘ū, was their having a piece of cloth about the body, reaching from near the middle to half-way down the thighs, instead of the maro worn by the other sex.” (Cook’s Journal)
The pā‘ū was wrapped several times around the waist and extended from beneath the woman’s bust (for royalty) or the waistline (for commoners) to the knee (it looked kind of like a hula skirt.)
Following ‘Contact,’ Western Wear Caught On
At daybreak, on November 24, 1816, the ship Rurick faced the coast of Hawai‘i. Captain von Kotzebue had previously been advised of a strong anti-Russian feeling ‘in the air’, as a result of the awkwardly aggressive maneuvers of the Russian (Georg Anton Schäffer) against Kamehameha’s political primacy. (Charlot)
Louis Choris, the official artist on the Rurick, “asked Tammeamea permission to do his portrait; this project seemed to please him very much, but he asked me to leave him alone an instant, so he could dress.”
“Imagine my surprise on seeing this monarch display himself in the costume of a sailor; he wore blue trousers, a red waistcoat, a clean white shirt and a necktie of yellow silk. I begged him to change his dress; he refused absolutely and insisted on being painted as he was.” (Charlot)
From Hawaii, the Rurick went to Oahu for provisioning and repairs, anchoring at Honolulu. An event of its stay was the visit aboard of Kamehameha’s vice-regent for the island, Kalanimoku, and his retinue. (Charlot)
“They immediately recognized Tammeamea’s portrait, and when it became known that we had Tammeamea on paper, we daily received a crowd of visitors who wished to see him.” (Otto von Kotzebue)
Kamehameha obviously preferred western dress, whereas Choris wished to present him in the traditional kapa attire; however, knowing that the western world would be the audience for the artist’s depiction, Kamehameha presented himself as a civilized ruler in western wear. (Mission Houses)
Chiefs in Western Wear – Chiefesses Also Wanted Western Women’s Wear
On October 23, 1819, the Pioneer Company of missionaries left Boston for the Hawaiian Islands. After approximately 160-days at sea, they sighted the Island of Hawai‘i on March 30, 1820 and made their way to Kawaihae that day,
“On the 31st of March, a considerable number of the natives came off to our vessel, from the shores of Kohala, to dispose of their little articles of barter, and to look at the strangers.”
“On the 1st of April, as we were abreast of Kawaihae, Kalanimōku and his wives, and Kalākua (subsequently Hoapiliwahine) and her sister Nāmāhāna (sometimes Opi‘ia), two of the widows of the late king, came oft to us with their loquacious attendants, in their double canoe.”
“As they were welcomed on board, the felicitous native compliment, aloha (good-will, peace, affection), with shaking hands, passed between them, and each member of the mission family, Captain Blanchard and others.”
“Kalanimōku was distinguished from almost the whole nation, by being decently clad. His dress, put on for the occasion, consisted of a white dimity roundabout, a black silk vest, yellow Nankeen pants, shoes, and white cotton hose, plaid cravat, and fur hat.”
The next day, “Kalākua, a widow of Kamehameha, having little sympathy with the Evangelical prophet, and shrewdly aiming to see what the white women could do for her temporal benefit, asked them to make a gown for her in fashion like their own.” (Hiram Bingham)
“Kalākua brought a web of white cambric to have a dress made for herself in the fashion of our ladies, and was very particular in her wish to have it finished while sailing along the western side of the island, before reaching the king.”
“Monday morning April 3d (1820,) the first sewing circle was formed that the sun ever looked down upon in the Hawaiian realm. Kalākua was directress. She requested all the seven white ladies to take seats with them on mats, on the deck of the Thaddeus.”
“The dress was made in the fashion of 1819. The length of the skirt accorded with Brigham Young’s rule to his Mormon damsels, – have it come down to the tops of the shoes. But in the queen’s case, where the shoes were wanting, the bare feet cropped out very prominently.” (Lucy Thurston)
“White men had lived and moved among them for a score of years. In our company were the first white women that ever stepped on these shores.” (Lucy Thurston)
“White women were, as might have been expected, objects of great curiosity to the chattering natives, who thronged around them, as they walked along, to gaze at their costume …”
“… their white hands and faces, running before them and peering under their projecting bonnets, laughing, shouting, trotting around with bare feet, heads and limbs, men, women and children, and singing out occasionally, ‘A-i-oe-oe’ a phrase signifying long, protruding neck.”
“This term they doubtless applied from the appearance occasioned by the large, projecting fore-parts of the bonnets, in the fashion of 1819, so widely different from that of Hawaiian females, whose heads were usually bare, but occasionally ornamented with a simple chaplet of natural flowers, or small feathers.” (Hiram Bingham)
“It was thus the natives described the ladies: ‘They are white and have hats with a spout. Their faces are round and far in. Their necks are long. They look well.’ They were called ‘Long Necks.’ The company of long necks included the whole fraternity.” (Lucy Thurston)
Holokū and Mu‘umu‘u
The missionary wives modified their New England-style dresses to adapt to the hot, humid environment. They replaced the high waistline of Western fashion with a yoke. The end result was a basic design (referred to as a “Mother Hubbard”) which was simply a full, straight skirt attached to a yoke with a high neck and tight sleeves.
The diaries of missionary women report that Hawaiian women who had been Christianized adopted the holokū as daily dress by 1822 and it became standard dress of all Hawaiian women as early as 1838.
“All the women wore the native dress, the sack or holokū, many of which were black, blue, green, or bright rose color, some were bright yellow, a few were pure white, and others were a mixture of orange and scarlet.” (Isabella Bird 1894)
“At first the holokū, which is only a full, yoke nightgown, is not attractive, but I admire it heartily now, and the sagacity of those who devised it. It conceals awkwardness, and befits grace of movement; it is fit for the climate, is equally adapted for walking and riding, and has that general appropriateness which is desirable in costume.” (Isabella Bird, 1894)
The holokū was worn with a loose-fitting undergarment, the mu‘umu‘u (meaning cut-off, shortened.) Eventually, the mu‘umu‘u came to be worn as an outer garment, as well. The muʻumuʻu in the early days was a dress for home wear. It was made full and unfitted with high or low neck and long or short sleeves
It is the more comfortable muʻumuʻu that has challenged the present day designers to create many variations for home, street and party wear. Although it originated in Hawaii in the 1820s as a loose gown without a waistline or train and was worn for everyday wear, the holokū today is a long formal gown with a train.
For formal events, and other celebrations related to Hawaiian culture and ethnicity, the holokū is the quintessential Hawaiian gown. While both holokū and mu‘umu‘u 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 holokū that is practically unknown outside of Hawai’i.
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