Clothing of Oceania

The sunny climate of Oceania did not require people to wear bulky clothing for warmth. The inhabitants of the more than thirty thousand islands exposed most, or all, of their bodies. Men and boys went about naked, and women often wore only a skirt made of plant fibers or grasses around their waists. Instead of clothes, the peoples of Oceania developed intricate and meaningful body decoration traditions.

Weaving developed in the Philippines and other parts of Oceania in 2000 B.C.E. Although none of the early cloth has survived, definite evidence of woven cloth garments was found dating back to the fourteenth century. The most common garments were loincloths for men and wraparound skirts for women, with blankets to cover the shoulders of both genders. The cloth was woven out of a variety of different materials, including pounded bark, palm, hemp, flax, or cotton. The cloth was decorated with geometric patterns and stripes woven into the cloth. Islanders favored brightly colored threads of blue, green, yellow, and red, among others. The finished cloth was also embellished with paint, embroidery, mother-of-pearl or other beads, brass wire, or fringe.

Just as many cultures in Oceania developed beliefs surrounding the application of body decoration, similar traditional beliefs developed around fabrics and garments. Certain types of garments could only be worn by people with power or high social rank, such as the feather cloak, or the kahu huruhuru, of the Maori of New Zealand, for example. In addition, other cultures developed belief systems that linked sickness, luck, and honor to the type of fabric and decorative ornamentation worn. For example, some cultures believed that if fabric was sold before the weaving was finished or if a man wore a certain outfit before earning a particular distinction, illness or tragedy might befall the wearer.

Oceanic women wearing long dresses made of grass and flowers or of printed material and flower headbands. Reproduced by permission of © .

Some parts of Oceania were colder than others. New Zealand, for example, could get very cold in the winter. When ancestors of the Maori arrived in New Zealand from the Philippines, they began to develop weaving techniques to make warmer clothes. They used plant fibers, especially flax, to create cloaks to which they attached feathers, tufts of grass, bundles of plant material, or dog hair for extra warmth and protection against the rain. In the late nineteenth century C.E. , wool began to be used to weave fine cloaks for warmth. The tradition of cloak weaving among the Maori was almost lost after World War II (1939–45) when many Maori people abandoned their flax plantations and moved to urban areas when Europeans built prison camps near their villages.

As westerners infiltrated societies in Oceania starting in the sixteenth century, some native people began to adopt Western clothing styles. Men began wearing stitched shirts, jackets, and knee-length trousers, and women began to cover their breasts with blouses or dresses. Christian missionaries in Hawaii, for example, introduced cloth dresses for women. These loose fitting dresses have come to be called muumuus. Other women in Polynesia used imported European cloth to create sarongs or pareos, which are skirts made of fabric tied around the waist. Men also began wearing Western-style short-sleeved shirts, nicknamed aloha shirts. While traditional island clothing was made out of grasses, flowers, and other natural substances, this new fabric clothing came to feature floral designs of the native ginger blossoms, plumeria, hibiscus, orchids, and birds-of-paradise. These Western-style clothes had become so associated with Hawaii and Polynesia by the 1930s that Western tourists began a demand for them that has yet to fade. Today the Hawaiian shirt, with its brightly colored floral design, is a favorite Hawaiian souvenir and often a symbol that the wearer is on vacation.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Paastor-Roces, Marian. Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave. Quezon City, Philippines: Nikki Coseteng, 1991.

Pendergrast, Mick. Te Aho Tapu: The Sacred Thread. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Reyes, Lynda Angelica N. The Textiles of Southern Philippines: The Textile Traditions of the Bagobo, Mandaya, Bilaan from Their Beginnings to the 1900s. Quezon City, Philippines: University of the Philippines Press, 1992.

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