hawaiians avaIf you still think that Hawaiian national costume consists of a coconut bra and a grass skirt, this article is for you. The traditional clothing of Hawaii is much more delicate, complicated, and good-looking. Some costumes survived only because people had secretly kept their traditions. Modern variants of Hawaiian folk outfits are rather modest, but years ago locals used to wear body paintings and tattoos instead of clothing.


Due to the tropical climate, early Hawaiians used few garments – mostly they were loin-cloths, pa’u skirts, and rectangular shawls called “kihei”. People also covered their bodies with paintings and tattoos. One of the most important pieces of a costume was a headdress. Usually, it was a hat or a helmet embellished with many feathers. Such helmets were status headgears and were used only by the warriors and highly respected people.

The materials used by Hawaiians in clothing making were natural: grass, plant fibers, bark of trees, etc. Such garments were easy to make, didn’t cost anything, and protected the body from the heat and humidity.

Modern variant of Hawaiian traditional costume
Modern variant of Hawaiian traditional costume

Though, later Hawaiians started to use a cloth to make clothing. And their national costume nowadays is much more delicate, complicated, and good-looking than it was in old times.

Today, the most indicative piece of Hawaiian folk costume is a floral wreath called “lei”. Every tourist receives one when he or she sets a foot on Hawaiian land. Wearing a lei is a modern tradition, but historically such wreaths were used as a ceremonial present to gods or other tribes. So, they’ve always been important for Hawaiians. Modern leis are made of flowers but other materials also can be used: feathers, shells, nuts, and even bones and teeth.




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Men’s traditional garments

Hawaiian men used to wear loin-cloths, as we’ve mentioned earlier. Such garment is called “malo”. But it is tied differently from the African loin-cloths. It is not just a flap at the front, but rather something like a short-skirt or skort (the fabric is passed between the legs and tied so that there is a flap at the front and at the back). Today malo is also used by locals sometimes, especially during the tribal festivals and other traditional ceremonial events. But most men replaced malo with modern boardshorts – knee-length nylon or polyester shorts.

Men in malo traditional Hawaiian loin-cloths
Men in malo (traditional Hawaiian loin-cloths). Photo from Islandher.com

A traditional Hawaiian shirt or “aloha shirt” serves as an upper garment. This piece of clothing was forced on Hawaiians by the missioners years ago. But locals got used to it, improved it to their taste, and now consider it a part of their traditional costume. Such shirts are used by males in everyday life. They’re made from cotton, polyester, or silk. Aloha shirts are often adorned with floral patterns (which are typical for Hawaii), animal patterns, and tropical designs. They are very colorful and bright. The sleeves of a Hawaiian shirt are usually short.

Men in various aloha shirts
Men in various aloha shirts. Photo from Aloha-hawaii.com

As an outerwear, Hawaiian men used a rectangular shawl called “kihei”. It provided protection from cold and rain. Kihei is often beautifully patterned. There are several ways of wearing it: to throw over both shoulders and tie in front (like a kerchief or scarf), to center it over the left shoulder and tie over the right one, or to center it over one shoulder (any of them) and tie under the opposite arm.

Traditional Hawaiian feather helmet called mahiole
Traditional Hawaiian feather helmet called “mahiole”. Photo from Pinterest.com

The traditional headdress of Hawaiian men is a feather helmet called “mahiole”. It is often worn with a matching feather cloak. Only Hawaiians of the upper class were allowed to use such garments. Though, ordinary men also used headdresses made from flowers, feathers, and other items, especially for a wedding.

Women’s traditional garments

Hawaiian female garment similar to men’s aloha shirt is called “muumuu”. It is a long, short-sleeved, and loose-fitting dress. Muumuu is made from natural materials (cotton, silk, etc.) or synthetic fabrics like polyester. It is richly embellished with floral patterns. This piece is very popular among Hawaiian women.

Woman in a muumuu dress
Woman in a muumuu dress

Another traditional garment of females in Hawaii is a hula costume. Historically it consisted of a lei, a grass skirt, and ankle bracelets. This dress was used during the hula dance, the traditional Hawaiian dance. This dance was a way of glorifying gods and transferring the traditional stories, legends, and true facts to the next generation. During the missionary period, hula dance was banned, but people secretly kept this tradition and revive it in modern times. Though, today the costume used by hula dancers is a little different. Women use long fabric skirts or muumuu dresses while men wear trousers and a malo on top. Sometimes grass skirts are still worn but on top of a fabric garment. By the way, Hawaiian women didn’t use coconuts as a bra – it is a modern myth.

Women dancing hula dance in modern folk clothing
Women dancing a hula dance in modern folk clothing

Hawaiian women also wore an outerwear called “kihei”. The design was pretty the same as a male variant.

Females often wore headgears made from flowers, feathers, shells, and similar decorative elements. They could weave flowers into the hair or pin them to a hairdo. The most beautiful floral headdresses were used by brides at their wedding.

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