lavalava avaIn many countries with hot and humid climate around the planet, men and women traditionally dress in simple rectangular wrap-around garments for comfort. There exist many different names for these “kilts”, like sarong, dhoti, pareo, saram, maʿwaz, futah, and so on, but probably the cutest word for this handy garment appeared in Polynesia – the locals call this skirt-like cloth “lava-lava”. The Oceanic peoples wear their lavalava with beach clothing, everyday outfits, business suits, and any other style of clothes.

In Oceania, this garment is called “lavalava”, “lava-lava”, “'ie lavalava”, or just “'ie”. This traditional attire remains a common and cherished garment in Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, as well as various parts of Melanesia and Micronesia.

This versatile piece of clothing is worn by both men and women for a wide range of occasions, from school uniforms to formal business attire when paired with a suit jacket and tie. It holds significant cultural value and provides comfort, especially within expatriate communities, notably in the United States (especially in states like Hawaii, Alaska, California, Washington, and Utah), Australia, and New Zealand.

The lavalava is typically fastened around the waist with an overhand knot at the upper corners of the cloth. Women often tuck the loose ends into the waistband, while men commonly allow them to hang in front. Women tend to wear ankle-length lavalava, while men's wraps vary in length, extending to the knee or mid-calf depending on the activity or occasion.

Short history of lavalava

Before the arrival of Europeans in the Pacific Ocean, the most prestigious lavalava were crafted by wrapping the body in an 'ie toga adorned with fine mats (finely woven textiles made from pandanus leaves) or siapo (tapa cloth), which was created by pounding paper mulberry or wild hibiscus bark. Samoans also fashioned lavalava from traditional materials such as flower petals, leaves, feathers, and seashells, attaching them to a wrap-around backing made of plaited plant fibers.

Over time, calico and loomed cotton cloth largely replaced woven or barkcloth lavalava for everyday use. However, 'ie toga and siapo wraps continue to be worn today for ceremonial and festive occasions and during dance performances. Samoan men adorned with the pe'a body tattoo and Samoan women with the malu leg tattoos often adjust their lavalava during dance performances or ceremonial functions, exposing their tattoos – a style known as agini.

In Micronesia, the term “lavalava” is also used to describe loom-woven skirts in the Outer Islands of Yap. These skirts, worn around a woman's hips, have fringed ends that meet at the front and are then wrapped to one side and secured with a belt. Traditional loom weaving in this region is highly esteemed, with weavers showcasing their ingenuity and resourcefulness. These skirts hold immense cultural significance, symbolizing social and economic relations, ritual practices, and the aesthetic ideals of Micronesian society. In addition to daily wear, these skirts are used for important ceremonies like investiture, initiation, and the burial of local leaders. Although back-strap tension weaving of skirts is still practiced in the Outer Islands of Yap, it is gradually diminishing among migrants.

Contemporary lavalava styles

Specially tailored linen lavalava, which extend to mid-calf and often feature convenient pockets and ties or buckles, are typically worn by men on special occasions or when attending church services. These lavalava are consistently solid in color, distinct from the vibrant patterns of everyday lava-lava, and are known by various names such as sulu (Fijian), 'ie faitaga (Samoan), or tupenu (Tongan).

Similar ankle-length skirts make up the lower half of the two-piece formal dress worn by Samoan and Tongan women, referred to as puletasi and puletaha, respectively. During special events, Tongan tupenu and puletaha are often accompanied by a tapa cloth or waist-mat called ta'ovala, and some Samoans still incorporate a tapa cloth vala sash into their attire in a similar fashion. However, the vala is generally reserved for ceremonial or festive regalia, often worn by orators or individuals portraying taupou maidens and manaia beaus.

The formal, tailored linen lavalava styles of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji have their roots in the innovations of Fijian noble Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna. He introduced the buckled sulu to Fiji in 1920 after his military service and university education in Europe, influencing the fashion trends in these regions.

In recent times, brightly colored lavalava made from materials such as satin, velvet, polyester, and adorned with sequins have gained popularity, particularly among performance dance groups and within village, church, or school-based choirs. These eye-catching designs add a vibrant and modern twist to the traditional lavalava attire.

Add comment
NOTE! If you’re the owner of materials used to make this article and you don’t want it to be published here, please let us know and we’ll remove the article or certain photos. But please consider that we always add active links leading to your video. It can help you get more visitors. And video transcriptions increase the validity of your video clips in Google ratings.