Traditionally, the variety of items used to adorn the head – the most tapu part of the body – were an important part of dress. In addition to the use of oils or ochre, adornments included ephemeral feathers, flowers and leaves. Bone, stone or wooden combs, called heru, were worn only by men of important status.
Many changes followed colonisation. Men adopted shorter hairstyles. Feathers of introduced birds became used instead of those of indigenous species, which became threatened or even extinct due to the destruction of their habitat. The wearing of carved bone combs has been adopted by women, and the use of greenery in times of mourning is a traditional custom that continues in the 2000s.
European trading with Māori
‘Gunnah’s merchandize consisted of a number of the white feathers of the gannet, which are universally worn by both sexes … taking some of the feathers out of the box, in which he had laid them with as much dexterity as if they had been packed up by the most experienced man-milliner in London, he stuck several of them in the heads of the surrounding ladies, who, when thus decorated, congratulated each other with extatic transports.’ 1
Varieties of feathers in headdresses
Hair adornments included the elegant, long red streamer-like tail feathers of the amokura (red-tailed tropic bird). Other stories tell of the use of rau o tītapu or awe-nui, the fragile long white dorsal plumes that cover the back of the breeding kōtuku (white heron).
The huia became extinct because its feathers were prized by both Māori and Pākehā. Huia had 12 black tail feathers tipped with white. These could be worn singly, or the entire tail might be smoke-dried and worn in the hair. It is also recorded that huia tail feathers were used in ancient times to make a special kind of war headdress, the 12-feathered marereko. Huia feathers were so treasured that specially carved boxes called waka huia were made to store them safely.
Toroa and tākapu
In the later 18th century artists on James Cook’s voyages portrayed men wearing two or three white feathers from large pelagic (open-sea) birds in their hair. These were usually from the tākapu (gannet) and the toroa (albatross).
Heru or combs ranged from the tall one-piece whalebone titireia worn by chiefs, to a variety of heru carved from bird and sometimes even human bone, as well as a single piece or composite heru made of wood. Like all items of dress, they were ultimately disposed of carefully, many being consigned to swamps.
Mourning greenery and caps
Some tribal groups wore tauā (mourning wreaths) of leaves from locally available plants around their heads as a mark of mourning. Leaves ranged from fast-drooping ferns to kawakawa. This custom continued in the 2000s for important tangihanga.
Pōtae tauā were mourning caps. In 1769 both male and female Māori were recorded as wearing large black feathered mourning caps in Queen Charlotte Sound. In the 19th century they were more frequently worn by widows. These bands or close-fitting skullcaps frequently had attachments that hung over the wearer’s eyes.
One form of pōtae tauā has survived. Weft-twined in muka (flax fibre) and covered with black-dyed seaweed (probably karepō or rimurehia), this type was identified as a karapō.