Traditional Māori dress was both varied and complex. Māori wore a wide range of hairstyles and ornaments, skin colourings and oils, as well as facial or body tattoos. Clothing consisted of shoulder and waist garments, belts and sometimes sandals. People adorned themselves with a range of neck and ear pendants, and carried prized weapons in formal situations.
Shoulder garments included capes and cloaks, ranging from practical rain capes to full-length cloaks with stitched or intertwined attachments, or with intricately woven tāniko borders. Waist garments comprised maro (frontal aprons) and a variety of kilt-like garments.
While items of dress gave protection against physical elements, they could also hold spiritual significance. There was little difference between the clothing of men and women, aside from those of high status.
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries from 1814, Māori had their own concepts of modesty. Male modesty was maintained by wearing penis cords. During the times of James Cook’s voyages, women were described as always wearing something round their waists. When a party of Cook’s men surprised a group of naked women gathering shellfish, the women hid themselves among the rocks until they managed to make maro of seaweed to wear.
When Ngāti Whare ancestor Whare-pakau sought to identify his Arawa enemy Ihu-rakau, he was told ‘You cannot mistake him. His hair is dressed in three tufts, his cape is a māhiti, his weapon a hoeroa.’ The māhiti is a type of dog-skin cloak, and the hoeroa a specific whalebone weapon.
Clothing conveyed a range of information about the status of the wearer and the region they were from. However, because Māori society had a communal nature, there was a strong sense of collective identity. If the leader of a group was well dressed, it reflected on all members.
The most prestigious garments were labour-intensive in construction, incorporating rare or valued elements. They were worn only by those with high status and power. However, the relationship between dress and mana was highly complex. Dressing well served to add mana to certain activities – ranging from the peacetime planting of kūmara to preparing for battle.
Men involved in the ceremonial planting of kūmara plots on the East Coast were required to be clothed in garments such as the aronui, māhiti, paepaeroa, puhoro or pātea – all finely woven garments of dressed flax, differing from one another in their ornamentation. This was part of creating the most auspicious conditions to ensure a successful harvest.
A Ngāti Kahungunu story tells how a warrior party waited for their chief, Tamaterangi, to recite an incantation before they set off. When the chief did not move, his younger brother Makoro then asked him to stand and perform the rite. Tamaterangi’s reply has become a proverb, ‘He ao te rangi ka uhia a ma te huruhuru te manu ka rere ai’ (It requires clouds to clothe heaven and feathers to make a bird fly). Makoro understood that his brother felt he did not have clothing befitting this ceremony, so he took off his own cloak to place on him.
For people of high rank, items of dress could serve as extensions of the owner’s personal power or mana. A chiefly garment, or even part of it, could be used to set something aside for exclusive use, signifying a type of potential ownership. An early Pākehā-Māori recorded how a chief had ‘reserved’ a gun that he fancied: ‘“I must tapu it before I leave the ship.“ … here he pulls a piece of the fringe from his cloak and ties it round the stock of the gun, thereby rendering it impossible for me to sell, give away, or dispose of it in any way to anyone but himself.’1
Clothing and hairstyles varied from region to region, so it was often possible to identify someone’s iwi from their appearance. There were also regional variations in the names given to different styles of clothing and adornment, so some iwi may have used different terms to those recorded here.
Because of this complex relationship between items of dress and personal mana, early chiefly garments are very rare. Any clothing or other possessions were seen to be a risk to others, and discarded items were hidden or buried as a precaution.
When the East Polynesian ancestors of the Māori people came to New Zealand, they found a colder climate than the tropical one they had left behind. They brought a range of cord-making, knotting, netting and weaving skills with them. They also brought familiar plants they hoped to grow, including aute (paper mulberry), commonly used to make bark-cloth garments in the tropics.
However, aute did not grow well in New Zealand, and bark cloth was unsuitable for the temperate climate. Nonetheless aute retained an important place in the cultural memory and some chiefs still wore small pieces as ear adornment in the 18th century.
The closest endemic species to aute was the houhi, whauwhi, or houhere (regional names for ribbonwood or lacebark). It was probably used in early attempts to make bark cloth, but eventually long thin strips of inner bark were used in some regions to make flexible skirts or capes.
For most clothing purposes the new settlers adapted their existing technologies to semi-familiar plants with leaves that could be used in the same ways as tropical palms. Leaves were split into strips to be plaited, or mussel shells were used to strip out the fibre – these strong fibres were called muka or whītau according to the region. These plants included the harakeke (New Zealand flax), kiekie (a climbing vine), tī kōuka or whanake (cabbage trees), tōī (mountain cabbage tree), pīngao (golden sand sedge), wharawhara, kōwharawhara (Astelia species) and various grasses. Some supplied fibre, others were used for plaiting or interweaving, and some for both; but the variety of harakeke species became the primary choice.
A remnant of a stitched weka-skin garment was found at a schist cave burial site on the Strath Taieri Plain in 1881. Seams stitched with muka fibre are proof of a well-established practice probably dating back to the 13th century, as evidenced by bone needles and awls found at the Wairau Bar archaeological site. The seams have a form of knotted blanket stitch that has the advantage of not slipping or loosening during the sewing process. These skins offer evidence of how other bird skins may have been joined for use.
The discovery of a plentiful supply of large flightless birds must have been a huge bonus when Polynesians first arrived. Around 10 species of moa were hunted. The moa hunters were unlikely to have wasted the birds’ large feathered skins when needing garments for winter weather. A thin sliver of moa skin was discovered covering a seam on a remnant of weka cloak made long after moa had disappeared.
When moa became extinct it is likely that smaller ground birds such as kiwi, weka and kākāpō increased in importance as sources for food and clothing. Skins of all three species were sewn to make cloaks. Sometimes strips of skins were attached to warp yarns (the vertical threads) in early forms of woven textiles. Traditional stories tell of maro (frontal aprons) of red kākā feathers. In the late 18th century women were observed wearing maro made of bird skins.
Surrounded by water, New Zealand was rich in sea life. Kahu kekeno (sealskin cloaks) featured in stories, but had disappeared by the time of James Cook’s voyages in the late 1700s. A range of kahu kurī (dog-skin cloaks) had become the most prestigious garments by the later half of the 18th century. Some consisted of entire pelts stitched together. For others, rows of strips of skin were overlaid and attached to a firmly woven fibre base. This technique allowed the development of a variety of designs.
Taonga such as kākahu (cloaks or garments) connect to the spiritual world through the whakapapa of the natural materials from which they are woven, the values and ancestral knowledge and practices. According to Ngāti Awa elder Hāmiora Pio, the knowledge of weaving began with Hine-rauamoa, the wife of Tāne-nui-a-rangi.
Aitia te wahine i roto i te pā harakeke.
Marry the woman found in the flax bush.
This whakataukī (saying) illustrates how important a weaver was to her community in the past. From birth, a girl of aristocratic lineage was initiated into the arts of Hine-rauamoa.
Muka, the inner fibre extracted from the long, sword-like leaves of the harakeke (New Zealand flax), is the preferred customary fibre for cloak weaving. Careful observation of protocols and rituals protected the mauri (life force) of the plants and material harvested for weaving, and the mauri of the weaver herself.
A well-known weaver gave mana to taonga (ancestral treasures) they created through their own personal skills and knowledge. Mastery of weaving involves many skills, from making baskets, cords and mats to fine cloaks, using processes and techniques developed over many generations. The most prized items were carefully and beautifully made for important people. These taonga increase in cultural value with each passing generation.
Māori cloaks were woven by hand, without the use of a loom. Whatu, the finger weft twining technique used for making fish nets and traps, was adapted to construct garments. Closely packed wefts create a firm textile, while more widely spaced wefts give a more pliant product. Decorative tāniko borders use a similar method and are a uniquely Māori invention.
Traditionally, weaving was taught within families, usually by a mother, aunt or grandmother. Strict protocols and restrictions were part of the discipline of maintaining the integrity of this knowledge. This art was in serious decline until the 1950s, when moves were made through education programmes and national bodies such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League to preserve and maintain weaving and highlight the need to protect the natural resources vital for weaving.
In 1983 Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi called the first national hui for Māori and Pacific weavers at Tokomaru Bay. The Aotearoa Te Moananui a Kiwa weavers group was formed, amalgamating Māori and Pacific weavers. Later the Māori national weavers’ collective Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa was established. In the 2000s Māori weaving is a highly visible and innovative art form that has influenced many contemporary forms of Māori expression.
Prestige cloaks are fit for a rangatira (person of authority), as in this whakataukī:
He māhiti ki runga, he paepaeroa ki raro
Koia nei te kākahu o te rangatira!
A dog hair cloak on top, a fine cloak underneath
These are the garments of a chief!1
Among the most prestigious of kākahu (garments) were the kahu kurī, or dog-skin and dog-hair cloaks. These could be worn with the hair side inwards to keep the wearer warm, but were more often worn with the hair side outwards, so that their flamboyance and style displayed their owner’s chiefly status. Known as war cloaks and worn only by chiefs, this type of cloak was recorded by James Cook in 1769–70.
Kahu kurī had a base of closely woven muka (flax fibre), completely overlaid with strips of stitched-on dog-skin or dog hair. Colour combinations were known by specific names, such as:
The only full kākāpō-feather cloak known is in the collection of the Perth Museum, Perth, Scotland. It was collected in 1842 by Scotsman David Ramsay, a curio collector and ship’s surgeon who lived in Australia in 1822. Dating from the early 1800s, the cloak is estimated to have over 11,000 kākāpō feathers, with a lower fringe that includes black wool and pokinikini (dried, and rolled flax tubes). Two red kākā feathers were discovered amongst the kākāpō.
Pauku or pukupuku (literally swelling, inflammation) cloaks were woven with compact rows of whatu patahi (single-pair weft twining) creating a dense fabric. They were worn as protective garments in combat. When immersed in water the fibres expanded, making the cloak impenetrable. Pauku were also worn around the forearms for protection in hand-to-hand combat.
The full-feather cloak appears to have flourished from the second half of the 19th century, and has become the most prestigious cloak. An early example thought to be more than 300 years old was observed at a burial cave on Mary Island, Lake Hauroko, Fiordland.
Red kākā-feather cloaks were especially highly prized. Throughout the Pacific the colour red symbolised power, sacredness and prestige. The chiefly qualities of the kākā contributed to the status of this type of cloak. Its feathers symbolised warmth and protection, as well as stunning beauty. Other native bird feathers prized for cloaks include the kiwi, kererū (wood pigeon), kākāpō, tūī, kākāriki (parakeet), toroa (albatross) and many others. The range of colours and variations of feathers gave the weaver scope to explore bold use of block colour and geometric patterns.
In later garments, feathers from introduced birds were used in an endless array of multi-coloured patterns and designs. The feathers were attached to the garment in the same way as the outer fibre for rain capes: each feather shaft was bent back on itself so it could be woven in a second time, holding the feather securely. Full traditional feather cloaks have thousands of feathers attached, each painstakingly twined into the weft rows of the garment.
The kaitaka was a type of cloak also seen by explorer James Cook and his officers in their voyages in the late 18th century. Kaitaka are generally very large, and were worn to drape around a person several times. The golden, silky sheen of the finely woven muka foundation was from specially selected varieties of harakeke (New Zealand flax). The body is left undecorated, and the side and lower borders are woven into bands of multi-coloured geometric designs using a technique called tāniko. Traditionally the colours for tāniko were achieved through dyeing the muka using a mordant (a fixing agent), for black, and bark dyes, for brown and gold.
Types of kaitaka cloaks include:
Another type of cloak, the korowai, evolved from the rain cape. These cloaks are decorated with hukahuka, or long cords of rolled muka fibre, or pokinikini, cylindrical, dried harakeke strands with intervals of black-dyed muka. Some korowai were dyed with kōkōwai (red ochre), which was also smeared on the body and hair. The korowai became popular during the first half of the 19th century and, like the kaitaka, featured woollen designs and motifs on its surface. An exciting range of colour and design evolved from this period, including combinations of hukahuka, feathers and tāniko borders.
Māori constructed and wore practical, protective garments in hardy materials to keep warm and dry. These included rain capes and cloaks made from a variety of materials. Shorter than a cloak, rain capes were covered with hukahuka, strips or shreds of fibre, twined in rows that resembled roof thatching. This ingenious design channelled rain off the cape.
The weaving technique for most rain capes and cloaks was whatu aho patahi, single-pair twining, which enabled faster construction. Materials included harakeke (flax), kiekie, tōī, tī kōuka (cabbage-tree leaves), neinei (grass tree), kuta and pīngao (sedges), grasses such as eel grass, wīwī (rushes), pātītī (tussock), and rare materials such as tikumu (mountain daisy leaves) and club moss stems.
Types of rain capes and cloaks include:
In the 2000s rain capes were making a comeback, with weavers using both customary and contemporary materials and styles. Waka paddlers and people celebrating important occasions wore colourful varieties of rain capes with pride.
Māori did not normally use footwear, but sandals and leggings were made when necessary to cross rocky or difficult areas. Sandals were usually plaited from strips of tī kōuka leaves, which were sometimes doubled and were attached to the feet by lacing across the top of the foot. In extremely cold conditions the sole of the sandal was sometimes stuffed with moss.
Leggings were much rarer. They did not extend above the knee. Some were twined, with ties to fasten around the calf.
For crossing the passes of the Southern Alps in the early 19th century, a group of Poutini Ngāi Tahu wore pararae (sandals) made of plaited harakeke, tī kōuka or mountain grass. They took many extra pairs and made more on their way using available materials. If made well using the best materials they could last several days, but wore out more quickly on stony ground. Mountain flax on stones would not hold out for more than half a day.
Oral traditions record a wide variety of high-status hairstyles identified by different names. Twisted or knotted on the head, they include tiki, pūtiki, tikitiki, tuki, koukou and rāhiri. Unfortunately, early European writers translated all the various names in non-specific terms, as ‘topknots’. As a result, the details of most styles and their local affiliations are now lost.
Different kinds of topknots are mentioned in traditional stories. When the ogre Matukutakotako came to wash his hair, he loosened the ties that bound up his tikitiki and shook out his makawe (ringlets or long locks of hair) before plunging his head into the water. Rino makawe is a wavy frizzled lock of hair; this suggests that his tikitiki probably consisted of dreadlocks tied up on the top of his head.
Less information is recorded about women’s hairstyles, but chiefly women, or women about to sacrifice themselves, often dressed their hair as part of creating a figure to be remembered.
The Te Arawa trickster hero Hatupatu pretended to be a number of noble chiefs by changing his hairstyle and garments. First he wore his long hair tied up in four tikitiki (knots or ‘clubs’) with a bunch of feathers stuck in each. Then he left a single tikitiki over the centre of his forehead. Thirdly, he left his hair loose and without adornment. His fourth style had his hair in a puhi (tied like a sheaf) decorated with feathers, at the back of his head. Fifth, he wore two puhi above his temples. In his final disguise his hair was tied in five puhi bunches, adorned with feathers.
Traditionally, the head was considered the most tapu part of the body. This made hairdressing complicated and even potentially dangerous. The hair of a high-ranking person could only be dressed by someone of higher status so that he or she would not be harmed by the tapu of that particular rangatira.
Māori used combs, oils and ochre (a red pigment extracted from clay) to dress their hair. Combs were made from single pieces of wood or bone of various types, or from a number of pieces of wood, with fine tines carefully woven into place. The best oil was pressed from tītoki berries and perfumed. In a poor berry season shark-liver oil was used instead. Red ochre was also highly regarded.
Stories of people with large hairstyles originate in early mythologies. When the legendary hero Repu visited the god Rēhua in the 10th heaven, he saw Rēhua loosen the bands that held his thick locks of hair around and on top of his head, and when they were loose, he shook his hair and out of them came flying flocks of tūī that had been nestling there.
In Tūhoe tradition Rangiparoro told her son Kahuki he would be able to recognise her uncle Ruapururu because he wore his hair braided into eight plaits. When Kahuki found an old man with his hair plaited in eight strands and arranged on a type of supplejack frame on his head, he knew he had found his great-uncle.
As well as indicating high status, hairstyles could convey other messages. Wearing the hair unkempt (known as rapa) was a sign of being tapu. Rapa mamae was similar, the hair being a sign of mourning, generally for one whose death was not yet avenged. The style termed reureu or tiotio had a long lock or plait of hair which hung at the left temple while the rest of the hair was shaven or closely cropped. A closely cropped head of hair was a sign that the wearer was in mourning. The hair of high-status prisoners was sometimes shaved to show that their mana was destroyed.
However, as Māori began to wear colonial dress, from the 19th century, they also adopted European hairstyles.
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.
‘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
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.
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.
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.
Ornaments, as well as being decorative, also had symbolic and ceremonial significance and were connected to Māori mythology.
The use of reel and tooth elements in the earliest forms of personal adornment show the broad Pacific heritage of their creators. Discovery of distinctively New Zealand rock types such as bowenite and nephrite or pounamu (greenstone or jade) led to the development of unique art forms carved with stone tools. Other forms of embellishment came from mammal and bird sources.
Necklaces left by the people known as moa hunters show they could equally have been called the ‘whale-tooth people’. Pendants made of sperm whale teeth have been found throughout the country. Teeth of orcas were also favoured. When actual whale teeth were not available, long hours were spent carving painstaking replicas in stone or bone. Their special significance is no longer known, but meticulous workmanship signifies their importance. They may have conferred the mana of the whale on the wearer, or indicated some spiritual connection. They provide a link between Māori and other Pacific cultures.
Some such pendants hung from necklaces with grooved or ridged reels, which were carved from bone or stone. Elegant tongue-shaped and chevroned (V-shaped) pendants were carved from whalebone. Often these had intricate stylised carving along the edges. Sometimes such chevrons were paired. By the 18th century, the rei puta had evolved – this was a single whale-tooth, often with a stylised face and eyes engraved at the end, which was worn by men of high status.
Other forms of necklace were also worn. Some were made of drilled shark teeth, reels of whalebone, shell or stone, or tubes of bird bone. Some took the form of pendants reminiscent of fish and fishhooks, eels, bird figures and seals. Others had humanoid elements such as bird-headed men.
Hei tiki are carved neck pendants that have a human-like form, of which the origins are lost. Some think they relate to Tiki, the first man created by the god Tāne, or to other ancestors. Others believe they link to the human embryo, or to Hineteiwaiwa, the spiritual guardian of childbirth. They were the most highly valued of greenstone ornaments, although some were made of whalebone and other materials. There are some variations in form, but hei tiki retain their prestige today. Like all important taonga, hei tiki were sometimes buried on the death of their owner, but could be uplifted and ritually cleansed so that they could be worn by successive generations.
Māori blended barks and mosses in aromatic gums and hot oils to create pleasing perfumes. Pieces of bird skin were dipped into these blends to create perfumed pendants that were worn around the neck.
Māori had a wide assortment of ear pendants. Long polished drops of pounamu might be set off with pieces of white aute (paper mulberry). Shark teeth and even human teeth of departed loved ones were worn.
Other items to adorn the ear-lobes were birds’ tails, or even live birds. Pūhoi were white balls of gannet or albatross down, or pieces of rolled white bird skin.
White, John. The ancient history of the Maori, his mythology and traditions. 13 volumes. Hamilton: University of Waikato Library, 2001 (originally published 1887–90).