Rarotonga in vogue

Saturday 6 March 2021 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Weekend


Rarotonga in vogue
With annexation, bemedaled uniforms, sashes, ostrich plumes and cocked hats roared back into vogue - Te Au, ariki, Mauke (photo - George Crummer Te Papa C.003102)/ 21030552

Cook Islands men returning from overseas have been a source of fashion innovation for almost 200 years. Long before Bluff white boots and gangster wear, Rarotongan sailors helped revolutionise the formless, shapeless world of missionary clothing.

It is said that the missionaries saved the souls but killed the bodies of their converts.

The body, as a source of shame, had to be covered during missionary times in colourless, formless clothing that hid any sensuous contours.

“No garments were allowed but of a sad and sober colour, no flowers, no jewels, no perfumed hair oil, no ribbons, no giggling, no ogling, no kissing behind the coconut-tree; all these were the works of the evil one which must be suppressed, and for all these were fines; fines for red shirts, fines for gaudy tapa, fines for trinkets, fines for feathers, fines for wicked looks, fines for cigarettes, fines for orange beer, fines for dances, fines for songs (save hymns only)…..”

And yet, a visitor to Rarotonga in the 1850s might have been surprised by the colourfully fashionable figures everywhere to be seen. 

“…(T)he fact of many of the men having visited Tahiti, and even Sydney and Auckland and brought back accounts of the habits and attire of the Europeans in those places, has caused a revolution in the sumptuary laws of Rarotonga. Everyone wears now what he or she pleases, and they go the whole hog as far as their means will permit; the snuff-coloured smocks and green cotton umbrellas, and hideous coal-scuttle bonnets of the early missionary regime, are consigned to the limbo of forgotten absurdities, and the people have made a stampede in the opposite direction.”

Rarotongan men seemed especially fashion conscious. Take, for example, Opura, the husband of Upokotakau (Mere Pa ariki), who might be seen promenading around Ngatangiia wearing “a red Crimean shirt and blue trousers and a broad felt hat. Over his shoulder was slung a courier-bag with a brass lock, and a large double spy glass in a shagreen (untanned skin) case.”

Opura’s costume was, at the time, popular wear among Australia’s gold diggers and New Zealand station hands. The Crimean shirt had no buttons, a wide V-neck, long sleeves and slits at each side and was easily pulled over the head. It came in two colours - blue or red. The shirt was generally worn outside the trousers and tied with a sash or belt around the waist. A handkerchief tied at the neck, plus moleskin or cord trousers and a felt hat completed the ensemble.

Opura’s accessories – a shoulder bag and telescope – suggested a status higher than station hand or gold digger – a ship’s purser or quartermaster perhaps.

Opura’s ‘nephew’ was even more fashionably dressed. Described as “a young man of very light olive complexion and handsome features…. he was dressed en militaire in blue pantaloons with a red stripe, a scarlet Garibaldi shirt, profusely stitched over the breast and shoulders with gilt lace, and a three-cornered felt hat fringed with feathers.”

This young man, possibly Mere Pa’s adopted son Maretu, wore a brilliant red shirt in the manner of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. The blue pants with military stripe worn by the young Pa also formed part of Garibaldi’s “Redshirts” uniform. The gilt lace on the shoulders suggest epaulettes, while the gilt over the breast mimics a row of medals. The young man’s ensemble is topped with a feathered tricorn hat. At the time, the tricorn had been superseded by the bicorn hat in most militaries and was more raffishly associated with the American revolution and piracy.

Not only ariki family members, but Rarotongan men more generally could be observed at Sunday service “en grande tenue (in full dress), that is to say, in shirts and breeches of the most glorious dyes, covered with brass buttons, Dutch metal (imitation gold leaf), scraps of lace, cock's feathers, epaulettes of cotton or painted wood, belts and bandoliers, swords when they can afford them, and facsimiles in various material of every military head-piece, from the St. Helena foraging cap to the cocked-hat of a Commodore, or the Crown of the Emperor Napoleon.”

One source of inspiration for these fashions was the French military garrison at Papeete. A book from this era The Night Fossickers by James Skipp Borlase (1867; 243) describes Papeete’s main street as peopled by “Soldiers in glittering uniforms, military bands, lounging civilians, the lady portion of whom are attired in the latest modes of Paris fashion.” These ‘glittering uniforms’ were sported by soldiers of the French Protectorate, coloured in the red and blue of the French Tricoleur. The reference to St. Helena is to the island where the fashion conscious French emperor Napoleon died in exile in 1821.

In matters of personal grooming, Rarotongan men were described “wearing their hair cropped short, and, in accordance with a most senseless regulation introduced by their Christian teachers, shave all the hair off their faces, which gives them the appearance of convicts, especially as they retain a relic of their ancient barbarism in the form of a tattooed mark exactly resembling a broad arrow on the side of their neck. Some of them….in defiance of the anathemas of the church, persist in sporting a glossy moustache, notwithstanding the sad fact that the hirsute adornment condemns its wearer to be classed among the category of reprobates, whose distinguishing traits are ‘looseness of morals, fondness for rum, and neglect of the means of grace’.

The ‘broad arrow’ tattoo sounds like the ‘rau teve’ of which Peter Buck notes “all Rarotongans who joined ships as sailors had the rau teve tattooed on (their neck) to show that they were Rarotongans, the rau teve being an exclusive Rarotongan pattern.” The Rarotongan moustache recalls the poorly named “pornstache” (made famous by George Mendez, in Orange is the New Black), defined as “a moustache that makes the wearer look sleazy, predatory, or cheaply groomed.”  Again it was favoured by returning sailors to the distress of the Church.

In contrast to the extrovert fashions of the men, “the women (of Rarotonga) are all barefooted; their dress consists of a piece of gaudy print about two fathoms long, wound around their loins, over this a loose gown (mu’umu’u) or sack of flowered muslin, and in some cases silk . It is fastened at the neck and has wide open sleeves ...The looser sort of women adds to this garment a sort of outer skirt of divers colours, wound around their waist after the manner of a sash, and falling down to their feet. This gives them an appearance exceedingly dégagé and fascinating, but such innovations …. are not permitted in church, and are upon all occasions regarded with disfavour by their religious teachers.”

Winding a pareu cloth around the waist had the effect of emphasising those contours which the mu’umu’u was designed to obscure. As such, it was a fashion not welcomed in Church.

“Most women have gold earrings of the form of a crescent moon, and necklaces of coral or other beads. All wear flowers in their glorious black hair, and behind, and in their ears; commonly the flowers of the orange and convolvuli of various hues, as also one most magnificent white and wax-like blossom … (the gardenia). Their hair is beautifully parted into two thick braids, fastened at the ends with bows of ribbon, either hanging down the back or gathered behind the head into an elegant bob secured by an ornamental comb.”

Mere Pa, as ariki was one of the mainstays of the Church, and observed mission protocols, adopting an uncomplicated dress style – “She was a woman of about thirty-five, copper-coloured and as plump as a partridge, about the middle size, with beautifully formed limbs and small and dainty hands and feet. I never in my life saw a more magnificent head of hair, black as jet waving naturally, and gathered in two large and graceful rolls behind her head …

“She wore a loose robe of pretty flowered muslin, so thin that one could see through it all the outlines of her figure. She had gold earrings and some rings of the same upon her fingers. Altogether she was a most interesting woman … She does not usually inhabit the house (palace) I have described… In the rear of it is a long low building, thatched, and railed round the sides and floored with coral…. in which she spends the most of her days, seated upon the ground and sleeping behind a screen.”

Her gold accessories (earrings and rings) indicate high status but in an understated way. The fact that that the ariki spent most of her time in an outhouse rather than her palace, adds to an image of simplicity and modesty.

Rarotonga’s fascination with fashion in the 1850s reflected both its prosperity from the providore trade with whaleships and an increasing worldliness resulting from men’s experiences overseas as ships’ crews.

It all came to a shuddering halt when the whaling industry collapsed in the 1860s.

Later, as the economy revived, so also did an interest in fashion. 

Visiting Mangaia in 1904, the Irish writer Beatrice Grimshaw, noted that, almost every penny Mangaian’s earned from the fruit trade was “spent in trade-finery…. On Sundays, the churches are a very flower-garden of frippery, the men turning out in the most brilliant of shirts, ties, and suits, the women decking themselves in long loose robes of muslin, sateen, or cheap silk, coloured in the most screaming hues—pea-green, royal blue, scarlet, and orange being all strong favourites. Their hats, made by themselves out of silky arrowroot fibre, are often trimmed with the costliest ribbons and artificial flowers, and even with ostrich plumes to the value of two or three pounds.”

Grismshaw also noted how family or village groups banded together to buy a bale of cloth from Auckland so that “twenty or thirty women, (might be observed) on a Sunday morning, dressed alike in robes of vermilion satinette, and wearing huge hats, crowned by three ostrich feathers, red, yellow, and blue, arranged after the fashion of the Prince of Wales’s crest.”

Not to be outdone, men also began wearing ostrich feathers in their hats. British and New Zealand administrators regularly topped off their uniforms with cocked hats and ostrich plumes. Their increasing presence in the islands seems to have brought military uniforms and vice regal flummery roaring back into fashion – as in the photo of Te Ao ariki of Mauke.

Not long after, the movies brought the world and its fashions straight to downtown Avarua – and the gaucho dancer and cowboy replaced the soldier, revolutionary and pooh-bah as Rarotonga’s new male models.

References – Quotations are from My Adventures And Researches In The Pacific by a Master Mariner, Evening News (Sydney) 7 Nov 1871 and Beatrice Grimshaw, In the Strange South Seas, London 1907.