By Laurence Bacry - Photos By Danielle Roche
Worn for centuries by the Maohi (natives of Polynesia) people - at one time it was made of tapa - the pareo has become the ideal beachwear worldwide... under any sunny sky! The local craft industry is more than ever emphasizing its Polynesian origins... for once upon a time, it was the pareo.
It has often been said that no plant suitable to make textiles existed in the islands, however in reality there was cotton in the Marquesas and in the Society Islands. But it was not until after the arrival of the Europeans that the islanders, ignorant of the art of weaving, would clothe themselves in such material.
Originally, it was tapa, a material of vegetable origin made from beaten bark, that Polynesians, depending which island they lived on, would don as light clothing.
patterns of leaves of sacred trees, or with flowers, according to socialIt was made from bark beaten on an anvil, with the help of a beater. Then printed with the origins. On atolls, where the vegetation was sparse, pandanus leaves were used, or even small leaves of braided coconut palms.
Fabrication of pareos occupied an important and time-consuming part of womens' lives, and it was considered a precious skill - especially on Tahiti, where it reached such a degree of fineness and perfection that its reputation extended to all the archipelagos. Its decline has been gradual, as it has had to compete with material introduced by the Europeans. Tapa loincloths were little by little replaced by lengths of fabric printed with colored designs thus the pareo was born.
It was at first a coarse, raw calico which was used as a basic material, and which little by little became more sophisticated, enriched with floral patterns.
The most common designs are flowers, the hibiscus plant in white on a red background - and the fruit and leaves of the uru (the breadfruit tree) - in white on a colored background - and then there are Marquesan motifs, inspired by traditional tapa designs. A rectangular length of material - about 2 meters long, decorated with local designs and which can be seen adorning all Polynesians, the pareo today is used much as the tapa was used in the past. That is to say, for practically everthing in the home, from curtains to tablecloths as well as for mens shirts, bedspreads and even for childrens nappies.
As dressmaking was not practiced in past times, fabrics were wrapped or draped around the body. It is said that in the early 19th century, European cottons were of great value when gifts were exchanged between natives and Westerners. Besides its strenth, resistance to rain, and lightness - so well adapted to the climate - it was especially appreciated for its colors - new to them - as, until then, they had only worn dull, natural cotton fabrics, either the tehei, thrown over the shoulder, or the pareo, wrapped around the waist.
Besides, there are over one hundred ways to wear a pareo, but the basic principle is simple. It is most often worn as a skirt, knotted at the waist, which is called a maro for men, otherwise tiputa, when worn as a cape. Women wore it knotted at the waist - down to the knees or ankles, hence the name pareo.
The pareo today has become a practical and modern item of clothing, and the Tahitian of artistic printing has contributed much to the development of local fabrication. Since society its beginnings in the 1950's, craft enterprises are printing more and more of this sort of material in Polynesia. But much of it is still imported from Asia. Although a souvenir of other times, other customs, the pareo nevertheless evokes modern leisure... as in times gone by it was the symbol of social and religious festivities.