Historically, hula skirts have conjured up images of women in grass skirts and coconut bras dancing on beautiful tropical beaches. While the ocean scene isn’t too far off, the rest of the image is the product of 19th century Western stereotyping.
Traditional hula skirts were made of ti leaves or kapa cloth. Additionally, the coconut was never worn as an upper-body covering. The traditional hula dance is a moving expression of faith in powerful goddesses.
The Polynesian Triangle, according to the New World Encyclopedia, consists of islands within the geographic triangle of New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands, and Easter Island. The traditional hula skirt is closely intermingled with matters of the faith on these islands. It is not known for certain the true origin of the hula skirt within the Polynesian Triangle. Historians also do not agree on when the skirt first materialized.
Today this garment is a beautiful skirt with a silhouette in between that of a full and an A-line skirt, with a distinctive smocked waistband.
The Hawaiian Islands and the Hula Skirt
The hula skirt is popularly associated with the Hawaiian Islands. It was worn during the sacred hula kahiko dance. At the time, the hula skirts were made of ti leaf and kapa cloth. The original construction of the skirt was changed as it gained in popularity, simply because these traditional materials were unavailable in the contiguous United States.
In the 19th century, it was common to see hula dancers portrayed in Vaudeville and early motion pictures wearing grass skirts. The Polynesians created the fabric for authentic hula skirts, the kapa cloth, from the bark of a mulberry plant called Wauke.
In Hawaii, this plant-based cloth was produced by first undergoing a fermentation process. The extra step of fermenting the Wauke bark resulted in a textile of finer quality. From then on, making kapa cloth became a highly skilled art form. The fabric is produced by pounding the fibrous bark of the mulberry plant into sheets.
Watermarks, floral patterns, and distinctive designs made from plant dyes further enhance the beauty of the Hawaiian kapa cloth. Once the designs are printed to the kapa cloth, plant resin is applied to set the dyes.
How The Hula Skirt Became Taboo
Unfortunately, with the influx of foreign influences to the islands in the early 19th century, the hula skirt and its associated dance of worship were banned. The cultural and religious beliefs of European Christian missionaries clashed with the traditional beliefs on the islands.
Shortly after the death of King Kamehameha I, his wife, Queen Ka’ahumanu, came to power. The queen had converted to Christianity, and in the year 1830, she made it illegal to perform the hula. The Queen’s rule ended with her death just two years later. However, many textile, cultural, and religious traditions were lost to the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands because of her royal edicts.
Fortunately, her successor, King Kamehameha III, was more friendly toward the original beliefs of his people and ignored the ban on hula dances. In the mid 19th century, hula dancing was again legal. However, heavily regulated performances could only commence after the payment of expensive fees.
The Kapa Cloth: Then and Now
As the hula dance saw a decline, so did the production of the kapa cloth. Foreign trends soon dominated the islands and those who produced kapa cloth took their knowledge of the craft to the grave. Today’s hula skirts are brightly colored with wide, smocked, and elasticized waistbands.
Modern hula skirts are typically made from blends of cotton and polyester rather than the traditional kapa cloth. In the 1970s, a resurgence of respect for cultural heritage resulted in a renewed interest in the virtually lost art of kapa making. The 20th-century revival of the art faced many challenges, as modern textile makers had to produce the cloth with very little information to guide them.
Today, it is extremely difficult to find clothing made from the Wauke bark. Skirts may be called kapa or tapa skirts, but they are generally a reference to the design elements rather than the actual material of the garment. Modern hula skirts are overwhelmingly produced from varying blends of modern fabrics like cotton and polyester. Although kapa cloth is rare, the modern hula skirts are beautiful and impart a unique character to the lovely Hula Kahiko and Hula Auana dancers.