Knotted at the shoulders, wrapped around the waist, and tied taut at the chest, the pareu is a printed piece of fabric that is beloved for its endless versatility. Although ubiquitous across beaches in Hawai‘i, the pareu as we know it today actually hails from Europe and found its way to the South Seas with sailors in the 1800s.
What is now known as French Polynesia—which consists of five separate island groups that are culturally related but distinct—was colonized by France in the 1800s. At this time, European voyagers and colonists sought valuable commodities like vanilla and sandalwood, and even staples for survival like freshwater and citrus, so they came prepared with goods suitable for bartering.
While trading, they discovered that islanders, particularly those in Tahiti, appreciated the fabric printed with an abstract, white floral motif. This was an ideal trading good for Europeans since the Industrial Revolution was happening across Europe and the United States, making fabric much cheaper to produce.
According to the Tahitian and English dictionary, the word pareu is defined as “a garment worn as a petticoat, round the loins of both sexes.” (It’s also a verb that means “to put on a pareu.”) According to author Dale Hope, who is researching and writing a forthcoming book about pareu, “The pareu was accepted by the Tahitian people as something that was more indigenous for them to wear, rather than the missionaries’ clothing.”
In the island’s balmy heat, the pareu’s cotton fabric was cool and effortless. This appealed to islanders because, unlike traditional tapa fabric, which was made of beaten bark, cotton was long-lasting and could be washed repeatedly. Missionaries often paired the pareu with their Western-style clothing, wrapping it around a skirt or draping it across a button-up shirt.
The earliest pareu had a specific design of white leaves and flowers printed on a darker background of red or blue. Nothing about those patterns were traditional to the South Seas region. As Bishop Museum historian DeSoto Brown explains, they were more akin to what might have been used for upholstery, curtains, or wallpaper in Europe. (Later, once pareu were produced in Tahiti, the motifs began to resemble indigenous flora and fauna from the region.)
European artists like Paul Gauguin captured the garment in its element. Through his lush paintings of local women, he telegraphed its leisurely practicality while imbuing it with an exotic allure. In an era of cumbersome clothing, seeing women in the South Seas minimally covered was enticing to Western men. Especially, as Brown says, “when the fabric was wet and clinging, which it often was, since the pareu was worn while swimming.”
Although similar to the sarong, the two are different. The sarong, or sarung, is the Malaysian word for a piece of fabric worn around the waist like a skirt, but by men. The confusion began in 1936 when actress Dorothy Lamour starred in her first film, The Jungle Princess. Her character wore a fitted pareu, but during the publicity tour, it was referred to as a sarong. The incorrect term was used for decades.
In Hawai‘i, the classic “Tahitian print” (which refers to the pattern that first appeared on the pareu) has graced everything from aloha shirts to mu‘umu‘u. In the late 1930s, local shirt makers like Kahala purchased pareu fabric from Tahiti, then made small runs of shirts, shorts, and bathing suits. By the 1960s and 1970s, the print was all the rage in Hawai‘i.
In the South Pacific, Hope has seen the pareu tied to bicycles and wrapped around torsos to carry newborns. He’s even heard stories of people strapping themselves to coconut trees with pareu to survive tremendous rain and wind storms. Although a pareu is slight in size, its importance cannot be overstated. “Whether you’re wearing it to the pool or walking down the beach,” Hope says, “it’s something you don’t want to be without.”
Fashion collector and historian Dale Hope is interested in following the pareu’s origins to its place in modern day Tahiti and sister islands like Hawaiʻi.
Correspondence letters and pictures to Dale Hope.
Fashion inspired by pareu’s.
In these detail shots of Hope’s research, archival photos and textiles show the variety of patterns and use of pareu in Polynesian society.