Obviously, the primary purpose of most of the clothing in tribal culture is for practicality – that is, clothing would be made for protection against the elements like wind, rain and the cold. However, the Maori people also made clothing for a range of other uses, including conserving their modesty and to indicate different levels of status within the tribe. There was little difference between the clothing of men and women, aside from those of high status.
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. There were different types of clothing for a whole host of different occasions, some that you might not initially think of as particularly noteworthy now but were very important in the past. For example, men who were 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.
Clothing conveyed a range of information about the status of the wearer and the region they were from. However, because Māori society was communal in nature, there was a strong sense of collective identity. If the leader of a group was well-dressed, it reflected on all members. 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.
Unsurprisingly, the clothing was made mostly from vegetation, animal skins, and natural fibres. Feathers, wood, and stone also played a very important role in the way that Maori of different ranks adorned themselves for various social occasions.
Long, thin strips of inner bark were used in some regions to make flexible skirts or capes – such as the piupiu. Leaves that were similar to tropical palms were most frequently used. These various 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.
The moa was hunted to extinction by the maori, but before they disappeared they would have been very valuable as both a source of food and clothing material. Their large feathers and hides would’ve been perfect for keeping out the weather and decorating garments.
When it came to the skins of mammals, both fur-seal hide cloaks (Kahu kekeno) and dog-skin cloaks (kahu kurī) were popular.
It’s common knowledge that the Maori pride themselves on their weaving skills. There is a famous Maori saying – or whakataukī – that goes:
Marry the woman found in the flax bush.
This basically means that any woman who was a dab hand when it came to weaving was one you wanted to take home and have meet the parents. Such was the value placed on a woman who could make fine garments.
One of the most treasured items of clothing made by Maori were their dog-skin cloaks. These were prestigious items, and were made of a base of closely woven muka (flax fibre), completely overlaid with strips of stitched-on dog-skin or dog hair. They 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.
Feather cloaks came into vogue in the second half of the 19th century. Many native birds were utilised for their feathers, including the wood-pigeon, tui, kiwi, albatross and kākāpō.
The head was the most sacred part of the body, according to Maori belief, so it’s unsurprising that snazzy head adornment was par for the course. Whalebone combs, feathers from birds such as the albatross and the now-extinct huia, and carved accessories made from bird and sometimes even human bone were all much-prized. In times of mourning, leaves from locally available plants were worn around the head as a mark of respect – a tradition that still continues to this day.