Rapa Nui traditional clothing

Ballerinas in Anakena with traditional Rapa Nui dress Easter Island

Traditional rapa nui clothing has evolved throughout history and has incorporated designs and customs from other cultures that have given rise to the typical costume of Easter Island and the daily way of dressing that we know today.

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Traditional rapa nui clothing

Participants of the coronation of the Tapati Festival with traditional rapanui clothing

Participants of the coronation of the Tapati Festival with traditional rapanui clothing

Thanks to the diaries of the first European navigators and the stories of the missionaries who arrived on the island, we know how the ancient inhabitants of Rapa Nui dressed. According to the chronicles, apart from the body painting or takona and the tattoos that decorated their bodies, most of the natives were naked.

In those days, it was not easy to find clothing making material on one of the most remote islands on the planet. Furthermore, the sparse local terrestrial fauna did not offer wild or domestic animals from which to obtain wool or fur. For this reason, the only source of raw material available came from the plant world, especially the mahute tree, the banana, the grass and the reeds.

Hami Rapa Nui

Rapanui dancer wearing the hami

Rapanui dancer wearing the hami

The most basic and common garment among the ancient Rapanui was the hami or loincloth, also known as maro. The simplest version was made with a bundle of dry grass that was tied to a string tied around the waist. Other times, the grass was replaced by banana or cattail fibers and, more rarely, by fabric made from mahute.

The twine or belt of the hami was called kotaki and it was made with strips of mahute or twisted female hair forming a ribbon. Both men and women wore the hami, although some women also wore a kind of short skirt that went from the waist to the knees.

Nua Mahute or mahute cloak

Tapati Rapa Nui candidates wearing the cape or nua mahute

Tapati Rapa Nui candidates wearing the cape or nua mahute

After the hami, the most important clothing item was the “nua mahute“, a kind of cloak made of mahute fibers also known as “kahu”. It was the size of a small blanket and was worn on the shoulders. The upper ends were brought together and tied over the chest, forming a knot called “taki“.

The nua mahute were the only warm clothing that protected them on cool nights and on cold days in the southern winter. Some were made with four layers of tissue and dyed with natural yellow or orange pigments that were extracted from the root of the pua plant (turmeric) or from colored earth called kie’a.

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These garments were considered very valuable, since the fabric manufacturing process was very slow and laborious. For this reason, the mahute cloaks were more used by members of the upper classes, and especially by women.

Currently only four specimens of this type of unique cloaks are preserved. The oldest, which was obtained in 1774 during the expedition of Captain James Cook, is in the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England. Two other pieces were collected in the second half of the 19th century by the Baquedano ship for the collection of the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago. The last cloak, probably dating from the early 20th century, is in the Fonck Museum in Viña del Mar.

Mahute weaving or tapa

Tingi tingi mahute process

Tingi tingi mahute process

The term “tapa” refers, both in Rapa Nui and in other islands of the South Pacific, to fabrics made from the inner bark of certain plants of the family of the moráceas, mainly from the mahute or paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera ).

The mahute tree, which is native to East Asia, grows fast and can reach 14 meters in height. However, the variety found in Rapa Nui reaches little height. It grows preferably in shady places, between rocks. Formerly it was cultivated on a large scale in small stone fences called “manavai”, which protected it from the wind. Currently, some families keep some plants near their homes, but most of the wild bushes grow in the crater of the Rano Kau volcano and the Roiho area, where much of the caves on Easter Island are located.

The technique used to make bark fabrics is the same one used in ancient Egypt to make papyri and in Japan to make paper. First, some mahute branches of the same size are cut. Then the inner fibrous part of the trunk is separated and the outer cortex is removed. The strips obtained are moistened in sea water and fresh water for several days.

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Once ready, the strips are spread on flat stones or wooden logs and repeatedly struck for hours with a heavy wooden mallet. This work, which is usually done by a woman sitting cross-legged on the floor, is known by the Rapanui name of tingi tingi mahute.

By hitting the fiber, the strips stretch and widen little by little. The fiber is sprayed with water to keep it moist, so the gluten it contains acts as a natural adhesive. Thus, more strips are added vertically and horizontally that are fused into a single fabric until reaching the desired thickness and size.

Once this process was completed, the fabrics were trimmed and tacked with vegetable threads and bone needles. They were then dried in the sun, acquiring a natural white color. However they used to be dyed yellow or orange with a pigment obtained from the root of turmeric.

Headdresses and pukao

Feather headdress Rapa Nui outfit Easter Island

Feather headdress | Engraving of William Hodges

Vegetable fiber hat | Engraving of William Hodges

Vegetable fiber hat | Engraving of William Hodges

The ancient settlers used to wear their heads uncovered. Some men wore short hair but others kept it long and used to bundle it up in a bun over their heads. Women used to wear their hair down over their shoulders but often also wore a topknot.

The Rapanui word for topknot is pukao, a term that also refers to the headdresses of volcanic red stone that covered the head of the moai statues.

Read more about Pukao, the headdresses of the moai statues

It is believed that these cylindrical pieces were able to evoke the long hair of the ancient islanders, who used to dye it with kie’a, a natural reddish pigment, and collect it in a high bun. Some believe that cutting hair may have been prohibited (tapu) for some social classes, since long hair could be associated with the mana or magic power. It is possible that this idea has remained in time, since even today, many local youths tend to wear long hair and pick it up in a high bun, all a sign of male Rapanui identity.

Hats and feather ornaments

Conical feather hats at a Tapati Rapa Nui competition

Conical feather hats at a Tapati Rapa Nui competition

According to the first European visitors who came to Rapa Nui, the natives had a real fondness for ornaments and especially for sailors’ hats. This strange mania made the hats of those who disembarked to shine on the heads of the Rapanui in a short time.

This taste for headdresses was also reflected in local production. The islanders wore a wide variety of hats, generically called “ha’u” in the Rapanui language. They were mainly ribbons or headbands made in mahute adorned with feathers of various colors and sizes. Each, which had a specific name and symbolic meaning, was used only on certain occasions.

Rapa Nui ornaments and accessories

Some modern mangai made of bone and wood

Some modern mangai made of bone and wood

The ancient Rapanui clothing was completed with a series of ornaments and decorative elements that were mainly used by the ruling classes during special events.

A few peculiar and rare decorations were the shark vertebrae (ivi mango) that were used to insert them into the huge holes in the earlobes. There was a custom of making a hole in the earlobe of children so that it grew larger over time, even reaching shoulder height. The empty space was filled with circular bone, wood, or shell decorations. This tradition, which was disappearing with the arrival of the missionaries on the island, could be related to the legend of long ears and short ears.

However, the most common accessories were necklaces and pendants that were put on the neck. These necklaces known as “rei“, in the Rapanui language, were vegetable fiber cords or braided human hair from which hung a medallion made with cetacean bone, wood, stone or mother-of-pearl .

The most exclusive pendant was the reimiro, since it was part of the ceremonial clothing of kings or tribal chiefs although it was also used as a status sign for high-ranking men and women during festivals and celebrations. The reimiro is a crescent-shaped pectoral ornament, usually made of wood, with an anthropomorphic head with a goatee at each end and a profile similar to that of the moai statues.

Read more about Reimiro, symbol of rapanui authority

A less common ornament was the tahonga, a round-shaped wooden item that looks like an egg or a coconut. The top was sometimes decorated with one or two human heads, a bird’s head, or a simple protrusion.

Tradition has it that like the reimiro, the tahonga was worn by the ruling classes as paraphernalia to demonstrate their rank in public events. It is said that the ariki or supreme chief himself could carry up to six of these elements, three on his chest and another three on his back. However, the tahonga is more related to the initiation ceremony “Te manu mo te poki”, which could be translated as “the bird for children” and represented the passage of children into adulthood.

But if there is a characteristic ornament of Rapa Nui that is the mangai. The fish hook or mangai, in the Rapanui language, was considered one of the most precious objects that could be had on an island, since through its use, the inhabitants obtained the necessary food for their subsistence.

Read more about Mangai, the Rapa Nui fish hook

The mangai is currently the most popular pendant among the inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Polynesia, and its use has spread throughout the world. It is used as an amulet of prosperity, abundance, protection and good luck, especially for those who enter the sea, but it has also become a valuable decorative object due to its original aesthetics.

Influence of other cultures

Natives and officers of the Durance ship in 1901 Detail of photography by Delabaude

Natives and officers of the Durance ship in 1901 | Detail of photography by Delabaude

As we have seen previously, since the arrival of the first European visitors, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui showed a great interest in foreign clothes and outfits. The ship’s crews, who landed on the island throughout the 19th century, exchanged western clothing for local food and crafts that they then sold on arrival in port.

This huge collection of foreign fabrics gave rise to an extravagant style of dress that mixed marine jackets and other European garments with traditional elements such as feather ornaments. On the other hand, the missionaries destined to evangelize Rapa Nui, managed to impose their moral conduct and convinced the islanders to dress “decently” and forget the ancient traditions.

Thus, for example, women began to wear long white dresses in the late 19th century. A custom imported from Tahiti and established there by Protestant missionaries. The use of this type of English Victorian style dresses, with lace and ruffles on the sleeves and skirt, has remained to this day. And although the colors and designs have evolved over the years, they still represent the classic and elegant model that women wear at masses, parties, and events throughout the South Pacific.

Traditional dances with contemporary rapa nui clothing

Traditional dances with contemporary rapa nui clothing

Today, everyday Rapanui clothing hardly differs from the “standard” style of clothing that can be found in any other region of the world. The greater ease of travel to the continent and the increase in tourists in recent times have accelerated cultural exchange and the influence of the western lifestyle. For example, many young people wear casual and sportswear, such as jeans, shorts, and T-shirts with surf-related brands, while also wearing a mangai around their necks.

However, distinctive features of the local tradition are still perceived, especially during social events. The white color, which was considered sacred in ancient times, is still present in important ceremonies such as weddings or burials.

Women wear dresses and sarongs of Tahitian influence, and are adorned with necklaces of shells and tipanie flowers in their hair to highlight their exotic beauty. The formal clothing for men, as in other Pacific islands, consists of dress pants, generally white, and a shirt with Polynesian designs, similar to those known as “Hawaiian shirts”. For example, bank employees and state officials dress this way and it is almost impossible to see a tie or jacket suit across the island.

Typical costume of Easter Island

Artistic performance in typical costumes at the Tapati Festival

Artistic performance in typical costumes at the Tapati Festival

The influx of tourism and the proliferation of musical folk ensembles during the last decades have sparked an interest in recovering the ancient traditions and indigenous clothing style of Rapa Nui. Today, the typical Easter costume is a combination of the ancient ancestral costumes and the incorporated contributions of other Polynesian islands, especially Tahiti.

Rapanui costume for men

The basic piece of the male rapanui wardrobe is still the hami or loincloth, made of mahute, fabric or feathers. Sometimes it is replaced by a sarong and sometimes by a kind of skirt made with banana or kakaka fiber, a material that is also used to decorate the calves. The head is usually adorned with a rooster feather headdress, and they wear shell or bone necklaces and pendants such as mangai or reimiro.

Rapanui costume for women

The typical female costume for Easter Island is the Huru Huru. It consists of long skirts with white feather ties, feather bras and diadems or crowns of the same material. Sometimes they use coconuts to cover their breasts and sarongs as skirts, a Tahitian influence. Banana and mahute fibers are also used to make the suits and adorn their necks with shell necklaces.

When and where to admire the typical costumes

Traditional dance show in Hanga Roa

Traditional dance show in Hanga Roa

Some tourists who come to Easter Island think that the Rapa Nui people dress in feathers in their day to day and feel a little disappointed when verifying that it is not. As we said before, the modern and practical lifestyle has relegated the old way of dressing to certain cultural and musical events.

The easiest way to observe traditional costumes is to attend one of the typical dance shows on offer in Hanga Roa. There are several dance groups on the island that perform throughout the year and alternate according to the day of the week, but there are always at least a couple of them that perform every night.

However, the best option is to coincide the visit to Easter Island with the celebration of a cultural event such as the Rapa Nui Language Day in early November or the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival that takes place the first fortnight of February.

If you can attend the Tapati Festival you can immerse in the Rapanui culture that is shown in the different tests and competitions, and especially, during the night performances at Hanga Vare Vare. There you will delight in the vibrant performances of the ensembles dressed in typical costumes and appreciate their captivating dances. In addition, there is a typical costume contest where the candidate couples spectacularly display the different costumes made with feathers, mahute, conchitas and kakaka (banana fiber).

Photoshoots with Rapanui costumes

Tourist couple dressed in typical rapanui costumes in Anakena

Tourist couple dressed in typical rapanui costumes in Anakena

In recent years, a new tourist activity has emerged that offers visitors the possibility of posing as models in photo shoots dressed in typical costumes and body painting in the most emblematic places of Easter Island. It is a unique opportunity to share with your partner or family, have a fun time and take an unforgettable memory of ancient traditions. We suggest you contact professionals such as Amu’a, Kahu Tupuna or Mokomae to reserve your session.

Also, if you visit Easter Island during the celebration of the Tapati Rapa Nui and want to experience it from within, you can participate in the “farandula” or grand parade that takes place on the penultimate day of the festival. Here they are all invited. You can decorate yourself with takona, body paint, and complete your outfit with some feathers or shells. This is a perfect time to get uninhibited, take a few selfies, and enjoy the moment.

Where to buy typical costumes in Rapa Nui

Typical female rapanui costume in the Kona Nei store

Typical female rapanui costume in the Kona Nei shop

The best places to buy souvenirs, necklaces, pendants and typical costumes on Easter Island are the Artisan Market located near the Church of Santa Cruz and the Agricultural and Artisan Fair located in Atamu Tekena, the main street of Hanga Roa.

There are also several shops specializing in Polynesian accessories, sarongs and shirts. In Te Pito or Te Henua street, Tau Kiani stands out with a great variety of patterned fabrics, women’s dresses and men’s shirts; Made in Rapa Nui with an interesting display of necklaces, floral decorations and handbags made of vegetable fibers made in an artisanal way on the island and Kona Nei that offers a combination of traditional feather and mahute clothing with modern garments inspired by Rapa Nui.

On the main avenue Atamu Tekena, is the Boutique Colette, one of the first stores that imported the fashion of Tahitian sarongs to the island and that has a large collection of beautiful Polynesian designs. On the same street, the Moana Mar, Tiare Ngaoho, Nehe Nehe and The Sau Sau Shop are also located, where you will find ornaments, accessories and dresses with rapanui motifs.

En la avenida principal Atamu Tekena, se encuentra la Boutique Colette, una de las primeras tiendas que importó la moda de los pareos tahitianos a la isla y que tiene una gran muestrario con hermosos diseños polinesios. En la misma calle, también están ubicadas las tiendas Moana Mar, Tiare Ngaoho, Nehe Nehe y The Sau Sau Shop, donde encontrarás adornos, accesorios y vestidos con motivos rapanui.

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