Traditional Māori dress was both varied and complex. Māori wore a wide range of hairstyles and ornaments, skin colourings and oils, as well as facial or body tattoos. 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.
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.
While items of dress gave protection against physical elements, they could also hold spiritual significance. There was little difference between the clothing of men and women, aside from those of high status.
Before the arrival of Christian missionaries from 1814, Māori had their own concepts of modesty. Male modesty was maintained by wearing penis cords. During the times of James Cook’s voyages, women were described as always wearing something round their waists. When a party of Cook’s men surprised a group of naked women gathering shellfish, the women hid themselves among the rocks until they managed to make maro of seaweed to wear.
Dressed to impress
When Ngāti Whare ancestor Whare-pakau sought to identify his Arawa enemy Ihu-rakau, he was told ‘You cannot mistake him. His hair is dressed in three tufts, his cape is a māhiti, his weapon a hoeroa.’ The māhiti is a type of dog-skin cloak, and the hoeroa a specific whalebone weapon.
Clothing conveyed a range of information about the status of the wearer and the region they were from. However, because Māori society had a communal nature, there was a strong sense of collective identity. If the leader of a group was well dressed, it reflected on all members.
The most prestigious garments were labour-intensive in construction, incorporating rare or valued elements. They were worn only by those with high status and power. However, the relationship between dress and mana was highly complex. Dressing well served to add mana to certain activities – ranging from the peacetime planting of kūmara to preparing for battle.
Men 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.
Clothes maketh the man
A Ngāti Kahungunu story tells how a warrior party waited for their chief, Tamaterangi, to recite an incantation before they set off. When the chief did not move, his younger brother Makoro then asked him to stand and perform the rite. Tamaterangi’s reply has become a proverb, ‘He ao te rangi ka uhia a ma te huruhuru te manu ka rere ai’ (It requires clouds to clothe heaven and feathers to make a bird fly). Makoro understood that his brother felt he did not have clothing befitting this ceremony, so he took off his own cloak to place on him.
Extending personal mana
For people of high rank, items of dress could serve as extensions of the owner’s personal power or mana. A chiefly garment, or even part of it, could be used to set something aside for exclusive use, signifying a type of potential ownership. An early Pākehā-Māori recorded how a chief had ‘reserved’ a gun that he fancied: ‘“I must tapu it before I leave the ship.“ … here he pulls a piece of the fringe from his cloak and ties it round the stock of the gun, thereby rendering it impossible for me to sell, give away, or dispose of it in any way to anyone but himself.’1
Clothing and hairstyles varied from region to region, so it was often possible to identify someone’s iwi from their appearance. There were also regional variations in the names given to different styles of clothing and adornment, so some iwi may have used different terms to those recorded here.
Because of this complex relationship between items of dress and personal mana, early chiefly garments are very rare. Any clothing or other possessions were seen to be a risk to others, and discarded items were hidden or buried as a precaution.