Story: Māori clothing and adornment – kākahu Māori

Page 6. Hairstyles

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Oral traditions record a wide variety of high-status hairstyles identified by different names. Twisted or knotted on the head, they include tiki, pūtiki, tikitiki, tuki, koukou and rāhiri. Unfortunately, early European writers translated all the various names in non-specific terms, as ‘topknots’. As a result, the details of most styles and their local affiliations are now lost.

Different kinds of topknots are mentioned in traditional stories. When the ogre Matukutakotako came to wash his hair, he loosened the ties that bound up his tikitiki and shook out his makawe (ringlets or long locks of hair) before plunging his head into the water. Rino makawe is a wavy frizzled lock of hair; this suggests that his tikitiki probably consisted of dreadlocks tied up on the top of his head.

Less information is recorded about women’s hairstyles, but chiefly women, or women about to sacrifice themselves, often dressed their hair as part of creating a figure to be remembered.

Master of disguise

The Te Arawa trickster hero Hatupatu pretended to be a number of noble chiefs by changing his hairstyle and garments. First he wore his long hair tied up in four tikitiki (knots or ‘clubs’) with a bunch of feathers stuck in each. Then he left a single tikitiki over the centre of his forehead. Thirdly, he left his hair loose and without adornment. His fourth style had his hair in a puhi (tied like a sheaf) decorated with feathers, at the back of his head. Fifth, he wore two puhi above his temples. In his final disguise his hair was tied in five puhi bunches, adorned with feathers.

Protocols of hairdressing

Traditionally, the head was considered the most tapu part of the body. This made hairdressing complicated and even potentially dangerous. The hair of a high-ranking person could only be dressed by someone of higher status so that he or she would not be harmed by the tapu of that particular rangatira.

Hairdressing items

Māori used combs, oils and ochre (a red pigment extracted from clay) to dress their hair. Combs were made from single pieces of wood or bone of various types, or from a number of pieces of wood, with fine tines carefully woven into place. The best oil was pressed from tītoki berries and perfumed. In a poor berry season shark-liver oil was used instead. Red ochre was also highly regarded.

Prestigious hairstyles

Stories of people with large hairstyles originate in early mythologies. When the legendary hero Repu visited the god Rēhua in the 10th heaven, he saw Rēhua loosen the bands that held his thick locks of hair around and on top of his head, and when they were loose, he shook his hair and out of them came flying flocks of tūī that had been nestling there.

In Tūhoe tradition Rangiparoro told her son Kahuki he would be able to recognise her uncle Ruapururu because he wore his hair braided into eight plaits. When Kahuki found an old man with his hair plaited in eight strands and arranged on a type of supplejack frame on his head, he knew he had found his great-uncle.

Implications of hairstyles

As well as indicating high status, hairstyles could convey other messages. Wearing the hair unkempt (known as rapa) was a sign of being tapu. Rapa mamae was similar, the hair being a sign of mourning, generally for one whose death was not yet avenged. The style termed reureu or tiotio had a long lock or plait of hair which hung at the left temple while the rest of the hair was shaven or closely cropped. A closely cropped head of hair was a sign that the wearer was in mourning. The hair of high-status prisoners was sometimes shaved to show that their mana was destroyed.

However, as Māori began to wear colonial dress, from the 19th century, they also adopted European hairstyles.

How to cite this page:

Awhina Tamarapa and Patricia Wallace, 'Māori clothing and adornment – kākahu Māori - Hairstyles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 February 2024)

Story by Awhina Tamarapa and Patricia Wallace, published 5 Sep 2013