17 March 2010

Mu’umu’u magic

In August 2009 the museum held an exhibition of mu’umu’u. Curator/coordinator Jean Tekura Mason here describes the flowing dresses much-loved by local women.

Friends and supporters of the Library and Museum Society; most of the women volunteer every Wednesday.This long, voluminous gown with long sleeves and a high neck was introduced by missionaries to the Pacific, who insisted that their converts cover their bodies in the tradition of their home country. It is probable this garment has been worn by local women since the arrival of missionaries on Rarotonga in 1823.
The word mu’umu’u comes from the Hawaiian word muku for “cut off”, although the word mu’umu’u in Hawaii applies only to the shorter, simpler version of the garment (holoku being the earlier, longer version).
In the Cook Islands, the term mu’umu’u applies to all forms of the garment. Variations of the mu’umu’u appear in other countries of the Pacific, including Tahiti, Vanuatu, Fiji and New Caledonia.
Based possibly on the nightdress worn by European women, or the loose dresses of rural women in the United Kingdom (some dresses may have arrived here in shipments of second-hand clothing), this garment has evolved from a plain, modest gown, with simple yoke, to one more elaborately adorned, and is now favoured by local women for special occasions, although the shorter version of the garment can be worn anytime.
The garment was designed to suit local conditions, where heavy fabrics, crinolines and corsets, which were fashionable at the time in Europe, would prove constricting and uncomfortable in our hotter climate. In the absence of underclothing, local women always wore a pareu beneath the mu’umu’u. (Pareu in this context is a one-and-a-half metre strip of fabric wrapped around the body (sarong). It is also the name given to the light weave cotton fabric used in making mu'umu'u).

This photograph from the 1890s was possibly taken by George Crummer.
It is part of the arhival collection of CILAMS.

Traditionally, mu’umu’u were made from muslin or calico, the earliest cotton fabrics to arrive to the Cook Islands (clothing in pre-contact times was made from tapa – paper mulberry, bark cloth). By the 1840s, cotton gins set up on Rarotonga by missionaries were producing fabrics both for export and for local use.
Mu’umu’u is characterised by its loose-fitting, flowing style and is often adorned with frills and lace. Until recently the most commonly used fabric in mu’umu’u was the versatile Chinese-made pareu fabric (a floral-printed, light-weave cotton originally made in the French Congo for French colonies). Pareu is used in everything from bedcovers to other soft furnishings and clothing.
Mu’umu’u of the past 50 years were characterised by a predominance of floral fabric in the garment.
Today, with an abundance of other fabrics readily available, many types are used in the garment’s construction. The emphasis now is on the use of plain fabrics, spliced with a smaller amount of floral-printed fabric. And where once the mu’umu’u was considered a dress for older women only, young women today wear a modernised version, which is shorter and more tight fitting.

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