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Tongan Clothing: Traditional and Modern Attire

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Ruth, aka Elayne Kongaika, was born in the Rocky Mountains and has lived most of her adult life in the South Pacific, including Tonga.

Youth in Tonga wearing traditional kiekie

Youth in Tonga wearing traditional kiekie

In the early 1970s, I moved with my Polynesian husband to Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific. Coming from the United States, I found it very interesting to learn about the cultures and traditions of my new home. Although some things have changed in the last few decades, the way the people of Tonga dress at many special events and ceremonies has not.

Typical female Tongan formal attire with modest dress, ta'ovala, and kafa around the waist.

Typical female Tongan formal attire with modest dress, ta'ovala, and kafa around the waist.

Female Clothing

Women in Tonga dress modestly, usually wearing a dress, sometimes with a tupenu (skirt) underneath it to cover their legs and ankles. Around their waist they wear a ta'ovala, which is often woven or crocheted. This particular piece is worn to show respect to the royal family. To keep the ta'ovala in place, they wear a kafa, which is often woven out of rope, the inner fibers of coconut husks, or even out of human hair. They add beads or shells for decoration. At times they wear a kiekie, which is smaller than a ta'ovala, and is tied around the waist. It is usually very light and is made from a variety of materials, including strips of sugar sacks that have been disassembled.

Typical male formal attire

Typical male formal attire

Male Clothing

Tongan men wear tupenus (skirts) that reach at least to the knees. They also wear a woven ta'ovala around their waists. The ta'ovala traditionally takes the place of a tie, although they may wear both. On top they typically wear collared shirts. On their feet they wear sandals or slippers. To attend church, they may wear a suit coat. For very special occasions, they may wear a ta'ovala that is finely woven and has been in the family for many years. The older it is, the more precious it becomes.

Funeral attire

Funeral attire

Funeral Attire

Traditionally, Tongans wear black to funerals. It is reminiscent of those in the Bible that wore sackcloth and ashes. If a person is very close to the deceased, they may wear black clothing with an old tattered mat wrapped on top to symbolize their grief. The mat may cover most of their body and may even go up over their head. If the person who died was very respected, the mourning period can go on for days or months, and everyone in the family will wear black. If a member of the Tongan royal family passes away, people will show respect by wearing black for up to a year.

Traditional wedding attire of royal family members

Traditional wedding attire of royal family members

This is the same couple dressed in their Western-style wedding clothes.

This is the same couple dressed in their Western-style wedding clothes.

Wedding Attire

Today, a typical Tongan wedding may include both Western-style wedding outfits (including a long white dress for the bride) as well as traditional Tongan wedding costumes. Traditional Tongan wedding clothing includes tapa cloth covered with many layers of decorative finely woven heirloom mats, ta'ovalas, and kiekies, as well as adorning feathers, shells, and leis made of freshly cut flowers or plants.

Tonga is influenced by British as well as American styles. The first Sunday after a couple has gotten married, they are expected to go to church dressed in their traditional wedding costumes.

Young girls doing a tau'olunga (dance) with typical costumes

Young girls doing a tau'olunga (dance) with typical costumes

Dance Costumes

Tongans love singing and dancing. They perform group dances with ornate costumes, often with decorative feathers in their hair, around their wrists, and around their legs. They utilize natural plants like ti leaves and other decorative foliage to make their costumes. Single dancers wear costumes that include shells, coconut shells, woven flowers, and tapa cloth. Some are very elaborate and time-consuming to make.

Tapa Cloth

The tradition of tapa cloth comes from ancient times, when Tongans did not have cloth to make their clothes. Ingeniously, they pounded mulberry bark to make a pliable material for clothing.

In recent years, designers have used tapa cloth to make beautiful clothing for weddings, special occasions, and beauty contests.

Bridesmaids with gorgeous tapa cloth skirts

Bridesmaids with gorgeous tapa cloth skirts

Beautiful creation with tapa

Beautiful creation with tapa

More About Tonga

Comments

Elayne (author) from Rocky Mountains on March 04, 2013:

@Austinstar - I appreciate that. Just came from Maui a couple of weeks ago - one of my favorite places.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 04, 2013:

Beautiful hub! Lots of stunning photos! I really liked this one a lot. I lived on Maui and there were many Tongans there. Great culture. I miss the islands.

Elayne (author) from Rocky Mountains on March 04, 2013:

@diogenes - They are Polynesian, but my husband has been mistaken for Indian, Egyptian, Hawaiian, since he is the dark one in the family. Actually, his mother is half English coming from Herbert James Brown, and his great great grandfather was born in Scotland, and besides he has one great grandmother who is full-blooded Maori from New Zealand. Tapa is used in many Polynesian cultures differing mostly in the design painted on it. Will I go back to Tonga one day? If I have the means and plenty of time to relax. I love the beaches there, particularly in Ha'apai.

diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 04, 2013:

Excuse my ignorance, but are Tongans Polynesian or Melanesian stock?

I spent time in Fiji where they use tapa a lot, I love that pattern. Some of the Mauri customs seem similar, also...

Will you go back there one day?

Bob